Academy graduate, fan favourite, most wanted international and now Premier League goalscorer. What a start to life in football for Declan Rice. Oh, and he’s just 20 years of age.
Is he destined for the top?
Born in London to English parents, you could be forgiven to feel somewhat angered by his pending decision to play for the Republic of Ireland through his Cork-based grandparents, but look past this infamous debate and you’ll see the true talent that Rice possesses.
Released by the Chelsea academy as a 7-year old, a decision the club might just regret now as they look to find a near-impossible replacement for Cesc Fabregas – Rice was taken in with open arms in East London, and it’s obvious now that they made the right choice. From his early days in the West Ham academy at 14 years of age to celebrating his 20th birthday by scoring the winner against Arsenal in the Premier League, it’s been quite a journey already.
The final minutes of a game against Burnley on the last day of the 2016/17 season provided a versatile youngster with his senior Hammers debut, since then he’s gone on to pick up countless individual awards at a club who have failed to live up to the billing in recent years. Honours already include several Player of the Season awards at youth level for both West Ham and the Republic of Ireland, along with the runner-up spot in the club’s Hammer of the Year award for the 2017/18 campaign, behind a certain Marko Arnautovic.
Add to that the fact that he has over 50 senior games under his belt and that he found the only goal in West Ham’s landmark 50th game at the London Stadium, and you have all the ingredients required for a career of huge promise.
Admittedly, it was a slow start to the current campaign for Rice who managed just 45 minutes in the opening day defeat at Liverpool. Follow this with his absence for the home defeat to Bournemouth and his spot on the bench for the following two fixtures. Things weren’t looking so rosy for the precocious midfielder. However, 90 solid minutes in the win at Everton were enough to open the eyes of Manuel Pellegrini, who has played the youngster in every single minute of every league game since.
In a hugely inconsistent team, their number 41 has been the only constant. His presence in holding midfield has provided the West Ham defence with a much-needed layer of protection. Mature beyond his years, the popular figure of Rice has covered every blade of grass, both home and away this season, racking up 811 passes in the process. The 85.7% passing accuracy speaks for itself, while his 46 tackles, 28 interceptions, 37 clearances, and 40 aerial battles won prove just how critical he is to the club’s defensive element.
Covering so much distance in a position of such importance can also be renowned for giving away dangerous free-kicks, but his 6 fouls and just 2 yellows convey just how clever and careful he is in knowing when and where to prevent opposition attacks. Yet another starring role against Arsenal was capped by a stunning goal, assisted by new recruit Samir Nasri who has made his thoughts clear on just how talented his young teammate is. By carrying out the dirty work in the middle of the park, it’s not just Nasri who has benefitted, but space and time have since been generated for the flair and creativity of the likes of Arnautovic and Felipe Anderson. Rice provides the right balance for Pellegrini’s side to move forward.
And from admiration from grateful teammates on the field to fan adoration off it, the 20-year old’s joyful attitude is a welcomed addition to often robotic and emotionless footballers. Sports stars and social media often don’t go so well together, but this time it’s a rare success story, with the appropriately named ‘Basmati Busquets’ giving everyone a smile through acts like his dance moves on Twitter and his recreated Paolo Di Canio volley with the F2Freestylers.
Back to serious matters on the pitch, however, and thanks to the guidance of club man and leader Mark Noble, Rice has progressed and has done what former starlet Reece Oxford couldn’t do, and stamp his authority on first team football. By simply getting on with the job, the defensive midfielder has become a hero to many in the East End of the capital, where fans appreciate passion over more than anything else. Modern day football is filled with two types of players; those that live, breathe and eat football and those who are just there to enjoy the perks that come hand in hand with a life of spotlight in the public eye and it is clear that Rice is in the former category.
As links with a move to Manchester City were growing stronger and stronger as the days progressed, Rice cemented his future at the club by signing a new contract to keep him in East London till 2024, it’s now time for Rice to settle his broader future, where an international tug-of-war between England and the Republic of Ireland has dominated his early career. It was initially a mystery for many why both Gareth Southgate and Martin O’Neill were adamant that he turn out for their respective nations, but now for most, it’s quite clear why he is in such high demand.
And now, with Mick McCarthy adding to the mix – suggesting he build the nation around future captain Rice – it’s quite a spectacle for such a young footballer, who doesn’t need such pressure focused on him at this early stage. However, should he make a decision soon, he may just become even better.
Feature Image via talkSPORT
Image 1 via Racing Post
Mark Noble Image via Evening Standard
More from Peter Lynch here
Edited by Srinivas Sadhanand
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