Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'If arrogance is the English national vice, sneakiness may be the Irish one'

Declan Rice waiting for his international clearance to represent England Photo: Reuters
Declan Rice waiting for his international clearance to represent England Photo: Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The story of Declan Rice is a very simple one. It's the tale of a young Englishman who, believing he wasn't good enough to be capped for his own country, threw in his lot with Ireland at underage level. On discovering that he was much better than he'd initially thought, he switched allegiance to his native land.

His decision was neither dishonourable nor surprising. Any player would prefer to play for his own national team, especially when it's world class and the other side vying for his services is not. There's no need to complicate things with waffle about the conflicted soul of the emigrant, no need to try and find someone to blame.

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Good luck to Declan Rice. I hope he's spared the treatment inflicted upon Jack Grealish, whose every misstep and misfortune after opting for England was greeted by a jeering Irish chorus which can only have confirmed his conviction that he'd made the right decision, even if he never wins a cap for his own country. This time it would be good if we behaved a little more honourably.

A lot of the talk about Rice over the last year was seriously OTT. If he stayed with Ireland we could build a team around him, he'd win 100 caps, he'd be captain for many years. This was all wildly previous for a 20-year-old who, however gifted, is at the start of his senior career. The insistence that the future good health of the Irish national team was bound up with this one player seemed part fantasy, part ready-made excuse for future underachievement.

The securing of Rice would apparently have been the kind of significant triumph Ireland couldn't manage on the field. Partisans of Mick McCarthy declared that his ability to keep Rice in a green jersey was one of the best reasons for giving the veteran a second crack at the Irish job.

So you had nonsense claims that McCarthy had a really great chance of winning Rice over because he was an English-born centre back and so was the young lad. To which the only proper response was: Are you 10 years old? Then there were the lads who were sure Rice would stay because he'd liked a certain tweet on social media. I'm sorry, did I say 10? I meant five.

The apparently imminent nailing down of Rice was portrayed as the crowning glory of McCarthy's new masterplan, which is apparently to secure the services of as many Irish-qualified Englishmen as possible. The Find Another Irishman policy is back big time. Except without Rice as a prize capture the pursuit of Nathan Redmond, Patrick Bamford, Will Keane, Uncle Tom Cobley and all suddenly looks a little tawdry.

FIFA regulations entitle us to select such players. Other countries do the same thing. But none of them do it to the same extent as the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps that's why there's such a strong desire to pretend that cynical pragmatism is in fact something else, that this stretching of the nationality rules to the very limit is a kind of Mary Robinson candle extended to the emigrant masses.

To continue this pretence it would help to nab just one player who was good enough to play for England but opted for us instead. Declan Rice was that player, which is why his defection is a psychological blow for reasons besides his considerable footballing ability.

The search for likely sounding surnames and the trawl through the bargain bin will be that bit more dispiriting from here on in, the pestering of new recruits to declare how Irish they feel that bit more desperate. They'll oblige us all the same because they know how much it means to us. The English are good that way.

The argument that there's some irreducible core of Paddiness which makes you essentially Irish even if your grandparents left the country 60-odd years ago strikes me as a dubious one. For one thing, some of its proponents are the kind of people who seem to think that the Irish rugby team is not properly Irish.

If we follow the reasoning behind the 'Rice is Irish' argument to its logical conclusion, it means that not only are kids born here of Lithuanian, Nigerian and Polish parentage not really Irish, but their kids won't be either. Which seems a pretty damnable doctrine to me. As Leopold Bloom said in the greatest Irish book ever, "A nation is the same people living in the same place."

There is something humiliating about the Rice saga as there was about the Grealish saga before it. They both showed that no top class English-born player will ever pledge his senior future to Ireland. It is our fate to function as a kind of consolation prize for the Redmonds and Bamfords of this world.

Some people don't think this matters. They argue that you take whatever players you get and that nationality means little to footballers, most of whom will give their best to whatever team they're playing for.

But, a country and a club are not the same. For one thing if Ireland was a club team very few Irish people would support it. People in this country, the hardy bunch of League of Ireland devotees aside, largely follow soccer clubs on the basis of achievement.

Ireland are ranked 34th in the world. The 34th-ranked team in England is Blackburn Rovers. You won't see too many of their jerseys on display this weekend. England are ranked fifth in the world which I suppose makes them Arsenal. No-one would ever argue that a player should turn down a move from Blackburn to Arsenal, even if the smaller club 'built their team around him'. It wouldn't make any sense in the world of club football.

International football follows different rules. National teams are followed, like inter-county teams, on the basis of local identification. An Irish fan doesn't decide to start following England any more than a Meath man would decide to support the Dubs because they're more successful.

National pride may seem an outmoded concept, but it can drive teams on to excel against sides who on an individual level are much stronger than they are. Croatia's run to the World Cup final is one example of this and Iceland's heroics in the European Championships another. It's a pretty regular occurrence in football and it's why, in a globalised world, people still fervently support national teams.

If Ireland is simply to become a kind of England D team, what is the point of having a national side at all? When you look through the bios of cross-channel players it's striking how many journeymen toiling in the lower divisions were born in England and have a large number of Irish underage caps to their name. Such players were in the majority on the under 21 team which competed in the last European Championship qualifying campaign.

Would there have any been great loss had the caps accrued by these players at under 15, 16 and 17 level gone instead to Irish-born footballers? Would the elevating of one of their number to international level not have spurred on players in clubs all over the country? Might it not have given the lesser sung schoolboy leagues something to aspire to? What benefit was there to the game here in scattering these caps all over London and Birmingham?

This obsessive pursuit of foreign players has yielded a few decent senior internationals in the last couple of decades, but the return is strikingly low for the effort expended. Our best player in recent years, Seamus Coleman, would have been lost to the game had it not been for the intervention of Paul Cook at Sligo Rovers. How many potential Colemans have been lost because of the lack of structures to properly develop them? How might they have been brought on by being part of an international set-up?

There is a carelessness about the stewardship of the Irish game which is inseparable from our dependence on English-born players. Why bother improving the League of Ireland or taking underage football seriously when we'll always be able to pick up the leftovers from the powerful system cross-channel?

Sadly we think we're being immensely crafty by recruiting English players with tenuous Irish connections. You can see the same motivation in our poaching of the best Catholics from the Northern Irish system, something Michael O'Neill called the FAI out on last year. If arrogance is the English national vice, sneakiness may be the Irish one.

That sneakiness was obvious in all those calls to give Rice a competitive cap as quickly as possible so that he'd be stuck with us for good. We were essentially trying to hoodwink a teenager in the hope that he'd make a hasty decision before realising the extent of his own ability. It was shabby stuff.

Declan Rice copped on to us before it was too late. Fair play to you me old china.


Eamonn Sweeney: 'Terms and conditions also apply to rugby. Past performance is no guarantee of future success'

Ireland's faltering start to the Six Nations has seen the revival of that old chestnut about nothing mattering this year but the World Cup. This did the rounds regularly in the past when things weren't going to plan and back in the dog days of the Declan Kidney reign was pressed into service a full two years before the tournament.

It always smacks slightly of a desire to draw the best inference from an unpromising situation, yet there is plenty of evidence that an unsuccessful campaign before the World Cup is not all that relevant to a team's subsequent performance.

England preceded their 2003 World Cup victory with a Grand Slam yet they're very much the exception. It's interesting to note that while the All Blacks have won seven of the last nine Rugby Championships, formerly Tri Nations, the two they didn't win came in World Cup years. In 2011 and 2015 Australia won the title but New Zealand came up trumps in the bigger tournament.

The South African team which won the 2007 World Cup had actually finished bottom of the Tri Nations with just one win from four games and the Australian team which won the blue riband event in 1999 also failed to win the southern hemisphere competition.

Six Nations underperformance also doesn't seem to be a major harbinger of doom. The French team which lost the 2011 World Cup final by a point had been beaten by Italy earlier that year while the English side pipped by South Africa had suffered a 30-point thrashing by Ireland in Croke Park. France reached the 1999 final after a Wooden Spoon season in that year's Five Nations.

The reverse can also be true.

The Six Nations winning Irish team of 2015 wilted when the pressure came on against Argentina and the 2007 team which had bagged a national record 17 Six Nations tries only managed a combined four against Georgia, France and Argentina.

That's why Joe Schmidt probably won't worry too much about missing out on a fourth Six Nations title, though you imagine he would like to see Ireland finish with four wins on the trot. A final day visit to Cardiff, where we've lost three of our last four Six Nations matches, will provide a stern test of form before the countdown to Japan enters its final stage.

The performances of key individuals may bother the manager more than results. From this point of view the current travails of Conor Murray are probably the prime concern. This time last year Murray was the best scrumhalf in the world, but he's been a sadly diminished figure since the injury lay-off which saw him miss out on the end-of-season internationals.

It's natural for a player to take some time to recapture his very best form but the worrying thing about Murray's poor performances against England and Scotland was that his old appetite and energy seemed to be lacking. Ben Youngs and Greig Laidlaw both found themselves free to go about their business unmolested by a player whose ability to hound his opposite number is normally one of his defining characteristics.

Murray's kicking touch also seems to have deserted him at present, something which has been a major contributory factor to the chorus of criticism about Ireland's tactics. Executed properly, the box kick can be a torment to the opposition, botched and few things look more pointless. The scrumhalf's imprecision lays the team open to accusations of playing 'caveman rugby'.

You suspect Murray wasn't helped by the fuss made over his injury when all the secrecy created an unnecessary furore. His diatribe about rumour mongering also seemed a foolish step. Why give untrue rumours the oxygen of publicity by ventilating them in the media? Whoever advises the player on dealing with these matters isn't doing a very good job.

The failure to run his try against Scotland in under the posts, despite being urged to do so by Keith Earls, also added to the picture of a player whose head isn't entirely in the game at present. Yet such has been Murray's consistent level of excellence in the past it seems unthinkable he won't bounce back with a couple of big displays before the end of the Six Nations.

No player will be under the microscope to the same extent from here on in.

The Last Word: Poor management the cause of Cork's decline

Cork's humiliating defeat by Clare in Division 2 of the Allianz Football League shows that the county's most pressing problem is how badly its senior team has been managed over the past few years.

All the jargon-laden think-tank documents in the world won't change the fact that the Rebels should not be getting hammered by Clare (the epitome of a well-managed team getting the most out of themselves).

For all the talk of structural deficiencies, Cork have won five of the last seven Munster under 21 titles. Clare have never won one and haven't been in a final since 2002. It would be almost unthinkable for a team from the Banner to beat Cork at underage level.

Tomás Ó Sé's typically intelligent and forthright observations on Cork's decline were notable because, given his involvement with Nemo Rangers, he knows what the feeling is on the ground. They don't go in for 'Cork is only interested in hurling' talk in Nemo. Or down here in West Cork.

* * * * *

The three Bs were standards of ultimate excellence held up by my father when I was a kid in the 1970s. The Beatles were the best band ever, the Barbarians had scored the best try ever against the All Blacks in 1973 and the best save ever was the one made from Pele by Gordon Banks in 1970.

All subsequent bands, tries and saves were compared to those three touchstones and found wanting. It made me a bit frustrated at times but now I think the old boy was probably right. On hearing of Banks' death, few football fans of my generation didn't immediately in their mind's eye see him scoop Pele's header over the bar.

Banks also endeared himself to the Sweeney household when he appeared for St Pat's against the Johnny Giles-managed Shamrock Rovers in 1977. Pat's won 1-0 thanks to a classic Banks save in the final minutes. Even with just one good eye he remained a marvel.

* * * * *

All the fuss over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's achievements at Manchester United have to a certain extent obscured the remarkable few weeks enjoyed by his chief rival for the job, Mauricio Pochettino. After losing to United at Wembley, a Spurs side which then lost their two best players, Harry Kane and Dele Alli to injury, seemed set for decline.

Instead they've bounced back with four league wins on the trot to lie just five points behind Manchester City with a game in hand. And on Wednesday the patched up side gave perhaps the finest Champions League performance of the season when beating runaway Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund 3-0.

Considering that the Argentinian has had to cope with the loss of Spurs' home ground and a lack of money to strengthen his squad, his is probably the Premier League's finest managerial achievement so far this season. Nobody does it better.

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