GERRY Armstrong believes Derry City’s withdrawal from the Irish League in 1972 has had a long-standing and detrimental affect on the association’s image within the North-West region.
SIMON COLLINS reports
With the increasing regularity of Derry-born footballers opting to switch national allegiances in favour of the Republic of Ireland, the impact on the N. Ireland international squad has been significant.
And Armstrong admits the fact that Derry ply their trade in the ‘South’ has been a major factor in fuelling the ongoing eligibility row between the two associations.
Having been accused of over-looking current Derry City players such as Daniel Lafferty and Gerard Doherty - who have experienced outstanding seasons during the club’s return to the Premier Division - the lack of an IFA presence at Brandywell remains a real problem.
However, in his new role as ‘Elite Player Mentor’ for the IFA, the former Real Mallorca and Tottenham Hotspurs striker, insists he can help repair the damage as the powers that be at Windsor Avenue intensify their campaign to win over the hearts and minds of young players from Derry.
Commenting during his visit to St. Columb’s College and St. Brigid’s and Ebrington Primary Schools on Wednesday, Armstrong reiterated his desire to increase the presence of IFA coaches within the North-West catchment area and further invest in its grassroots programmes.
“The problem we have is with Derry City being part of the FAI, they fall within that structure so it’s a difficult situation,” said Armstrong. “But we have to think and find ways to actually solve it.
“That’s the problem - the fact Derry City players and supporters look to the south and are more familiar with the League of Ireland. We can’t change the fact Derry City play in the League of Ireland, that’s something that was done when the police made a recommendation 30 or 40 years ago.
“So we can’t change that, but what we can do, and what we have done is to establish a grassroots programme with IFA coaches from all round here in Derry.
“We have people like Kevin Doherty, who’s been coming here for five years, we have coaches coming up here for 10 and 15 years to develop players in the area and making them better players and that’s what we have to continue doing.
“And the set-up in the grassroots level here has been very good but we know that there is a gap when they get to between 12, 13 and 14 years of age until they get to 18 or 19 years, and we need to fill that void.
“There’s no doubt about it, we need a bigger presence in Derry but it’s not just about having a big presence it’s about finding out more.
“Dessie Curry (the N.I. Under-16 manager) and myself have taken on board a lot about what we’ve learned about the grassroots level here in Derry and the North-West.
“I’m here to find out about the mistakes we’ve made in the past and find out if we can improve the situation and I’ve learned an awful lot about that during my visit and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more.
“I’m only in the job three months, we’ve got a big team who are all striving to make football in this area and football for N. Ireland better.”
Making Significant Strides
Offering anecdotes from his own illustrious playing career during a question and answer session at the Buncrana Road college, the N. Ireland striker - famed for his winning goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup Finals in Valencia - felt the IFA is moving in the right direction in their attempts to change the mindset of potential stars from the Derry area.
Outlining the potential pitfalls facing young N. Ireland-born players who have opted to play for the Republic, Armstrong hoped that his advice would help alter the opinions of young footballers facing that particular dilemma.
“There’s nothing we can do if a young player has set his heart on it (declaring for the South), I wouldn’t want to change anybody’s mind if they didn’t want to play for N. Ireland.
“I want to make them feel the way I felt when I played for my country. If there’s a lad that wants to play for the Republic then I wish him all the best, I hope they have a good career and I hope they don’t regret it in two or three years time.
“I just want to point out that it’s not always the right decision because some of them have actually made the change and regretted it and had been able to reverse the decision to come back to play for N. Ireland.
“A lot of these lads in the past few years have decided to go and play for the Republic U17 or U18s, have then changed their mind, didn’t feel they were apart of it and then we welcomed them back again.
“But because of the Good Friday Agreement that’s not always going to be able to happen in the future and I have to concentrate on anyone who wants to play for us.
“This is not a charm offensive,” he insisted.
“Basically, I’ve said I was going to do a job which is Elite Player Mentor and this is all part of that,” concluded Armstrong.