The Kilbane attitude to Declan Rice allows abuse of our own Irish players
I have little sympathy for Northern Ireland over the James McClean situation.
I can understand why their fans and coaches would feel frustrated and disappointed that a player they had invested in would pledge his allegiance to another team when it mattered most but I'd wonder what on earth had surprised them.
James McClean is Irish. His family is Irish. Given the opportunity, James McClean was always going to play for Ireland. But the IFA knowingly ran that risk of having their fingers burned by trying to recruit a player who, whilst they were perfectly entitled to recruit him, was always going to have a stronger affinity for Ireland, the nation he identifies with, the one he's a citizen of and the one he was born and raised in.
McClean is just a victim of the system.
Despite the fact that he's as Irish as anyone from Cork, where he was born on the island means he automatically gets washed up in different practices. The schoolboys system is different so when he shows up well as a teenager, the natural step up is to play for Northern Ireland schoolboys alongside all the other best school players where he's from. When the Milk Cup comes around, he plays for Northern Ireland, the hosts, in the biggest shop window for youth players in the six counties. And, as the FAI idly stand by and allow the best young Irish players north of the border to develop outside of the Republic of Ireland's clutches, people like McClean get asked to play for Northern Ireland and, when you're a teenager trying to get anyone to notice you in one of the most ruthless businesses on earth, it's hard to turn down international football, especially when there's only one offer on the table at that time.
Given the choice though, it isn't a choice.
McClean is Irish, Ireland are entitled to call him up, and he was always going to leave Northern Ireland when the opportunity was arising for him to have a career with the Republic. And Northern Ireland would've known that too. They can obviously hope for otherwise, they can try to persuade him but, whilst it's gutting when you put money and time and even emotions into building young players for the future and it's even worse when they're good players, the bottom line is that they're Irish and, no matter what shirt they wear at whatever age or what they say in an interview, they want to play for Ireland and they can play for Ireland.
Kevin Kilbane should stop and think about the abuse men like Darron Gibson and James McClean and, more recently, young Jordan McEneff have taken for switching over football teams to play for the nation they identify with.
They were proud Irishmen all along but they played for Northern Ireland because the system allowed them to and the Republic of Ireland allowed them to as well. They get asked in whilst they're still extremely young to play international football and train in that setup and it's the first and only country to invite them to do so and that's why they go there in the first place.
Unfortunately, that's what happened with Declan Rice too.
If you’re a “proud Englishman” then why play for us in the first place?
— Kevin Kilbane (@kdkilbane77) February 13, 2019
Kilbane should know better. He's played on Ireland teams alongside players who were proud Englishmen - some of them just as proud to be Irish, but others there because the England call never came. Either way, a lot of them will be celebrated forever in Irish history. And, still today, too many proud Irishman are playing for other nations in the first place because of circumstance and because of rules and they're vilified by people like Kilbane at the other side of the border because they can't understand that an Irish player would want to play for Ireland for the rest of his career, no matter where he was first.
Listen, Declan Rice didn't help himself. He doubled down on interviews, he sang the national anthem (maybe he feels Irish too like presumably Kilbane is proud of both Preston and Mayo) and it's really, really, really annoying that he already has three caps for Ireland but, even though that gives you a little more hope as a fan that he will commit for the long haul, playing a friendly against Turkey for the senior team is just as arbitrary as playing for the under-21s. The rules don't see it differently and, let's get real, not playing for the senior team didn't exactly do anything to spare Jack Grealish the tsunami of shit that came his way when he transferred as an underage player. It's just as frustrating losing a good player at under-21 level as it is at senior level but the only true distinction is simply that Declan Rice is a better player than anyone we've ever lost.
Rice's decision pissed me off completely, like it did any Irish fan. You couldn't help but feel flat with the realisation that the best player of this generation will no longer be available to an already struggling Ireland team and that the next 14 years won't all be built around him.
But Declan Rice isn't the bad guy here. He's just an English man with English parents who wants to play for England, even if some people think it will be an impossible task for a 20-year-old already dominating the biggest games in the biggest league to get himself up to the same insurmountable levels of Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson or Harry Winks.
Rice is English and we knew that all along but the FAI policy of finding the Irish connection, and finding them young, runs that risk the whole way up until the point of a senior competitive international. No matter how much you make a 16-year-old feel loved and welcomed, he's still an English 16-year-old who still has a long way to go before making a decision on the rest of his career - a decision which is generally straightforward in the end, regardless of the investment from Dublin.
James McClean and the rest of them are Irish and Northern Ireland know that all along and they, too, run that same risk, knowing that a chance to play for Ireland will immediately undo any good work they've done beforehand.
So, just like we'd tell the north to stop their crying when Ireland take Irish players, we're going to have to find the stomach to swallow this particularly bitter pill because all that's happened is England will eventually take an English player.
There are two real bad guys here. One is the system and the stupid rules that allow this nonsense in the first place. If you told a player like Declan Rice - and especially players in the north - that once they play for a country at any level, they are committed to them forever, the vast majority wouldn't be so frivolous with who they play for as a teenagers. A lot of them would be happy to wait for their nation to come calling.
The other bad guy is the FAI. It's their fault for a recruitment policy that uses the granny rule and relies on hope that an English player won't attract England's attention. And it's their fault for allowing Northern Ireland to call up the brightest young Irish talents in the north before they express interest - meaning they have to switch eventually and whip up controversy.
Instead of scouting England for third generation Irish players, would they not be better served putting the same devotion and energy into the guys in the six counties in the north and bringing them on board before Northern Ireland get their teeth into them? That way, at least, young players would avoid people like Kevin Kilbane abusing them on social media, on radio and on television for just wanting to play for their country.
Kilbane's comments absolve the system and absolve the FAI from their part in causing all this when the end result for good players is usually inevitable.
Declan Rice is English and wants to play for England. James McClean is Irish and wanted to play for Ireland. They were both good enough to realise those dreams.