- 14 Feb 19
Yesterday, a young man by the name of Declan Rice, in whom so many Irish football fans had invested a freight-load of hopes, dreams, love and affection, walked out of the Irish football family, despite having worked his way up through the youth international system and being given three caps for Ireland. Here is how the break-up letter – delivered in advance of Valentine’s Day – was greeted by one wounded Irish football fan.
Declan. Origin: Irish. Meaning: full of goodness.
Declan. It’s Valentine’s Day and my heart is broken, my stomach aches – and I know it’s juvenile but I’m still trying to think of something to say to make you realise that you’re making a mistake.
I can understand why someone would make the choice you've made – but I can’t really understand why you made it. I was there in Tallaght Stadium in the 97th minute with Ronan Curtis and Olamide Shodipo and Ryan Manning. You responded to my call by thumping your chest and touching your heart, obscured only by the green cloth covering you.
And I was there in the Aviva watching John O’Shea play for the last time as fittingly, ‘Declan Rice’ played his first full international on Irish soil. I was there as you sang the national anthem as gaeilge. I was there as you dictated things in midfield. I was there as you grew as a player, right before our eyes. It was remarkable. You were exactly what we had been missing for the past 15 years, ever since a prime Roy Keane left Saipan. We saw the tonic to our sickness, we saw the possibilities – a midfielder of such technical ability and such strength while still a teenager. We dreamt. And now those dreams have been ripped from us.
I know you could earn more money playing for England. Nike might want a piece. Subway probably would too and Nivea and all those other crass brands that Adam Lallana spends his time hawking. But fuck it, the kid I met was worth more than that. That latest contract with West Ham has you set for life. You’re gonna earn millions upon millions through your career: so, what’s another few pounds – or euros when all is said and done? And frankly, if you become the player that I believe you’ll be, it’s not gonna matter where you’re from. Do Adidas really care where Mo Salah is from? Does it matter that Eden Hazard is Belgian and not French?
We believed you understood how special and unique it is to be Irish and... maybe you really did. The immense beauty of the island sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. An island born of poetry and music, green and lush. An island of sweet talkers, and drinkers and dancers and all sorts of chancers and charmers. An island which your grandparents Jack and Margaret Rice left when it was barely out of short pants really, to forge a better life for themselves and their children and their grandchildren. An island where they were born and their parents and their grandparents before them. And so on and so on.
We offered you so many things.
We offered you the opportunity to be a hero. The man who gets the offer and politely declines. The man who captains his country for a decade. The man who gets 100 caps and keeps playing. The man who is truly loved by an entire nation.
Ask Jason McAteer how it feels to be the guy who sent Ireland to the World Cup. Ask Kevin Kilbane or Ray Houghton how it feels to have a gig for life, to be loved on Irish airwaves, to be the pundit or the coach or whatever it might be when you’ve hung up your boots. We gave you the opportunity to be the star, to be our Luis Suarez or Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Luka Modric. We saw a future.
Is it really too hard to imagine? World Cup 2022. Caoimhin Kelleher in goal, Shane Duffy and Masterson or Nolan or O’Connor pairing with him at centre half, Brady on the left, Doherty on the right. Yourself and Conor Coventry in the centre. Or maybe Josh Cullen. Festy out wide on one side and Callum Robinson on the other. Troy Parrott playing number 10 behind Michael Obafemi.
Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I can see you driving that young side to greatness. We’ve gotten close before. We lost to the Spanish on penalties in Korea. We were on track to beat the French in the Euros in 2016, before Antoine Griezmann decided to make himself famous.
And sure, you could do the same with England. But you won’t. The psychological pressure that comes with playing for England has ground down every side since 1966. Michael Carrick has spoken of the depression that clouded his 2010 World Cup. Players of the calibre of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes have gone through the international game with only two consistent outcomes: they didn’t win medals and they retired from international duty early.
Meanwhile, my strong hunch is that Gareth Southgate will be found out. England’s World Cup run in 2018 consisted of what? Coming second in a group with Tunisia and Panama: an absolute certainty. Then they beat Colombia on penalties; and played an awful Sweden side in the quarters, managing to avoid France, Brazil, Uruguay, Belgium, Russia and Croatia. So they reached the semis, where they were duly undone by Croatia, a country of four and a half million people, led by a midfield genius. You see, it is possible.
For England, it was the kind of draw that will never happen again. As with South Korea in 2002, sometimes you just get lucky. Maybe you believed that this was more than just a flash in the pan, Declan. But my gut feeling is that it wasn’t, and it won’t be.
I hope this doesn’t change things for Conor Coventry or Festy Ebosele or Louie Barry (fingers crossed, Louie). That the FAI doesn’t change its approach to how it selects young players, because the job will always be to produce the best Irish players and the best Irish teams, and if you’re entitled to an Irish passport, if you have that connection, then you’re Irish – and that’s good enough for me. Wherever my children are born, be it Dublin or London or Berlin, I hope they’ll want to play for Ireland. I hope the Irish blood running through my veins passes through to them. I hope that they’ll feel all the love I feel for this deeply special place.
And I know, I know, it’s just football –but Jesus, this world has become so dark lately. The doomsday clock is at two minutes to midnight, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are using nuclear warheads to make up for size deficits. The US has destabilised the Middle East and armed the Israelis. Bill Cosby turned out to have more Quaalude prescriptions than Emmys. And Brexit is still on course to hit us and them and everyone, any day now.
Robin Williams couldn’t make it through another day and I understand why. We’ve got politicians lying to us, trying to divide us, the media preying on our fears, to sell more papers and more clicks, and those with capital and power are lobbying to give the worker less while making him or her work more – all while the money gets siphoned off the top, never to trickle down and the machines take job after job after job as we get fatter and dumber and poorer... So it may be just football –but it’s also both hope and escapism and somehow it’s still pure as a game despite the money and the agents and FIFA. The ball is still round. The game still lasts 90 minutes. Everything else is pure theory. And y’know, maybe, if I’m real lucky, I’ll live to see Liverpool win the league (I know, that’s just me), and Ireland go further than they ever have before.
So Declan, after all is said and done, I don’t hate you. Of course I don’t. I just feel so deeply disappointed and so fucking sad about it. It’s like the girlfriend you’ve planned your life around walking away with another man: he may drive a flash car and he may buy her new lingerie and chocolates and flowers, but it’s all flash, all without substance. By the time, she realises that you were the one who truly loved her, and what you gave her was special, it’s too late. Much too late...
Another sleepless night in Dublin, Deccers. Goodnight and good luck.