Battles over the future of the national team have been the main concerns in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the start of the new league campaign.
The complicated issue of players born in Northern Ireland choosing to opt for the Republic of Ireland has come to the fore again in recent weeks. The focus has been on Manchester United FC midfielder Darron Gibson, who was born in Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your political persuasion) but has elected to play for the Republic.
Gibson represented the Republic's Under-21s last season and seemed to have sealed his switch by turning out for their senior side in a friendly in Denmark last month. However, until he has played a competitive game, the door remains open for the 19-year-old to play for Northern Ireland, with coach Nigel Worthington saying: "I will be doing everything in my power to get him into our system."
Worthington and the Irish Football Association believe Gibson is not eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland and are convinced Stephen Staunton's side risk being penalised points in their UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying campaign by fielding him. The Football Association of Ireland think differently. Both associations are awaiting a verdict from FIFA later this month.
The coach pulled off a notable coup in persuading 22-year-old Blackburn Rovers FC full-back Tony Kane to join his squad for the Group F qualifiers against Latvia and Iceland. The Belfast-born teenager had played in an U21 game for the Republic of Ireland last month despite having previously represented Northern Ireland at U18 and U19 level.
Meanwhile, there have been changes at the Irish Football Association, with Jim Boyce standing aside to become honorary life president, allowing Raymond Kennedy to take up the role.
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