LIAM MACKEY: The Rice hydra-headed saga, do I not like that?

In his autobiography, A Life in Questions, the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman relates a memorable exchange between John Major and Boris Yeltsin, as described by the former British prime minister.

Major: ‘Well, Boris, in a word, how is Russia?’

Yeltsin: ‘Good.’

Major: ‘And in more than one word?’

Yeltsin: ‘Not good.’

The anecdote popped into my head during this week’s day in the life of the Declan Rice saga, probably at that pantomime point in proceedings where he appeared to ‘like’ an FAI tweet from Martin O’Neill’s press conference (hurray!) and then appeared to ‘unlike’ it (boo!). Probably not since Graham Taylor’s “do I not like that” has that innocuous four-letter word exerted such a mad fascination in the football sphere.

On a day when the tectonic plates of the story shifted one way and then the other before, eventually, appearing to settle back more or less into the position they’d been in at the start of play, clarity about Rice’s intentions was ultimately in short supply.

But on one aspect of the story at least, Martin O’Neill could not have been more emphatic: Witnessing that now infamous row in the camp involving Roy Keane, Harry Arter, and Jon Walters, he insisted, had in no way dismayed Rice to the point where he was prompted to have second thoughts about sticking with Ireland.

Speculation to that effect has been around ever since it emerged that Rice was stepping back on the brink of the game against Wales which would have secured his future in the green shirt. Even as recently as last weekend, Jason McAteer was stating, apparently as a matter of fact, that the bust-up had indeed impacted negatively on Rice.

“Declan was privy to the incident between Roy and Harry Arter in May and was put off by the whole experience,” he said. “Roy is a destructive influence on the camp.”

But, though McAteer’s comment was not specifically put to O’Neill on Thursday, the manager could hardly have been more dismissive of the whole notion when he addressed it at his squad announcement. 

“The idea about Roy coming in and he (Rice) being in the room and it affecting him,” O’Neill said, “it’s something that both he and his father were at great pains to say, ‘No, not at all’.”

Of course, we still await confirmation of that, and everything else to do with this whole hydra-headed saga, from Rice himself. But I have to say that it always struck me as unlikely that he would have allowed, let’s say, the sight and sound of Keane on the warpath to play a significant role in his deliberations.

Because, after all, that is the momentous nature of the business with which he has been engaged and also apparently torn by and doubtless buffeted on all sides with contrary advice and opinion: A decision he will make now, at the age of 19, which will dictate so much of how the rest of his life, personal as well as professional, pans out.

And it will hardly have taken him more than a
moment’s consideration to realise that, if his career maintains its current upward trajectory, he will be actively living with the consequences of that decision probably long after Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane — and, for that matter, Gareth Southgate — have departed their current posts.

In the meantime, and Rice apart, there was more ‘not good’ than ‘good’ news out of the Irish camp this week, as the current management face into their most immediate and potentially defining challenge — the double-header at home to Denmark and Wales in the Nations League. (You do remember there are matches coming up, right?)

The not good news, to put it mildly, is that injuries prevent Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Stephen Ward, and Jon Walters from playing any part. The good news is that James McClean is back, wrist cast and all, as is — nervously checks Twitter — Harry Arter. 

Matt Doherty’s splendid form in the Premier League can also be filed under ‘good news’ but with the significant caveat that, until O’Neill reveals his starting line-up against the Danes, we won’t know if the manager is sufficiently enthused by the player’s performances with Wolves to regard him as a logical replacement for Coleman.

Yeltsin-style, the news on both Sean Maguire and Shane Long is simultaneously both good and not good, the former included in the provisional squad right enough but, you can’t help suspecting, more in hope than expectation that he could play in either of the upcoming games, while the latter, despite some positive noises from the Ireland manager on Thursday, is still considered an injury doubt.

Schadenfreude has no place in sport, he said with a straight face, but arguably the most encouraging bit of team news for Ireland has actually come out of Copenhagen with Christian Eriksen — the man who almost single-handedly blew our World Cup dream to smithereens last November — rated such a serious doubt for the Danes’ return to Dublin that manager Age Hareide has left him out of his named squad, while keeping one place open on the off-chance that the Spurs star manages to beat the odds and make the cut.

Finally, this week, if you’ll pardon the abrupt shift in tone, I just wanted to take an opportunity to pay my own respects to the sports writer James Lawton, who has died at the age of 75.

Many who knew Jim far better than I did have spoken of him in the most glowing and affectionate terms over the past week and, certainly, for my own part, I always felt the better for having experienced his genial company when I’d encounter him at various World Cup, Euro Championship, and Champions League games over the years.

A lovely writer and a lovely man.


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