Declan Rice’s international dilemma is a no-brainer

A penny for the thoughts of Declan Rice as he strolled through the front doors of St George’s Park, in all its celebrated grandeur, last month, as he set about hearing what Gareth Southgate had in mind for him as a long-term staple of the English national team.

As he awaited the man in English football’s most distinguished and pressurised role, tasked with bringing football ‘home’ once and for all over the next number of World Cup cycles, Rice’s mind is sure to have drifted back across the Irish Sea.

Was he making the right decision taking a meeting with Gareth Southgate? A quick wander of the imagination would have assured him that he was.

For while Rice waited for the England manager to emerge into the lobby of the state of the art facility and offer him an invite into his office, a haven where he is alleged to have meticulously formulated England’s path to last summer’s World Cup semi-final, he must have drawn comparisons with the Irish equivalent back in North Dublin.

The situation at FAI headquarters may have been only a short flight across the Irish Sea but the young Londoner, sitting and admiring his surroundings at the Staffordshire complex, would have felt like he was living on a different planet?

How was Southgate’s Irish counterpart, Martin O’Neill, spending his day?

Was he scurrying about the corridors of the National Sports Campus, looking for his volatile assistant and hoping he hasn’t launched another tirade on a hapless squad member? Was he sneaking out the back door for clandestine meetings with other possible suitors while mayhem ensued inside?

And while John Delaney has assured everyone that the ship is afloat – in between renditions of Irish rebel songs and depositing pay cheques – you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Surely by the time the English manager emerged from his office, an eager 19-year-old, pen in hand, was waiting to put ink on the dotted line.

Prospects look good for Southgate going forward with the level of promising talent coming up through the system, though if one glaring weakness exists for the England manager it’s at the back of midfield. That’s where the player in question enters the equation.

For all England’s depth in attack and recently discovered confidence in defence, they have yet to find a player capable of linking both, in the way all great teams do, from the centre of the park.

While the teenager’s current style of play doesn’t exactly have conductor-in-waiting written all over it, he does have youth on his side and Southgate is more than confident in his own ability of moulding players into the type his teams need.

At the World Cup, after all, he transformed Kyle Walker, an out-and-out full-back, into an auxiliary centre-back. In fact his entire formation was completely unorthodox in a bid to work with what he had.

Surely converting Rice – a youngster as comfortable with the ball at his feet as any beer-bellied Sunday league mercenary is at stamping on shins – into a player who can collect the ball from defence before passing forward is not beyond the realms on possibility.

As it stands Rice, Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson boast strikingly similar statistics from key passes and long balls, areas you want your modern-day ‘Xavis and Pirlos’ excelling at, but the key statistic is age and scope for development. The latter obviously favours the West Ham tyro and Southgate will want the integration process started sooner rather than later, hence the invite to the home of English football in Burton upon Trent.

It must also be remembered that it would be irresponsible of Rice not to think about his own future career. Just because he has settled into the West Ham team doesn’t make him immune from disappearing from the scene with just an unanticipated lack of form or, touch wood, a nasty injury.

Adrian Doherty, the heir to George Best and a teammate of Ryan Giggs in the Manchester United underage system, is a case in point. Touted by many around the Manchester academy at the time as more talented than the youngster who would go on to become the most decorated Premier League player of all time, Doherty soon disappeared into oblivion with what would turn out to be a career-ending injury and tragically lost his life in Amsterdam around the turn of the century, just as Giggs reached his peak.

The West Ham midfielder will be keenly aware of the fact that although he sits on an illustrious mezzanine for a 19-year-old, looking down on the multitudes hoping eventually reach a similar level, it’s still only a short drop down. Returning to that level, trying to emerge from the pack, is a hellish if not near-impossible undertaking.

Fading back into the masses of aspiring youngsters while an England international, on the other hand, is far more unlikely. The same cannot be said for the Republic of Ireland, a national side who find themselves scouring the lower leagues in search of talent with some trace of emerald in their blood.

Young Rice, as it turns out, proved to be a persona non grata for competitive action for Martin O’Neill. If the Londoner does decide to continue his international career in green, living under the bright lights still isn’t guaranteed.

Recent results for the Republic of Ireland, both at underage and senior level, aren’t exactly laced with hope when looking ahead to future major tournaments. Meanwhile England, the reigning under-17 and under-20 world champions, have managed to get their house in order and look set to be world standard-bearers for the next decade.

Should we see a change of allegiance Rice would be well placed to lead a transition that would eventually see players like Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Lewis Cook, Ryan Sessegnon and Phil Foden integrated into the national side.

All of this will have been swirling through the consciousness of Rice as he walked the corridors at St George’s Park.

He may even have envisioned himself becoming the only Englishman to follow in Bobby Moore’s footsteps in lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.

The Irish would need to be dealt a seriously good hand to prize one of the best teenagers in the Premier League away from his country of birth. Unfortunately from an Irish perspective, jokers aren’t exactly an enticing draw.

The Author

Aonghus Ó Maicín

Freelance sports writer currently wandering around the Far East. Contributor to both national and local media outlets.

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