“If you’re committed to your country, you should be committed one-hundred per cent, not just when it suits.”
This is Stephen Kelly’s curt message to Ireland’s absent players for the recent Euro-showdown against Macedonia. In no way is this problem limited to Ireland’s squad selections, though. England’s dodgy ‘keepers have withdrawn themselves from future selection – probably a virtue rather than a hindrance, as have some of Scotland’s higher profile players.
This seems to have become more of a problem in recent years. First-picks are often afflicted by the most horrendous of toe-nail breaks prior to ‘meaningless’ friendlies, while club managers – not naming any names, Mr Wenger – lock their stars in cages during international weekends. And what does it all come down to?
It’s hard to pin down to one single answer. One possible factor is the lack of attachment certain ‘foreign nationals’ do, or must, feel. Take the implicit subject of Stephen Kelly’s ire, for example: James McCarthy, Wigan’s new prodigy, was born and raised in the west coast of Scotland, and played youth football for Hamilton, his local club. In days gone by, a player with his level of talent would have been a shoe-in for inclusion in the national youth set-up, but, due to the ever-competent Scottish Football Association, McCarthy slipped through the net. Therefore, having been spurned, he chose to play for Ireland, the country of his grandfather. And therein lays one of the problems.
He ‘chose’ to play for Ireland. His parents weren’t Irish; he wasn’t born there; he never lived there. Yet he finds himself being eligible for them, somehow, and for that reason (and having been overlooked by his home country) it seems inevitable that he, along with the many others in similar circumstances, feels no real emotional attachment to the country; no burning passion to pull on the shirt, to kiss the badge, et cetera. Kelly criticises this pervading apathy quite vehemently:
“I don’t get it, I just don’t understand it. Maybe it’s different for the guys who haven’t been brought up here; they don’t have the same feel for it, the same Irishness about things; the same background or commonality we all have, seeing these events [having spoken about watching USA ’94] growing up.”
And that’s it: someone like McCarthy is Irish only because of some bureaucratic system of eligibility; he doesn’t, however, have that ‘Irishness’ – a level of identity that can only develop through experience and exposure to the nation in question – about which Kelly speaks with genuine pride and passion. Scotland, too, has experienced this influx of ‘new Scots’; in fact, we seem to be rather fond of scraping the barrel for, invariably, mediocre English players from the dizzying heights of League One/League Two/Blue Square Premier/Hackney Marshes Sunday XI. As Richard Gough (ironically, considering his links to Scotland) said, the problem is that ‘[players are] only playing for Scotland because England hasn’t picked [them]’. The situation is now more akin to the transfer merry-go-round that we’re more used to seeing in club football: you play for Nation A because Nation B rejects you, not because you would have actively chosen Nation A over Nation B.
But are the players entirely to blame? As has already been mentioned, flexible eligibility rules allow them this choice. An English player of limited ability, if offered the opportunity to play for Scotland, will often choose to do so; with greater exposure on a bigger stage comes the opportunity to make more money in club-football. (That is not to call them mercenaries: after all, it’s a short career, football, something we fans often fail to appreciate.) On the opposite side of the spectrum, with regards to better players’ pulling-out of international squads, club-managers often offer their words of dictatorial wisdom by reminding them who pays their wages.
So, is there a common link? Well, it appears to be money. Players of limited ability want more exposure; players who’ve got enough exposure with their clubs neither need nor want the extra hassle where there’s no pecuniary gain to be had. And, added to that, club-managers are understandably reluctant to release players for international duty, and the risk of serious injury (just ask Dean Ashton) that comes with it, when their chairmen are paying the exorbitant wages of modern football. Of course, that’s not to say there still aren’t plenty of diehards in national set-ups who are prepared to give their all for the cause; ultimately, though, money talks in some instances. Blue square one, you might say.