Saturday 22 October 2016

Paul Hyland: Granny rule pursuit a sign of growing fears about Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

IT is a reflection of the growing disquiet about Ireland's senior international team that granny hunting has become a national sport again. The tiniest green tinge is teased, expanded and converted into a passport.

There is a quiet desperation in the search for talent, perhaps down to a dawning realisation that qualification for Euro 2012 on the back of Giovanni Trapattoni's dogged insistence that we were a bunch of footballing peasants and should play that way, was another one-off.

As someone put it nicely at the weekend, Martin O'Neill's time as manager has been strangely uninspiring. Nobody is confident about even a play-off place in the easiest qualification system of all time.

It is encouraging to hear that the FAI is proactive in the granny hunting arena and not allowing the agenda to be set by journalists or the fans in the forums.

Back in the day when Jack Charlton played the UEFA regulations like a small salmon on a big rod, we had contacts in the Passport Office and kept the public well briefed on any pending applications.

But it wasn't unknown for international manager, civil servant and journalist to work privately to make sure a potential recruit made it over the line.

In reality, there wasn't much need for all the cloak and dagger. England weren't even watching what the FAI were up to and if they were, they didn't care about Chris Morris and Andy Townsend.

If anything, Ireland's harvest of emigrant offspring was something to be lampooned. From an English perspective, they could easily have argued that they had two teams in Italy for the World Cup in 1990.

If UEFA's nationality rules had only allowed players born and bred in Ireland to pull on a green shirt, only three from the team which drew with England in Cagliari - Steve Staunton, Packie Bonner and Kevin Moran - would have satisfied that requirement.

The world has changed irrevocably since those relatively innocent days. Charlton walked up to Aldridge on a cold night in Oxford and asked him would he play for Ireland. Aldo said yes and would he fancy Houghton as well?

Now, good ones like Jack Grealish have layers of agents and lawyers and protective parents. Charlton wouldn't get close.

Publicly declaring yourself to be an Irishman in England in the '80s and '90s was a bit more significant than considering options yet many did and shouldered the burden of race hate which went with it.

Views were more entrenched and passions ran high during the Troubles. Emigrant families were more likely to look for solace among their own and kids raised in that culture have very definite ideas about where they come from. Kevin Kilbane is the perfect example.

Now, the heat has gone out of the relationship between Ireland and England and being Irish has never been more acceptable, from Carlisle to Cornwall.

Maybe if Grealish's father Kevin had been a professional footballer, the call from home would still have been strong enough to drive through any other considerations and make him want to play for Ireland.

But Jack Grealish is a grandson of Ireland and clearly, that's no longer enough.

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