‘Crazy’ idea to cap Declan Rice against Moldova, says O'Neill
Manager says he respects James McClean's poppy stance and feels some sympathy
Declan Rice could have been committed to Ireland if he had come on against Moldova in the 2018 World Cup qualifier. Photo: Inpho
When he says he is still “hopeful” that Declan Rice will ultimately declare for Ireland, he sounds a good deal less hopeful than before but Martin O’Neill insists that he does not accept that the 19-year-old’s international future is a done deal and he dismisses the notion he might have prevented it from ever being a matter for negotiation.
O’Neill says he expects Rice to make an announcement on his future before the end of the year and suggests that, having been in regular contact with the player’s father, he will, if he can, meet the West Ham teenager again before then.
But he described as “kind of crazy” the idea, previously voiced by critics, that he could have brought the teenager on late in a competitive game Ireland was likely to win – like the home one against Moldova towards the end of the last qualification campaign – in order to put the matter to rest before England’s interest had been piqued by his subsequent form in the Premier League.
“It had not entered my head that I should be thinking of capping someone for something further down the line,” he said as he named his squad on Tuesday for the games against Northern Ireland and Denmark later this month.
“My job is to try to win some football matches and be competitive. The players coming through will eventually, hopefully, pick themselves. So [to play him then against] Moldova, before we played Wales, where we were desperate to win the game? It is kind of crazy.
“You have to merit getting into the side for a start. I have no qualms on that whatsoever. I would end up capping 15-year-olds in competitive football just so they will play for Ireland for the next 15 years.”
And had he tried, O’Neill continued; “I think he would have been aware of it and may well have said: ‘Well, if I go on here I’m making a choice’. I couldn’t have just sneaked him on to the pitch.
“He might have thought: ‘By the way, I don’t want to be included here at all because it might affect me,’ and I think Declan must have had these thoughts in his head for some time.”
O’Neill declined to criticise either his England counterpart Gareth Southgate or Rice for their parts in the process with O’Neill suggesting it was natural to take the player to St George’s Park and, once they had him there, to talk to him about how he might fit into a future England team just as it was natural for the player to want to weigh every aspect of the situation up.
“I don’t think, in all honesty, that Gareth has gone and promised him the earth at the end of the day,” he said before adding that from the player’s perspective there is a commercial side of things to ponder and the likelihood that he might, as long as he is selected, get to more major championships. “Let’s be fair, historically speaking, that would be the case. So there are those things to consider.”
Asked if it is naive to believe that a decision like this should really be made solely on grounds of emotional attachment or belonging, he said: “I don’t want to use the word naive but if you think that’s something of a disappointment to people of our age well then that’s the nature of the game.”
He expressed some empathy for James McClean after the abuse the Derry man had received while playing for Stoke City at the weekend while declining to be drawn on the “poppy” issue itself and sounding, not for the first time, as though he felt the player’s willingness to fight his corner on social media platforms is a little unwise.
“I’ll sit down and have a conversation with him [but] it is something that James has a strong view on and I think his view should be respected,” said O’Neill, who has worn a poppy himself when working as a pundit on British television but specifically declined to answer a question on his view of the issue here.
“If this game was up north and he was going to be subjected to whatever he might be,” he said, “then at the end of the day I would certainly have a look at that”.
He subsequently reflected on how warmly he remembers his overall experience of playing for Northern Ireland but admitted that he took some flak from a hostile crowd at home games in the early days.
“I had nothing but really great times but I had to battle through those early days there, tough matches, the crowd not accepting you at Windsor Park. But you battle through that, you come through it and it was great.”