Declan Rice: West Ham captain can bow out a hero in European final

Venue: Fortuna Arena, Prague Date: Wednesday, 7 June Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen live on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sport website & app; live text on BBC Sport website & app

The intrepid group of young West Ham fans taking a circuitous route from London to Prague via Manchester for the Europa Conference League final chose just one song to sing on their flight to the Czech Republic.

It is a song that will be repeated plenty of times before and during the match against Serie A side Fiorentina at Eden Arena on Wednesday – a contest that stands between West Ham and their first trophy of any significance since 1980.

“One more year, one more year, Declan Rice.”

But those supporters know, just like everyone else knows, they are unlikely to get their wish.

However the final works out, it is likely to be Rice’s last game for West Ham.

Nine years after he joined them as a 14-year-old, following rejection by Chelsea, after 245 appearances – including this final – three club player of the year awards and a season as captain, Rice is ready to accept one of the many offers coming his way from some of the biggest clubs in the game.

Rice knows he can bow out a hero.

The only man to captain West Ham to victory in a European final is legendary World Cup winner Bobby Moore. The only other man to lead the Hammers to victory in any final is Billy Bonds, a defender whose status is seared into the club’s history as one of their very best.

If West Ham can beat Fiorentina, that is the company Rice will deservedly take his place alongside.

“It would be my biggest achievement in football so far, 100%,” he said in an interview with the West Ham website.

“It would just mean everything, to lift that trophy, especially to be with the lads, wanting to see them smiling again and lift the trophy, to see our families afterward with the trophy.

“It’s in our hands. It’s a chance to go and create a legacy where every single player, the manager, everyone involved will be remembered forever.”

Rice’s journey to the top

In an article on this website in March 2019, I told the story of how Rice caught the attention of Arsene Wenger during an Under-18s match being played at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.

It is ironic, if not surprising, that Rice could be returning to Colney on an almost daily basis next season if the Gunners’ long-standing interest in the 24-year-old is matched by the kind of fee West Ham believe the England midfielder to be worth, which is going to be somewhere near £100m.

Rice’s ascent to stardom has not been easy.

He spent eight years in Chelsea’s academy before they decided he was not for them.

West Ham felt he had something but even they were not totally sure. Rice was the only player in his year group given a scholarship without the offer of a guaranteed professional contract.

But then, as now, Rice listened to his coaches and worked on the areas he was told to improve.

Matthew Upson is keen to stress his involvement in Rice’s career was minimal compared to some of his coaches.

However, the former England defender was asked to be Rice’s mentor when the pair’s paths crossed at West Ham.

“I really enjoyed working with him,” Upson told BBC Sport. “He was so receptive. He had the ability to take criticism or feedback. It didn’t deter him. He took it all in such a positive way and had the intelligence to absorb the information and add it to his game, which is a real skill.

“Declan was already at a super high level when I worked with him in terms of what he was capable of. You could see the ability he had in his character to be at the top of the game. That is him. Nobody has added that or given it to him. That is just Declan. That is his star quality.

“He has worked really hard at his game, physically and technically. David Moyes took him into the first team. As with all footballers, so many people have played a part and little bits. But Declan’s main asset is that he has been able to take that all on board and make himself better.”

Declan Rice captained West Ham's youngsters to the Premier League 2 trophy in 2017

Watching West Ham train before the Fiorentina match, it was striking how easy Rice makes it look.

Tuesday’s session was not the most intense or tactical – purposely so given the cameras had been allowed in – but it was amazing how much room Rice managed to find for himself, even in an 11-a-side game on half a pitch.

At one point he moved out wide to receive possession, then whipped over a perfectly delivered cross from the left wing for Thilo Kehrer to head home. Within a minute he had provided Michail Antonio with the opportunity to execute a close-range finish from a low cross.

More than anything, he covers ground quickly and closes down space.

“He is a very mature player for his age,” says Upson. “He can handle responsibility amazingly well, which is why he was such a young captain in the Premier League.

“Players don’t usually come into their own in that position until their late 20s. For someone of Declan’s age, the level he is playing at now is exceptional.”

Upson believes Rice will benefit from the struggles West Ham have endured in the Premier League this season, as it has taught him more about dealing with pressure on and off the pitch after two seasons of – largely – success at a club where expectations are not the equal of those he is tipped to join.

Even if their demand for “one more year” goes unheeded, few West Ham fans will begrudge Rice his move. And no-one could accuse him of coasting through the season and distancing himself from the club.

Twelve months ago, when Mark Noble was having a pitch named after him at the club’s academy at Chadwell Heath, Rice was there for the unveiling.

When West Ham won the FA Youth Cup at Arsenal in April, Rice was a central figure in the dressing room celebrations at Emirates Stadium.

Now, he has one more job. He will pull that shirt on one more time, slot his hand through captain’s armband and get ready to go.

“A lot of captains lead by example because of how they play,” said Upson. “But they might not be vocal or have the personality around the dressing room.

“Declan sets the tone with his performance but he also has the character, voice and personality to go with it.

“I am sure Declan will be thinking about will be his own individual performance. That is the only thing he can truly take care of.

“Then he has to think about how he can influence others. That is mainly from leading by example, by how he starts the game, that first bit of pressure, the first tackle, how he carries himself settling into the game.

“Sealing it with a win is a by-product of that. If you focus on that too much, you can take your eye off the thing that is going to win you the game, which is your individual performance and how you can affect your team-mates.

“His next move? Who knows. But he is capable of going right to the top of the game.”

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