Declan Rice watch: A standout performer on a disappointing night for Ireland in Turkey
On a night in Antalya of few highlights, at least Declan Rice looking a seasoned Ireland international bodes well for the real action starting later in the year.
While many of Martin O’Neill’s leading lights faded badly when the going got tough in Turkey, the debutant lasted the distance till the finish and left the pitch with his held high.
Before he’d even had his first touch of senior international football, the new kid on the block showed he meant business.
First up was taking hold of the coveted No 10 shirt, exclusively owned by the two Robbies, Keane and Brady, for almost the last 20 years.
It might have been an unusual move for a defender but it didn’t faze him, nor did having to belt out Amhrán na bhFiann. The Londoner has been seen previously at underage level singing along to what he described last week as a “catchy” anthem and there was an added zest on this occasion of this milestone.
Deployed on the left side of a three-man central defence, the West Ham United teen looked assured from the outset, gaining confidence from winning a couple of aerial challenges.
Cenk Tosun, Everton’s €30m capture during the January transfer window, was shadowed by Rice and knew all about the rookie on the half hour when he was outjumped for a header.
Other attributes of the all-rounder were also evident, from his slick passing across the defence to blocking a right-wing cross by the dangerous Gökhan Gönül when the Turks had outnumbered Ireland in the box.
It didn’t take long for Ireland to concede after the interval, Rice absolved from blame as colleagues didn’t do their job while he was concentrating on Tosun.
Rarely has Martin O’Neill had during his four year tenure a player equally comfortable in midfield as defence and Rice’s versatility was called upon with 20 minutes left.
Ciaran Clark’s introduction enabled the manager to push the 19-year-old further up the field and he was in the right place 20 yards out to connect with a half-cleared James McClean cross on 75 minutes only to skew his volley wide.
Showing he’s no one-trick pony, with five minutes remaining, Rice looked up midway inside his own half to unleash from his right foot a pass to the outside-right channel which substitute Alan Judge was almost sent clear from.
It would have been some conclusion to his bow but we’ll forgive him once he delivers in the UEFA Nations Cup come September. On last night’s evidence, the fresh-faced tyro will have a starring role in the new era.