NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill does not expect the appointment of former Celtic manager Martin O’Neill as Republic of Ireland boss to have a significant impact on the problematic issue of player eligibility.
One of the touchstones of Michael O’Neill’s tenure at Windsor Avenue has been his attempt to stem the flow of talented Northern Irish-born talent to the Republic.
The likes of Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and James McClean all went on to play for the Republic’s senior team despite being born in the north, while a handful of young players have played at age-group level for Northern Ireland before taking advantage of a FIFA-ruling that allows them to switch to the FAI banner.
The Irish Football Association (IFA) has worked hard at grass roots level to buck that trend as well as persuading Alex Bruce to play for them despite earning two friendly caps for the Republic.
But the presence of Martin O’Neill, a celebrated former Northern Ireland captain, in the Republic dugout could prove a stumbling block. His namesake believes that may not be the case though.
“I don’t think it will be an issue at all to be honest,” said the former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder. “It doesn’t really matter who is in charge of the Republic in terms of the eligibility question.
“My focus, pure and simple, is to make sure that our young players know what we are trying to do as an association and what we are trying to build with our younger players in terms of giving them the chance of having an international career.
“I know most of our young age-group footballers by name and have worked on the training pitch with them and hopefully that is a help.
“I’ve spoken to Martin on a few occasions and he was very helpful to me before I took this job and since.
“He’ll just be another international manager to me, no different to Roy Hodgson, Chris Coleman or Gordon Strachan.
“This whole issue is probably more of a media thing that it is for me or Martin.”
Meanwhile, Ray Houghton insists Roy Keane is not expecting equal billing alongside O’Neill when the duo take charge of the Republic of Ireland.
The Football Association of Ireland on Tuesday night confirmed O’Neill as the man to lead them into the Euro 2016 qualification campaign, with the forceful presence of Keane installed as his number two.
The strong-willed Keane has been a force for both good and bad for the Republic in the past, with his infamous falling-out with the national team management at the 2002 World Cup a memory that overrides all the positive things he did on the pitch.
Keane’s return to the fold has given way to inevitable speculation over his likely influence on the dressing room, but Houghton, who was part of the team tasked by the FAI with searching for a new manager, has no concerns.
The former Republic midfielder spoke at length with Keane during the negotiations and told Sky Sports News: “His enthusiasm, his knowledge, what he thought the Irish team could do was hugely surprising to me. He was very, very good.
“He knows what he wants, where he wants to take them alongside Martin. He knows his position: Martin will be the manager; Roy will assist Martin. So there’s no grey area there - it’s not like Roy’s going to be on a level term.
“Martin will be the number one and Roy will do everything in his power to help him.
“It could be a good learning curve for Roy.”
Asked about Keane’s past strained relations with the FAI board, Houghton said: “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. It took 30 seconds to put everything out the way and now it’s down to business.
“We have to leave the past in the past. We can’t do anything about it. We can’t change the past, what we can change is the future.
“For Irish football, it shows we’re going in the right direction. It’s exciting times. The next couple of years should be very, very good.”
Houghton’s former Republic team-mate Niall Quinn agrees that Keane will not become disruptive to O’Neill’s plans.
“I’m not worried that he’s going to want to say different things to Martin O’Neill, I think I’m more looking forward to him getting out there, bringing his presence,” the former Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland striker told Sky Sports.
“It’s great news for Ireland. People have had opinions about Roy and Martin for many years and we can sit back now and watch over the next couple of years and hopefully it will be a very exciting time.”
Former Republic goalkeeper Shay Given also welcomed the double appointment, writing on Twitter: “Good luck to Martin O’Neill & Roy Keane in new jobs @FAIreland lots of different opinions but all that matters is we qualify for the euros”
Current national team players also had their say on Twitter.
Hull midfielder David Meyler wrote on his account: “Delighted Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have taken over. Exciting times ahead for Irish Football!”
Sean St Ledger, the Leicester defender, wrote: “Exciting times for Irish football with the appointment of Martin o Neill and Roy Keane!”