Thursday, October 9, 2008

SFA v FAI: The James McCarthy War

For those of you who don't know, James McCarthy is the hottest midfield prospect plying his trade in Britain today. At the tender of 17 he has affirmed himself as one of the best midfielders playing in Scotland, for Hamilton Academicals in the Scottish Premier League. But the Scottish Football Association and Football Association of Ireland are at loggerheads over James, why?

Teams like Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and a host of other Premiership teams regularly keep track of young James, he has even caught the eye of suitors from Europe such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.

Such is the attention in James that regular Hamilton fans claim their gate has doubled since he started playing, not down to an increase in fans but an increase in scouts!

James is good. Very, very good.

He made his debut for Hamilton when he was 15, and at the age of 16 had established himself as a fixture in their promotion winning team. Now at 17 he has played around 70 games for the Accies, so you can appreciate that James is somewhat of a prodigy.

He is blessed with strength and power and has a tireless engine. He is a very simple passer of the ball and has found the net on no less than eight occasions. At this stage of his career he is usually compared with Roy Keane.

The problems between the SFA (Scottish Football Association) and the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) arise because James was born in Glasgow, Scotland. But he plays for the Irish underage teams.

McCarthy's grandfather is from Donegal, and it is through his ancestry that he has been able to declare for Ireland. James' grandfather left Ireland in the '30s in search of work. That search eventually brought him to Castlemilk, Glasgow—an Irish enclave in Scotland.

Indeed another famous Glaswegian, Ray Houghton, was also from the same area and he too declared for Ireland. The people of Castlemilk consider themselves Irish and have celebrated everything Irish since the corporation estate was established.

At underage football James' talents began to show and he was left out of many Scottish squads while the SFA selectors dithered over whether he was good enough. But a chance meeting with Irish underage manager Sean McCaffrey would bring McCarthy's talents to the FAI.

A phone-call and a plane flight later McCaffrey found himself sitting in a living room in Castlemilk and the rest is history. Since then James has played at U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-21 level for Ireland, and is widely predicted to be part of Giovanni Trappatoni's squad to face Poland next month.

The reason James is being fast tracked into the senior side is the amorous attention he has received from Terry Butcher (Asst. Manager) and George Burley (Scotland Manager) recently.

James does not have to declare for a country until 21, if he doesn't play a competitive match. Burley and Butcher have both intimated to James that he would be included in future senior squads should he declare for Scotland.

The FAI were thrown into turmoil this week as McCarthy pulled out of the U-21 squad due to face Lithuania. And amid rumours he was about to defect FAI officials sought a meeting with James and his family.

The McCarthy family have been under intense media pressure in Scotland as a result of James' Irish allegiances. With the Daily Record launching a mini campaign against James to get him to declare for the land of his birth. The paper went as far as calling James "a country bumpkin" in an article criticising his decision to play for Ireland.

In claiming a "Player of the Month" award recently, the ceremony turned into a media grilling in which James handled himself very well. "It's at the stage where I just say I'll see what happens to just get them to stop, every time the answer is the same but they just keep asking"

But the FAI's fears that they were about to lose James' prodigious talents were unwarranted as McCarthy released a statement before their meeting. It read...

"James is flattered by the interest shown in him by George Burley in recent weeks with view to him being selected by Scotland. However, he is now in his third season with the Irish set-up having already represented them at 17s, 18s, 19s and 21s, despite being a month short of his 18th birthday.

"James feels he would be letting too many people down by switching from the Irish at this stage. He is content to end the speculation and concentrate on his club commitments with the Accies."

Indeed McCarthy feels he owes Hamilton manager Billy Reid so much that he has stuck around this season to try and keep them in the league. In an age where players can demand moves at the drop of a hat, young James shows a remarkable level of maturity.

Promising teenagers are a dime a dozen in the modern age, and everyone has heard stories of who's the next big thing only to never hear of them again. But word in football circles are that James has all the necessary tools to succeed.

His grandfather would be proud, almost 100 years since he left the home he loved in search of work, part of his legacy may be about to give something back.

After all, home is where the heart is.