23 June ~ Nigel Worthington’s tenure as Northern Ireland manager has been a struggle from the outset. When he took over after Lawrie Sanchez's departure for Fulham, the team was ranked 27th in the world and topped a Euro 2008 qualifying group that contained Spain, Sweden and Denmark. Away defeats to Latvia and Iceland in Worthington’s first two games derailed the qualification bid while a recent run of indifferent results and turgid performances has seen the country’s FIFA ranking slump to 65th.
Worthington risked further alienating his disgruntled fan base this week by revealing that he is in talks with Leeds United’s Alex Bruce about switching his international allegiance to Northern Ireland. Bruce – the son of Sunderland manager Steve – qualifies for both the North and South through his grandparents and was approached by both countries’ Under-21s in 2006.
At the time, he said: “I'm very flattered that Northern Ireland and the Republic are both showing an interest in me. But I think I'm going to pick the Republic purely because I think they are a better team.” He has since made two senior international appearances and captained a Republic of Ireland B team but has not featured under Giovanni Trapattoni.
A FIFA ruling means that players who have represented either the North or South of Ireland can switch their allegiance until they make an appearance in a competitive match. In recent years, players born north of the border such as Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy have all appeared for the Republic having previously represented Northern Ireland at junior levels.
Shane Ferguson, the promising Newcastle player, ignored a call-up to the last Northern Ireland squad amid reports that he intends to answer the advances of the FAI despite having already made his senior international debut in Northern Ireland’s friendly against Italy in 2009.
The ruling is hugely unpopular among Northern Ireland fans with many boycotting the recent Carling Nations Cup fixture between the two countries in the hope of raising awareness of the situation. The few in attendance unfurled a banner reading: “FAI leave our players alone…you can keep Darron Gibson.” They fear that the ruling is being abused, allowing talented youngsters developed by the IFA to represent the Republic at senior level while the North are left with cast-offs such as Bruce who are unable to break into FAI set-up.
At a time when many are calling for action, the potential call-up for Bruce has been interpreted as an acceptance of a situation that had previously been condemned publicly. Speaking in May, Worthington said: “It's frustrating and disappointing that a lot of time, energy, commitment and finance goes into these players over a period of years and then when they are 17, 18, 19 or even 20, there is the opportunity for them, because of the ruling, to vacate to another country.”
Attempts to rid Northern Irish football of its sectarian element were undermined by a disgraceful minority during February’s friendly against Scotland. However, as the popularity among the Windsor Park crowd for Celtic’s Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn shows, the majority wish to leave the legacy of the troubles behind and move forward with a national team that represents both sides of the community.
And while record goalscorer David Healy acknowledges the religious aspect to the ruling, he argues that those who switch allegiance are doing a disservice to those who have overseen their development. Speaking last week he said: “I know people have different identities and so on in Northern Ireland but that has always been the way. They shouldn’t just come in, play through the underage levels or in one or two senior friendlies and then decide that’s it. They shouldn’t use it as a convenient means of improving their CV at that particular time.”
Just over 25 years ago, Northern Ireland played Brazil at Mexico 86 with the 3-0 defeat marking the team’s last appearance at a major finals. Neither that drought nor the row between the associations seem set for a swift conclusion but for an unpopular manager who is nearing the end of his contract, at least appearing to make a stand should be imperative. Jonathan Bradley