The luck of the Irish seemed to vanish this week for Ireland’s national football teams, north and south of the border.
Northern Ireland harshly missed out on a spot in the World Cup as a gallant second leg display in Basel wasn’t enough to overhaul Switzerland’s controversial 1-0 first-leg win at Windsor Park.
The Republic collapsed as a Christian Eriksen-inspired Denmark tore Martin O’Neil’s men apart in a 5-1 drubbing in Dublin.
Many may wonder what might have been, especially if the teams could have joined forces and took the best of both to push them over the line to qualification.
It appears people in Ireland would be more than happy to see that happen. Research conducted by RTE’s Claire Byrne Show, with the help of Amarach Research, found that 73% of those surveyed would be in favour of a united all-Ireland team.
The survey asked 1,000 Irish adults, with only 18% objecting to it and 9% who were undecided.It’s not a new debate, it’s an age old one, with Sinn Fein – Northern Ireland’s second political party – calling it for it to happen only last year.
The two nations played as one under the Irish FA, based in Belfast, until 1921. Political turmoil at the time tore the two nations apart and set the path for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) to base themselves in Dublin and govern football in the south.
Ex-Irish Post sports editor Jamie Casey says he would be in favour of the all-Ireland team. Born in Armagh just north of the border, Casey supports the Republic over the Ulstermen. As he puts it, it’s not for religious reasons, but because the country he identifies the most with is Ireland, not Northern Ireland.
But whilst he wants a united team, he believes it’s a long way off. ‘’I’m in favour of it, the problem is that it’s not going to happen anytime soon,’’ he says.
“The two governing bodies would have to become one and I can’t see either of the CEOs willing to give up their posts. There’s also the issue that their domestic leagues would have to merge before FIFA would agree to an all-Irish team, but I’m certainly on the side of yes.’’
‘’I’m in favour of it. The problem is that it’s not going to happen anytime soon’’
Casey, now editor of Bet.Unibet.co.uk, touches on an important point. The League of Ireland and the Northern Irish Football League Premiership would probably, as Jamie says, have to come together as one before Fifa would allow such a team to happen.
The problem is both leagues play at different times of the year. In Northern Ireland they play a traditional season from August to May, whereas south of the border they play a summer season from February to October.
That has allowed teams like Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers flourish and both have played in the Europa League. Both leagues have good teams with proud histories, such as the aforementioned teams and Linfield and Glentoran in Northern Ireland. Teams may be unwilling to give that up and that could be a stumbling block.
But whilst Casey realises it could be a barrier, he believes it could well happen. ‘’Northern Ireland may well look at how well teams down south have done and look to adapt,’’ he said. ‘’The first step to a united team is to merge – be on a par with one another. It’s easy to get from Belfast to Dublin with the motorway, so I think it’s doable.’’
Derry-born James McClean and Shane Duffy both play for the Republic instead of their native Northern Ireland. Casey believes they may have been swayed by their Catholic upbringing, but thinks that will change and that could lead to a united team.
‘’Duffy and McClean would have grown up where supporting Northern Ireland was a no go, because the generations above them tell them to support the Republic,’’ he says.
‘’The Northern Irish supporters groups had a lot of sectarian chants and loads of British stuff wherever they went. But they’ve worked hard to improve their image, are well behaved now and they’ve made it more appealing.
“For the kids now it’s no issue – and we may well see Catholics playing for Ulster. Northern Ireland will grow from it and such players will make them stronger, and that could lead to an Ireland team.’’
In many sports Ireland play as one, including rugby where the team represents the four provinces of Ireland: Connacht, Ulster, Munster and Leinster, and so 1921’s political split played no problem.
They sing three national anthems: God Save The Queen for Ulster, Amhrán na bhFiann for the Republic and Ireland’s Call that was introduced in 2008 as an all-Irish song. ‘’The national anthems are a problem,’’ Casey concedes. ‘’Both are proud of their own, so whilst it would be good for the nation, it’s another hurdle.’’
In 2006 Irish journalist Paul Doyle claimed it wouldn’t happen because the Irish football fraternity were ‘hate filled fools’ – something that Casey rejects now. ‘’I don’t think it’s true anymore – the Euros proved that,’’ he said. ‘’At away games they always get a good reaction and are welcomed. It may have been true then, but Northern Ireland fans have a good reputation. They have celebrity fans like Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton and that appeals to others.
‘’Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland fans drank together in France and were praised. The Republic supporters even sung ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’ in respect of Green and White Army fan Darren Rodgers wh0 tragically died whilst out there. They’ve moved on from the hatred.’’
One major event that may lead to an all-Ireland team was last year’s EU referendum, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. But 56% of those living in Northern Ireland wanted to stay. There has since been renewed talk of Ireland becoming one nation again.
‘’Another referendum in Northern Ireland isn’t out of the question,’’ he said. ‘’There’s been a surge in Irish passport applications since then, and it’s put people more in touch of their Irish heritage. That obviously helps the case.
‘’But it’s a long way off and there are many obstacles in the way. Both nations have to be in favour of an all Ireland and it’s going to be well over 10 years before anything happens at all. It’ll be very political, and I don’t think it will happen.’’
Both teams have tasted their own successes. Whether it be Jack Charlton’s Ireland team in the early 1990s, or Michael O’Neill’s Northern Irish side that reached Euro 2016. Their pride could have a factor, too.
‘’Northern Ireland fans are passionate about their ‘wee country’. They made a name for themselves at the Euros, and the Republic did great, too. Both sides won’t want to undo their hard work,” Casey added.
It’s clear it’s going to take a long time. Whether it’s political, league situations, logistics or both countries proud stances. Either way both are hurting now, having missed on on a place in Russia. But, as Casey says, at least there’s some banter between the two at the moment.
‘’There’s a healthy debate to which side is better,’’ he jokes. ‘’Northern Ireland had a great qualifying campaign and were unfortunate. Republic squeezed through. It was there’s to take and they only really performed in Wales. Ulster were great, the Republic fans probably knew it was coming.
‘’There’s some banter about the better side – Northern Ireland are probably the better team right now!’’