Thursday 24 October 2019

Roy Keane's training ground bust up and England's likability: Just when was Declan Rice's head turned?

Declan Rice and (inset) Roy Keane
Declan Rice and (inset) Roy Keane
Ger Keville

Ger Keville

At the end of May, England's social media strategy was beginning to take over Twitter timelines. Gareth Southgate's squad were embarking on a new venture away from lodgings once described as "five star prisons" and there was an active push to get fans and media onside.

This was a new England, far removed from the volatile days of the past.

In their pre-World Cup base in Repino there was a basketball court, driving simulator, PlayStations and a games room. There was a recovery pool where the players raced inflatable unicorns. The media engaged in darts tournaments against Southgate's squad.

This was the beginning of a pointed campaign that would lead to the country going all in with Southgate and his players. Football was coming home and for the first time in generations, it seemed the whole of England was right behind their team.

England had embraced modern society and media and the public bought it. What aspiring England player would not want this?

While the feel-good factor across the pond was ramping up, things were taking a different route back in Dublin.

We will probably never know exactly what happened on May 31 at the Irish training camp in Dublin as Martin O'Neill and his men prepared for a friendly two days later against the USA.

What we do know is that Roy Keane was embroiled in a heated row with firstly Jon Walters, and then Harry Arter.

One source told Independent.ie that Declan Rice was present as Keane vented his anger and the West Ham man was heard to question why he was even there.

Only Declan Rice knows if this had any bearing on his choice to switch international allegiance to England but the juxtaposition of the scenes at both England and Ireland's training camps is telling.

Prior to the Keane incident, there was a consistent narrative from Rice.

May 23, 2017 (After getting call up from Martin O'Neill): "To play on Sunday, to make my Premier League debut, something I've always wanted to do since I was a kid, and then to get the call from Martin [O'Neill] to say that I was going to come in and train... it's a dream come true.

"My family are so proud. I just wish my nan and granddad could be here to see it because they are from Cork and this training camp is in Cork, so it would have been lovely, but unfortunately they are not here."

March 20, 2018 (After winning Ireland U19 Player of the Year award): "There's no decision to be made. I have not had a call from the FA and England have never wanted me at under-age level - it's always been Ireland.

"I'm here with Ireland and I've been called up by Martin. I'm really looking forward to this week and I'm looking forward to getting to know the boys better.

"I'm fully focused on playing for Ireland. There's no decision to be made. If I didn't want to be playing for Ireland, I wouldn't be here.

"No (I wouldn't meet with Southgate), not at all. I'm fully focused on Ireland."

March 23, 2018 (After making debut against Turkey): "It (The Irish Anthem) brought a little bit of a tear to my eye singing it and (remembering) my nana and grandad. It was a special moment."

Nothing to see here, then.

But on June 4, five days after the much-talked about bust-up, Rice was a little more reserved.

"I just have to stay focused and play football with a smile on my face. I don't read too much into things and look at social media. It's all a load of crap. It's a question that keeps on being asked. But I'm just focused on playing and enjoying my football. There are two games in September and I'm looking forward to them."

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Rice pictured alongside former Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

And that was the last we heard from Rice speaking as an Ireland international. In the following days, he accepted an invitation to meet with Gareth Southgate and informed Martin O'Neill that he was considering his international future.

While we can't say with any certainty that the Keane incident had any hand in Rice's thinking, nor can we assume England's new-found likability turned his head, we can try and put the jigsaw together.

Rice swapped Irish jingoism for a St George's training ground rendezvous with Gareth Southgate and the rest is history.

Writing in today's Irish Daily Star, Eamon Dunphy pointed the finger of blame firmly at Martin O'Neill and alluded to the Keane row as a pivotal moment.

"Something happened last summer. He decided to take a break to have a long, hard look at his international future," wrote Dunphy.

"You'd have to question the nature of the set-up under O'Neill that led to that situation. Look at the stuff that came out about Harry Arter and Keane.

"I expect things to improve under Mick McCarthy but Rice's memory of Ireland is of Martin O'Neill's Ireland. This is O'Neill's legacy. The best Irish eligible player in 20 years opting for England."

Whatever the reasoning, this is one that will hurt Ireland fans. A serious talent and someone who quite obviously has a strong affinity to Ireland. But Rice did spend his childhood supporting England, despite his father's best efforts. And this is where the complex talking point on dual nationality arises.

Rice's father was not born in Ireland but was brought up in a part of London very much immersed in Irish culture. But London has changed and Rice's circumstances and upbringing in London was not the same as that of Kevin Kilbane, who has criticised Rice for wearing the Ireland jersey and defecting to England.

One thing that is certain, Ireland's loss is England's gain.

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