Declan Rice: Proud Because They’ll Pick Him?

West Ham United defender Declan Rice’s decision to ‘declare’ for England as a full senior international, having won three senior Ireland caps and represented the country throughout his underage career, has raised a myriad of questions surrounding the 21st-century definition of football nationality (as well as one particular 800-year-old question which has nothing to do with football at all).

But the key questions are whether Rice chose England because he had a genuine, perhaps guaranteed, prospect of an England career? And unless that prospect was available/guaranteed), would he have chosen England at all? In situations like these, fans can submerge, overlook, disregard or entirely forget the fact that football is a job of work for players. Or that the superficially unseemly grab for more money than you can physically spend is because playing careers finish DECADES before official retirement age (with the increased longevity of footballing careers largely matched by raising retirement ages).

And in his situation, Rice’s decision is entirely reasonable. Disappointing to Ireland fans, given the dearth of Irish talent with the requisite club experience to make a meaningful impact on the senior international stage. But entirely valid in terms of football legality, and quite justifiable morally. He is, after all, first-generation English Third-generation Turkish midfielder Mesut Ozil showed last year that nationality can be complex. And it can be a personal instinct interpreted differently even by people with identical backgrounds. I share Rice’s Irish roots… and he was born four miles down the road from me. But my national allegiance is not in internal dispute. And I am as sure as possible, without being in the situation, that the prospect of playing for an England team better than an Irish one would not change that allegiance. Rice is different. But neither of us is ‘wrong.’

However, Rice’s official announcement of his decision has a jarring conclusion: “In football, and in life, I have always tried to be completely honest and true to myself,” he claims. I don’t believe Rice is being dishonest. Yet if he was being COMPLETELY honest, his statement would have focused far less on his nationality issues, if at all.

His own words suggest that the prospect of an England career far more lucrative than an Ireland one swayed his decision and trumped national allegiance, instinct, pride, call it what you will. “Ultimately, it is a personal decision that I have made with my heart and my head, based on what I believe is best for my future,” he admitted. He also reveals a bit too much by declaring it a decision “I never expected to be making at this stage of my career.” The timing was not about national pride but because: “so much has happened, so quickly, in the past couple of years, from progressing through the West Ham United Academy to making my Premier League debut at the age of 18 in May 2017, and then being named in a full international squad just two days later.” The logical extension of that thinking was that if he could get that far, that fast, why ‘settle’ for Ireland?

And that, surely, WAS his thinking. Because before “so much happened,” he declared for Ireland, playing 20 Irish underage internationals, from the under-16s to the under-21s, followed seamlessly by three senior Ireland friendlies. But last August, he refused to join Ireland’s Uefa Nations League squad, and doubtless his competitive Irish debut, which would have made his international future irrevocably Irish. And Ireland’s then-boss Martin O’Neill revealed: “England have spoken to him, he is taking time to make his mind up.”

Rice’s statement outlined his personal nationality issues: “Like so many people around the world, I consider myself to be of mixed nationality. I am a proud Englishman, having been born and raised in London. However, I am just as proud of my family’s Irish heritage and my affinity and connection with the country.” I don’t doubt the veracity of this. Just its relevance.

It is, possibly, ironic that 110-cap Irish international Kevin Kilbane questioned Rice’s “proud Englishman” claim in an almost stereotypically-broad central-Lancastrian accent. But Kilbane was right to do so. In a discussion during Tuesday’s Virgin Media Sport Champions League coverage, he said: “I can’t understand his decision to come and play for us in the first place. If you’re a proud Englishman, you don’t come and play for us.”

Kilbane added through barely-disguised gritted teeth: “Good luck to him, fair enough. I’ve no issues with (his decision).” And he said Fifa should “seriously look at this rule that you can declare for one nation and play for another.” But presenter, Irish Examiner newspaper columnist Tommy Martin, got straight to the real point: “Is the problem for Irish fans not happy about this that they feel the Irish shirt, or international football in general, has become a career move?”

Kilbane saw “an element of that” and suggested that Rice  “thought when he was 16, 17, he wouldn’t necessarily get called up for England. So, ‘I’ll go and play for Ireland.’” Martin asked if that wasn’t “understandable,” which got a dismissive harrumph. So he redrafted the question for Kilbane’s fellow pundit, ex-Scotland international Graeme Souness: “Is he not entitled to make the best decision for him professionally?”

Souness tried to put himself in Rice’s situation. But the Edinburgh born-and-bred Souness didn’t have Rice’s emotional or professional choices. He’d have “found it very hard if I’d played youth football, U23 or U21 and played a friendly for my country, to walk out on it.” But though “Flower of Scotland” brought a tear to his eye (“Fields of Athenry” makes me weep, though I suspect for different reasons). he didn’t have a keen England to walk to (and England would have been keen on him at his best).

However, he saw through the pretence of a statement “drafted by a lawyer or a PR consultant,” which “just oozes that his advisers are telling him ‘for you to fully cash in on your career over the next ten or 12 years, you’re better being an English international. You’re more valuable to whoever may be interested in using you in some sort of advertising way if you’re wearing an English shirt.’

“Every sentence is covering his backside about not trying to upset anyone,” Souness sneered, momentarily forgetting the “proud Englishman” boast (“I would have taken that line out,” Kilbane had said, wisely). And he concluded that Rice was “coerced into making that choice by someone with a big influence on him” (Rice joined the reputedly over-influential WMG Management player agency last summer).

International football times have changed. It was purely an honour when club players were on a maximum wage and travelled with the fans on the buses to game, not just because it was ‘the good old days’ but because they couldn’t afford the car, or maybe even the petrol, to drive. Now, it IS sometimes seen as a “career move.”

And Irish football and its fans cannot complain about falling foul of nationality rules. They have famously exploited them so often in the past. “Who put the ball in the English net?” Ireland fans have regularly asked since Ireland beat England 1-0 in Stuttgart in Euro ’88. Answer: A Scotsman. And it is an open aspect of current FAI policy to continue to trawl planet football for players with the requisite Irish connections.

England trumps Ireland,  just as a big club will trump West Ham. And when that happens, West Ham chairman David Gold, who clearly has a big influence on Rice, will SURELY react with the characteristic grace and class with which he celebrated Rice’s declaration for England. West Ham, of course, will likely be compensated for ‘losing’ Rice. Not something that, I’m currently guessing, Ireland can, literally or metaphorically, bank on.

In football realpolitik, the bottom line is the bottom line. Rice has chosen an England international future over an Irish one because an England squad place makes a player more marketable and thus richer. Just as a battle for a top-four EPL first-team spot (or top continental European side, if Brexit allows it) is more lucrative than a guaranteed first-team spot at perennial EPL strugglers. There’s nothing wrong with a 20-year-old making that choice. It would have been nice, though, if Rice really HAD been “completely” honest, admitted as much, and, just like his decision, left all the proud, heritage stuff out of it.