Harvesting the second-generation talent is Martin O’Neill’s first priority
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Harvesting the second-generation talent is Martin O’Neill’s first priority

SINCE January Martin O’Neill has been on the recruitment drive, a practice he was used to in his days as a club manager but one that has required some significant adjustments since he was appointed Giovanni Trapattoni’s successor.  

Whereas once his concern was merely a player’s ability, now it is also his genealogy. Has the player Irish roots? If so, is he second, third or fourth generation?

“The rules are there and it didn’t bother too many Germans when they picked six players who weren’t born in Germany to travel with them to Brazil,” said O’Neill.

“Nor did it bother any of their fans when they travelled home with the World Cup.”

Whether another Lukas Podolski or Miroslav Klose is free and available to play with Ireland is a moot point.

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At this stage

6we’d happily settle for another Kevin Kilbane or Terry Phelan. A new John Aldridge, Ray Houghton or Andy Townsend is the stuff of dreams? Or is it?

“It’s Premier League quality I’m looking at,” said O’Neill. In other words, Harry Kane, the Tottenham striker.

“I am not in a position to close any routes,” said O’Neill. “We need to explore all avenues. Put it this way, the policy didn’t do Big Jack any harm, did it?”

It certainly did not. More to the point, the Charlton era would have been much less successful and short-lived if he had not been able to call upon the second-generation option.

In Euro 88, just eight of his 20-man squad were Irish born. Fast forward two years and the squad numbers had risen from 20 to 22 but the number of second generation players remained dominant, 14 of the 22 who travelled coming via this route.

And by US 94, the numbers were similar. By now 23 man squads were permitted and by now, nine of them being Irish born, 14 collecting their birth certs in England or Scotland.

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Where would Ireland have been without those players? Certainly not at the finals, nor anywhere close to them.

And it is also arguable that we would never have qualified for Japan and Korea in 2002 either had Italia 90 not have happened given how often Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and Richard Dunne and the generation of players who came after them cited the influence that tournament had on their careers.

You only have to look at the way the squad lists have changed to see how football in Ireland has improved. By 2002, Irish-born players were marginally in the majority in terms of the make-up of Mick McCarthy’s squad, 12 being born in Ireland, 11 in England or Scotland.

And of those 11 second-generation players, four didn’t play a minute and a further four got less than an hour’s football over the course of the tournament, the point being that Ireland’s reliance on “The Granny Rule” had greatly decreased.

Yet was this the point when complacency arrived? Because since 2002, we have qualified for just one tournament out of six and the make-up of the Euro 2012 squad showed a further shift in the percentage of home-grown players making up the panel, 17 of the 23 players being born in Ireland.

Of the six who weren’t — only two, Sean St Ledger and Aiden McGeady — started more than one game.

In one sense, this was a proud moment for Irish football because whereas there were non-existent structures in Euro 88, by Euro 2012, matters had clearly improved.

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Trap’s squad was, in many ways, filled with the children of that earlier tournament, examples of how the game had spread from urban areas to rural Ireland on the back of Big Jack's success. Donegal, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary, Derry and Galway all provided representatives.

So too did the League of Ireland alumni — Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, David Forde, James McClean and Stephen Ward all making it on the plane to Poland where they would have been joined by Keith Fahey had injury not ruined his chances.

Yet a bigger point also has to be made. While the deepening of the talent pool in Ireland is clearly a good thing, the results were appalling. And they have since got worse.

So O’Neill is right. He cannot close any avenues. He does need to shop around. The Granny Rule has not just served Irish football well. It has, in many respects, saved Irish football.

Yet whereas once we were unearthing Aldridge and Houghton, now it is Alex Pearce and Richard Stearman.

Part of the problem stems from how the English, Welsh and Scottish FAs have copped on. Any player with potential Irish roots gets brought into their system early. As a result you are less likely to see a Kevin Sheedy or Andy Townsend slip through the net.

And while James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady are examples of how the FAI can still buck the trend, it is worth pointing out how influential Packie Bonner, then the FAI’s technical director, was in altering Ireland’s underage managers to both players eligibility. Bonner, harshly, is no longer employed by the Association.

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“I’m not at all bitter,” he said last year. “I have moved on.”

But has Irish football? The answer is no.

England and Scotland remain a major source of players. America is also a new land of opportunity. It is where FAI money has to be poured.

Recruitment and development officers need to be employed. Funds have to be generated to foster the links which gave Irish football its best days.

Potentially there are a dozen more Ray Houghtons out there, waiting to be snapped up. It is time they were found.