Wednesday, 4 August 2010
Doing a Darren Gibson
One of the funniest things in sport this summer has been the futile efforts of the IFA to stop players from the north playing for the Republic. Darren Gibson of Manchester United is the best-known case. He’s from Derry and after playing at youth level for Northern Ireland, he opted to play for the Republic of Ireland. It didn’t go down well in Belfast. More recently the IFA took a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to stop Daniel Kearns doing exactly the same thing – and lost. At this stage the IFA are getting seriously worried about the speed of leakage. This past year alone, two other notable players – Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy – have crossed the border to join up with the Republic.
What the IFA fails to see – or maybe pretends to fail to see – is that this is about more than football. The truth is that half the population in the north feel no sense of loyalty to the Northern Ireland football team. I remember being in Lagan College, a Protestant-Catholic integrated school, on a day when the Republic of Ireland were due to play Northern Ireland. The youngsters were engaged in good-natured banter but their allegiances divided with laser-like precision: Catholics were rooting for the Republic’s team, Protestants for the Northern Ireland team. Footballers do have their careers in mind when they switch to the south – if you play for a team with a high profile and some prospect of success, you’ll have a higher chance of show-casing your talents. It’s also about the instinctive loyalty many northern players feel towards the south alongside a distaste for the sectarianism still rooted in the support base of the Northern Ireland team.
There’s a simple answer to the problem, just as there’s a simple answer to the decline of club soccer north and south of the border: get rid of the border. An island this size hasn’t the luxury of dividing itself in two and then trying to organize club and ‘national’ teams as if the other lot weren’t there. Whether the south’s body, the FAI, would be for such a move is uncertain; the top people in the IFA would certainly be implacably opposed. The Windsor Park lot would prefer their leaky tub to go down with all hands rather than join hands with the rest of the island. So they go on stabbing themselves, leaking top-footballer life-blood, and blaming everyone else for what’s happening. Clever. Very clever.