Once it was revealed on Monday that the player was having second — and perhaps even final — thoughts about committing his international future to Ireland, the backlash was inevitable.
And while he will hardly have welcomed James McClean’s intervention, on past experience O’Neill was probably half-expecting that one too.
By now, adding to the tumult on social media, we’ve had players and former players, managers and former managers and pundits and pen pushers all having their say, with the usual result that more in the way of heat than light has been brought to the debate. (Although, for a valiant attempt at levity in the midst of the maelstrom, I have to doff the cap to the keyboard warrior who tweeted: “First they took our potatoes and then they took our Rice”).
Conspicuously absent thus far has been the voice of the man himself. And while it’s understandable that Rice would want to lie low for a bit, until such time as he chooses to clarify his position it behoves the rest of us to tread carefully before jumping to any kind of conclusion.
That particularly applies to speculation that some sort of upheaval in the team camp in the summer might have soured his relationship with Ireland.
It was a concern raised in public by Brian Kerr on Virgin Media Sports in midweek, as the former Ireland manager struggled to make sense of this week’s news against the background of all those upbeat statements Rice had previously made about playing for the country.
All those things make me think something has changed dramatically,” Kerr said. “I don’t believe it was the influence of the agents, I don’t believe that Gareth Southgate — impressive and all as England were at the World Cup — that that has changed him, because his statements are so certain.
“I hope it wasn’t something that happened when he was in with the team. I hope that there wasn’t some incident. I mean, Martin recently confirmed that there were altercations between players and one of the staff, with Roy Keane. I hope there wasn’t any incident or remarks made to Declan Rice that affected his view of the Irish set-up. He did seem so happy within the environment.”
"I don't believe it's the influence of agents. I don't believe Gareth Southgate has changed him. I hope it wasn't something that happened while he was with the team."— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) August 29, 2018
- Brian Kerr speaking about Declan Rice last night.
Watch the full discussion here - https://t.co/7HyNUvIcY5. pic.twitter.com/CEJfxD91gR
One thing for certain is that it’s the player’s dual eligibility, and Fifa’s rules governing same, which made it possible for Declan Rice to weigh up his international options at this point. On balance, Ireland have extracted more profit than loss from those rules over the years but, although we might at this moment wish it was otherwise, the whole question of identity is rarely black and white (let alone green and white).
Exceptional are the likes of Kevin Kilbane, who has been trenchant in his criticism of Rice’s decision, and Gary Breen, who had expressed certainty about the player’s commitment to Ireland just days before the news to the contrary broke.
Both players might have been English-born and bred but, steeped in Irish culture, both thought only of playing for Ireland from when they were first capable of dreaming of such a thing.
Closer to being the norm are the many examples of those English and Scottish-born players who came into the fold in the Jack Charlton era, an influx which gave rise to all those tiresome jibes from the neighbouring isle about how visiting Ireland on St Patrick’s Day or drinking a pint of Guinness were enough to qualify you for the green shirt.
And yet the likes of Andy Townsend, Tony Cascarino, John Aldridge, and Ray Houghton, to name but a few, went on to be wonderful servants to the Irish cause, players whose whole-hearted commitment to the green shirt, once they’d donned it for the first time, could never be questioned.
But you can’t lump all the Anglo-Irish in together. We’re talking about individuals and therefore every situation is unique.
In Rice’s case, despite having played underage football for Ireland and gained those three senior caps in the friendly matches last spring and summer, his precocious talent gives him a realistic chance of playing for England which is, after all, not only his country of birth but the one in which the bulk of his most formative experiences, as a young man and developing footballer, have taken place.
If that means his commitment to Ireland was never as solidly entrenched as his encouraging words suggested, then so be it. People are entitled to waver and change, especially a 19-year-old who has arrived at a point of definition where his next move carries potentially huge and even lifelong personal and professional ramifications.
Of course, because of how much he had previously talked up his delight at playing for Ireland, the disappointment at his apparent u-turn has been all the more acute.
That’s understandable. The biggest regret, as was also the case with Jack Grealish, is that if Rice chooses to walk away for good, it will rob Ireland of a richly promising talent at a time when quality of the highest level is in short supply in the senior squad.
Comparisons already made here, with Paul McGrath, and over there, with Bobby Moore, constitute a premature rush to judgment of another kind, but the classy composure which Rice brought with him to the senior arena in the spring and summer friendlies was undeniable, and the reason O’Neill would have had no qualms about giving him his competitive debut in a midfield role in Cardiff.
But that’s not going to happen now. Instead, we’re all left waiting for Deco and watching the space he would have occupied.