Ireland is last-chance saloon for many English pros

[caption id="attachment_69180" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Johathan Walters celebrates scoring in the away European Championship playoff game against Estonia. "]


"If ur English, u play for England. If ur English and sh*t, u pretend ur Irish grand parentage matters to u and play for Ireland,” - Joey Barton, Jan. 9, 2012.

As pithy remarks go, this tweet probably isn’t destined to end up in any book of literary quotations but the Queens Park Rangers’ midfielder at least succeeded in re-opening a rather unsavory can of worms. In the midst of responding on his favorite social medium to the suggestion that he’s eligible for Ireland through his grandmother, Barton put himself where he always seems to want to be – in the eye of a media storm. Well, we have one problem with the over-reaction of many people to his comment. What exactly is wrong with it?

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Okay, he might have used more diplomatic language than he did and he could have spelled out words while he was at it, but his essential point is difficult to argue with. Ireland is not now and never has been the first-choice for most English-born professional footballers, regardless of their ancestry. Nobody should be under any illusions about that. Ireland is the second-chance (or in some cases the last-chance) saloon. We can romanticize all we want about the pull of the green jersey and the relationship of the children of the diaspora with the homeland but we are only deluding ourselves.

Since Manchester United’s Shay Brennan became the first English-born player to declare for Ireland in the 1960s, the vast majority of those who came after him opted to wear green only when it became apparent that they had no chance of a sustained international career with the three lions crest over their hearts. Think Andy Townsend would have played for us if he thought he could have worn the white of his native England. Or Tony Cascarino or John Aldridge or insert any name you want here? Ray Houghton (pictured on the back page of this week’s Echo) would have gone Scottish if they’d have shown any serious interest in him and he even asked his older brother’s permission before accepting Jack Charlton’s call-up.

This is the way of it with most of those who exploit the granny rule to come into the fold. And we don’t need to reach into history for examples either. By all accounts, West Bromwich Albion squad player Simon Cox will make it onto the plane to Poland with Ireland this summer. For his Man of the Match turn against Armenia in the qualifying campaign just gone, he deserves his berth too. Yet, it’s only two years since Cox, born and reared in Reading, first popped up on Ireland’s radar and offered reporters the following nugget.

“One of the Ireland scouts told me he was going to pass on my number to their number 2, Liam Brady,” said Cox. “But if the goals and the performances keep coming and the England manager ever phones, I can only say my Italian is rubbish!”

The intimation was that Cox would of course have picked England given the opportunity. And, nationalism aside, who would blame any player for going with the country where they were born and reared? Not to mention how much more money an English cap is worth to a player. As anybody who follows the game knows, there is a rather ridiculous and completely unjustified premium paid for English internationals in the transfer market. This also causes them to receive exaggerated wage packets. Of course, the game shouldn’t be about monetary concerns but we all know the ugly secret is that it is. It nearly always is.

When people laud Townsend, Cascarino and the rest of that generation for how committed they were to the Irish cause, they tend to forget what it was worth to them. Aside from giving them higher profiles and the opportunity to play on a bigger stage, playing for Ireland led to lucrative endorsements. In the days before £100k per week wage packets were the norm, sponsorship deals and newspaper columns were prized earners for players. Indeed, look how many of the former Irish second and third generation players are still making money from the Dublin-based media.

Those Irish internationals with English accents did what pros do. They turned up and gave it their all for the team that wanted them even if we all knew their first choice would have been to play for somebody else. That’s merely what Barton said in his tweet, perhaps telling us all something we didn’t want to hear or be reminded of. But again, this is just a fact of life. The evidence supporting Barton’s assertion is all around us.

Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters looks a decent bet for making Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad this summer too. A late bloomer, there is much to admire in the way Walters has come good in his late twenties, having spent years knocking around the lower echelons of the English game. However, let’s not forget that as a promising teenager at Blackburn Rovers, the Liverpool native turned down a call-up from the Irish Under-19s. Then a member of a highly-touted youth team at Ewood Park, he was keeping his options open.

“I am unsure about that,” said Walters of the chance to wear green. “I am eligible for both England and Ireland. I would love to play international football but I have not committed myself.”

A funny thing happened soon after that. Walters was released by Blackburn Rovers, the type of earth-shattering news that makes a young man realize he’s unlikely to ever receive an England call-up. So, as he floundered at his next stop, Bolton Wanderers, he did what anybody would do in those circumstances. He decided Ireland was where his heart was and togged out for Don Givens’ Under-21s. As his career options dimmed, his interest in playing for the country of his mother increased. What a coincidence.

“I couldn’t play for Ireland as am not Irish,” tweeted Barton the other night. “Forget my grandparents. I’M NOT Irish…”

Say what you want about Barton but his honesty and his unwillingness to be pushed onto the bandwagon is admirable in this instance.