It was difficult to envisage Northern Ireland’s friendly with Albania generating any type of controversy before Nigel Worthington announced his squad. Now the eligibility issue has once again been sparked by Shane Duffy’s decision to reject inclusion in the panel.
The Everton youngster advanced through the various IFA underage teams, played for the B team and even featured as a substitute in a friendly against Italy, last year. That game seems to have served as a bone of contention. The 18 year old warmed up, but did not enter the fray.
There is still a degree of ambiguity about FIFA’s rules. But Sepp Blatter appeared, last March, to confirm that segregated Irish football teams had the governing body’s go-ahead. Whether the statutes are being applied consistently has not been established beyond doubt.
Duffy is, in any case, a different case to Darron Gibson, or to Mark Wilson, another Northern Irish player selected in the latest Republic squad. He has a parent and a grandparent from the Republic of Ireland, which underpins his eligibility.
The issue here is that a player who progressed through the Northern Ireland setup, taking advantage of its coaching, resources and expertise, is at the last minute poached by the FAI. It is a disgraceful situation.
Certainly the IFA should investigate whichever legal avenues it feels might be available to it. However, its chanced of success, in this instance, are minimal.
The least the organisation should do is launch a protest and review its cosy relationship with the breakaway association (FAI).
There are already discussions taking place amongst Northern Ireland supporters about a boycott of the Celtic Cup tournament, which is due to take place in Dublin, starting next February.
It would send a signal that the IFA considers poaching to be a serious infringement of sportsmanship and neighbourly relations, if it were to withdraw its team from the competition altogether.
And the Setanta Cup, which features club teams from both Irish jurisdictions, is already in a mess. IFA affiliated clubs should be asked to pull out immediately.
If the IFA is serious about ending the FAI’s pursual of its underage players, now is the time to act.