2018 will not go down in history as a vintage year for football in the Republic of Ireland. A year which began with a severe hangover from the 5-1 annihilation by Denmark in the World Cup play-offs from the previous November featured friendly defeats by Turkey and France before a timely, albeit largely forgettable, win over USA in June. Domestically, the League of Ireland has again been rocked by tales of financial woe for two clubs, Limerick and Bray Wanderers, while its entrants into European competitions had a mostly miserable time on the continent. One of the few bright spots for Irish football fans was the emergence of a genuine prospect in teenage defender/midfielder Declan Rice.
The West Ham youngster’s impressive displays since his debut against Turkey in March suggested that he could soon develop into a player around whom the national team could be built. However, Irish football was rocked in recent days by his omission from Martin O’Neill’s squad for the upcoming fixtures against Wales and Poland. Although Rice had been substituted at half-time in the Hammers’ 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on the opening weekend of the Premier League and hasn’t featured since, it came as an unpleasant surprise to see him left out of the Irish selection for September’s games. When pressed on the subject of the 19-year-old’s absence, O’Neill told reporters that Rice needed time to make a final decision on his international future.
Having been born in England (but qualifying for Ireland through ancestry), Rice is eligible to play for the Three Lions and is understood to have been on Gareth Southgate’s radar. After seeing England perform so impressively at the World Cup, it’s understandable that the player’s head might be turned by the nation of his birth rather than his heritage. However, having collected three senior caps for Ireland and represented the Boys in Green at underage levels, why would he now decide to perform an about-turn on his international career? After all, he would be far likelier to thrive as a big fish in a relatively small Irish pond than becoming a key man for England, given their current wealth of playing options.
Irish anger over the possible defection of Rice to the Three Lions was inevitable. Could the FAI have done more to secure the services of the player? Did the much-criticised management of O’Neill and the volatile Roy Keane put the youngster off? Why did FIFA have to change the rules about player eligibility so that they could switch nations until they were capped in a competitive match? Why are England being so greedy? Why would Rice himself go from kissing the crest in an under-21 match a few months ago to jumping ship now?
It is, of course, the player’s prerogative to select the country that feels right for him. At 19, that’s a pretty big decision to make, one which could shape the trajectory of his career in ways that are hard to imagine now. In Ireland, many 19-year-olds don’t even know what modules to choose for the following year of college, so imagine the pressure that Rice must feel after this regrettable saga blew up so quickly. Whatever decision he makes, I’ll respect his reasons for making it, but if he does choose England, he can expect a less than sympathetic reaction to any future career mishaps from Irish shores. For example, Jack Grealish is disliked by many in Ireland for toying with the green shirt before declaring that he wanted to play for England, for whom he is no nearer earning a senior international call-up.
There have been reports that O’Neill’s assistant Keane had a training ground bust-up with Harry Arter and Jon Walters at the last Ireland gathering three months ago. What does Rice have in common with both of those players? They were all born in England before going on to wear the green of Ireland. In both his playing days as well as his management and coaching career, Keane has been an irascible character, to say the least. Perhaps Rice is finding it hard to warm to the prospect of working under the Cork native at future international gatherings. Would you like to have the highly demanding Keane as your boss?
Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr made a point after the saga broke that FIFA were wrong to change the rules on international eligibility a few years ago, citing Aiden McGeady as a precedent. In 2004, the Scotland-born youngster, then a teenage prospect with Celtic, was capped by Kerr in a friendly for Ireland, thus ending any further debate over his international future. However, FIFA subsequently relaxed their eligibility rules so that players could switch nations until such time that they were capped in a competitive fixture. Diego Costa and Wilfried Zaha are among those to have taken advantage of this seismic shifting of the goalposts. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland have benefitted from Northern Ireland-born players like James McClean and Darron Gibson opting to represent the team from south of the border. Kerr is right, though, in stating that a player should not be allowed to transfer between international teams once they have been capped at senior level.
The worst thing about this whole affair is that it is unlikely to have any long-term winners. Rice will either declare for England, be labelled a traitor by Ireland and perhaps make very little impact at international level or else he’ll stick with Ireland and have his commitment called into question. O’Neill looks set to miss out on the country’s brightest prospect for several years, instead being forced to pick from one of the weakest Irish playing pools in living memory. England might not be all that interested in Rice in the long-term; if Southgate remains loyal to the players who impressed at the World Cup and if they pick up where they left off in Russia, the West Ham youngster isn’t likely to break into the Three Lions first XI any time soon.
I’m fervently hoping that Rice will ultimately declare for Ireland and keep showing the ability and maturity that he displayed in his three caps to date. Then, and only then, will this very preventable and potentially damaging episode be put to bed. I just hope he makes the right decision, for his sake more than anything else.