Wolves striker Liam McAlinden recently became the latest player born in Northern Ireland to opt to play for the Republic, and has proven to be just the latest in a recurring and concerning issue for the Ulster side.
McAlinden joins famous names James Mclean, Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy, as well as numerous others in switching allegiance despite playing for the North at youth level.
Windsor Park’s footballing authorities may feel aggrieved at the situation, and have indeed complained in the past to FIFA that such players take full advantage of their training and financial resources at youth level but the province then receives no benefit from their subsequent international careers.
Anyone born in Northern Ireland can opt for an Irish passport rather than a British one, but only one in five people actually do. In football, however, it seems a disproportionately significant issue.
Yet, while Northern Ireland may be dismayed, in reality it is an inevitable product of a complex state of affairs whereby politics cannot be left aside. History has placed Northern Irish football in a difficult position; for those who don’t know, since Ireland was partitioned in 1920, the Ulster province has been disputed territory, with one community (predominantly Catholics) identifying themselves as Irish, while many Protestants wish to stay loyal to the Union with Britain.
James McClean is scornfully known as the ‘defector’ by Northern Ireland fans, and became particularly unpopular last year among loyalist fans for refusing to wear a Remembrance Day poppy whilst on duty with Sunderland. After choosing to turn out for the Republic, the Derry-born midfielder claimed he, and many other Catholic players do not feel at home representing Northern Ireland games, identifying the Union Jack flag and the British national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ as two of the main problems.
McClean received sectarian vitriol and death threats on Twitter following the claim. Sectarian chanting has been greatly reduced, but not eradicated.
Tensions came to a head in 2002 when Celtic manager Neil Lennon, also a Catholic, was forced to retire from international football following a death threat he received prior to a match against Cyprus.
The threat referred to Lennon’s apparent desire to play for a United Ireland football team, as is common in several other sports.The source of the threat was allegedly the paramilitary ‘Loyalist Volunteer Force’, though the group later denied this.
Catholics have typically found themselves up against it in Northern Irish football; in 1949 Belfast Celtic withdrew from league football fearing their players would suffer sectarian attacks. Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is adamant that players like McAlinden are made to feel welcome, but it remains an unfortunate truth that players from nationalist backgrounds will continue to shun the six counties.
Notwithstanding politics and religion, the Republic of Ireland continue to offer the more promising international career with their more frequent appearances at World Cups and European Championships.
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