As another international break has been and gone, the usual debates have arisen regarding omissions, potential legitimate call-ups and those of, what I’d label, the illegitimate kind. Let me explain. Being an Irishman I grew up in the era of “honorary Irishman” Jack Charlton leading the Republic of Ireland to the European Championships in 1988 and successive world cups in 1990 and 1994. Nobody can detract from the influence this had on the increase in popularity of football in Ireland, and victory over England in Stuttgart in 1988 as Christy Moore sang ‘was the highlight of many people’s lives’, but has that success in a golden era fuelled the need for future success so much that its leading Ireland to neglect its national league and call up players minimally associated with the nation. International football is widely regarded as being the pinnacle of a footballer’s career, but is the necessity for success at any cost coupled with the dominant emergence of the ‘grandparent rule’, and even the appointment of foreign coaches at the top level diminishing the honour and principles of national representation?
For the sake of this piece, I will focus on Ireland in particular but the same arguments will resonate, I’m sure, with other countries going down the same path. Irish football in the late 80’s and early 90’s was at it’s peak with an international line-up predominately made up of players with a direct link, either through birth or parenthood, to the nation of Ireland. Obviously there were exceptions to this such as the Houghtons and Aldridges of this world but at that time it was welcomed with open arms as the players recruited with so called ‘suspect Irish roots’, like those mentioned above, were plying their trade at the top level of English football and without question enhanced the team and resulted in resurrecting the Republic’s stature from also-rans to serious contenders. However, as time progressed and the pressure to continue the success of the Charlton era increased, we found ourselves, as a national team, recruiting players whose only link to Ireland was that they probably at some stage in their adult life drank a pint of Guinness or flew on Aer Lingus. Being a player and a fan, this procedure in national selection is undoubtedly wrong and in my opinion detracts from the dream of representing one’s country.
Is it right that we now operate in a system where we have players representing a country throughout the various age groups even up until under 21’s and then switching allegiances to another country where they have a more realistic chance of performing? Is it fair on the genuine Irish players that have their dream of playing for their country snatched away by, what I would describe, a chancer or in extreme terminology a fraud? Likewise, is it acceptable that a player can choose from his own place of birth, his parents nationality and further more his grandparents nationality to suit his place in the pecking order of any one of several national structures?
The answer in my opinion is a resounding no. International choice should be solely dependent on a player’s country of birth and stretch no further than that of the birth places of either parent. The sad fact is we now have player’s scrolling through family trees in a desperate attempt to associate themselves with a country which offers them the best chance of international selection therefore rubbishing the old footballing chestnut of “it’s always been my dream to play for my country”. International football obviously brings with it lucrative rewards, and the desperation to aspire to this level of football, where one can pit one’s wits against the best players the world has to offer, will always lead players to abuse the system and achieve this regardless of personal pride and principle. Spectators and sports writers surrounding the English national team are quick to criticise their sides performance but one thing that they cannot criticise, and to my knowledge never have, is the true nationality of all it’s players. Before the meteoric rise of Joe Hart, the outcry that abounded when Manuel Almunia considered declaring for England was met with a chorus of disapproval from all quarters of English football. There was an overwhelming stance that if England as a nation could not produce a top class keeper then they would pick the best on offer as oppose to recruit a foreigner who merely acquired citizenship. Afterall, this is international football, a player shouldn’t be able to just transfer nationality in a similar way to a club player transferring between clubs.
In regards to Irish selection, we are now engulfed in a scenario of recruiting players that are not only questionably Irish but also questionably of international standard. As an Irishman and a supporter, I would rather support an inept but genuinely Irish team than an inept one with questionable Irish roots. People always point to the example of Ryan Giggs and say he was wrong to choose Wales over England but it was a choice that never existed. Ryan Giggs is and always has been a Welshman, and a proud one at that. I’m sure all his caps and everytime he belted out the Welsh national anthem mean more to him now than any success a fraudulent career with England might have brought. I’m not going to criticise any player for taking the opportunity to play international football but in my eyes nationality is dependent on where you’re born and where your parents hail from alone, it should not and cannot be allowed to be manufactured and for me, the buck stops with the selection system.
In Ireland’s case, we have had the likes of Tony Cascarino who prospered during Jack Charlton’s reign only to make a mockery of his Irish heritage in his autobiography, coincidentally and cowardly after he retired. Similarly, Matt Holland, who represented Ireland on numerous occasions and even scored in a World Cup, was seen belting out the English national anthem at a play off game whilst representing Ipswich. This, in a nutshell, highlights my argument. I’m not for one minute calling into question Matt Holland’s performances for Ireland as he was a top player but should he really have been wearing an Irish shirt or was it merely a good second choice, a runner’s-up prize if you will. There’s a scene in ‘Mike Bassett: England Manager’ where the international teams of both Ireland and England meet at the airport and an English player jokes “here comes the England B team” in reference to the Irish side, but is there a sad truth behind the joke?
Irish football both nationally and internationally has plateaued at best since the world cup in 2002. We, as a nation, now seem to be papering over the cracks in a desperate attempt to claw back past glories. In contrast with England, there appears to be little if any legacy in place, no Irish equivalent of St. Georges Park and no national academy to harness and hold onto our talented youth. The Irish national leagues, rarely, if at all benefit from international success and until the structure is improved and modified from grassroots right through to professional level in the country then it will always be a national academy feeding English clubs when the real beneficiaries should be domestic based.
Irish players go through a footballing journey that inevitably takes them across the water to the realisation of their dream of playing in the English professional league where the footballing ladder can ultimately take you to the Premier League, but what if they didn’t need to leave Ireland to realise their ambition of playing at a top level? That’s a question that poses so many others that it’s futile to elaborate further in this piece but I guarantee all the answers would point to a lack of foresight on the part of our national FA. We, as a nation, are at a crossroads at international level, we can continue down the road of ‘firefighting’ or we can restructure the association and the national league from top to bottom, hiring a Brian Kerr type character, with strong youth development credentials, to oversee its implementation and progression.
With so many Irish clubs continuing to walk the financial tightrope and the dilemma of constantly losing their best youth to the far more advanced English system, then perhaps it’s time Trapattoni’s wages were better spent on ensuring a footballing legacy for future generations. Irish Rugby would appear to have set an interesting template that the FAI could do alot worse than adopting. Is it not feasible to create a Munster and Leinster equivalent in Irish football with strong academy infrastructure and focus on a ten team national super league? It certainly wouldn’t happen over night and perhaps I’m just a dreamer, but wouldn’t it be nice to one day see an Irish club team regularly qualifying for the group stages of the champions league and providing and retaining the homegrown talent that make up the backbone of our national side? Ah, but to dream!