Rice happy in green: ‘There’s no decision to be made’

Martin O’Neill said recently that he didn’t want to put any undue pressure on Declan Rice to decide his international future.

But the English-born player’s latest remarks on his dual eligibility – as he settles in with the Irish squad in Turkey having been named the FAI’s U19 Player of the Year on Sunday – will surely come as music to the ears of the Republic of Ireland manager.

“There’s no decision to be made,” says the 19-year-old who has already worn the green shirt about 40 times, from U16 to U21 level.

“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 there the other night picking up the award. 

“I’m really looking forward to this week and I’m looking forward to 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.”

Back in January, there were some eyebrows raised when England manager Gareth Southgate said he was well aware of the highly rated young West Ham defender but Rice insists that he has never had any contact from the FA.

“None, yet,” he says. “I haven’t had a call from anyone at the FA. Not at all. England have never wanted me at under-age level, it’s always been Ireland.”

And would it matter if he did get a call from England?

“No, not at all. I’m fully focused on playing with Ireland.”

It was ever thus, he insists, from the very first time he was approached, as a teenager, by FAI scout Mark O’Toole.

“When your country comes calling and you get a chance to put on that green shirt, you’re going to jump at it,” he says. 

“He’d been watching me for a while. It was my Dad that took the call. Mark said, ‘look, there’s a training camp coming up, you’re eligible to play for Ireland through your nan and granddad, would you like to come along?’ Straight away - I was only 15 years old - I said: ‘of course’

“Mark has been excellent for me. I see him like a father figure, to be honest. He looks after me. He’s always there for me. I wasn’t picked for the U15 squads and had to bide my time. Then I got in at U16 and kept my shirt and progressed through the ranks.”

Rice’s Irish connection is through his late grandfather and grandmother on his father’s side. Jack and Margaret Rice hailed from Douglas in Cork: both, sadly, passed away within two weeks of each other two years ago. But their grandson believes he knows how delighted they would be to see him playing at senior level for Ireland.

“They watched me when I was U16,” he says, “so for me to be playing for Ireland now they’ll be looking down on me very proud. My dad’s really proud too and wants me to play for Ireland. And I’m really happy to play for Ireland.”

Although his dual eligibility remains active until he is capped in a senior competitive game, it does look pretty clear that the only outstanding question about his position with Ireland is precisely that – his position. Does he favour centre-half, in which he has shone for West Ham in the Premier League, or midfield, where he has featured for the Irish U21s?

“I don’t mind,” he says. “I’d been playing midfield up to the U18s and then went back to centre-half for one game and that’s been my position since. For Ireland U21s I play in midfield, I know the position well, so wherever I’m called upon, I’m happy to play.”

Rice grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames and, in common with all his family, supported Chelsea as a boy. But when he failed to kick on from the youth team at Stamford Bridge, one of the club’s most famous sons was on hand to give him some valuable advice.

“Me and John Terry are really good friends,” he explains. “When I got released from Chelsea, he gave me a call and we spoke for about 45 minutes. I told him I was going to West Ham. He’d been there. He was my idol growing up. To ask him a load of questions on the phone, and for him to answer them back, I’ll always remember that call to this day, the stuff he said.

“We live locally to each other. He’s at Villa but when he’s back down, we meet up. We met the other week and we had a catch-up. It was good. To have him there (is great). He’s always going to help me and pass on his experiences.”

Having previously linked up with Martin O’Neill’s squad for some training days in Fota Island, Rice is now relishing his first full call-up and the very real prospect of making his senior Irish debut in Antalya on Friday. And, as observers of the U21 scene will already know, if selected for the starting line-up he won’t be shy about belting out ‘Amhran na bhFiann’.

“It’s such a good national anthem, it’s so catchy,” he says disarmingly.

But does he know what the words mean?

“Nah, I just know how to sing it (laughs). But I think it’s good to sing it before the games. It means something to you, it’s passionate and it gets you fired up for the game.”


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