This was the day when England and former Republic midfielder Declan Rice found out whether Dexit was really worth all the aggro and, unlike the current political shenanigans haunting London, his strategic exit turned out rather well. The truth is England didn’t really need Rice, whose controversial switch of international allegiance has made so many headlines on both sides of the Irish Sea, to overcome a poor Czech Republic side in a Euro 2020 Group A qualifier at Wembley, as they sauntered to a 5-0 win, thanks to a hat-trick from Raheem Sterling.
However, his appearance as a 63rd minute substitute went some way to answering the critics even if, for many Republic fans, it must have been hard to watch. It was a day when England, who have already reached the Nations Cup semi-finals in Portugal this summer, again showed the kind of potential that must have made Rice’s switch so tempting. The fact that, despite all the furore surrounding his choice, the West Ham man was never really in contention to start at Wembley rather sums up the quality on offer to manager Gareth Southgate, whose team won at a canter with Harry Kane also on target from the penalty spot and Thomas Kalas adding an own goal.
Southgate explained Rice’s omission from the starting line-up by saying: “Declan has trained really well, but he has only had a few days with us. We need some of our leaders on the field and some stability.”
Whether the build-up to the match played any part in that decision is hard to tell, but certainly it hadn’t gone quite the way the former Ireland international, whose grandparents hail from Cork of course, would have hoped. His preparation was overshadowed by the discovery of an Instagram message from 2015, when Rice was only 16, in which he wrote #UPTHERA; and despite strong defence from Southgate and support from his own club West Ham, who have decided to take no action, the story, of course, made back-page headlines in England.
It led to suggestions that the 20-year-old could receive a negative reaction from England fans, who have not been afraid to boo far better players over the years, from David Beckham to Sterling, Wayne Rooney to Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard to Peter Crouch.
In fact, those fears proved unfounded. There was a ripple of applause when Rice’s name was read out as a substitute and again when he warmed up, as midfielder Eric Dier lay injured early in the game.
More significant, however, was that when Dier had to leave the field, Southgate chose attacking midfielder Ross Barkley to replace him rather than Rice, who would have been a natural swap; another indication that breaking into this England side will not be simple.
He was given a chance, however, just over an hour in when England were 3-0 up and the game was wrapped up. As expected, he looked very much at home in a midfield that was under little pressure. There will be far tougher tests to come, but one thing is certain now, having played in a competitive game for England, he won’t been seen in green again. The same can be said of another former Republic player, Michael Keane, who has already achieved what Rice aspires to.
The Everton centre-back, who won four caps at U17 and U19 level for Ireland, made a rather quieter switch to the Three Lions at a younger age and started against the Czechs for his sixth full England cap, this time paired with Leicester’s Harry Maguire in what proved to be a comfortable victory.
Certainly, Southgate’s side here showed the quality needed to step up on their World Cup semi-final place in Russia last year, making easy work of a largely unambitious Czech side. England’s opening goal was simple but classy. An outstanding pass inside the full-back by Harry Kane found Jadon Sancho on the right, and the winger’s low cross was converted by a sliding Sterling. The second came from the penalty spot, a rather soft one, after Sterling was sandwiched by two Czech defenders, and was converted with his usual power and panache by Kane on the stroke of half-time.
Sterling swivelled neatly to curl home number three left-footed and then earned a fortunate fourth with a long-range effort which took a big deflection. Kallas’ own goal, after more good work from Sterling, made it five and the scoreline, which didn’t flatter England, perhaps makes Rice’s decision to switch allegiance difficult to argue with - if you are able to take the emotion out of it, of course. The bottom line is there no going back now. Dexit has been completed and the Republic will have to move on without him.
Pickford; Walker, Keane, Maguire, Chilwell, Dier (Barkley 17), Henderson, Sancho, Alli (Rice 63), Sterling (Hudson-Odoi 70), Kane.
Pavlanka; Kaderabek, Calustka, Kalas, Novak, Soucek, Pavelka, Selassie, Darida (Masopust 67), Jankto (Vydra 45), Schick (Skoda 82).
Artur Dias (Portugal).