Declan Rice: West Ham skipper may leave Europe as a hero
The brave bunch of teenage West Ham fans flying from London to Prague via Manchester for the Europa Conference League final chose only one song to sing on their flight to the Czech Republic.
It’s a song that will be played numerous times before and during West Ham’s encounter against Serie A side Fiorentina at Eden Arena on Wednesday, a game that stands between the Hammers and their first major title since 1980.
“One more year, Declan Rice.”
But those supporters, like everyone else, understand that their request is unlikely to be granted.
Rice’s final game for West Ham will almost certainly be his last.
Rice is ready to accept one of the many offers coming his way from some of the game’s top teams, nine years after joining them as a 14-year-old, following rejection by Chelsea, after 245 games – including this final – three club player of the year awards, and a season as captain.
Rice understands what it is to be a hero.
Bobby Moore is the only man to have captained West Ham to victory in a European final. The only other man to lead the Hammers to a final victory is Billy Bonds, a defender whose legacy as one of the club’s best is indelible.
Rice will be able to take his spot with West Ham if they defeat Fiorentina.
“It would be my biggest achievement in football so far, 100%,” he told the West Ham website.
“It would mean everything to lift that trophy, especially to be with the lads, wanting to see them smile again and lift the trophy, and then to see our families with the trophy.”
“We have control of it. It’s an opportunity to go and leave a legacy in which every single player, manager, and everyone involved will be remembered forever.”
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Rice’s ascension to the top
In a March 2019 post on this website, I detailed the story of how Rice got Arsene Wenger’s notice during an Under-18s match at Arsenal’s London Colney training base.
Rice might be returning to Colney on a near-daily basis next season if the Gunners’ long-standing interest in the 24-year-old is matched by the fee West Ham believe the England midfielder is worth, which is expected to be close to £100 million.
Rice’s rise to fame has not been simple.
He was in Chelsea’s academy for eight years before they decided he wasn’t for them.
West Ham felt he had something, but they weren’t convinced. Rice was the only athlete in his class to receive a scholarship without the promise of a professional contract.
Rice, like now, listened to his coaches and worked on the areas where he was encouraged to improve.
Matthew Upson is quick to point out that his influence in Rice’s career was minor in comparison to some of his coaches.
When the pair met at West Ham, the former England defender was requested to be Rice’s mentor.
“I really enjoyed working with him,” Upson said, according to BBC Sport. “He was quite receptive. He was able to accept criticism or feedback. It had no effect on him. He took it all in stride and had the foresight to absorb the material and apply it to his game, which is a true skill.
“When I worked with Declan, he was already at a super high level in terms of what he was capable of.” You could see in his character the talent he had to be at the top of the game. That’s who he is. Nobody added it or gave it to him. Declan is the only one. That is his distinguishing feature.
“He has put in a lot of effort, both physically and technically, to improve his game.” David Moyes called him up to the first team. As with all footballers, many people have contributed in small ways. But Declan’s major asset is that he has been able to take it all in and improve himself.”
It was stunning to watch West Ham train before the Fiorentina game how effortless Rice made it look.
Tuesday’s training was not the most tough or tactical – on purpose, given the cameras – but it was surprising how much space Rice managed to find for himself, even in an 11-a-side game on half a pitch.
He ran out wide to gather control at one point, then whipped in a brilliantly delivered cross from the left flank for Thilo Kehrer to head home. In less than a minute, he had set up Michail Antonio for a close-range finish from a low cross.
Above all, he covers a lot of ground and closes a lot of space.
“He’s a very mature player for his age,” Upson says. “He can handle responsibility incredibly well, which is why he was such a young Premier League captain.”
“Players usually don’t come into their own in that position until they’re in their late twenties.” Declan’s current level of skill is extraordinary for someone his age.”
Rice’sets the tone’ and sets a good example.
Rice, according to Upson, will benefit from West Ham’s Premier League struggles this season because it has taught him more about dealing with pressure on and off the field after two seasons of – largely – success at a club where expectations are not on par with those he is expected to join.
Even if their demand for “one more year” is ignored, few West Ham fans will bemoan Rice’s departure. And no one could accuse him of coasting through the season and withdrawing from the club.
Rice was present for the presentation of a pitch named after Mark Noble at the club’s academy in Chadwell Heath a year ago.
Rice was a key figure in the dressing room celebrations at Emirates Stadium when West Ham won the FA Youth Cup at Arsenal in April.
He now has another employment. He’ll put that garment on again, slip his hand through the captain’s armband, and get ready to go.
“A lot of captains lead by example because of how they play,” Upson explained. “However, they may not be as talkative or as outgoing in the locker room.
“With his performance, Declan sets the tone, but he also has the character, voice, and personality to back it up.”
“I’m sure Declan will be thinking about his own personal performance.” That is the only thing he can properly look after.
“Then he must consider how he can influence others.” the is primarily due to how he starts the game, the first bit of pressure, the first tackle, and how he handles himself as he settles into the game.
“Sealing it with a win is an unintended consequence of that.” If you focus too much on that, you may lose sight of what is really important: your individual performance and how you can influence your teammates.
“What will be his next move?” Nobody knows. But he has the potential to rise to the top of the game.”