Ireland in no position to raise a hue and cry over Rice’s call
For decades national team have benefitted from service of players born and bred in Britain
Declan Rice: has now chosen to play for the county of his birth. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Martin O’Neill might well have had a point when he suggested that making a senior appearance should decide a player’s international future.
But really, when it comes to the question of eligibility, we should show some self-awareness here: Ireland just might not be the best-placed nation to stand up and collectively cry: Enough!
The rules have probably reached the point they have now because of the North Africans with national associations in countries such as Algeria and Morocco anxious to capitalise on the number of second generation players who had been trained by European club academies.
Morocco certainly made the most of it this year in Russia where just five of their 23-man squad were born at home but Ireland blazed something of a trail under Jack Charlton who wasn’t one for attempting to gaze into a capable player’s soul.
Comfortably more than half the squad he took to Italy for the World Cup in 1990 were born in Britain and the notion that every one of them would have played for Ireland if somebody else had asked first seems, well, a little fanciful.
Andy Townsend, famously, cheered England on against Ireland when the two sides met in 1988 then played against the country of his birth in the rematch two years later. And a year after scoring in Stuttgart, Ray Houghton said he still didn’t feel “the slightest bit Irish”. Some others clearly did but in all honesty few fans seemed to care all that much while the party was in full swing.
English sniping about the FAI standing for “Find An Irishman,” always rang a little hollow and now seems completely laughable given their own recruitment policies across the codes but that is modern day sport for you.
Unless you can say, hand on heart, that you would rather lose with a team whose motives are beyond question you are going to sit at least a little uneasy on a high horse.
And even then, how would you start to police it?
Things were certainly more simple through the first few decades after 1922 when only players born on the island represented the Republic of Ireland but nobody is seriously suggesting that we get back to that (are they?) and the world is a rather more complicated place than it was in 1965 when Shay Brennan made his debut.
Since then, the FAI has developed a network of scouts whose main aim is to spot players who are eligible to declare for Ireland. Many, like Rice, are approached at an early age, quite a few accept the invitation and after a couple of caps a fair proportion are never heard of again. Had Rice gone the same way nobody would have given him a second thought.
There is clearly a cynicism about it all but the association here is only doing what most of its rivals also do and managers must play the game in order to ensure that they get the strongest team possible out on the pitch.
The process continues. A couple of weeks ago Ryan Johansson, a promising teenager at Bayern Munich who also qualifies for Luxembourg (where he was born) and Sweden declared for Ireland which he was able to do by virtue of his maternal grandparents.
“He’s played for all three countries, but the best experience he had was with Ireland,” explained his mother. The news was widely welcomed.
If he makes it through to the senior ranks he might seem a little exotic but he will not be so terribly out of place. Around 40 per cent of the players Martin O’Neill capped in the last World Cup qualifying campaign were British (not including Northern Ireland) born and Ciaran Clark captained various England underage sides before opting to change his allegiance.
Many are clearly committed while a good many more at least talk a good game when, as is the tradition, they are asked by the press about their connections after the first squad training session in which they participate. A few, though, sound unsure from the outset. That must surely rankle with an Irish-born player who plays in the same position but what is a manager to do?
O’Neill, for his part, clearly wanted Rice to play for him but also gave the impression that he was at least uncomfortable with the way things have gone. The 20-year-old has now equipped critics of the system with a handy example of how it can all be exploited by a player suddenly presented with an option he did not originally enjoy but the issue of identity is clearly complex and the rules have been drawn up at least in part to exploit that fact.
It should be no surprise then that the outcomes are not always going to please everyone.
Rice may well regret a few of the things he said after games he played in green but we should ask ourselves for a second what choice we actually left him with. If he is genuinely happy now to be playing for the country of his birth, we should just simply wish him well.