“I’m amazed and it’s a great honor for me to represent England again,” said O’Hara. “I haven’t done so since Under-18 level. I played a lot of competitive games for England at younger levels and I loved it because playing for your country is a massive thing. I’ve always wanted to play for England at the highest level, and the Under-21s is a big step up, so it’s a massive achievement for me and all my family are proud.”
His family was right to be proud. Their son grew up in London and dreamt of playing for England his whole life. Why wouldn’t they savor him getting the chance to represent his country? Sixteen months down the line however, O’Hara is now near the top of the list of those entitled to switch international allegiances because they have never been capped at senior level.
Not yet a Premiership regular, O’Hara is young enough and good enough to improve, reportedly has an Irish grandparent, and, via a childhood spent training at the Arsenal academy, enjoys a pre-existing relationship with Liam Brady. Perfect. Except for one minor detail. He is English. Pure English. He is a footballer whose heart never beats faster than when there is a crest of three lions over his chest.
“It’s very, very important news,” said Giovanni Trapattoni last week. “When I was coach with Italy there was a player who would not play for us because he hoped to play for Argentina and so I am familiar with what happens in these situations. I know we have many young players in England who might have played for the English under-21s. There are maybe three or four who could certainly strengthen our squad and we can have a look at them again and see if they want to play with us. Maybe they don’t want to play with us but it’s important that we are able to ask.”
Is this how desperate we are going to become? Is international football going to mimic the club game, a place so utterly devalued by the absence of loyalty and the constantly evolving allegiances that, these days, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, you are cheering for the laundry rather than the players? Wasn’t playing for your country supposed to be worth something more?
Mark Noble is another name regularly mentioned as an Irish probable in the new regime. As it happens, he’s a good pal of O’Hara’s too. How? Well, they both spent a large part of their schoolboy years playing for various English representative teams together, the way that talented footballers from the same part of the same country normally do. As you’d expect from somebody who may yet captain his country’s Under-21s in this week’s European Championships, he’s offered much the same brand of effusive patriotism about his desire to wear the white shirt at senior level.
“It’s certainly one of my aims,” said Noble, all of six weeks ago. “I think playing for England is the pinnacle of every young English player’s career. If I keep working hard and we keep playing the way we are, I might just get that chance.”
Ireland’s history of emigration demands there must always be a place for the children and grandchildren of the diaspora in our sporting teams, and dual eligibility will from time to time create certain complications. Ray Houghton once had to seek the permission of his rabidly Scottish older brothers before throwing his lot in with Jack Charlton, and later, Andy O’Brien pulled out of England and Ireland youths’ squads until he could decide whether to play for the country of his birth or that of his parents. Still, just because FIFA have relaxed the rules with this latest initiative, it doesn’t mean we have to cheapen the privilege irrevocably by pursuing those who long ago made their allegiances to other nations known.
How many fans would love to see Kevin Nolan clamber aboard the bandwagon now that South Africa is looming into view? This is a guy who turned down the chance to play for the Ireland youths almost a decade ago and who has rebuffed the advances of two Irish senior managers since then. In between, he’s captained the England Under-20s, briefly been the Premiership midfield flavor of the month, and lately seen his stock plummet so much he has precious little chance of ever breaking into Fabio Capello’s squad.
Never mind what the rules say, what would it say about us to bring somebody of this ilk in now? It surely won’t be long before the English papers trot out the old story about Terry Mancini lamenting the quality of the Polish anthem on the occasion of his debut before being politely informed by Don Givens that he was actually dissing Amhran na Bhfiann.
When Eoin Hand arrived at Everton to invite Rotherham-born Seamus McDonagh to play for Ireland, the new recruit recited the 1916 Proclamation to demonstrate his Irishness. On the occasion of his first cap in February 1981, McDonagh insisted on going back to Dublin by boat instead of plane in order to replicate the trip his emigrating parents had made in the other direction years earlier. Not quite a decade after one man’s quasi-spiritual odyssey, Scottish native Bernie Slaven sat on the Irish bench during the historic penalty shoot-out against Romania in Italia 90 but later admitted in his autobiography he was kind of hoping Ireland would lose so he could get home to Middlesbrough to see his beloved dogs.
The problem with tapping into the second and third generations has always been you never know whether you are getting a McDonagh or a Slaven. This will apply now more than ever.