Ken Early: Footballers aren’t patriots, they just play matches
Most players declare for Ireland through convenience, not a deep love for the country
Declan Rice may just have decided he didn’t fancy the Ireland setup. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Sometimes you waste time worrying about the wrong things. Back in 2011 Roy Keane gave an interview to Cork’s LifeFM 93.1, in which he sketched out a dark vision for the future of the Irish national team.
At the time Giovanni Trapattoni was trying out English-born players like Simon Cox and Paul Green and Keane feared this would become a defining trend. “Eventually it’s going to be ‘spot the Irishman’ on the pitch,” he said. “I know we have to be open-minded over which players are eligible to play for Ireland, but now it’s getting a bit silly. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be claiming to be Irish.”
It turns out that every Tom, Dick and Harry doesn’t find the prospect of playing for Ireland quite as irresistible as Keane seemed to think they would. On the contrary, everyone lucky enough to have the option of playing for somebody else appears to be bailing out.
It’s not surprising that many Irish fans reacted angrily to Declan Rice’s decision not to join up with the Ireland squad for the Nations League match against Wales later this week. Rejection hurts. Kevin Kilbane went as far as to say that he would rather not have Rice return to the squad, since no potential Ireland player should be thinking twice about whether they want to play for Ireland. James McClean, who yields to nobody in his love of Ireland and doesn’t care who knows it, agreed with Kilbane on Twitter and added: “Playing for your country should be an honour and a proud moment.”
In nearly every case they ended up playing for Ireland simply because Ireland offered them a cap before anyone else did
Kilbane and McClean’s patriotism may be admirable and it certainly goes down well with elements of the Irish support, but it’s also far from typical for professional players. If you think about some of the outstanding UK-born players who have represented Ireland, you will find that almost none of them share Kilbane’s story of growing up dreaming about pulling on the famous green jersey. Most of them never even considered it until the moment they took a call from a representative of the FAI. In nearly every case they ended up playing for Ireland simply because Ireland offered them a cap before anyone else did.
Kevin Sheedy even went so far as to call the Welsh FA to let them know that the FAI had been in touch – maybe Wales would like to call him up first? Wales weren’t interested, so Sheedy went on to play 46 times for Ireland and score the country’s first-ever goal at the World Cup finals. Ray Houghton ended up playing for Ireland because Jack Charlton had travelled to Oxford United to ask John Aldridge if he might be interested in joining up, and in the process discovered that Houghton’s father was from Donegal.
Steve Heighway made his first appearance for Ireland less than a month after he played his first game for Liverpool and long before England could have been expected to notice his existence. Mark Lawrenson won his first Ireland cap aged 19, when he was still playing for Preston in the old Third Division. If England had been interested, who knows what the young Lawrenson’s decision would have been – but England don’t cap many players from Third Division clubs.
A lot of the Irish reaction to Declan Rice’s apparent U-turn has focused on issues to do with his character
The fact is that many of the most popular and most talented players ever to represent Ireland never had any interest in doing so until the opportunity suddenly arose. They didn’t choose Ireland because they felt a yearning deep within their souls. They wanted to develop their careers, and international football with Ireland looked like the best way of doing so at the time.
But this is not to say that playing for Ireland was a purely careerist transaction, devoid of emotional meaning. In Ireland we know better than most that a player doesn’t need to sing the national anthem, or even to have any idea of what the words mean, to care deeply about playing for the team.
The truth is that footballers don’t need to be patriots to care about winning matches with their national teams, any more than they need to have supported their club sides as children to care about winning matches for them. Take for example the ultra-Irishman, McClean. It probably means more to him to play for Ireland than to play for Stoke City. But what difference does that make in practice? Does it mean that he tries harder in the green shirt than he does in the red and white? Good players always want to win and it doesn’t really matter what shirt they are wearing. They don’t really play for the country, or for the club crest. Those are just abstract entities. They play for the team.
A lot of the Irish reaction to Declan Rice’s apparent U-turn has focused on issues to do with his character: how dare he, when people would give their right arm to wear that jersey; how could any Irishman even consider switching to play for England; how could he kiss the badge and then pull out of the squad? Maybe he cares too much about money, maybe he is too easily swayed by his agent. If this is the sort of person he is, maybe he’s not the sort of person we want in our team, etc.
It might be more productive to ponder the meaning of an uncomfortable fact: Rice has had a good look at the Irish international set-up and apparently decided that he’s not so sure he wants to be a part of it. It looks as though players have stopped thinking of playing for the Irish team as a good career move. If so, our problems are much bigger than the loss of Declan Rice.