'We have to make sure that players are happy to play for Northern Ireland' - IFA keen to create welcoming environment

Disputes over player eligibility and allegiance have blighted relations between the IFA and FAI in recent times; efforts are being made to ensure it remains an apolitical process
By Ryan Kelly and Ronan Murphy

It is just over a year since Sunderland's James McClean opted to switch association from the Irish Football Association (IFA) to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). In August 2011, McClean's decision to switch to the FAI left many Northern Ireland fans perturbed, to put it mildly, but in the summer of 2012 it is the IFA which appears to be benefiting from FIFA's eligibility rules to the detriment of the FAI.

Nearly a year to the day since McClean's decision was announced, the winger's former team-mate, Derry City defender Shane McEleney, scored for Northern Ireland under-21s in their 3-2 defeat to Hungary. Also in the squad for the game was Derry City forward David McDaid. Both had previously represented the FAI at under-age level, with McEleney in particular, earning a total of nine U19 caps as well as making one U21 appearance. Indeed, the towering defender had been on standby for Noel King's U21 team for a number of games during the course of the current Uefa U21 qualifying campaign. Notably however, the defender's decision to switch to the IFA caused no consternation whatsoever. According to Geoff Wilson of the IFA, 'it is slightly different'.

“Shane McEleney is from Northern Ireland and we believe that if someone is born in the region of an association, they should play for that association,” Wilson told Goal.com.

“Now, if a player plays for us at youth level and then changes association to, for example, the FAI, and then, for whatever reason, decides to come back, then we are very happy to welcome them back.”

Prior to his inclusion in the Northern Ireland U21 squad, McEleney revealed that he was contacted by the current Northern Ireland senior team manager Michael O'Neill about switching from the FAI to the IFA.

In an interview with the Londonderry Sentinel, the 22-year-old said that O'Neill 'was torturing [him] for a wee while' about pledging allegiance to Northern Ireland. Indeed, O'Neill has made no secret of his desire to persuade as many people as possible to play for his team. Upon his appointment to the post of Northern Ireland manager, O'Neill told RTÉ that "whilst respecting the wishes of the players, [he'll] be doing everything in [his] power and [his] remit to emphasise to them that their long-term futures lie with the Northern Ireland national team".

Feeling that they were being treated differently to every other association under the aegis of Fifa, the IFA brought the world governing body and the FAI to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the summer of 2010 with the hope of rendering the FAI unable to select Northern Ireland-born Irish nationals with no 'territorial connection' to the association. Among the complaints levelled against the FAI by the Belfast-based association was that it was involved in 'poaching', by making approaches to so-called IFA players.

James McClean
Shane McEleney
David McDaid

“From our perspective, we've obviously put a lot of development work into players, working with kids at youth level and there is obviously a cost to it but it was more the principle that we were arguing over, rather than cost implication,” stresses Wilson.

“What seems to be happening in certain instances is that players would come to us and we would train them up or they would maybe play in a youth team and then they would maybe go and play for the Republic of Ireland at senior level.”

The IFA ultimately lost its court appeal in Lausanne due, in part, to a fundamental misunderstanding of the eligibility criteria but since then, it has continued to make efforts to limit the number of players who opt to declare for the FAI. Accepting that players holding Irish nationality can represent the FAI, the IFA appointed Gerry Armstrong to the position of 'Elite Player Mentor' in the summer of 2011 with the brief of persuading players to remain with or return to the IFA. Speaking to the Daily Mail in October 2011, Armstrong said that his role was to identify players from Irish nationalist or Republican backgrounds who are deemed to be 'at risk'.

“In my first meeting as elite player mentor with the IFA I said I saw my role as identifying players "at risk" - either contractually, in a pastoral sense, or in a "jump" sense to the Republic,” said Armstrong.

International sport and politics are inextricably intertwined, nations being inherently political entities. Consequently, representing one's nation or country naturally carries with it political connotations such as a sense of national pride or duty, but in Northern Ireland, due to deeply entrenched historical divisions, national identities tend to be acutely defined. Nevertheless, Wilson says that the IFA are not concerned with politics.

“We do not want this to be political. I understand how it can be political, but the IFA do not want it to be political, because we are here for sport and sport has got to be the winner here, not politics.”

After the failed appeal to the CAS, the association has seemingly adopted a much more mature approach to the handling of players, with the welfare of individuals and their families placed at the top of the agenda.

“It is especially important for us to treat people right,” says Wilson. “We've got to give them the right training at a young age, the right programmes and we've got to look after people and that is what we are trying to do.

“We have to look after them but also their families. We are also continuing our 'Football For All' programme and the Northern Ireland fans have done a substantial amount of work in terms of giving sectarianism the boot.

“We have to make sure that anybody that is playing for Northern Ireland is happy to play for Northern Ireland."