Declan Rice’s career is approaching a fork in the road, the path he chooses to take will define his legacy at West Ham.
In his critically acclaimed book about the exploits of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball team, ‘The Boys of the Summer’, Roger Kahn theorised that ‘An athlete dies twice. First when they retire from their playing career, the second when they take their last breath.’
By this reckoning, Declan Rice suffered his own near-death experience when he was released from the Chelsea academy at the age of 14. After being informed of his release via phone call, Rice faced the premature end of his footballing dream. After a few long months nervously waiting for a second chance, he was offered a trial with West Ham’s under 15 side.
From this sliding doors moment in his youth, Declan Rice now finds himself as both the lynchpin of England’s midfield and as the talismanic captain of West Ham United. Rice though, is rapidly approaching another crossroads in his football career as his meteoric rise threatens to outpace that of his club, despite West Ham’s recent on-pitch improvement.
Legendary Celtic manager, Jock Stein once claimed that West Ham legend Bobby Moore could see 20 minutes into the future because he was so proficient at reading the game. Rice’s near-mystic ability to end opposition attacks before they have even started has prompted the West Ham faithful to dare to mention him in the same breath as The Irons’ original demi-god.
Since making his debut in May 2017, Hammers fans have looked beyond Rice’s Chelsea origin story to revel in the virtues of a boy who was born to wear the claret and blue. The supporter’s faith in him is absolute, even if they do affectionately refer to him as ‘The Basmati Busquets’.
Unfortunately for Hammers’ fans, there will soon come a point where their club must fend off the overtures of the wealthiest clubs in the league towards their hero. West Ham’s home loss to Leeds United in January felt like a terminal wound in their quest for Champions League football next season.
The starting gun has seemingly been fired on the race for Rice’s signature in the summer. The problem that West Ham face is that nearly all the Premier League’s wealthiest clubs are in need of a player of exactly Rice’s qualities.
Manchester City’s all-conquering machine will require a player to compete with Rodri for minutes after Fernandinho’s contract expires at the end of the season. Manchester United have been attempting to fill the void left by Michael Carrick at the base of their midfield since his retirement in 2018. In recent transfer windows, Chelsea have shown a keen interest to take him back to where it all started, where playing in the same side as his best friend, Mason Mount, is an obvious temptation.
It is a testament to Rice’s likeable, carefree personality that he is so loved on the terraces, even after he admitted to never having drank a pint of beer in his life. Speaking to The Sun newspaper during England’s run to the final of the delayed Euro 2020 Championships, Rice said: “Never had a pint. Don’t drink it. People get surprised but I just don’t like the smell of it, so I have never gone near it. I like a spirit now and then but as footballers we never get to live that life. If you want to then you may as well do something else.”
It is tempting to think that this all-encompassing commitment to the development of his footballing ability developed, at least in part, as a result of his release from the Chelsea academy. A decision the West London club have lived to regret.
When he was released from Chelsea as a boy, Rice could only watch on, powerless, as his dream of becoming a professional footballer faded to black. Since West Ham thrust him into the limelight, he has repaid their faith with an unbridled enthusiasm for self-improvement.
It has taken him fewer than 150 appearances to become physically and technically dominant, as opposed to the slim and, sometimes, hesitant holding midfield player that first emerged into top-level football’s consciousness. Where he would once play a five-yard pass to the nearest teammate as soon as possible, Rice now drives at the opposition’s defence with his chest puffed out so far in front of him that he seems to drag his team behind him in his slipstream. At the time of writing, Rice is arguably the best central midfielder in the Premier League and spent the past summer doing keepy-uppy’s with his backside in England training during the Euros.
In recent years, West Ham have benefited from Rice’s ability for exponential self-improvement. The fact that they finished just two points outside the Champions League places last season begs the question of whether Rice actually needs to leave the club to play at the highest level.
David Moyes’ astute coaching this season has liberated the midfielder from his defensive shackles into more of a box-to-box player who can affect the game at both ends of the pitch. Other clubs signing him with an idea of playing him in the back four, as Chelsea did last summer, would now seem an egregious waste of his talents.
The real question here is why players are built up just to see them sold to the highest bidder? To maintain the status-quo of the super-rich? Who, in this pandemic-affected market, is to say that a club will stump up the sort of cash that Moyes has hinted it would take to extricate Rice from West Ham?
Not many teams are willing to make a holding midfielder their club record signing. He’s come a long way from staring his footballing doom in the face as a 14-year-old. If Rice does elect to stay at the club that saved him from anonymity, he might one day live forever on a plinth alongside Bobby Moore, sculpted with hammer and chisel, cast in bronze. Declan Rice: the only working-class hero who drinks a pina colada.