Following another assured performance against the USA on Saturday, in what was only his third senior outing in the green shirt, the West Ham starlet – who is currently still eligible to play for his native England - insisted that he is paying no attention to outside debate about his international intentions.
“I just have to stay focused and play football with a smile on my face,” he said. “I don’t read too much into things and look at social media. It’s all a load of crap. It’s a question that keeps on being asked. But I’m just focused on playing and enjoying my football. There are two games in September (away to Wales in the Nations League on the 6th and a friendly against Poland on the 11th) and I’m looking forward to them.”
The parents of the London-born Rice were at the Aviva on Saturday to watch their son more than play his part in a 2-1 win for the hosts. Rice, who has played in the green shirt from underage level through to senior, qualifies for Ireland through his late grandparents, Jack and Margaret, from Douglas in Cork.
“My grandparents were Irish and it’s important for mum and dad to keep coming to the games,” Rice said. “Getting a win in front of them was good.” For all that, loose talk of a possible switch to England refuses to go away, with West Ham co-chairman David Gold just recently telling talkSPORT that he is “looking forward” to new West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini “turning Declan Rice into a strong English defender for the future of the England team,”
“It’s just one of those things,” Rice shrugged when Gold’s comments were put to him. “He has come out and said it, I won’t take too much from it. He can say that, that’s his opinion. But I’m here tonight playing for Ireland and that’s all I can do.”
Roy Keane has already given his own unequivocal response to David Gold’s England dream for Rice. “It’s going to be pretty difficult if he’s Irish — and he is Irish,” said Keane in the run-up to the France and USA friendlies. “He plays for Ireland. Where else would he want to go, if you had a choice, Ireland or England? It’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Ireland.”
And Rice’s own take on that? “I did hear Roy’s interview but I don’t try to think too much about it or put pressure on myself. I’m playing with a smile on my face and that’s what I have to keep on doing.”
For his part, Martin O’Neill is refusing to take anything for granted, at least in public, in relation to Rice’s Irish future. Having heaped praise on him for his performance against the USA, the manager was asked if he would heave a sigh of relief when the player finally has that first competitive Irish cap to his name.
“I would have to say you’re right until he’s actually played competitive football for us at senior level, you can never say anything is across the line,” said O’Neill. “It’s never been my nature to do that. But I think he genuinely wants to play for us. And I hope that will be the case. And the praise I’ve given him both here (to the media) and in the dressing room was not so that he would don the shirt in September time. That wasn’t my thinking, it was just because he was so excellent. I’m very pleased with him but up until he actually plays you never can be sure.” O’Neill felt that Rice’s assured midfield display on Saturday epitomised the kind of composure on the ball that he wants to see more of from his Irish team.
“When he was in possession you felt as if ‘he’s gonna deal with this’. That if he’s surrounded by some players he’s going to come out with the ball. I think I can only remember twice him being dispossessed with a few men around him at the time. So he’s dealing with it.
“This is exactly what we’ve been talking about. My views have always been the same. We’re talking now about going into these Euros against Wales; and Denmark who obviously beat us and are playing in the World Cup. And Wales who have Gareth Bale playing for them and a number of other top quality players. The more players that we have playing at a high level, I believe that they will find it easier, if there’s such a thing, or less difficult, to play international football.
“But no matter what division you’re in, it doesn’t stop you trying to deal with the ball. You still have to try to do that because, eventually, if you can deal with the ball, it gives you that extra second, half a second, three-quarters of a second, to be able to see things. And Rice looks as if he can deal with that.”