Declan Rice deserves time to decide on international future
Deliberating over who to represent becoming more normal in international football
Ireland’s Declan Rice waves to the crowd after his appearance against the USA. He may soon become ‘England’s Declan Rice’. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
One of Kevin Kilbane’s many strengths as a commentator on club and international football is the particular effort he seems to make to see things from a participant’s point of view. He can come across sometimes as fair to a fault and so his reaction to the news that Declan Rice had asked for more time to consider his international future somehow came across as uncharacteristically harsh.
Kilbane knows far better than most what the 19 year-old is going through but tweeted: “I’d rather be ranked 150th in the world and never qualify again than have someone who has played, but needs time to THINK whether they should play for us again.” He had, he said, known at 10 who he wanted to play for. Rice, it seems, has not yet figured it out.
We cannot be entirely sure whether the rising West Ham star is in emotional turmoil at the thought of passing up the chance of ever playing for the country of his birth or simply under bit of pressure to weigh up once more the professional pros and cons of having a late change of heart.
The London-born teenager switched agent during the summer in the midst of contract negotiations with his club and the soaring stock of several of the England side that reached the World Cup semi-finals would certainly have given the new Mr 10 per cent something to point to when they came to discuss maximising his value.
Somewhat inevitably, Rice came in for a bit of stick on social media after his decision, or lack of it, had been revealed by Martin O’Neill and the tone of much of it was unfair. He is a young man, most likely being pulled hard in a couple of different directions, and he is entitled - in every way - to take a little time out before finalising the commitment. That said, the stuff about having tears in his eyes as Amhrán na bhFiann was played in Antalya back in March does sound just a little foolish right now.
O’Neill, for his part, has been circumspect about it all. He has been most of the way down this road before - with Jack Grealish - and knows it is an increasingly significant part of the international game. There were many others aside from Kilbane who would have had him drop Rice completely in the wake of this bout of indecision but his employers would probably not be so keen.
Rice was the eighth player not born on the island of Ireland to be given his international debut by the northerner - Derrick Williams subsequently made it nine from 23 - and in all there have been 91 since Manchester-born Shay Brennan became the first back in 1965.
During the 80s and 90s just about exactly half of the players making their senior Irish debuts would have been born in Britain. Many, like Kilbane, would have been firm about their sense of identity, but a few probably didn’t give the matter much of a second thought because they felt there was no choice to be made and Andy Townsend - one of five other English born players to feature in Reykjavik the day Kilbane made his debut - famously rooted for England in ‘88 when he watched their game against Jack Charlton’s side in a bar and then played for Ireland two years later when the two nations met again in Cagliari.
Back at the very first World Cup in 1930, virtually all of the 241 player that participated were born within the borders of the countries they were represented and most of the exception were down to the shifting nature of European borders back then. An extreme example of the point we have reached now was provided this summer Morocco with only six of the squad that went to Russia having actually been born in the country.
Eight had played underage football for other countries with one having been born in France and played for Portugal up right until under-23 level before first representing the North African nation. Whether or not this devalued the experience for some supporters back home is not clear but our own experience would suggest that it is unlikely.
Rice, like so many others, is playing by the rules and until somebody invents a machine to look into his heart and see what it says there, we should probably give him the benefit of the doubt by accepting he has a tough decision to make. And whenever any of the kids brought up here by African parents opt to declare for their homeland we should remember the eloquence with which Kilbane, Mick McCarthy and others have described their own journeys of self-identification while growing up in an Irish family in an English town.
It is complicated stuff which could be made more simple, but we should be prepared to pay the price for allowing people to make their own choices.