Stephen Hunt: 'Declan Rice loss a big blow but Martin O'Neill has to work with available players'

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.

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