When the news broke that Declan Rice had finally ended the speculation around his international future, there was a collective sigh around Ireland. While outwardly football fans seemed to be preparing for this exact scenario, most still hoped that perhaps Rice would pledge himself to the Boys in Green. While his decision has prompted plenty of outrage and discussion, it has also inspired a fresh dialogue about the current state of the League of Ireland and its inability to not just produce, but hang on to, young talented players and the effect that this has on the Irish national team.
This isn’t anything new of course, the League of Ireland has long been subject to criticism. For years now, the cycle has been the same: exciting young prospects are produced here in Ireland, they head to England at the age of 16, then return to the League of Ireland when they don’t make it in England. Are Irish players simply not talented enough to compete in England? Of course they are. So what is holding them back? It is quite clear that the answer lies in the fact that coaching in Ireland is miles behind the rest of Europe. The support that young players, coaches, and clubs receive in England is far superior. According to Limerick FC’s Shane Tracy in Kevin O’Neill’s “Where have all the Irish gone?”, Irish players are “playing a massive game of catch-up” when they reach the English leagues as the players there have had access to top quality coaching and facilities since a young age.
What then is the solution to this problem? News recently broke that Niall Quinn’s vision to rebuild the League of Ireland through the building of academies with state support is gaining traction, with politicians and leading figures in Irish universities backing the plan, according to Quinn himself. Quinn’s idea, to build academies and to offer young players’ professional coaching, as well as a plan B in the form of full-time education, aims to make staying in Ireland more attractive to young pros, and improve the development of underage prospects into fully-fledged players. Clearly these ideas are not revolutionary, but little progress seems to have been made. Quinn also wants the League of Ireland to be run independently of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), who have thus far failed to increase the league’s attractiveness, and have been long criticised for a perceived lack of interest in their domestic league.
Another major issue that has plagued the League of Ireland since its inception is the lack of support it receives from the Irish public. Most footballs fans in Ireland are long-term supporters of English clubs, not only because the Premier League is seen as more prestigious, but also because, at one time, the Premier League’s top clubs were awash with Irish players. Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, and John Aldridge were titans of the English top-flight in their day, and naturally this led to many Irish people supporting English clubs, as is still the case today. How can the League of Ireland ever become a force in European football when it isn’t even supported domestically? This is not to say that Irish people “should” support domestic clubs or “shouldn’t” support clubs in England. It is the League, along with the FAI, that have to work together to make it a more attractive league, both for fans and players. These two factors go hand in hand of course; the more support the league receives, the more likely young players will want to stay and vice versa.
This all brings us back to the question of Declan Rice, and the outrage that has been made so vocal by the Irish support following his pledge to England. Is it not hypocritical to bemoan Rice playing for England while ignoring Irish domestic football in favour of Premier League football? One particular point that has been discussed thoroughly in the wake of his announcement was Rice’s reaction to his debut for Ireland. Tearing up during the national anthem and kissing the badge so fervently suggests that his heart was already set, how could he then decide to play across the water?
This has certainly been the kind of rhetoric displayed by numerous Irish pundits, but it definitively misses the point. Rice clearly considers himself to have a large Irish connection through his grandparents, but at the end of the day he was born and raised in England, went through the Chelsea and West Ham youth academies, and now plays in the Premier League. It is only natural for him to consider himself English, but this shouldn’t alienate him from Ireland or take away from his dual-nationality and the gravity of the decision which he had to make. We shouldn’t bemoan players declaring for England when the level of support for soccer in Ireland domestically, both from the state and the public, is so low. Not until the prestige and performance of the League of Ireland is improved can we hope to produce world class players for our national team again, and have them compete internationally.