Hearing Irish anthem brought a tear to my eye - Declan Rice
O’Neill singles out teen for praise on debut as West Ham youngster impresses on emotional occasion
Martin O'Neill led the tributes to teenager Declan Rice after his man-of-the-match display in Ireland's defeat in Antalya last night.
The 19-year-old West Ham player was the shining light in a 1-0 defeat where the visitors again struggled to create chances and were undone by a set-piece. Those familiar failings frustrated O'Neill, but he was thrilled by the contribution of London-born Rice who justified the hype around his inclusion in the senior squad.
He firmly committed himself to a career with Ireland earlier this week and looked comfortable in defence in a 3-5-2 formation before adjusting to a midfield role later on, with skipper Seamus Coleman admitting that the other players could have "taken a leaf out of his book" in terms of his composed approach.
O'Neill sang from the same hymn sheet and highlighted how Rice's approach to the game illustrated the contrast between "decent" and "average" performers.
"I thought he did excellent in the game," said O'Neill. "He's getting accustomed to a number of positions and I thought it was a man-of-the-match performance, I thought he was excellent for us.
"Considering it's his debut and he's 19 years of age, it was an impressive performance from an impressive young man. He's been playing left-sided centre-half for West Ham (where he started the game) and I had no hesitation about putting him into midfield," continued O'Neill, who was impressed by how Rice drove forward with the ball at his feet - a quality he has looked for from other Irish midfielders.
"I've been urging it," said O'Neill. "I think it separates the average player from the decent player. If there's space to go into and you feel comfortable, you drive into it and things can open up. It's not just driving stupidly with it.
"Declan Rice made one run there, a super run and things opened up. As he gets more comfortable with the ball, he will sometimes go forward instead of going backwards.
"That's what I have been urging from senior players. I never think it's too late (for a player to learn that). Things can happen for you if you are trying to make things happen."
Rice admitted he felt tearful before the match as he sang the national anthem with his late grandparents from Cork in mind.
"If I'm honest, it brought a little bit of a tear to my eye singing it and (thinking of) my nana and granddad. It was a special moment," said Rice, who later posted a picture on Twitter with his father Sean who travelled over for the game.
"I thought I did well for only being 19 years old on the international scene, I was proud of myself.
"I'm composed and I'm a calm player. You're only out there for 90 minutes and you have to give it everything you've got. I've had good experiences with West Ham this year and I've tried to take that on to international level tonight."
Rice batted away questions about Reading's Liam Kelly after O'Neill said he turned down a call in order to keep his options open for England and reiterated there will be no change of heart on his future.
"At the moment, I'm fully focused on playing with Ireland," he said. Shane Duffy is sure that Rice will be around for the long haul.
"He's Irish," said the Derry man. "He loves it, he's played underage all the way through and he's happy and comfortable here. It is easy for him even though I know it was a friendly. And the more that he plays, the better it will be for Ireland. He looked like he'd been there for years."