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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

O’Neill surprised at claim Ireland are targeting Catholic players from the North

Martin O’Neill has expressed his surprise at Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s claim that the Republic of Ireland are targeting Catholic players from across the border.

Current internationals James McClean, Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson, Eunan O’Kane and Marc Wilson represented Northern Ireland at youth level before exercising their right to opt to play senior football with the Republic.

However, Michael O’Neill has accused the Football Association of Ireland of focusing only on Catholic players, a suggestion which was met with consternation by his counterpart.

Speaking as he announced a 30-man provisional squad for the friendly against Turkey later this month, Republic boss O’Neill said: “I do have a problem with the unexpected nature of the comments.

“If they are remarks on my time here, I think that would be untrue. I haven’t even taken a player away from him at senior level, but I’ve no problem having a discussion.”

Michael O’Neill is hoping to strike a gentlemen’s agreement with the Republic manager over under-age players, although Martin O’Neill revealed the subject has never arisen when the pair have met recently.

He said: “Funnily enough, I did meet him at a game quite recently. We were watching Fulham play at Craven Cottage. We had a very trivial conversation and he never mentioned these points – I wish he had done privately.

“It was a surprise, but I’ve had a conversation with him since and he has admitted that I have not taken a senior player from him. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as Alex Bruce went to him in my time here.

“I played for Northern Ireland 60-odd times, I was captain loads of times during one of the most successful periods. Not only did we have great players from both sides of the religious divide, but we had a great camaraderie.

“It’s very disappointing. The most important issue is that I’ve never chosen a player on anything other than merit, and it is the player’s choice with these issues.”

Martin O’Neill will take his current crop of players to Antalya for a three-day training camp followed by the friendly against the Turks on 23rd March, and there will be a welcome return for one of his key men.

Captain Seamus Coleman could play for his country for the first time in a day short of a year following his recovery from the double leg fracture he suffered against Wales in a World Cup qualifier last year.

The 29-year-old full-back is just three games into his comeback with club Everton, but his presence on the training pitch will provide a major boost as Ireland resume after the play-off defeat by Denmark which finally ended their dream of making it to Russia this summer.

There are places too for Preston duo Greg Cunningham and Sean Maguire and Brentford’s Alan Judge after injury, while O’Neill will also run the rule over a series of young players as he plans for the future after signing his new contract.

Manchester United goalkeeper Kieran O’Hara, West Ham defender Declan Rice, Blackburn counterparts Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams and Sheffield United’s Enda Stevens have all been handed senior call-ups, although O’Hara and Rice have previously trained with the squad.

Provisional squad: Rob Elliot (Newcastle), Colin Doyle (Bradford), Kieran O’Hara (Manchester United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Matt Doherty (Wolves), Declan Rice (West Ham), John Egan (Brentford), Shane Duffy (Brighton), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle), Kevin Long (Burnley), Alex Pearce (Derby), Darragh Lenihan, Derrick Williams (both Blackburn), Greg Cunningham (Preston), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Alan Judge (Brentford), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), David Meyler (Hull), Eunan O’Kane (Leeds), Liam Kelly (Reading), Alan Browne, Daryl Horgan (both Preston), James McClean (West Brom), Shane Long (Southampton), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa), Sean Maguire (Preston).

This weekend’s Premier League fixtures:

Saturday 10th March

Manchester United v Liverpool – 12:30pm
Everton v Brighton & Hove Albion – 3:00pm
Huddersfield Town v Swansea City – 3:00pm
Newcastle United v Southampton – 3:00pm
West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City – 3:00pm
West Ham United v Burnley – 3.00pm
Chelsea v Crystal Palace – 5:30pm

Sunday 11th March

Arsenal v Watford – 1:30pm
AFC Bournemouth v Tottenham Hotspur – 4:00pm

Monday 12th March

Stoke City v Manchester City – 8:00pm

Picture: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill (left). (Nick Potts/EMPICS Sport).