The FAI have confirmed that Declan Rice has been named Ireland’s Young Player Of The Year, the announcement coming, with crushing irony, on the eve of what is expected to be his first call-up for England. It ought to be stressed that the West Ham player was still an Irish international when a panel drawn from the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland voted him Young Player of the Year for the 3 FAI International Awards which take place on Sunday night and which will be broadcast live on RTÉ 2.
Rice had impressed for Ireland in earning three senior friendly caps in 2018 but, despite the efforts of then manager Martin O’Neill and his successor Mick McCarthy, he subsequently opted to switch allegiance to the country of his birth, a move which has since been ratified by FIFA. As a result, Rice is now in line to claim his first England cap, with manager Gareth Southgate reportedly set to include him in the squad he will unveil this week for their opening 2020 European Championship qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro.
The unprecedented decision to announce Rice’s FAI award in advance of Sunday’s live televised ceremony underlines the unique circumstances whereby the recipient of such a prestigious honour is now no longer eligible to play for the country. Given the divisiveness created by Rice’s defection and the obvious disappointment Mick McCarthy felt about losing a player he had said he hoped to build his team around, the decision to give him the award is bound to be controversial, not least within the Irish camp itself.
But, equally, there can be no denying that, in what had been an underwhelming year for the senior team, Rice had been the stand-out performer in the friendly games against Turkey, France and the USA, before he withdrew his services to consider his international options in advance of the Nations League fixture away to Wales in September which, had he played on the night, would have secured his future with the Republic.
In their statement yesterday confirming that he had been named Ireland’s Young Player of the Year, the FAI — who do not select the main award winners — said: “This award maintains the integrity of the voting process in conjunction with the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland and the FAI thanks the jury members for their decisions relating to the awards.”
Not that anyone would have expected differently but the FAI were also at pains to point out that Rice will not be in Dublin for the awards ceremony in the RTÉ studios on Sunday night. But it won’t be forgotten that he was there on the equivalent occasion one year ago, to pick up the U19 Player of the Year award and, ahead of getting his first senior cap in Turkey, he was only too happy at the time to talk up his commitment to Ireland.
“There’s no decision to be made,” Rice said then. “I’m here now with Ireland at the moment and I’ve been called up by Martin. And if I didn’t want to play for Ireland I wouldn’t have been here picking up the award.
“I’m really looking forward to this week and getting to know the boys better. It’s great to get called up. This time last year I picked up the U17 Player of the Year Award, this year it’s the U19, and I’m away with the seniors now. It’s a dream come true.”
And when asked if he might be distracted by a call from England, he replied: “No, not at all. I’m fully focused on playing with Ireland.” What a difference a year makes.