Wednesday was another dark day for international football in Northern Ireland. Michael O’Neill’s side drew 0-0 with lowly Malta, a team made up of part-time players, meaning that the manager has yet to achieve a win, after 18 months in charge.
That’s not the reason, though, that it was a dark day for Northern Ireland football. Managers come and go, players are capped and retire, lose form or fall out of favour; matches are played and sometimes the result is good while more often, particularly in friendly matches, it is bad.
The only thing that should be constant is the honour of playing for one’s country. The Irish Football Association can change the international coach, revitalise the playing panel, modify tactics, but the prestige attached to the award of an international cap, if it is diminished, cannot be recovered.
That’s why by far the most significant event on Wednesday evening was the selection of Alex Bruce and his participation in 70 minutes of a grim, lacklustre international challenge match. Bruce was first asked to play for Northern Ireland a number of years ago, but declined, saying that his ‘lifelong’ ambition was to play for the Republic.
He achieved this goal twice, representing the FAI’s senior side in two international challenge matches.
If a player has not competed in at least one full competitive match he can change his international allegiance once, if he is eligible to represent another association. So, as it became clear that Alex Bruce would not establish himself permanently with the Republic, Nigel Worthington asked him to reconsider playing for Northern Ireland. Which is how we arrive at the extraordinary situation of the player debuting for a second international team.
Although this was within the rules it sets a deplorable precedent.
Likewise, back in 2010 Adam Barton was selected for the international team and awarded a ‘trial’ cap in a challenge match, after refusing to commit himself to Northern Ireland. He subsequently defected to the southern, breakaway association. That example meant a player could represent Northern Ireland in a friendly game without any expectation that they were committing themselves to play for the IFA in the future.
Now, thanks to a combination of the Association, Nigel Worthington and Michael O’Neill, Alex Bruce has established the precedent that, if a player is eligible for both Irish teams, he is free to turn Northern Ireland down, pursue his ambitions with the Republic and assume that, if he still satisfies the criteria, the IFA will select him when his southern adventure is a failure.
Can the IFA drag the prestige of a Northern Ireland cap any lower? It will be a challenge, but I suspect they will find a way. Selecting Alex Bruce was a disgraceful decision, which showed no pride and very little principle.