NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has moved to clarify his comments accusing the FAI of poaching Catholic players from the North.
Co. Armagh native O’Neill claimed in a Daily Mail interview that the Republic of Ireland only ever approach Catholic players from Northern Ireland.
The 48-year-old was roundly criticised after suggesting a link between the FAI’s recruitment policy and players perceived to be from a nationalist background.
Speaking today after naming his squad for this month’s friendly with South Korea, O’Neill claimed his comments had been “misrepresented” by the media.
"Before I talk about the squad, I'd like to make a statement addressing some of the issues that have been reported in the media recently around player eligibility," he said.
"This will be the last time that I discuss this issue in public as my views are continually misrepresented by sections of the media. I will not be taking any questions other than in relation to the upcoming game against South Korea".
'Not a religious issue'
O'Neill continued: "During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI – I merely responded to the questions I was asked.
"For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue, nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue”.
O’Neill, a Catholic who won 31 caps for NI, said he had “never disputed” the right of players born in the North to choose to play for the Republic.
He added: "The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players.
"My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups.
"I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players – players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn't rate them nor play them, creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they might have had.
"My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association is – that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at U17, U19 or U21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career.
“My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland."
'Bringing religion into it'
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill responded to his namesake's remarks after naming his squad ahead of this month's friendly with Turkey.
The Ireland boss said he had never tried to take a player away from Northern Irish football during his time as Ireland manager, and that he was surprised by his counterpart's comments.
“If they are remarks on my time here, I think that would be untrue," he said.
“I haven’t even taken a player away from him at senior level, but I’ve no problem having a discussion.
“Funnily enough, I did meet him at a game quite recently. We were watching Fulham play at Craven Cottage. We had a very trivial conversation and he never mentioned these points – I wish he had done privately.
“It was a surprise, but I’ve had a conversation with him since and he has admitted that I have not taken a senior player from him. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as Alex Bruce went to him in my time here.
“I’ve no problem having a conversation about underage level, but to bring religion into it… I think that’s something you have to ask Michael about.”