Tuesday 22 October 2019

Aidan Fitzmaurice: 'Rice award decision the wrong call - better to have no prize than give it to a 'proud Englishman''

Declan Rice has been named the FAI Young Player of the Year. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Declan Rice has been named the FAI Young Player of the Year. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

As a self-confessed 'proud Englishman' maybe it's to be expected that Declan Rice has somewhere else to be, other than Dublin, on St Patrick's Day.

So Rice will not be among those in attendance at the RTE studios for the FAI's annual international awards ceremony next Sunday evening. He is among the award winners, with Rice named as Young Player of the Year on the back of his three (admittedly impressive) performances for the senior team in 2018.

The awards are handed out by the FAI but the decision on the winners is made outside of Abbotstown, by a jury made up from members of the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland.

But the FAI announced on Tuesday afternoon that the winner of one of their main awards (Rice) will not be in the building.

"At the time of the vote, Declan Rice was an Ireland international and qualified for the Young Player category in a year that saw him win three senior caps, all in '3' International Friendly games," said an FAI statement, issued in advance of the awards.

"Declan Rice has since opted to switch his allegiance to England. The FAI has completed his international transfer via the FIFA protocols and wishes him well in the future.

"This award maintains the integrity of the voting process in conjunction with the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland and the FAI thanks the jury members for their decisions relating to the awards.

"Declan Rice will not be in Dublin for the '3' FAI International Awards ceremony, which will be live on RTÉ2 from 20:30."

But giving the award to Rice is a wrong call and is a decision that will not go down well with the bulk of Irish supporters, and we can confidently guess that the current squad, and national team manager, will be less than impressed with the decision to give him the award.

Being on the jury for these awards is a thankless task: I know, as this reporter has served on the jury on a number of occasions in the past. At one awards ceremony a good few years back, a player sought me out to express his bafflement, and utter displeasure, that he was passed over for the U21 player of the year, making it clear that in his eyes, the jury knew nothing about the game.

Not all decisions are unanimous, not all decisions are right.

The jury members can point out that when they held their meetings at the start of this year, Declan Rice was still a Republic of Ireland player and he was the stand-out candidate for Young Player of the Year (in the interests of clarity, it should be explained that the award is given to the player, aged 25 or younger, for his displays in the senior men's international team).

Even though he didn't play in a competitive game, played in just three of the team's eight senior games in 2018 and two of those were defeats where Ireland failed to score, Rice was indeed the candidate, though selecting a player who had such a brief senior career shows how truly dismal the calendar year of 2018 was for Irish football.

The jury were asked to judge how good a player was in action for Ireland in 2018, not how Irish he was.

But once Rice made public his decision to defect to England, the game had changed. That career-altering situation, where he would become the first man in a century to play for Ireland at senior level and then go and play for England, was a one-off occasion. The jury should have been recalled, and a decision made by them - and not by the FAI but by the media representatives - that the game had changed.

Rice, in deciding to go and play for England, had forfeited the right to be honoured in this way.

In conversations with jury members who were not just colleagues but friends (and I hope they still are friends), I tried to make this point but was drowned out by claims that the integrity of the jury, and their independence, should come before any charges of treachery by Rice. I think that missed the bigger picture.

The FAI could have taken the issue out of the SWAI jury's hands and said they were not happy to give the award to Rice, or would simply have no Young Player award this year. That may have cracked a hole in the entire process and undermined the independence of the media, but the decision would have been made by the FAI, not the jury.

After all, due to one of the periods of FAI upheaval around 2003/04, one year they simply did not have an awards ceremony and just handed out double awards the following year, so anything is possible.

Privately, Mick McCarthy has made it clear that he was not happy with the decision to give the award to Rice. The players who turned up for the internationals against Wales (twice), Poland, Denmark (twice) and Northern Ireland, in the time that Rice was in self-imposed exile as he pondered his decision, will also feel slighted.

Aiden O'Brien travelled to Poland, played and scored a (decent) goal. How will he feel today when he sees that Declan Rice, who has opted to play for a rival nation, has been honoured in this way?

O'Brien should not get a dummy award for being Irish enough, and Rice is a better player than O'Brien. But at least O'Brien turned up and desire should count for something.

International allegiance is in a state of flux. Ireland could field a team containing players who have previously played for other nations at underage level such as Northern Ireland (James McClean), England (Callum Robinson, Ciaran Clark) and Scotland (Alex Pearce).

Declan Rice has made his choice and, while not all will agree with the line in the FAI statement which says we "wish him well in the future", it's fair game to recruit players, with Ireland trying to lure people like Patrick Bamford and Nathan Redmond to the green jersey despite a long connection with England.

But once he decided to turn his back on Ireland and play for England, Rice forfeited the right to be selected by the Irish media and to be honoured by the FAI.

Because Rice won't be at the awards in Dublin on St Patrick's Day, he will be saved the ignominy of being booed and getting catcalls. But giving him the award was the wrong call.

Better to have no award than to give it to a "proud Englishman", or better to give given it to a young player who perhaps had inferior talent, but who wanted to play for his country.

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