'I've got to keep on top of my game'

Rice stays grounded and hails support after highly successful week in green

Jubilant: Declan Rice celebrates Tuesday night’s U21 European Championship win over Azerbaijan

Daniel McDonnell

There have been moments in a headspinning week for Declan Rice that have provided a sudden reminder of his new status.

He cites a trip into a newsagent over the weekend to buy a drink when he picked up the Sun newspaper and flicked to the back page to find his image staring back at him.

"I had to put it down quickly," he says, with a smile. "It's nice to get the recognition and it gives me confidence. But if I wasn't playing well, I would be criticised. That's how football goes."

Rice was speaking in Tallaght Stadium late on Tuesday evening, relieved by the late winner for the Ireland U-21 side against Azerbaijan.

He points to his support network when asked about maintaining a level-headed attitude in a profession where youths can lose the run of themselves.

"I think it's the people around me that help," he said. "My family, my dad, my coaches. I'm training with some top players like (Mark) Noble and (James) Collins and I think if I did let myself slip, they'd be onto me straight away.

"But it's not in my nature to be big-headed. This is only the start and it could end very quick so I've got to keep on top of my game and keep performing every week." Still, Martin O'Neill has pointed out that while Rice has a certain shyness, he's also able to speak his mind too. His confidence is impressive, and it's clear that he felt entirely comfortable in senior company during his week.

There was curiosity at the U-21 base in Dunboyne when he came back from his man-of-the-match display in Antalya. The other players wanted to know about training, and Rice's message was that plenty of King's group would be well able to handle that progression.

The positive aspect of the slog against Azerbaijan was the understanding between Rice and his West Ham colleague Josh Cullen, with Galway lad Ryan Manning also impressing in a technically assured midfield three.

"We've a lot of quality in this side," says Rice. "When I came back, they've asked how training was and I said 'A lot of you could make the step up.'

"Josh could easily make the step up, Manning. (Ryan) Sweeney. When I went away (to Turkey) I think there were 16 out of the 24 lads that came through the U-21s and that shows the pathway that's there."

Rice is clearly very settled in the U21 group and is conscious that Ireland have never qualified for a European Championship at that level. They are three points behind Germany with a game in hand and four matches left in their group. That includes two games with the Germans, the first of which is in Tallaght on September 11.