Should we be blaming Martin O’Neill more for the Declan Rice saga?

We’ve discussed the morals and ethics of Declan Rice switching allegiance but have we overlooked Martin O’Neill’s role in his decision?

It’s needless to say that Martin O’Neill’s reign as Irish manager was a rollercoaster.

Iconic results against Germany, Bosnia, Sweden, Italy, Austria and Wales were quickly tarnished by the notorious World Cup qualifier at home to Denmark.

When you remember moments like Shane Long’s goal to beat Germany, Robbie Brady’s late header in Lille or James McClean stunning Wales in Cardiff to clinch a World Cup qualifying spot, there’s no way a player in the Irish youth setup wouldn’t relish being part of that team.

Ireland were turning into the type of underdogs in international football that nobody would want to come up against.

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O’Neill’s luck ran out after a Christian Eriksen hat-trick helped Denmark to the World Cup through a 1-5 hammering at the Aviva and it was all downhill from there.

Despite this, John Delaney still gave O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane a two-year extension for the Euro 2020 campaign.

Not only did O’Neill and Keane fail to recover from the the Denmark disaster, 2018 was a toxic year for Irish football.

The only silver lining was the termination of the management teams contracts in November.

John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy all decided to hang up their boots instead of staying on for another campaign.

A loss of such characters all at once might not have helped O’Neill but it did present a great chance to explore the future of Irish football.

Over the course of three friendlies against Turkey, France and the USA, many Irish fringe players got a chance to show what they can do on the senior stage.

Matt Doherty, Derrick Williams, Alan Browne, Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan, Daryl Horgan, Graham Burke and Alan Judge were among those who earned caps.

However, it was Declan Rice who stood out above all the others.

Rice was Ireland’s man of the match in each of the three games he played in. Balanced and composed in possession, he looked beyond his years for a 19-year-old.

Many Irish fans were worried about how the team would replace Wes Hoolahan’s creativity and calmness on the ball but Rice seemed to be the long-term solution.

The only problem was that despite Rice’s performances, Ireland were generally poor in those games. Despite giving new players a chance, O’Neill didn’t use these friendlies to let them express themselves.

There are very low stakes in international friendlies and fans were understandably frustrated to watch the team conjure up just one shot on target in total against Turkey and France.

If the fans can barely watch it, why would a player enjoy playing in that system?

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After what turned out to be Rice’s final cap in a narrow win against the USA, he more than likely sat at home watching the World Cup. This means he also saw his country of birth England reach the semi-final.

This was enjoyable for any England fan seeing the team get so far in a tournament and even now Gareth Southgate has them going in the right direction. Ireland were the exact opposite under Martin O’Neill.

Things all changed when Southgate gave Rice a call and and gave him an opportunity to be part of his long-term project with England.

There’s no doubt that with players like Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, England are currently a top international side.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Demarai Gray are all under the age of 22, proving how bright the future is as well.

The offer understandably flattered Rice and he turned down a call-up to Ireland’s Nations League opener last September.

This was a blow to Irish football but as Rice stated, he just needed more time to decide his future so there was still hope.

An Ireland team riddled with injuries opened the group away to Wales and lost 4-1 in the Cardiff City Stadium. O’Neill received criticism but was generally shielded from the lack of experienced seniors available to him.

O’Neill’s time as Ireland manager was essentially decided when an inexperienced Welsh team without Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey came to the Aviva and took all three points.

The 0-1 scoreline flattered an Irish team that played with no urgency until they conceded.

Two lifeless, goalless draws home and away to Denmark were the only points on the board in a disastrous Nations League campaign for Ireland.

In what was supposed to be a great chance for revenge against the Danes, fans had to endure two extremely dull affairs where Ireland never looked like scoring.

O’Neill was deservedly sacked as Irish manager after one goal in four games and two points on the board in what could have been an important route into Euro 2020.

An incredibly frustrating time for Irish fans knowing the team could have competed so much more.

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It’s a relief that O’Neill left before another qualifying campaign but one could almost understand Rice’s decision if he was put off by his management.

O’Neill’s final few games were unbearable viewing and the players deserved sympathy for having to take part in a system with little to no game plan.

Matt Doherty, who was never given a fair chance by O’Neill considering his form for Wolves, spoke out after O’Neill had left his job as Ireland manager.

Compared to the set-up I have at Wolves, you could class it as old school. When you were away with Ireland, you didn’t really have that much coaching. It was more of five-a-side, or 11-a-side game, and that would be it.

You can’t have that, especially at international football, people not really sure on what their role is the next day.

The day before a game you would do a few set-pieces here and there and then go into the game. You are kind of thinking to yourself, ‘what shape are we going to play?’

You’d have a few players thinking we’ll play this shape, or someone else thinking something else. You can’t have that, especially at international football, people not really sure on what their role is the next day.

These are things fans knew already but all the more alarming when confirmed by a player. So, it begs the question, why would a player choose to play in a side like that?

Rice would have gotten more than 100 caps for Ireland and could do the same with England given the level he’s playing at such a young age. This was a unique choice not given to many players and Rice sided he felt was heading in a better direction.

This decision arguably lacked loyalty and Rice shouldn’t have taken three senior caps before switching allegiance, but this was not a pleasant dressing room under an outdated management team.

Hopes are high since Mick McCarthy came in but there’s a sense Rice had already made his mind up the day he turned down a call-up to the squad.

There were likely many factors that made Rice choose England and it’s bitterly disappointing to think a player with such talent didn’t want to continue his Ireland career after so much time in the youth setup.

Declan Rice’s character may come across poorly after this saga but if you’re trying to put yourself into the shoes of such a talented 20-year-old and to understand his decision – then Martin O’Neill’s last year in charge of Ireland is a good place to start.

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Colm Brosnan

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