The West Ham midfielder is set for a long, successful international career with England despite winning underage and non-competitive caps for Ireland
The reaction in Ireland to Declan Rice’s switch of international allegiance to England has not – broadly speaking – been sympathetic.
Having won three friendly caps in green, the feeling goes, the 19-year-old’s future should have been certain.
If he had no intention of playing for Ireland for the long term, then Rice, who could make his England debut in Friday night’s Euro 2020 qualifier against the Czech Republic, shouldn’t have cheapened the honour of being handed a shirt.
However, as long as the eligibility rules are what they are, then players like Rice are entitled to do as they please.
Make no mistake, Ireland’s senior team has benefitted from similar switches. Current internationals like Ciaran Clark and Callum Robinson, and former players like Dean Kiely, Andy O’Brien and Steven Reid, all represented England at one level or another before winning senior caps for Ireland.
That’s to say nothing of the legions of England-born players who have worn the green shirt with distinction without ever coming onto the England radar.
The Football Association of Ireland has a scouting team on the ground in the UK – led by Mark O’Toole, who Rice once described as a “father figure”. For an island with a population of only around 6.6 million people, it makes some kind of sense.
Ireland had – and still has – a large emigrant population. The first port of call for many leaving are the big cities of the UK – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and more. Naturally, as roots are put down and families started, potential footballers will be born.
Patriotism, nationhood, whatever you want to call it, varies from generation to generation, community to community, house to house, person to person. How “Irish” someone feels can only be guessed at in the main and at the end of the day is a personal thing.
The fact remains though that not many of those England-born players who played for Ireland would have had the same kind of international career for England.
England might have missed out on players who would have gained a few caps here and there but, for the large part, they were players England were not heartbroken to lose and Ireland happy to gain.
Until now. Or, more accurately, until Jack Grealish.
Three years ago, the Aston Villa playmaker found himself in similar circumstances to Rice. He – like Rice – was England-born of Irish extraction. He – like Rice – had been an Ireland player since his mid-teens. He – like Rice – had been called into the senior squad only to withdraw. He – like Rice – had the distraction of a new long-term contract in front of him at his club. He – like Rice – had been named the Irish Under-21 player of the year. He – like Rice – might have been playing in green but was very much coming onto the English radar. He – like Rice – switched.
Grealish has since played for the England Under-21s and, if he proves himself in the Premier League, could well go on to have a 50-cap international career. And who would begrudge him that?
It should not be regarded as opportunistic or traitorous for young players to be involved with one national association before committing to another. There is plenty for a young player to learn by being involved in international football. There are different ways of working, overseas trips, and – crucially – minutes on the field that they would not otherwise have. Playing time is the most important thing and any young player is entitled to benefit.
Development being what it is, a player might not come into the international reckoning until he’s 17, 18 or even later. In Rice’s case – having been let go by Chelsea at the age of 14 – he was not seen as one of the great coming talents of English football. But now he is and is free to alter his plans. If we all had to live and die by the decisions we made when we were 15, the world would be a very different place. Indeed, Rice’s recently resurfaced social media posts illustrate the folly of youth.
Like it or not, that is the game Ireland are playing. If you are recruiting English boys, don’t be surprised that they grow up and want to play for England.
Once upon a time, the arrangement did not provoke much consternation on the English side of the Irish Sea. Ireland’s scouts and management would come over and take a look at Irish boys born in England who wanted to be considered for the homeland or those who were eligible to do so but had not troubled the England scouts.
But the FAI – in an attempt to stock its youth sectors with academy-trained boys – is no longer only looking for those ones not on the England radar. It’s coming for the prime talents.
Ireland has long since outsourced its youth development to England. There is no real, co-ordinated, standardised player production path to speak of in Ireland. That might change once Niall Quinn’s ambitious plans get off the ground but, for now, that assertion holds.
It works like this. If a player is good enough to attract the attention of an English club scout, he will be sent over at the age of 15 or 16. If it works out, he will stay, if not, he will come home.
This was a successful formula when first-team opportunities were more readily available for Irish talents. It would have been no surprise 15-20 years ago to see plenty of Irish players both in the youth sectors of most of the UK’s top clubs and their starting XIs. But those days are gone.
Irish boys are increasingly having to fight their way through against the best young talent the world can offer and their older counterparts are up against the same kind of challenge.
In most cases, players are having to drop down or return to Ireland to get minutes on the pitch. While much has been made of the plummeting rate of English players in the Premier League, the same applies to Irish ones too. And, as fewer and fewer make it through, this has a knock-on effect on the calibre of the national team.
Once upon a time you might have seen an Ireland team with multiple Premier League captains in it – Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane, Roy Keane, Stephen Carr and more playing for the best clubs – Damien Duff, John O’Shea, Steve Finnan and Ian Harte for example. Those are talents who had the benefit of a finishing school of sorts in a Premier League club.
Those opportunities are receding as the standard of the top division has risen. So, Ireland are caught in a negative spiral. If they want players who are featuring for English clubs, the logic goes, they are going to have to go after them when they are young.
But, as time goes on, there will be more, not fewer, cases like Grealish and Rice. Michael Obafemi – Dublin born and in the Southampton first-team picture – is a rare victory. He has thrown his lot in with the land of his birth despite the temptation of declaring for England, where he was raised.
Without a means of player production in Ireland the situation will not change. When you look at Iceland – with a population around five per cent of the island of Ireland – you can see just how far behind Ireland have got.
While the competition for participants provided by Gaelic football and now rugby will always move athletes away from football, there has got to be a way to retain, train and develop talents inside the Irish borders.
Without it, then expect history to repeat itself. But don’t blame Grealish or Rice. They are just doing what’s best for their development.