Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ireland’s Mark Sykes comes on to make his debut in place of Callum Robinson.
# Landmark
History as Republic of Ireland cap first Belfast-born player since 1946
Bristol City’s Mark Sykes came off the bench late on in the win over Malta.

IT WAS a special night for Mark Sykes on Sunday.

The Bristol City midfielder made his Ireland debut off the bench, replacing Callum Robinson in the 85th minute of a 1-0 win over Malta.

The underwhelming contest will not be remembered for the quality of football on display, but it may be looked back upon in years to come for other reasons.

Sykes winning his first cap means he becomes the first Belfast-born player in 76 years to represent the Republic of Ireland.

He consequently emulated the feat of dual internationals, Jackie Vernon and Jimmy McAlinden, who lined out for an FAI-backed Irish team during a 1946 Iberian tour, appearing during a 3-1 defeat to Portugal and a surprise 1-0 win over Spain, despite the pair having previously represented an IFA-endorsed Irish team.

Sykes, who was a late inclusion in Stephen Kenny’s squad for this international window following the withdrawals of Scott Hogan and Will Keane, previously played for Northern Ireland at underage level and was called up to their senior squad on more than one occasion without ever being capped.

In August 2020, however, his decision to declare for the Republic of Ireland was announced.

Speaking on the choice to switch allegiances last year, Sykes told reporters about his love of studying Irish as a youngster and the reasons behind the controversial move.

“It was obviously something that was important to me growing up. Even in the house, we would have spoken a bit of Irish, not always, but even now my family’s kids would use Irish.

“Over here [in England] I don’t use it as I might as well be speaking Chinese to people! If I’m back home and someone is speaking Irish, I’ll speak it.

“I told Ian [Baraclough] it was nothing to do with religion — as my partner is Protestant. At the end of the day, I see myself as an Irish person and the right thing for me to do was to represent Republic of Ireland. It’s that simple.

“Whenever someone switched back from Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland they didn’t get half the backlash that I did. People will pick and choose when they say things but that’s just the way life is. It doesn’t bother me.”

The international bow continues a largely encouraging start to the season for Sykes, who has made 19 appearances for a Bristol City side who are currently 18th in the Championship.

He previously spent several seasons playing in the NIFL Premiership for Glenavon.

The 25-year-old has steadily progressed from there, joining League One outfit Oxford United in 2019 before penning a three-year deal with the Robins last summer.

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