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Saturday 27 February 2021

'Contrary to how it has been reported, I did not attack the FAI'

Michael O’Neill has sought to clarify controversial comments he made in a recent interview.

Martin and Michael O'Neill are set to meet to discuss the matter.
Martin and Michael O'Neill are set to meet to discuss the matter.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

NORTHERN IRELAND BOSS Michael O’Neill has sought to clarify comments he made in a recent interview, which sparked controversy.

In a piece that appeared in the Irish Daily Mail, O’Neill was critical of the FAI’s recruitment methods.

“The FAI only ever approach one type of player: Catholic,” he was quoted as saying.

“I don’t have a problem with James McClean. He was 22 years of age, he knew what he wanted. I have a problem when it’s a 16, 17 or 18-year-old having to make a decision on his international future.

“I can list you 10 players who have made that decision and have never represented the Republic.”

Martin O’Neill subsequently hit back at those comments at a press conference last week.

“I do have a problem with the unexpected nature of the comments,” the Republic of Ireland boss said. “If they are remarks on my time here, I think that would be untrue. I haven’t even taken a player away from him at senior level, but I’ve no problem having a discussion.

“Funnily enough, I did meet him at a game quite recently. We were watching Fulham play at Craven Cottage. We had a very trivial conversation and he never mentioned these points — I wish he had done privately.

“It was a surprise, but I’ve had a conversation with him since and he has admitted that I have not taken a senior player from him. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as Alex Bruce went to him in my time here.

“I’ve no problem having a conversation about underage level, but to bring religion into it… I think that’s something you have to ask Michael about.”

However, in a statement issued today, Michael O’Neill has said that religion should not be part of the debate and reiterated his desire to meet with the Republic of Ireland boss to discuss the matter in the near future.

The statement read: “During a recent interview I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it has been reported, I did not attack the FAI I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

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“For me, eligibility is not, and should not, be a political issue. Nor should it be a religious issue.

“For me, eligibility is a football issue.

Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play. I have never disputed that right, nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.

“The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players requesting they switch allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.

“My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17-21 in the underage set-ups.

“I’ve seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players; players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn’t rate them, nor play them — creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they may have had.

“My request therefore, to the FAI and to any other association, is this: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at U17, U19 or U21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career.

“My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland.

“Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI’s licensing department requesting information on the player.

The Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in players in our Club NI programme. While it is a player’s right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player has missed out on the opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI system will miss out on selection.

“I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that. It is clear to me that given the examples that Martin used in his press conference that he misunderstood the issues that I wish to address. I am not talking about senior players but those aged 17-21 born in Northern Ireland.

“To reiterate, eligibility is a football issue. We and the FAI have a responsibility to invest in and nurture talent on both sides of the border. With that comes a duty and an obligation to protect those young talents in their most formative and vulnerable years.

“We appeal for transparency and fairness at underage level.

“We respect that young players, who represent Northern Ireland at underage level have the right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland. What we are asking for is that such a significant decision — one that could affect their entire career — is neither influenced nor made until that player reaches senior age and is made at a time which is in the player’s best interest.”

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Paul Fennessy

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