Sunday 15 September 2019

Noel King knows Declan Rice's U-21 return could also be a farewell

New status means Tallaght test might be end of star's Euros tilt

Declan Rice during training in Tallaght last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Rice during training in Tallaght last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

On Friday evening, Noel King and the Ireland U-21 squad went out for a meal to watch the senior side's friendly with Turkey.

It was a game that lifted the spirits of the group with Declan Rice's starring display setting the example for his peers.

And there was a buzz around their base at Dunboyne Castle when Rice and 'keeper Kieran O'Hara arrived back from their week away with Martin O'Neill's side to prepare for tonight's U-21 European Championship qualifier with Azerbaijan at Tallaght Stadium.

The presence of man of the moment Rice should put a few extra bums on seats, but the reality is that Friday's display might come at a cost to King's team.

They are second in Group 5 at the midway point and with play-off places available to the four best runners-up, they are dreaming of a place in next year's finals even if they can't overhaul group leaders Germany.

However, it's entirely likely that tonight will be Rice's final game at this level because he will surely be required for senior service.

King accepts that this is part of the job. The likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff effectively bypassed U-21 level completely, so at least the 19-year-old did get to positively contribute to this campaign.

He was first out for training last night and in good heart as he linked back up with a group that had enjoyed an impressive friendly win over Iceland at Tallaght on Thursday.

"They were all chuffed he got man of the match," said King. "And they've settled back into the usual routine of U-21s.

"I think the other players now know there is door for them to push through and the more often they play for us, and the better they play for us, the better chance they have."

But what if this is the end for Rice in this sphere?


"It's a split role," says King. "They all want to play for the senior team. We'd be delighted for Declan and it will mean an opportunity for somebody else, that's the way the players will look at it.

"I've no negative thoughts towards it. If he (O'Neill) takes him then it's up to us to try our very best to replace him.

"It's a little bit like a bus terminus. The bus comes in and gets itself sorted out in the U-21 depot and whoever is ready goes on out and whoever isn't stays in the depot that bit onger.

"Everybody here wants to try and win and they all want to improve to senior international level, that's the dynamic.

"It shows to these lads that it's not unattainable. It's great that the door is there, and if it makes them work harder and play better then great.

"He (Rice) is great, you just see him buzzing around the place," continued King, hailing the work ethic of the West Ham player who was first invited to train with the U-21 squad in 2016.

"They're all the same, they're far from children now. They are young adults now, and a very focused group. They manage each other and look out for each other. That's why I say they were very happy for Declan and Kieran to be involved."

King is hopeful that the public will respond to the increased interest in Rice by bulking up the attendance.

Tickets are priced at just €5 for adults with kids and OAPs free to attend. FAI season ticket holders and Shamrock Rovers season ticket holders can also go for free.

"If I was a football fan, I would bring my kid up here," he said. "I'd come up and watch and see what all the hullabaloo is about. It would be the best fiver that anyone interested in football could spend."

King went beyond Rice in making that pitch. Manchester United back-up 'keeper O'Hara and another well-regarded West Ham talent, Josh Cullen, also got a mention.

They were all produced across the water, but home-grown talents Ryan Manning and Ronan Curtis are also well regarded by management.

Manning started his career at Galway United before joining QPR and he's broken back into their side in recent weeks with a vital goal at Aston Villa announcing his return following a sticky patch.

Curtis is a Derry City player that turned down a move to Europa League revelations Ostersunds last summer.

"A lot of the players that playing men's football," said King. "We have a good variation.

"This will be our sixth game and hopefully if we can get a great win, that will give us momentum with four games to go - albeit with two against Germany. But if you don't believe, what's the point?

"This is a good bunch. Ryan has come in great heart and is an experienced fella for his age. He's a joy to watch, an excellent player.

"Ronan Curtis has played every game for us. I think he's a very exciting player, very strong and direct with a great attitude but I don't like naming names.

"This is a group, a good dedicated group and I just hope they get what they want, I really do."

Irish Independent

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