Last night’s dramatic win for the Ireland U-21s allowed those in attendance to enjoy seeing Declan Rice in a green jersey.
Interest has jumped in the West Ham youngster following the otherwise forgettable (is there any other kind?) senior Republic of Ireland friendly on Friday evening. Rice’s willingness to take, and competently distribute, possession stood out in an Ireland team more well-known for hoofing it long and hoping for the best.
With a team in transition, the prospect of having a young, confident ball player that Ireland can build the next generation around is something to latch on to – even if it is just based on a handful of Premier League games and one friendly.
But, it can’t be simple when it comes to Ireland and talented youngsters.
Rice has had to field questions about his international loyalties already. Born in London, Rice’s paternal grandparents hail from Cork, and the West Ham youngster has lined out for Ireland at underage level from 16. However, we’ve been here before.
Jack Grealish raised hopes of Irish supporters with a burst of flashy form when he broke into the Aston Villa first team. Capped through the age grades in the green, Grealish still opted to wait on a possible England call when given the chance to play for the international team of his birth.
Before the Turkey game another Irish youth international, Reading’s Liam Kelly, declined Martin O’Neill’s call up to the senior squad, making it clear he’d prefer to keep his options open for now.
Rice, so far, has made all the right noises from an Irish perspective. His celebrations after last night’s win, and all his media appearances suggest, Irish fans have little to worry about.
But, worry we will.
When a player of quality can still slip from our grasp, the doubt will always nag. Every game he plays for West Ham, every mention of a possible England nod, every hint, rumour or suggestion his head MIGHT be turned will raise Irish fears.
September’s UEFA Nations League meeting with Wales will provide the next opportunity for him to nail his colours down, but, if Rice continues to perform for the Hammers, the lure of the Three Lions could prove too great.
And who could blame him?
The status that comes with an England international, even if you only enjoy a handful of caps, can set up a career. And not just on the pitch.
Representing a footballing heavyweight can give an edge in terms of sponsorship opportunities, endorsements, and even contracts, and there is also the celebrity factor that comes with playing for a high profile team. Would David Beckham be the worldwide star he is if he’d been playing for Ireland? I doubt it.
And, sadly, purely in footballing terms, he’s more likely to be playing with better players in any England squad.
It’s to Rice’s credit that he appears committed to the Irish cause so far and that he looks to be in for the long-haul.
Under previous rules, just playing at underage levels would tie a player to national team. FIFA have relaxed those in recent times, so players can even take part in full international friendlies now without committing to a side.
He would be just the second player to play in a senior friendly before switching from the Republic of Ireland, Alex Bruce joining up with Northern Ireland having appeared in two friendlies under Steve Staunton. It would be a big leap for the teenager to make, but he could still take advantage of this window if the FA try to tempt him.
Scott McTominay’s recent emergence for Man United has seen him capped for Scotland, but the composed midfielder, born in Lancashire, may face the same dilemma as Rice and Grealish soon. Should you stick with a weaker nation where you’ll likely be a central figure for years to come, or take a chance on the higher profile option and, possibly, become a star of major tournaments with all the benefits that involves?
The Republic of Ireland also benefits from the ability of players to switch associations, with Scottish and Northern Irish youth products choosing Ireland over the countries they were raised in. Shane Duffy and James McClean, born in Derry and capped through youth levels by Northern Ireland, are the most prominent currently involved in the squad.
The potential for Rice to be snapped up by England shows that these rules can cut both ways.
Please, Declan, be good as we think you are, just not too good… yet.