With the new domestic season in England beginning last weekend, the return of the European Championship qualifiers also looms large on the horizon. In advance of the crucial double-header against Gibraltar and Georgia in September Martin O’Neill is expected to name his squad in the next fortnight. One of the questions that is likely to be posed of O’Neill concerns the international future of Jack Grealish. The allegiance of the Aston Villa star has been a continuous source of speculation and at times annoyance for O’Neill over the past twelve months. The reason for the Grealish question being back on the agenda may be largely attributed to the player’s own self-imposed year away from international football and his comments when collecting the FAI U21 Player of the Year Award last March:
Hopefully I’ll be back in the green jersey. It’s a big decision which country I’m going to play for, it’s an honour to have that decision, but at the moment I’m just concentrating on my club football and hopefully in September I’ll be back playing for Ireland.
The reference to September has been repeated since then and is now considered by many fans and media as an apparent cut-off date for his decision. This means that there is likely to be more frustration from Irish fans if Grealish continues to hedge his bets. Irrespective of his final decision it is worth noting that the Grealish situation is symptomatic of a wider trend amongst dual-qualified players.
FIFA statutes provide flexibility for dual nationals
FIFA changed its statutes on eligibility is 2008, which served to provide greater flexibility to players that benefit from dual nationality. Article 18 of the statutes allow a player to change Association provided that he has not played a match in an official competition at “ A international level”, which may otherwise be described as a senior competitive international.
The change in the FIFA Statutes has resulted in a number of players switching allegiance between Ireland and England, with players moving in both directions. One of the more documented examples was Jack Grealish’s Aston Villa teammate Ciaran Clark, who was a regular for the England underage teams and captained them at U18, U19 and U20 levels. Incredibly, Clark had escaped the attention of the FAI until a casual post-match encounter between his Irish parents and Richard Dunne resulted in him being recruited to play for Ireland.
Another former England underage international to commit to Ireland is 19-year old midfielder Josh Cullen of West Ham United. Cullen was capped at U16 level for England and won the award as the outstanding player in West Ham’s Academy during the 2013/14 season. He switched his allegiance to Ireland in early 2014 and has since featured in the U18 and U19 teams. Cullen is progressing well at West Ham and he featured regularly in the Hammers’ first team during pre-season and in the Europa League.
Not all a one-way street
Whilst Clark and Cullen switched from the Three Lions to the Boys in Green, there are examples of players moving in the opposite direction. Patrick Bamford was capped by the Ireland U18 team in 2010 before switching his allegiance to the England U18’s later that year. Bamford has since won England caps at U19 and U21 level and is on the books of Chelsea. After an impressive season with Middlesbrough in the Championship he is now on loan at Crystal Palace. Bamford’s career is clearly on an upward curve but in an interview last April, he refused to rule out the option of playing for Ireland:
My mum’s side is Irish and my dad’s side is English so it was a tough decision for me. Being English, it was always my dream to play for England, but I am not going to rule out either option. You never know.
A similar case concerns that of the former Manchester United youngster, Michael Keane who won two caps for the Ireland U17 team in 2010/11 before joining the England U19 team in 2012. Keane’s switch was not altogether surprising given that his twin brother, Will, was already part of the England underage set-up. Michael Keane has since gone on to win 16 caps for the England U21’s and is now at Burnley. One ventures that he would now be part of Martin O’Neill’s senior squad had he chosen to stay with Ireland.
Another young player to switch from the Irish underage system to join England is the prodigious Daniel Crowley. He played at U15 level for Ireland, but subsequently went on to represent the English underage teams. Crowley was born in Coventry and was initially nurtured at Aston Villa before moving to Arsenal. Indeed he is understood to be a close friend of Jack Grealish from their time together at Villa. Like Grealish Crowley comes from a strong GAA background and represented the Roger Casements club in Coventry.
Crowley exhibits the typical characteristics that one would associate with an Arsenal midfielder, including the creative nous to thread passes through the eye of a needle. He even managed to make an appearance for the Arsenal first team on their pre-season tour to Singapore last month. The youngster is so highly rated at Arsenal that England’s senior manager, Roy Hodgson, visited Arsenal’s London Colney training ground in November 2013 to meet Crowley in person. In August 2014, Crowley commented on his international position and his comments bear remarkable similarity to those of Patrick Bamford:
My grandparents are Irish. I played for Ireland and when I was Under-16 I went for trials with England and got in. I’m still young and I’d never rule anything out because you just don’t know what’s round the corner.
Dual-qualified players reluctant to commit
The public comments from Bamford and Crowley are indicative of the difficulty that the FAI will continue to face in trying to attract dual-qualified players. In this regard it is only natural that most English-born players would prefer to play for the country of their birth. There is more prestige associated with playing for England and it provides more opportunities to play at major tournaments. Furthermore, the transfer value and earning potential of a player with England caps is greater than that of a player with Ireland caps. To this end, there is little doubt that a certain amount of pressure is exerted by clubs and agents on players to represent England.
This is a subject that Kevin Kilbane dealt with succinctly in his autobiography ‘Killa’. Kilbane describes how he was called-up to an England U18 squad during his time at Preston North End. The call-up was seen as an honour for the club but Kilbane described how his “heart sank” when he heard the news. Kilbane describes his subsequent confrontation with Sam Allardyce who was the Preston manager when he explained that there was only one choice for him with regard to international football:
My parents are Irish. My heroes are Irish. I’m Irish. I want to play for Ireland.
Unfortunately from Ireland’s perspective players like Kilbane are becoming the exception rather than the rule. The globalisation of the Premier League and the increasing number of foreign players means that there are fewer English-born players securing game time in top flight football. The result is that the FA is making a concerted effort to retain English-born players within its system. It is also becoming increasingly evident that there is a tug-of-war taking place between the FA and FAI to secure the allegiances of dual-qualified players. This situation appears to be accentuated by the reluctance of young players to commit to one nation or the other, thereby creating the perception that international allegiance is interchangeable.
Recent UEFA European U17 Championship Finals
Indeed this trend was evident to a degree in the Irish squad that took part in the UEFA European U17 Championship Finals in May. Ireland’s stand-out player in the tournament was Connor Ronan who hails from Rochdale and is now on the books at Wolves. In February of this year the creative midfielder won two caps for the England U17 team, but he subsequently switched allegiance to represent the Irish U17’s in the European Championships.
One of Connor Ronan’s team-mates on the U17 team was Anthony Scully who was born in Cambridge and is part of West Ham’s underage set-up. Scully represented England at U16 level earlier this year, but what makes the West Ham youngster different is that he has a particularly strong link to Irish football. His father Tony Scully was a product of Cherry Orchard and appeared 10 times for the Irish U21’s, as well as winning two B caps in the 1990’s. Tony Scully was interviewed in February regarding his son’s international future and suggested that no definite decision had been made:
He’s only 15, he’s at an age where he’s eligible for both countries and he still has a bit of time before he has to make a decision. I know he could now play for both Ireland and England in the space of a week but he’s at a young age and all he wants to do is play football. I don’t see it as a case of Ireland against England: for me, as his dad, it’s a matter of him developing as a footballer and I will give him every support in whatever decision he makes.
The comments from Tony Scully are understandable and are no doubt borne out of an understanding of professional football and the potential pitfalls that it entails. Nonetheless, given that a former Irish underage international is non-committal on his son’s international future, should we expect any different from the likes of Jack Grealish whose Irish connections are arguably more tenuous?
The Grealish choice
The prevailing view amongst many Irish fans is that Grealish is already a lost cause and that he is likely to declare for England. Playing for Ireland would undoubtedly represent the more pragmatic choice, but there are plenty of cautionary tales of young footballers that ignored such pragmatism. Grealish could do worse than take note of the case of John Deehan who faced a similar dilemma in the 1970’s. Like Grealish, Deehan was born in Solihull and played for Aston Villa. Deehan’s father was Irish, but to the surprise of many declared for England. His international career included 11 caps for the England U21’s and a single appearance on the bench for a full international against Brazil.
Irish fans will be hoping that Jack Grealish is back playing for the Boys in Green in September in what would be a significant coup for the FAI. Ultimately, his decision should be respected by fans and media alike.
- Author: Alan Hannify