By Andrew Quinn
Gerry Armstrong’s mission is to try and convince the local talent of tomorrow to declare for Northern Ireland. It’s admirable, but I think that the IFA are in danger skirting away from the elephant in the room.
Northern Ireland captain and current Celtic manager Neil Lennon was forced to retire from international football in 2002 because of death threats made against him.
Why was Lennon threatened, I hear you ask? Well, the answer is quite ridiculous; Lennon was targeted because he was a Catholic and played his football at the time for Celtic.
More recently, former Derry City players and current Northern Ireland internationals Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn were sent bullets in the post. Why?
Well, I can only surmise that it was because they play their club football for a team associated with Irish nationalism and play international football for a team associated with Northern Irish loyalism.
There’s no getting away from the fact that there’s an element of people who do not want Catholics playing for Northern Ireland.
The IFA are by no means a bigoted organisation but they have to realise, and realise quickly, that one of the main reasons that so many young footballers are opting to declare for the Republic of Ireland is because sectarianism still exists in Irish football.
I have been to countless Republic of Ireland matches over the years and not once have a I heard a sectarian song or chant at the game.
Certain players from Derry who lined out for Northern Ireland in years gone by have told me off the record that they were subjected to some of the worst sectarian abuse at Windsor Park that you can imagine.
I can’t think of another country in world football where religion is more important than ability. If the IFA and Northern Ireland want to be seen as an option for young boys from the Brandywell, Bogside and Creggan then they must address and stamp out all incidents of sectarianism both on and off the field of play.
Whilst I can understand the frustration that Gerry Armstrong and the IFA feel when a players who have represented Northern Ireland at youth level declare for the Republic, I can’t side with them.
I have pointed out that sectarianism is partly to blame but the other reason why so many youngsters switch their allegiances is because they believe they stand a better chance of competing at a European Championships or World Cup with the Republic of Ireland than they do with Northern Ireland.
Derry-born players James McClean, Shane Duffy and Darron Gibson (all of whom have declared for the Republic of Ireland) weren’t even born the last time Northern Ireland competed at major finals.
The odds are not in Armstrong’s and the IFA’s favour as the FAI are able to invest much more money into youth development. If that wasn’t enough to convince any young Northern Irish man to declare for the Republic, then why not compare the wonderfully modern Aviva Stadium with the weather-beaten Windsor Park.
The FAI is streets ahead of the IFA on so many levels and with the Republic of Ireland qualifying for next summer’s Euros the gap looks set to increase.
Armstrong, a Catholic from west Belfast, said that he would never have thought of representing the Republic of Ireland when he was playing but the tables have turned so much since then.
Northern Ireland were a much stronger team at that time and they were more a attractive option, and it wasn’t until recently that people living in the North of Ireland were permitted to declare for either team.
Gerry Armstrong visited a few schools in Derry a few weeks ago. He met with young footballers to talk about the possibility of them declaring for Northern Ireland. Afterwards a few journalists asked a few of the young students if they would play for Northern Ireland. They all said ‘yes’ but what they say on camera and what they are thinking could be two completely different things.
It’s naive to even suggest that spending half an hour with a few hundred teenage boys will solve the problems of the past; much more work needs to be done first.
Gerry Armstrong is entitled to his opinion and it’s a valid one but let’s not shy away from the facts; the Northern Ireland football team needs a total facelift. If the IFA want to make declaring for Northern Ireland an attractive option for nationalists across the North then they must address the tough issues.