So often when it comes to ‘Granny Rule’ players and the Irish national team, many assume the situation is black and white.
“We should be picking Irish born players who want to play for Ireland!”
“He’s only picking Ireland because he’s not good enough for England!”
Familiar cries of foul when talk of an English born footballer representing the country of his Grandfather or his Grandmother begins to gain traction.
The recent Declan Rice saga of Ireland or England has, for many, heightened the sensitivity of the issue. The 20-year old’s decision continues to cause uproar as fans and commentators alike bemoan this young man’s issue of dual nationality, a situation being played out in the microcosm of the footballing world.
We as a nation are quick to judge. Should Rice declare we’ll be quick to welcome. Should he choose England we’ll be even quicker to criticise.
“It’s either England or Ireland, that’s it”
But that’s never it. How can it be? We see the decision as “with us or against us.” What we fail to ever explore is the true nature of the person behind the choice. The true “why?”
For English born Irish striker Aiden O’Brien, the decision was never really a decision. At the age of 17, he had the choice between representing the country of his birth or representing the country of his roots.
O’Brien was born in London, but growing up was surrounded by Irishness at every turn. The 26-year old was incredibly close to his Grandparents on his mothers’ side, both of whom were, as he puts it, “fully Irish.”
Every day after school, O’Brien and his sister would go to his Grandparents’ house and so, for him, the Irish milieu simply became the norm.
As he got older, the Millwall striker outlined that he always felt more Irish than English because of his Grandparents’ influence, and so when the decision over his international future arose, the answer had been chosen in his mind long before even he realised.
“I was always going to choose Ireland,” O’Brien told Pundit Arena.
“My Grandad and my Nan were fully Irish so my Mum was basically fully Irish as well. It was a thing where I was more Irish than English.
“Whenever I finished school I used to go and get my sister and we used to walk to my Nan and Grandad’s from school and we would be there literally every day.
“You can imagine, you’re going around to your Nan and Grandad’s every day and they’re cooking you stew, they’re speaking Irish, everything about it is centred around Ireland so you’re brought into it.
“I had such a strong bond with my Nan and Grandad that it was automatically like ‘Oh, I’m Irish.’ Although I was born in England and my Mum was born here too my blood is still Irish, the roots of me are Irish.”
On top of the influence of his Grandparents, O’Brien also explained that the extent of his mother’s siblings (10 in all) meant that whenever there was a family gathering, it was centred around Irish culture.
“My Mum had ten brothers and sisters, it was a massive family.
“We used to have everyone around for stew and Irish dinners. It was such an Irish cultured family, which was mainly due to my Nan and Grandad, it was all down to them and because they were so passionately loved it was just a natural thing.
“It’s my roots really. For me being Irish was a natural thing, it was never a decision it was just naturally upon me.”
How proud they must have been when, in September, O’Brien made his first start for the Boys in Green in their friendly against Poland and marked his debut with a well-taken header.
The striker outlined, that as soon as the ball hit the net, his thoughts immediately went to his Grandparents, who had been so crucial in helping his journey.
“As soon as the goal went in I looked up to the sky and my thoughts immediately went straight to my Grandad and my Nan,” said O’Brien.
“They’ve always said to me ‘you’ll play for Ireland one day’ and I’ve been chasing that dream ever since I was a little boy and I lived it thanks to Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane and a couple of other people as well.
“They gave me the opportunity and I’d like to think that I took it.”
Growing up O’Brien’s dream was to wear the green of Ireland and represent the country he felt such an affinity to. Ireland was always in his roots.
Every individual situation though, he understands, is different. Where O’Brien’s Irishness came naturally, for others that may not be the case.
As someone who has family so richly ingrained in his being, the Millwall man knows the importance of their influence in a player’s decision.
Nevertheless, he feels that until you become aware of someone’s roots, you can never judge the choices they make when it comes to the country they choose to represent.
“Everyone is different,” began O’Brien.
“You can’t look at me and say, ‘how come you’ve done that?’ then look at another player and say ‘how come he’s not the same?’
“My Nan and Grandad were fully Irish but maybe in other instances, that’s not the case. There’s different people and different roots so you can’t really judge.
“For some, it might not be as simple as it was for me. I can imagine there being a lot of voices, some family members saying one thing and others maybe telling you another.
“I don’t know because it was easy for me, I can only talk on my behalf and for me, it was very easy and straight forward because of my background but it can easily be different for other people.”
O’Brien is a shining example of the player behind the choice. The human aspect of a process that we, as a nation, have made so clinical over time.
He’ll no doubt don the green again in the near future as Ireland welcomes the dawning of a new era under Mick McCarthy. The pride will unquestionably never waiver. The “roots” will always be there.