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Friday 19 October 2018

Rice proud of Irish roots

Irons defender says hard work is paying off for club and country

Declan Rice, pictured here in action for Ireland Under-21s, will hope to make his senior debut in Friday’s friendly against Turkey in Antalya. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Rice, pictured here in action for Ireland Under-21s, will hope to make his senior debut in Friday’s friendly against Turkey in Antalya. Photo: Sportsfile
West Ham’s Irish star Declan Rice, pictured in action against Manchester United’s Paul Pogba at the start of the season. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

The Ireland call-up was unexpected for this particular player.

"I didn't know you were Irish," said the Dublin-born club-mate of the new recruit. "Apparently I am," was the smug response from the other player.

There's no "apparently" about things with Declan Rice. And the fact that this rare species, an Irish teenager playing regularly in the Premier League, is committed to the cause of the Republic, in the face of a possible recruitment drive by his native England, is already an encouraging sign from Ireland's week-long training camp here in Turkey.

We've been down this road so often before, where a player is eligible to play for this country through the parentage rule (grandparents from Cork, now sadly deceased, in the case of Londoner Rice), does so briefly but is then lured away, the links to this island more tenuous than we'd like.

Recruitment

Our cousins across the border in the north can only guffaw at outrage in the Republic when a player plays for that country but then opts to line out for another county, take a better offer.

But from his name ("Declan, you can't get more Irish than that") to his ability (limited but admirable) with the state's first official language ("I don't know what it means but I know how to sing the anthem"), he is committed, part of the Irish set-up for some time now, another successful recruitment job by Mark O'Toole, the FAI's London-based scout.

"When your country comes calling and you get a chance to put on that green shirt, you're going to jump at it," Rice says of the approach at U15 level.

"My nan and granddad are from Cork and they sadly passed away two years ago, so for me to be playing now - and they watched me when I was U16 - to be playing for Ireland now, they'll be looking down on me very proud. My family are very happy that I'm playing with Ireland."

There is a real dearth of young talent coming through at the top level, evident in the fact that Cyrus Christie, who will be 26 in a few months, was on Sunday named as the Republic's young player of the year.

So Rice's presence in the West Ham side on a regular basis, despite that club's struggles at the bottom of the Premier League, is a welcome sight.

Rice trained with the senior squad last summer for a few days but this week in Turkey feels more real, especially as there is a cap waiting for him here in Antalya on Friday evening, a reward for hard work and graft.

Rice had knocks along the way. He wasn't picked the first time he went away with Ireland, was let go by Chelsea and then had a nervous wait before West Ham gave him a deal, that approach work making this week's international experience, and his time in the Premier League, more savoury.

"Hard work always beat talent. I wasn't the best when I was younger, I worked hard and the talent came through," he says.

"I wasn't picked for the Ireland U15 squads and had to bide my time. I got in at U16 level then, and kept my shirt and progressed through the ranks.

Rejection

"Back then I was going through a difficult time, I was going through a growth spurt, things weren't going so well. It was whether I was going to get a scholarship (at West Ham) or not.

"I wasn't in the U15 squads and I was disappointed but I had pick myself up and I got into the U16 squads and I've been through every other squad since." Rice also had to pick himself up after rejection by Chelsea, his boyhood club, though his idol John Terry helped him through.

Now he's enjoying that spot in the West Ham side and this time in the Ireland senior squad, Rice back in after a short spell training with the team in Cork last year.

"I was only around the squad for three days in Fota, it wasn't really the main squad. But to get away still and get the feel for it with Roy and Martin and some of the top players, yeah, it was just a dream come true. Now to be here, to go away to Turkey and start the new campaign is something I'm really looking forward to," he says.

And he already knows what come after Sinne Fianna Fáil.

"I think most of the boys know the lyrics and I know the song as well. I think it's good that you sing it before the games. It means something to you, it's passionate. It gets you really fired up for the game," he says.

"It's just been from when I've been playing since I was U16. I've probably played over 40 games in all for Ireland since I was a kid. Its such a good national anthem, it's so catchy. You know the words straight away."

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