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Northern Ireland coach makes case for Jimmy Dunne to switch allegiances

Austin MacPhee is also working with the Dundalk-born defender in his role as Hearts’ assistant manager.

HE WAS AMONG the substitutes for the Republic of Ireland’s goalless draw with Denmark seven days ago, but the door remains open for Jimmy Dunne to choose to represent Northern Ireland at senior international level instead.

That’s the message to the Dundalk-born defender from his assistant manager at club level, Austin MacPhee, who is also a current member of the North’s coaching staff.

Jimmy Dunne Jimmy Dunne warming up before Ireland's recent game in Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill revealed recently that he met the player in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of a switch of allegiance. Dunne qualifies to play for the North through his grandparents.

The centre-back represented the Republic’s U21 as recently as last month. However, he will remain eligible to declare for Northern Ireland until such time as a competitive cap at senior level materialises from a side which has just been taken over by Mick McCarthy.

Dunne has played every minute of Hearts’ Scottish Premiership campaign since he joined the club on loan from Burnley in August. But according to Austin MacPhee, it was the meeting with Michael O’Neill, and not Dunne’s performances, that triggered the interest of former Ireland boss Martin O’Neill, who then awarded him a first senior call-up. 

“I don’t think he caught the eye of Martin O’Neill,” MacPhee said in an interview published in The Scotsman newspaper over the weekend. “What caught the eye of Martin O’Neill was the interest of Michael O’Neill. He can still play for Northern Ireland because Martin didn’t put him on the pitch.”

San Marino v Northern Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group C - San Marino Stadium Hearts assistant manager Austin MacPhee, who is also part of the Northern Ireland coaching staff. Source: Tim Goode

Due to the competition for places in the Republic of Ireland rearguard, MacPhee has suggested that Dunne will earn more international caps should he declare for the North. With Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley both turning 40 next year, a couple of significant retirements from Michael O’Neill’s defensive ranks are imminent.

“All I can say is the best thing for Jimmy Dunne the footballer would be to play for a country that will give him an opportunity to play for that country,” MacPhee said. “If you look at the profile of the centre-backs for the two countries, and everything else, there would not be a choice to make.

“If someone asked me as a young player if I wanted to play for England when I hoped to play for Scotland, it would be very hard, so I understand the dilemma for Jimmy from a purely country point of view, without being someone who has grown up with the other issues involved.

“You need a space. If you were a young Brazilian for the 10 years Roberto Carlos played left-back and you were a left-back, you’re not playing. If you were a left-winger for Wales when Ryan Giggs was there for 10 years, you’re not playing either.

Jimmy Dunne Jimmy Dunne standing for the national anthem in Aarhus before last week's 0-0 draw with Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Sometimes you can think about these things a little more strategically. But obviously there is patriotism and emotion and everything else rolled into it.”

With no competitive international football scheduled until the qualifying campaign for the 2020 European Championship begins at the end of March, Dunne will have plenty of time to weigh up his options.

MacPhee added: “I told him the Northern Ireland door is still open.”

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Paul Dollery

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