Declan Rice delighted with U21 role after taste of the big time

Declan Rice admits the desire to resume working with Roy Keane endures but helping Ireland’s U21s break their major finals duck is his immediate objective.

The 18-year-old West Ham starlet had only made his Premier League debut last May, when Martin O’Neill and Keane invited the holding midfielder to their training camp at Fota Island in Cork.

It was no flash in the pan week for the Londoner as he’s started the Premier League campaign as the breakout Irish player.

Six appearances, including two Premier League starts and a cameo at Old Trafford, have fast-tracked him into an established member of Slaven Bilic’s squad.

Ireland will inevitably benefit from the youngster’s talent, probably sooner than expected should the World Cup crusade perish in Cardiff next Monday, yet U21 boss Noel King has his undivided attention for the time being.

Rice made the 5,000-mile round trip to Baku for last month’s 3-1 victory over Azerbaijan, a result which, coupled with the opening win over Kosovo, sees Ireland take an early lead in Group 5.

Tonight, the quality of opposition increases as Norway come to Tallaght Stadium (7.45pm) before Israel rock up on Monday. Top seeds and reigning champions Germany await in home and away games next year.

“I enjoyed my time with the senior squad in May but I’m only 18 and not expecting be in there full-time,” Rice explained.

“In fact, I’m still eligible for the U19s and might have been with them this week. I’m just delighted to be with the U21s. After beating Kosovo and Azerbaijan, this game against Norway will be our toughest game so far.

“Noel was telling us this is an opportunity to win three U21 qualifiers in a row for the first time ever. However, I think we can achieve four on the bounce when we play Israel on Monday.”

Progression to the senior squad, despite interest from his homeland of England, remains the ultimate priority for Rice.

The dearth of Premier League players operating in the top-flight means a starting berth, not just squad involvement, is within his capabilities and he has the advantage of already gotten to show the management pair a sampler of his prowess.

“Roy Keane didn’t get the recognition he deserved as a player in England but to me he was an icon,” saidRice, who declared for Ireland at 16 through his grandparents from Douglas in Cork city.

“He was a special holding midfielder and leader and, as I see myself as both, it was brilliant to work under him with the senior team in Cork.

“Some of the advice I got from Roy and Martin over those three days will serve me well in my career.”

Rice has sampled both sides of life as a Premier League footballer, earning praise for the maturity shown at Old Trafford and then flak when gifting Newcastle the chance to score two weeks later.

“I’ve experienced some good and bad times already,” he confessed.

“I haven’t watched the clip of the mistake at Newcastle back much because dwelling on it wouldn’t be good.

“The manager was very supportive afterwards and has showed his trust by playing me since.”

Norway have taken just one point from three games in the series, although three were lost when they fielded an ineligible player in the home game against Kosovo.

The Kosovans, beaten only 1-0 by both Ireland and Germany, did the business fair and square in the home match by defeating Norway 3-2 last month.

IRELAND (probable):

K O’Hara (Manchester United); D Kane (Huddersfield Town), R Sweeney (Bristol Rovers), S Donnellan (Walsall), C Whelan (Liverpool); D Rice (West Ham), J Cullen (Bolton Wanderers); H Charsley (Everton), R Manning (QPR), R Greco-Cox (QPR); R Curtis (Derry City).


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