O'Neill on international duty for Northern Ireland
Former Northern Ireland captain Martin O’Neill is the man John Delaney and those nice chaps down at the FAI are closing in on to be new Republic of Ireland manager. It’s an obvious choice in my opinion, and one that unsurprisingly has been warmly welcomed by fans of the "Boys in Green".
The Derry man had successful spells at Leicester City, Celtic, Aston Villa and more recently Sunderland, which albeit ended somewhat prematurely. However, it was only a few years ago O’Neill was touted as a possible successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Now, the man from Kilrea looks set to be presented with the opportunity to try his hand at international management with the Republic of Ireland. It's a proposal O'Neill would find very hard to refuse given that he was very nearly handed the England job at the peak of his managerial career.
Some might say trading one shade of green for another might be a bitter pill to swallow for many Northern Ireland fans, but is it really?
Let’s face facts.
Martin O’Neill has, and always will be, an advocate of an all-Ireland football team. He does not share the same sense of rivalry that many NI and ROI fans may have with one another. He simply does not see a border in footballing terms, therefore no matter which Irish side O’Neill had chosen to manage, you can guarantee he would be 100% behind either one. He is not alone in this view. Amongst others, George Best had said he would be just as comfortable representing a unified team as he was playing for Northern Ireland.
This concept should not be viewed as a slap in the face to the Irish Football Association - in fact, to the contrary. For when you delve into the proud history of football in Ireland prior to partition politically, the IFA were at the forefront of organising international and domestic football on an island-wide basis. It was only in 1921 and a decision taken by those based in the newly formed Irish Free State, and in particular it's capital in Dublin, that would serve to rock the very foundations of both the domestic game and international football on the island to the point where even today we are still feeling the tremors. For the first time in sport, as it was politically, a complete severance of ties between North and South had now taken place.
The local media on both sides of the border would have many believe a United Ireland football team is viable. In truth, it has never been further away. The modern day Football Association of Ireland who represent the 26 county Republic of Ireland would not wish to give up their status within FIFA, therefore prospects of a unified 'Ireland' side competing in the near future are extremely unlikely.
Comparisons with rugby are drawn on a regular basis as this is organised on an all-Ireland basis. But unlike rugby where the the IRFU had no split in it's association, relationships were somewhat strained in football circles. Belfast was football's original home in Ireland. Perhaps the fact rugby was already based primarily in Dublin and the team played the vast majority of their home games at Lansdowne Road was a factor. Arguably, Ulster rugby could have gone down the 'breakaway' route (many still believe it should) but to date the IRFU remain unscathed from the wreckage of our troubled past.
However, the unique situation football on this island finds itself in can not be placed at the door of Martin O'Neill. He is merely grasping a chance to manage on the international stage with an Irish side, albeit not the one he hails from and represented with such pride all those years ago. In contrast, O'Neill's arrival in Dublin will see him reunited with fellow Derry native's James McClean and Darron Gibson, two players who used the IFA and Northern Ireland football as a stepping stone towards defecting to the FAI. I am quite sure had the proposition of switching associations presented itself to O'Neill forty years ago it would been dismissed without a second thought. Not many players from such a small footballing Nation can say they've been to two World Cups. O'Neill attended two.
Collectively, Northern Irish fans should be proud of Martin O'Neill's achievements both as a player and now as a high profile manager. The FAI recognise he is the best man for the job and I would have to agree with their choice. Of course, it will be uneasy for even the most liberal Northern Ireland supporter to see one of our former players paraded around Dublin before a rival association, but thats football.
But, unlike the bad blood of recent defections across the border, I look forward to seeing this move remain purely about football. Leave the political baggage at the turnstiles.
Good luck Martin, and we look forward to your return to Windsor Park for the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Third time lucky perhaps...