Football

Northern Ireland Boss Michael O'Neill Issues Plea To FAI Over Young Players

Northern Ireland Boss Michael O'Neill Issues Plea To FAI Over Young Players

At the beginning of his press conference for the announcement of the Northern Ireland squad for the upcoming friendly against South Korea, Michael O'Neill read a statement "addressing some of the issues that have been reported in the media recently around player eligibility".

The Northern Ireland manager said that this is the final time he will discuss the issue in public "as my views are continually misrepresented by sections of the media".

O'Neill said that despite how it was reported, he was not critical of the FAI regarding its recruitment of Northern Irish-born players in an interview with The Irish Daily Mail's Philip Quinn which was published last week.

O'Neill said that he was never disputed the right of a player to switch their allegiance from the North to the Republic. His concerns are not with senior players. Rather they are with those aged between 17 and 21 who he says have switched to the Republic only to then not be selected.

The 48-year-old wants young players to be allowed develop without having to make a decision on their international future. He added that where he would be critical towards the FAI is in its lack of communication regarding the transfer of player.

Michael O'Neill statement
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During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI, I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue. Nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility should be 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 that it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players in requesting they switch allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.

My concerns lie specifically in players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups. I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players, players that have ultimately transferred their allegiance to a country that 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 any other association is this: If a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at under-17, under-19 or under-21 levels that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without 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 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 will have missed out on an opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI's 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 has indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that. It is clear to me that given examples Martin used in his press conference that he misunderstood the issues I wished to address. I am not talking about senior players but those aged 17 to 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 the young players that represent Northern Ireland 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 has reached senior age and that it is made at a time which is in the player's best interest.

Video via Q Radio News


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PJ Browne
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