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Martin O'Neill Defends Decision Not To Cap Rice Or Grealish

Martin O'Neill Defends Decision Not To Cap Rice Or Grealish
By Eoin Harrington Updated
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Declan Rice and Jack Grealish remain public enemies in the eyes of many Irish football fans, after declaring for England despite being eligible to play for Ireland.

Both played for Ireland at underage level and, though Grealish never appeared for the senior team, Rice was capped at senior level three times - albeit in friendlies, allowing him to make the switch to the English side in 2019.

Martin O'Neill was in charge for those three friendly games in 2018, but chose not to include Rice in any competitive squads that year.

Speaking to talkSPORT this week, O'Neill revealed the explanation behind his decision to exclude Rice and Grealish before they jumped ship, saying that it would not have been right to "force" either man to play for Ireland if their hearts lay elsewhere.

Rice and Grealish: Martin O'Neill said he "couldn't force" pair to play for Ireland

Watching Declan Rice and Jack Grealish star for England on their run through the 2022 World Cup has once again brought their Irish links - and the fallout surrounding them - back to the forefront.

Neither were capped in a competitive senior game for Ireland by Martin O'Neill and, by the time he was succeeded by Mick McCarthy in 2019, both had already made the switch to England.

The fact that Rice made his switch after playing three (friendly) games for Ireland has ramped up the anger at his decision. Martin O'Neill, speaking to talkSPORT this week, explained his rationale behind leaving Rice out of competitive Irish squads:

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You can't coerce players into becoming international players. [Declan Rice] played in three friendly games at senior level, he was terrific in the games. It’s as simple as this: Declan Rice wanted to play for England.

He’s born in England, it really is as simple as that. You can't just bring them into an international game, a competitive game.

The minute they play a competitive match for the country that’s them announcing they’re going to be playing for them.

That was never going to be the case, you can’t deceive people into playing these games. You cannot force them into that.

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It's sound logic from O'Neill, and honourable - but Irish fans will nonetheless look back and think "what if?"

The situations with Rice and Grealish are distinctly different due to Rice's experience at senior level with Ireland, but O'Neill revealed he gave similar thought to choosing Grealish, and even met with his family in an attempt to clarify the situation.

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O'Neill said that Grealish and his father both had their hearts set on the England team rather than Ireland, a decision which O'Neill again respected:

When you have to make a decision, that decision was made by Jack Grealish and his father. His father's also English too, you might go back to heritage as well, but that’s what they wanted to do, and I’m not going to disavow them of that.

Since the fiascos surrounding Declan Rice and Jack Grealish, FIFA have altered the regulations surrounding international eligibility, meaning that players can switch nationality even if they have up to four competitive caps at senior level.

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That may have changed the scenario somewhat back in 2018, before O'Neill and his assistant manager Roy Keane left the Ireland job after five years.

O'Neill, who led Ireland to the knockout stages of EURO 2016 before a dip in form after that summer in France, says that the only thing that could have changed the situation from his perspective would have been if Rice and Grealish had been given no prospect of lining out for England.

"If Gareth Southgate had said 'listen son, you haven’t got a prayer of getting in this side over the next five years’ there might have been a conversation, but that wasn’t the case," O'Neill concluded.

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It's fascinating to hear the perspective of the man who had the Declan Rice and Jack Grealish situations at least somewhat in his own hands, but we doubt it will quell the frustration of many of Ireland's football-following fanbase.

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