Stephen Hunt

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN HUNT

If, as seems in­creas­ingly likely, De­clan Rice fi­nally de­cides to de­clare for Eng­land and goes on to wear the white shirt, it will be a mas­sive kick in the teeth for the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

IF, as seems in­creas­ingly likely, De­clan Rice de­clares for Eng­land and goes on to wear the white shirt, it will be mas­sive kick in the teeth for the Repub­lic of Ire­land. Af­ter last month’s games against Wales and Den­mark, I was con­vinced Rice was the miss­ing link in Martin O’Neill’s team. Within that team struc­ture and for­ma­tion, which I really like, the West Ham man could fit into two po­si­tions as a cen­tral de­fender or hold­ing mid­fielder. Play­ers know their team-mates and Rice brings calm­ness to a side, even at such a young age. It was made for him, along with a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity to go on and win 100 caps and be­come an Ire­land great.

Now it looks like we will not see Rice play­ing for Ire­land again, which is a huge blow. He has def­i­nitely shifted up an­other level in the West Ham team this sea­son. I watched him in a re­serves game two years ago and he was ex­cep­tional. It was ob­vi­ous he had po­ten­tial then.

If you had even sug­gested he would play for Eng­land and not Ire­land af­ter his man of the match de­but against Turkey in March and the two sum­mer friendlies af­ter that, ev­ery­one would have thought you were crazy. No-one saw this com­ing.

But, even with in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, young play­ers these days want to see the whole pack­age. In his po­si­tion, it is only right I sup­pose that Rice has taken a good look at the Eng­land set-up and paid a visit to St Ge­orge’s Park. Why shouldn’t he? Af­ter their suc­cess at the World Cup in Rus­sia un­der Gareth South­gate, it looks like the Eng­land DNA has won and en­ticed him away.

This will not be the last time this hap­pens to Ire­land. We will have a lot of African boys, cur­rently play­ing for the Ir­ish youth teams, who will have sim­i­lar de­ci­sions to make about their long-term in­ter­na­tional fu­tures and may have a real pas­sion for play­ing for Nige­ria, rather than Ire­land.

Only Rice knows what he wants to do and ob­vi­ously, judg­ing by the length of time he has taken over the de­ci­sion, it is not an easy one for him. But only he can make it, no-one else.

If, in the fu­ture, my daugh­ters have to make a sim­i­lar choice over whether to rep­re­sent Ire­land or Eng­land, the coun­try of their birth, there is only so much I can do to per­suade them. I can’t tell them or force them.

Of course I want them to feel Ir­ish and rep­re­sent my coun­try, our coun­try, and they have enough around them to re­mind them of their back­ground and cul­ture. But they were born in Eng­land, they go to school in Eng­land with English friends. How can I in­sist they have to play for Ire­land?

This is the sit­u­a­tion Rice and his fam­ily have faced and it must have been ex­tremely hard for them. His fa­ther can only be a fa­ther to his child for the rest of his life, not just the next eight to ten years of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball.

How­ever, I sus­pect the con­tract talks with West Ham have been a ma­jor fac­tor in all this. They are clearly keen to see their player wear­ing Bobby Moore’s No 6 Eng­land shirt. It is very dif­fi­cult for Martin O’Neill to com­pete with that.

Play­ers need a con­nec­tion and need to feel the love and Rice must have felt that from Ire­land. But we’re talk­ing about mil­lions of pounds be­ing ne­go­ti­ated here and that has put Rice in a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. It has made it hard for him, and his fam­ily, and I am sure they have been torn apart by the whole thing.

While Ire­land look like los­ing out on such a tal­ented player, O’Neill has to con­cen­trate on those he has avail­able, with Rob­bie Brady, Sea­mus Cole­man and per­haps James McCarthy back in the squad to be named on Tues­day.

Brady has been out for nearly a year and it will be nice for him to come back into the fold. I am sure he is ab­so­lutely buzzing at the prospect of be­ing back. The big ques­tion re­mains over his best po­si­tion. Is he a left-back, left-winger, wing-back or cen­tral mid­fielder? That will be an­swered over time, but I do know Ire­land are a bet­ter team with Rob­bie Brady in it, no mat­ter where he plays.

It will be great to have our cap­tain back too. And it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if the man­ager can fit him into a team with Matt Do­herty in it.

The friendly against North­ern Ire­land gives O’Neill the op­por­tu­nity to try dif­fer­ent pat­terns. What have we got to lose? Let’s try to play from the back, mix it up and have a go. Ire­land fans will never get on the back of a team that tries some­thing dif­fer­ent.

I do like the new for­ma­tion and we looked solid in both games last month, even if they were not great to watch. You al­ways have to play as your man­ager wants but can the Ire­land play­ers be brave and try some­thing dif­fer­ent?

We have to be bet­ter in pos­ses­sion and we have to lift the crowd, but I can’t es­cape the feel­ing that it would be much eas­ier with Rice on board.

It will be great to have our cap­tain back

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