Declan Rice wants to help Republic of Ireland U21s make history after securing a dramatic victory over Azerbaijan on Tuesday evening.
Rice, who had returned to U21 duty after making his senior debut in Turkey on Friday, and his fellow Boys in Green had dominated their European Championship Group 5 qualifier in Dublin, but found Azeri goalkeeper Karim Ibrahimov in unbeatable form at Tallaght Stadium – until the ninth minute of added time!
It was then that Queens Park Rangers midfielder Ryan Manning curled a free-kick into the penalty area, the ball was knocked down and Yeovil Town’s Shaun Donnellan bundled it into the net, sparking wild celebrations on the pitch and in the stands.
Leading those celebrations was Rice – alongside jubilant West Ham United teammate and captain Josh Cullen – and the teenager now has his sights set on helping Ireland’s U21s qualify for the European finals for the first time in their history.
“To motivate myself to get back [for the U21 match] was an easy thing to do,” Rice told RTE Sport. “It was a must-win game and after the high that I had in Turkey, I knew that this would be a more important game to be honest, as it was a qualifier.
“I was just looking forward to getting out there for the 21s, getting another appearance and getting a win.”
“We want to be the first team to do it. I’ve come back tonight to play a massive game, it’s great been away but it helped that was the week before and I could come back again and play for Ireland Under-21s. I think it’s important that I keep playing international football whatever level it is.”
We’re all looking to Italy in 2019 and that’s where we want to go. No one has qualified before and we want to be the first team to do it
The 19-year-old’s composed performance in a deep-lying midfield role earned praise from his U21s manager Noel King, who was delighted with the Hammers’ commitment and maturity.
“It was a very difficult evening for Declan to come back,” said King. “He is a terrific player and the expectation maybe that people had on him to be a Messi because of what he's done [against Turkey, when he was named Man of the Match]. He acquitted himself excellently.”
Tuesday’s victory means Rice, Cullen, King and company sit second in Group 5, three points behind leaders Germany, but with a game in-hand against Kosovo in early September.
Win that and the Irish will take on the Germans in two winner-takes-all ties to complete the qualifying round. The nine qualifying group winners qualify for next summer’s finals automatically, while the four runners-up with the best records will play-off for two remaining spots.
Rice is determined that Ireland are among the 12 teams competing for the big prize in Italy.
“To get the win coming so late makes it special. With Germany and Kosovo drawing, that works in our favour with us winning.
“Noel and the backroom team have been excellent throughout the campaign. The boys, we’re all level-headed lads. We’re all looking to Italy in 2019 and that’s where we want to go. No one has qualified before and we want to be the first team to do it.”