Sunday 22 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: Declan Rice has the ingredients for big future in green after Turkey debut

Declan Rice (10) and Daryl Horgan salute one another after the Republic of Ireland’s friendly defeat by Turkey in Antalya on Friday evening. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Declan Rice (10) and Daryl Horgan salute one another after the Republic of Ireland’s friendly defeat by Turkey in Antalya on Friday evening. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When I heard the news earlier this week that Declan Rice and Liam Kelly had declared their international intentions, I was full of admiration for the pair of them, even if it was for different reasons.

Rice is going to be an Ireland international for many years to come, judging by his assured performances so far for West Ham and his man-of-the-match debut against Turkey on Friday night. He will have at least a couple of major tournaments in him.

We are lucky to have him and it was a real joy to see the big smile on his face before the game and his tweets with his dad afterwards. He looked at home and he looked like he really enjoyed himself and that he is really pleased he has made it this far in his career. But you know he knows this is just the beginning and there is so much more to come.

It is no surprise to me that he has advanced to the Ireland senior set-up so quickly having first seen him playing for West Ham Under 23s against Wolves at Molineux last season.

He is a Rio Ferdinand-style defender who reads every situation so easily and is quite elegant in possession.

And I loved the fact he wore the Number 10 shirt and played in a defensive position. He might be too young to remember Ruud Gullit playing as the sweeper with the same number for Holland but it would be interesting to see him playing in that central role.

Liam Kelly is a very tidy footballer, which is why Martin O'Neill picked him in his initial squad and it seems to come down to communication between the manager and some of the players he is picking. Kelly qualifies through his Irish grandparents, so why has he not been asked if he really wants to play for Ireland? Some lads, like Kevin Kilbane, are Irish, and they know they always wanted to play for Ireland, no argument. Others might need some persuading. Or just some reassurance that they are making the right decision.

If I was manager, I would be sitting down with players and looking them in the eye and asking if they really want to play for Ireland. I wouldn't need anything in writing, but at least I would have some indication. Even then, I would be telling the player what Mick McCarthy told me: "There is no guarantee I will pick you, but if you play well, you'll stay in the team". And Mick would probably say the same to Lionel Messi.

I do not like the idea of English-born players abusing the system and playing for Ireland's youth teams and then opting out when they are getting games. But it happens. If Liam Kelly has decided to play for England now, I do admire him for that. If that is his decision.

If he is keeping his options open, I would suggest he closes them as soon as possible, because the longer he leaves it, the more difficult it will be for him to be accepted by the squad and the Irish public.

Rice's superb debut is the exception to the rule. Very rarely do players come in and absolutely take the international stage by storm, they need time to bed in and get used to the surroundings and that was the key to Friday and the rest of the week.

The team selection was good, and the right call, and it was great to see the likes of Conor Hourihane, Alan Browne, Seani Maguire, Kevin Long and Scott Hogan get a run-out.

Hogan missed a good chance and he will be disappointed but I would not worry about that, he will get others. And of course it's great to see Seamus Coleman back. Bad timing for Matt Doherty, but great for everyone else!

The result and performance don't really matter because this is a new formation and personnel and the onus is on being prepared, for the Nations League in September. I know Martin will have wanted a decent performance and Roy Keane wants to win every game but from a coaching point of view it is about bedding the new players in and getting them comfortable in the whole international arena ahead of the competitive games.

And he will have to get them switched on for the new competition because, let's be honest, none of these boys grew up dreaming about playing in the Nations League one day. It has no history. Right now, it is a Mickey Mouse competition which is an excuse to get bums on seats and for international managers to find a cheap way to motivate players.

You should not need that, I certainly didn't playing in any Ireland game. But some players do and sometimes it is very difficult to get out of the mentality that the game for your club on Saturday is more important than international matches, especially at this time of year.

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