Saturday 23 March 2019

Stephen Hunt: 'FAI and O'Neill set-up should shoulder some blame for Rice saga'

WALKING AWAY: Declan Rice leaves the pitch after the international friendly match between France and Ireland at Stade de France last May. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
WALKING AWAY: Declan Rice leaves the pitch after the international friendly match between France and Ireland at Stade de France last May. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Stephen Hunt

Declan Rice's decision to declare for England is a blow for the Republic of Ireland but all the blame cannot be put on the young footballer.

Rice is English. He was not brought up as an Irishman like former internationals such as Kevin Kilbane or Gary Breen, who were also born in England. If you are Irish, you are Irish and that's how they were brought up. It was obviously different in the Rice household.

The biggest disappointment is that he played with Ireland underage teams and then for the senior side three times and on each occasion he deprived a team-mate the opportunity to play or be on the bench for Ireland.

And there will be some kid in Ireland who hasn't made it, who would have given anything as a 14/15/16-year-old to play for his country and Declan Rice took his caps.

But I don't think Declan Rice takes all the blame here. Although his head was obviously turned and it frustrates me that he wasted time playing for Ireland and deprived other young players of the opportunities, perhaps the FAI and previous management team need to have a look at themselves and ask if they could have done more to secure Rice to the Ireland roster.

Rice was on the radar for a long time with Ireland and when I saw him play for the first time for West Ham reserves 18 months ago he was the best player on the pitch. We definitely missed an opportunity.

Rice is playing in a different environment now and unfortunately there is a lot more to consider than just turning up and playing for your country these days. And during his contract negotiations with West Ham last year, the subject of international football will have been raised, cranking up the pressure on him to declare for England.

That will have had a big part to play in his new, vastly improved contract which he signed just two months ago. It might never be admitted but of course his value to West Ham rises significantly as an England player. His earning power increases too. And that is exactly what he will have been told during those negotiations.

Rice is an asset and West Ham is a business. Realistically, a contract is based on appearances and goals for your club and/or country and it will be worth a whole lot more as an England international. Then, he can expect increases and bonuses once he has made his first competitive appearance for England, and so on after five, ten, 25, etc.

There are bound to be more financial incentives for a young talented English player who is playing regularly at the top level.

Yet, Rice does not need to hurry. He's on a very good deal now, earning more than 10 times the £3,000 a week he was on last year. It is hard enough for Irish players to make that leap and play but it is just as difficult for young English players to get games in the top sides. There are not that many playing every week, which is why young English players like Chelsea teenager Callum Hudson-Odoi are looking at countries like Germany, where Jadon Sancho is already making a name for himself with Borussia Dortmund.

A talented young player like Harry Winks is not guaranteed to play every week for Tottenham but he could be an England regular under Gareth Southgate. Rice is guaranteed to play for West Ham and you can't see him being taken out of the team at the moment.

Who knows how many times Rice will play for England. I think we can all see based on his early performances that he could have gone on to win as many as 100 caps for Ireland.

He is certainly capable of playing for one of the top sides and I would not be surprised to see Manchester United trying to sign him in the summer. There are many similarities with Rio Ferdinand, who also played in midfield in the early part of his career before going back into central defence. Rice can be animalistic but brilliant on the ball, like Virgil van Dijk or John Stones.

Alex Ferguson bought Ferdinand for £30m because he was one of the best defenders on the market and as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to be a mini-Fergie at Old Trafford, I think he might be tempted to bid for a similar player.

As for Mick and Ireland, Rice's defection leaves a big space in the defensive role of the Ireland midfield. Knowing Mick, once he heard of the decision, he will have moved on immediately. If you are not on board with Mick McCarthy he very quickly gets over it but it is still a huge blow.

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