By John O’Hara
Another squad announcement has been made by Martin O’Neill and once again, it is the names that have been omitted that are the major talking points among the Irish soccer fraternity.
The Stephen Ireland saga, which reached farcical levels years ago, still lingers and O’Neill seems to have no desire to recall the Cork maverick, but it is still a question that comes up every couple of months. The fact that the squad lacks creativity means that there are many who still harbour ambitions of seeing the Stoke midfielder back in the green of Ireland. His cameo against Spurs last week adds credence to the argument, but the ship seems to have sailed on Stephen Ireland’s international career.
But the other omission has created another saga that is on the cusp of the farcical, with Jack Grealish still undecided on where his international career lies. The U-21 player of the year has not lined out in the green of Ireland since 2014 and refused a call up to Martin O’Neill’s senior set up in June for the clashes against England and Scotland, asking for more time to make a decision.
There are those that claim that the decision should be an easy one, but this is simply not true. Grealish is a young man, who has been born and bred in the English midlands. He is English and no amount of arguing can dispute this fact. He may have strong links to Ireland and he can classify himself as Irish, but he’s still English and he is faced with a very tough decision but it’s a decision he needs to make very soon.
It’s a long time since a player like Grealish has been in this situation. How often has a player who has declared for Ireland had the opportunity to line out for the England international team? Ciaran Clark, a Villa colleague, who captained youth teams at international level for England had a big choice to make in declaring for Ireland, but realistically, the chances of him being capped for England at the time of his change were slim. Clark’s family have close links with Ireland on both sides of his family, so he jumped at the opportunity. People are using this as a stick to beat Grealish with, but you have to remember that he is just a young boy, being faced with a massive decision.
James McCarthy and Aidan McGeady had similar decisions to make, but you could argue that turning down Scotland is not quite the same as turning your back on England, with the massive financial incentives of being an English international. There is also the probability that England will get to more major tournaments than Ireland, especially with our status as fourth seeds for the forthcoming World Cup campaign.
The people who slam Grealish and abuse him on internet forums have little or no comprehension of the magnitude of the decision he has to make. It’s easy to claim allegiance to Ireland and spout ultra-nationalist tripe about love of your country, but that’s ignoring the complexities of identity for those of an Irish background, born and bred in England. Look at Matt Holland and Andy Townsend, two Irish international heroes, who both have a great love of the country of their birth. In Ireland, people often illustrate their Irishness through a hatred of all things British, but this is not the case for Holland, who sang God Save the Queen before a play-off game and Townsend, who wanted to mark the death of Princess Diana with black armbands. These issues aren’t black and white and the keyboard warriors and armchair republicans need to give the kid a break.
Of course, there are others like Kevin Kilbane, who despite living in Preston, grew up dreaming of playing for Ireland. John Aldridge was another, but again there is the argument that they would not have been capped by England anyway. This is why the Grealish situation has created such a stir. He has the technical ability to become a world class player. He sails past players at his ease, something both English and Irish players can rarely do and is thus, a valuable commodity in today’s market. He is such a precocious talent that England are desperate to get him, but not desperate enough to call him straight into the senior set-up and this seems to be why there is a lot of stalling on the issue. Roy Hodgson could not, based on performances, call him into the senior side, as he has not featured enough with Villa. So at the minute, it looks to a lot of fans that Grealish is buying time and this is what is angering people more than anything.
The likes of Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail have added another layer of ambiguity surrounding the situation by claiming that the rule allowing Grealish represent Ireland, should be scrapped. This is ironic, given that the same writer ignores the fact that Raheem Sterling was born and raised in Kingston in Jamaica and he has no problem with the winger pulling on the white of England.
Samuel and his colleague in the fourth estate have a massive influence on the football supporters and this type of propaganda could see a huge swathe of supporters take a negative view of Grealish, which will put a lot of pressure on his young shoulders. He hasn’t helped himself in this regard, with his public display of drunkenness during the summer, but it could be argued that he is entitled to a life outside of football, during the summer, without it being reported on the front page of the tabloids.
I for one, am embarrassed by the abuse this young lad has received on internet forums from so called Irish fans. Even if he decides to leave the Irish set-up and join England, we should thank him for his services and move on. We can’t happily accept the players who decide to declare for Ireland, after representing Ireland and then get annoyed when the opposite happens. That is just being hypocritical.
This is a situation that we may have to get used to. For years, the Irish diaspora around the world provided us with some great players, but now in the 21st century, modern day Ireland is home to many different nationalities. It is probable that we will see a young lad, who has been born and raised in Ireland, who may want to represent Cameroon, Nigeria, Poland etc. And if this does happen, no one can have any qualms about it, as we were the happy recipients of this rule for decades.
There are still Irish fans, who are of the belief that Grealish will accept an invitation from Martin O’Neill to join the green army, but as the situation drags out, it looks to outsiders that Grealish’s future lies with England. But, the fact remains that all the opinions in the media are just speculation and that the only people who know what is going to happen is Grealish and his family.
But for the sake of the young man and for Irish soccer, he should make his decision and move on with his career, because it is undoubtedly a major distraction from what he should be doing and that is playing football.
We can only hope that he decides to play for Ireland, but we should respect his decision either way. The ball is firmly in his court.