A brief exchange with a fellow Irishman on Twitter the other day got me thinking about accents in the Irish squad and how the situation is very much different from past squads and reflects societal changes and demographic shifts within the game too. A brief radio segment had given my interlocutor the impression they were quite a few non-Irish accents in the squad but I pointed out to him that there are actually fewer than ever before. Of the 23 players going to Poland, only six speak in a voice that is not unmistakably Irish — these range from the Glaswegian of Aiden McGeady, the Mancunian of Keiran Westwood to Seán St. Ledger’s Brummie tones and Jonathan Walters’ Scouse by way of Simon Cox’s Thames Valley accent and Paul Green’s Yorkshire. By comparison with squads from past tournaments it’s a relatively small number of diaspora players. Jack Charlton’s panel of 20 for Euro 88 had 11 players who sounded either Scottish or English (and also the London-born Paul McGrath, who, to this day, speaks with a recognisably Dublin voice). Two years later at Italia 90, that figure was 13 (out of 22); at USA 94 it was one more than that; on our last appearance at a tournament in 2002 it was 12.
I have never had a problem with foreign players of Irish ancestry playing for Ireland, even when in some cases the connections were tenuous (Tony Cascarino famously revealed in his autobiography that his grandmother admitted to him on her death bed that she wasn’t Irish). Neither had I any time for people who would sneer at the practice, claiming the players were ‘plastic Paddies’ — a joke in the British media during the Charlton era was that FAI stood for ‘Find Another Irishman’. Scouting for players abroad is perfectly legitimate and while Ireland were pioneers in this respect, it is now common practice with countries such as Poland, Croatia, Turkey, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and many African countries fielding players born abroad. If you are an emigrant society, you have every entitlement to take advantage of that fact. Those people in larger countries, particularly England and France, that complain about the practice are being unfair, as the amount of places in their own national sides is necessarily limited. It is also true that few players in either country who declare for the lands of their forefathers do so at the expense of the land of their birth — the only case I can think of an English-born Irish player choosing to play for England rather than Ireland because he probably wouldn’t have got a look-in with Ireland at the time was Martin Keown. All the others turn out for Ireland as a last resort. To say they are ‘England rejects’ is boorish as well as nonsensical.
Many of those players — but not all — also grew up supporting Ireland. James MacCarthy and Aiden McGeady were very forthright about wanting to represent Ireland rather than Scotland, for more than opportunistic footballing reasons. In many cases they supported England too; after all, there is nothing so ridiculous as telling people whose family complexion straddles international divides that they can’t be both English and Irish. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when IRA bombs made the experience of being Irish across channel a trying one, it was a bit different. Irish writer Eamonn Sweeney, in his superb book about supporting Sligo Rovers, There’s Only One Red Army, tells of watching the Ireland victory over England at Euro 88 in Camden Town and of being bear-hugged by a stranger at the final whistle who cackled, in a cockney accent — ‘we beat the fuckers!’ I have friends and family born to Irish parents who grew up in other countries and many of them are Irish in all but their accent. This doesn’t mean they have no affinity for their birth countries, be it the US, the UK, Canada or France, but it’s a reminder that Irishness is not just a territorial thing. Foreigners of non-Irish ancestry can become Irish too, and oftentimes more Irish than the natives, as the histories of Hilton Edwards, Mícheál Mac Liammóir and Cathal Brugha can attest to.
The main reason for the drop in the number of non-Irish accents is the now departed economic boom; just as London and New York’s GAA teams had difficulty attracting good players during the Celtic Tiger years, so there were fewer Irish people emigrating to ply their trade abroad, a trend that is already being reversed once again. Generations have moved on too, and while the likes of Kevin Nolan and Wayne Rooney might have a sentimental attachment to Ireland, they never had any desire to wear the green jersey. Players from ‘non-classical’ emigration countries are also emerging — one such is VVV Venlo forward Barry Maguire, who has played at underage level for both Ireland and the Netherlands and who has now decided to opt for Ireland, not surprisingly, given the fierce competition for places in the Dutch side.
Among the Irish players in the squad there is a greater geographical spread than in the past. The bedrock of Irish soccer was long Dublin, and more specifically certain parts of town like Crumlin and Cabra, so the over-representation of Dubliners on the team was understandable. People from down the country often complained of being neglected at underage level though, as Roy Keane and Stephen Ireland both remarked on. I have a couple of friends who represented Ireland at schoolboy level who similarly said the non-Dublin players had to work extra hard to get noticed. That all changed under Brian Kerr’s stewardship of the underage sides. The spread in popularity of football since the 1980s has also meant more players from the provinces playing at the highest level. At Euro 88 Packie Bonner was the only player to hail from outside the Dublin-UK nexus; by contrast this year the whole of Ireland is represented like never before — there is Waterford (John O’Shea and Stephen Hunt), Wicklow (Paul McShane), Wexford (Kevin Doyle), Tipperary (Shane Long), Galway (David Forde), Donegal (Shay Given — with Séamus Coleman surely to eventually make a breakthrough), Derry (Darron Gibson and James MacClean) as well as half a dozen Dubliners. Soccer wasn’t non-existent outside Dublin before the 1990s but it was confined to a number of urban pockets — mostly garrison towns such as Sligo, Athlone, Dundalk and Waterford — and Donegal, which, given its close ties to Scotland, was the sole rural heartland of the game. The sport was also very much a poor relation, being scorned by the GAA for a long time before the head bods at Croke Park belatedly realised it had nothing to fear from soccer. In Dublin, rugby — a sport that has hardly any overlap with soccer — was always given preferential treatment by RTÉ, presumably because its social milieu was a more prized demographic.
The greater geographical spread in the squad hasn’t meant better players, unfortunately — Ireland’s squad today is weaker than any of those that have gone to past tournaments, with the possible exception of the Roy Keane-less side in 2002. That has little to do with the geographical diversity however, just a reflection of how tough it is for players to make a mark in English football these days. The cross-channel game attracts players from so many countries, it’s difficult to get off the bench. England have a similar problem, as do a number of smaller countries, such as the Czech Republic and Ukraine, whose own modest leagues also have a large number of foreign players crowding the field. It’s an unfortunate situation but one we can hardly cavil with, having drawn the footballing benefits of our own experience of emigration. One way that things might be improved though is for Irish players to follow Aiden McGeady’s example and head off to the continent, where regular first-team football and an exposure to a more diverse game would do the Irish national team a world of good.
Posted by Oliver Farry