Saturday 21 April 2018

'This is only the start. It could end very quick'

Rice insists he won’t get carried away by fine debut

Declan Rice after Ireland’s U-21 European Championship qualifier win over Azerbaijan. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Rice after Ireland’s U-21 European Championship qualifier win over Azerbaijan. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There have been moments in a headspinning week for Declan Rice that have provided a sudden reminder of his new status.

He cites a trip into a newsagent over the weekend to buy a drink when he picked up a newspaper and flicked to the back page to find his image staring back at him.

"I had to put it down quickly," he says, with a smile. "It's nice to get the recognition and it gives me confidence. But if I wasn't playing well, I would be criticised. That's how football goes."

Rice was speaking in Tallaght Stadium late on Tuesday evening, relieved by the late winner for the Ireland U-21 side against Azerbaijan.

He is one of the last out of the dressing-room, and is greeted with a hug from his father Sean, who is there with the FAI's scout Mark O'Toole, the man who spotted Rice's talent as a teenager and sussed out the Irish connection.

Noel King's U-21 side is heavily sprinkled with players that were recruited by O'Toole and most players who emerged stopped to embrace the scout warmly.

The grey-haired man in the FAI anorak was present with members of his family, and Rice was introduced to them. It's already likely that the recruitment of the West Ham talent will go down as O'Toole's finest achievement.

Comfortable

The player seems remarkably comfortable with the new attention that is coming his way, even if some aspects of it might have come as a surprise.

He points to his support network when asked about maintaining a level-headed attitude in a profession where youths can lose the run of themselves.

"I think it's the people around me that help," he said. "My family, my dad, my coaches. I'm training with some top players like (Mark) Noble and (James) Collins and I think if I did let myself slip, they'd be onto me straight away.

"But it's not in my nature to be big-headed. This is only the start and it could end very quick so I've got to keep on top of my game and keep performing every week."

Still, Martin O'Neill has pointed out that while Rice has a certain shyness, he's also able to speak his mind too. His confidence is impressive, and it's clear that he felt entirely comfortable in senior company during his week.

There was curiosity at the U-21 base in Dunboyne when he came back from his man-of-the-match display in Antalya. The other players wanted to know about training, and Rice's message was that plenty of King's group would be well able to handle that progression.

The positive aspect of the slog against Azerbaijan was the understanding between Rice and his West Ham colleague Josh Cullen, with Galway lad Ryan Manning also impressing in a technically assured midfield three.

"We've a lot of quality in this side," says Rice. "When I came back, they've asked how training was and I said 'A lot of you could make the step up.' There's some lads in this team here... some of the lads in the first team haven't got their qualities.

"Josh could easily make the step up, Manning. (Ryan) Sweeney. When I went away (to Turkey) I think there were 16 out of the 24 lads that came through the U-21s and that shows the pathway that's there. Martin and Roy (Keane) are giving the opportunities, which is what every young boy wants to have."

However, the autumn could be complicated for Rice and he did slightly manage to contradict himself by looking ahead to both the climax of the U-21 campaign and the start of the UEFA Nations League in successive answers. It will be hard for him to manage both, although there is a possibility that some kind of compromise can be thrashed out.

Rice is clearly very settled in the U-21 group and is conscious that Ireland have never qualified for a European Championship at that level. They are three points behind Germany with a game in hand and four matches left in their group.

That includes two games with the Germans, the first of which is in Tallaght on September 11. O'Neill's Ireland play a friendly in Poland on the same night, the second part of a double-header which begins with the Nations League opener away to Wales on September 6.

Misses

The U-21 side play away in Kosovo a day later and a situation where Rice misses that game but then returns for the German encounter is not exactly implausible. He certainly feels Ireland can compete for top spot.

"Germany haven't had the best of results," he said. "We've just said in there, we should be thinking 'Why are we going to sit back? We need to take it to them?' They've drawn away to Kosovo. We've beaten Kosovo (at home).

"We've got a double-header next, Kosovo and Germany and if we can at least get a draw and a win or two wins, then that's going to leave us in good stead and put us at the top."

Much as he savoured the Turkey experience, he was glad to get back into King's dressing-room.

"I wish I was meeting up with them again next week," he continued. "They're all top lads and to get away with them after not seeing them for a while, they were spot on with me and congratulating me and that's what I like about every one of them."

When will he see them again? That is another question entirely. Either way, he feels that Ireland supporters should look to the future with optimism.

"Martin and Roy brought a lot of other young players in and that's what the Ireland fans want to see," he said.

"Obviously the Turkey game didn't go to plan but I think we're going to start pushing forward for the start of the Nations League in September, we're going to be ready for that."

And, one assumes, the back-page attention that will come with the territory.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport