Friday 19 July 2019

Rice saga highlights full extent of Irish desperation

Declan Rice celebrates for Ireland. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Declan Rice celebrates for Ireland. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Daniel Mcdonnell

He likes us. He likes us not.

This is Irish international football in 2018. Clutching to the hope that a teenager's use of a mobile phone can provide us with pointers to his future.

Ireland squad announcements have long ceased to be about the squad. They are about who isn't in the squad.

The Jack Grealish saga was the warm-up for the Declan Rice debacle and, no matter what way you look at it, the handwringing has exposed the FAI's desperation to retain the services of the 19-year-old.

What we really lack in the squad is rising home-grown stars that could positively occupy hearts and minds.

Martin O'Neill probably felt he had handled the situation quite well yesterday as he spent the guts of an hour stating that he was still "hopeful" Rice would stay put while trying to diplomatically field queries about the various influences in the man of the moment's life.

However, just as he was doing that, Sky Sports were definitively announcing that the player would be declaring for England and was about to start processing the paperwork.

Phone calls were made and O'Neill emerged to say that Sky would be altering their story - which they did later in the day - and that he was "surprised" by the Sky report.

Understandably so, as he was just after speaking about the reasons that he has not given up on Rice - most notably the revelation that members of his extended family have come back around to Ireland after leaning towards England initially. O'Neill suggested it was a tight-knit clan so this might be significant.

Was he sold a pup? As the question hung in the air, Rice pressed like on a social media message from the FAI which carried the quote from O'Neill saying the player had requested more time because he remained torn.

Maybe this was validation. Maybe his finger slipped. He later undid the action - perhaps conscious of the attention it had drawn. Analysing this activity is what we've been reduced to and it really doesn't say much for any of the parties involved.

The mature response to Rice's position might be to say that he needs to be given as much time and space as possible to make a decision. But that requires all of the actors in his life being on the same page; the media across the water are picking up positive messages from somewhere.

It's clear O'Neill believes that a change of agent and the contract situation at West Ham is a major factor in the impasse.

The teenager and his father, Sean, were apparently "at pains" to let the Irish manager know that Rice's presence for Roy Keane's row with Harry Arter was not a factor.

It suits O'Neill to get that out there, but the most plausible reason for the delay has always been the pull of England actually wanting him.

For a London lad with English-born parents - a childhood Chelsea fan who has cited John Terry as a mentor - that is hardly surprising. Still, Irish team-mates and coaches have spoken about how his commitment to Ireland felt real. The problem now is that the credit in the bank is being eroded.

At this stage, a decision sooner rather than later is what Irish football needs. The longer this drags on, the more fractious it is becoming.

Cork City's Karl Sheppard - a former Irish underage international - has been vocal on the issue of allowing players to pick and choose and deliberate over an honour that others would die for.

"Not only have Ireland been left with pie on their face but the underage rules need changing now," he wrote yesterday. "We need to stop training kids for the FA. Train & play our own."

That really is the key issue here. Even without the ineligible Rice, Gareth Southgate was able to name a squad yesterday which contained just one player born before 1990 - and that was back-up goalkeeper Alex McCarthy who was born in December 1989.

Optimism

A full-strength Ireland team would still be made up primarily of lads born in the eighties.

There is some optimism about the next generation down coming through the ranks and the current U-17 squad contains just one player born outside of the country.

But the profile has been similar at that level in the past so it would be premature to declare that happier times are around the corner.

This island's history is wrapped up with emigration and we cannot dismiss what the children of the diaspora have to offer.

In an ideal world, that avenue would function as a source for bonus options to add to what the production line at home has churned out.

Rice looks like a special talent and it could be argued that he's worth the hassle. But this really should function as the fork in the road.

Irish Independent

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