Obafemi call-up is a smack in the face to LOI

Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS

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Last week, Martin O’Neill commented he would only pick players currently plying their trade at the highest level, as questions over the exclusion of League of Ireland top goal-scorer Patrick Hoban continued to be asked of the Republic of Ireland manager. While O’Neill’s obvious view that English football is the barometer for measuring the talent of Irish players is of a polar opposite to Dundalk’s Stephen Kenny, who firmly believes it is time the Irish fascination with our near neighbors came to an end, it is O’Neill’s right and his job as Ireland boss to select what he believes to be a squad of players that gives the “Boys in Green” the best chance of success from match to match.

However, today’s late call-up for Southampton youngster Michael Obafemi would make one question if selecting players at the highest level is no longer O’Neill’s only agenda and if the recent Jack Grealish/Declan Rice sagas has caused a knee jerk reaction from the powers that be in regards to fast tracking call-ups for dual nationality players. Ever since the very public Rice situation played out in the media, many former Irish underage and ex-senior internationals have spoken out against the apparent FAI policy of capping dual nationality players over some perhaps deserving domestically based talents in order to try and nab potential future internationals from rival nations. And when you look at some of the names that often struggled to gain underage recognition for Ireland it is hard to disagree with such a prognosis.

As we all know, Irish football has perhaps benefited more than many nations in decades gone by from the so called “Granny rule” and given the population of the island, the competition of other major sports and all the other well established factors it is easy to understand why Irish managers and the FAI have been so keen to capitalise on this system in times gone by. However, as the Grealish, Rice and more recently Ryan Johansson situations have proven, we can not expect to reap the rewards of the “Granny rule” and not have the tables turned on us by other nations from time to time and this is an occurrence becoming more than regular in modern international football given the roles of agents and even clubs themselves in turning a players head from one national association to another.

So, how do we counter such an issue? Well, luckily albeit at least two decades later than it should have come around, we finally have a national underage league in place in Ireland and we are seeing the rewards of that in the national set-up far sooner than perhaps anyone imagined. Take a look at the latest Irish underage sides across all age levels and you will see the names of Irish based players across every area of the pitch and we shouldn’t really be surprised by this. We shouldn’t be surprised to see less and less British based talent in our national squads because the truth is there are less and less Irish youngsters making the grade across the water, especially at the elite level. With the vast resources and scouting networks available to English clubs, the days of popping over to Ireland as first port of call for the brightest young talent is gone and it won’t be returning anytime soon, making the need for additional investment into grassroots football here all the more vital in the coming years and decades.

At long last in this country we have a clear player pathway all the way from under-13’s up to senior football on a national and even European stage and with more and more Michael Duffy’s, Patrick Hoban, McEleney’s and Seani Maguire’s coming home to either (a) settle in the league after realising English football isn’t all it’s hyped up to be or (b) find their feet again in order to give football abroad another crack, the League of Ireland is in an incredibly strong position right now and can contribute greatly to the future success of the Irish national team.

However, old attitudes die hard and today’s call-up for an eighteen-year-old who has made just two Premier League appearances for Southampton, a club where fellow Irish striker Shane Long has endured one of the worst goal droughts of his career, over a man who has scored thirty-two times in all competitions on route to claiming a league and cup double in Patrick Hoban is nothing short of a disgrace to the domestic game.

Martin O’Neill can talk as much as he wants about having done more for League of Ireland players than any Irish manager over the last thirty-years, as if he picked them up from the airport and cleaned their boots for them in what was an incredible disrespectful series of comments on the league and its players during his press conference last week, but the fact remains Obafemi has earned this call-up off the back of panic sparked by his club manager Mark Hughes claiming the player could still declare for his parents country of Nigeria and this sets a dangerous prescient going forward. Are we going to start calling up and capping every youngster that shows even the slightest glimpse of talent simply because they might decide the Green jersey isn’t for them going forward? If so the entire underage structure in this country is doomed for failure and as fans we will simply have to settle for the Russian roulette nature of the “Granny rule” and all the hysteria that goes with it when things don’t go our way…..Doesn’t exactly sound like a well thought out and structured plan does it? That question is for the FAI to answer.

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