It has been far too long since West Ham United turned out a player to match the club’s self-celebratory reputation as the “Academy of Football”. In the Hammers midfield, Declan Rice partners Mark Noble, club captain, and the last Hammers to go the full distance from youth team to experienced senior pro.
West Ham fans would hope for the same from Rice, 20 this week, and their match-winner at the weekend when Arsenal were defeated 1-0 at the London Stadium. Their concern, though, and sad expectation, must be that he has come so far so fast that a bigger, richer club will soon come calling for his signature.
Hammers fans spent much of the 2000s and 2010s watching their former players collecting silverware elsewhere after being cashed in as their former club yo-yoed between the divisions and inferior talents donned the claret and blue. The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson formed the basis of the England team’s “golden generation”.
Many have come and gone since Noble’s debut in 2004, including most probably Reece Oxford, the same age as Rice, and still on the club’s books, but whose high watermark will probably be the fleeting breakthrough made as a 16-year-old at the start of the 2015-16 season.
Rice, congratulated by the FAI on his landmark birthday on Monday, may yet choose England over Ireland, but that is a matter yet to be decided. Instead, his performance and goal on Saturday served as confirmation on what has been apparent since the start of the season: in Rice, West Ham have possession of a player with the capability of being one of the Premier League’s best midfielders.
In fact, the evidence of Rice’s part in West Ham’s winter revival is that the East London club already possesses one of the division’s best; he has to be a shoo-in for the PFA Young Player of the Year nominations. Having not long ago made the step forward from central defence, he appears custom-made for the position that so many leading clubs struggle to fill.
A defender with obvious ball-carrying ability but who was often guilty of callow mistakes has, with his physique filled out, become a powerhouse and one who plays with his head up. There is little spectacular about his game, and even his goal against Arsenal was struck with a typical lack of fuss, but Rice has already become an expert at filling the right spaces, and choosing the correct ball to play. The best teams need players whose simplicity oils the wheels.
At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp keeps defaulting to Jordan Henderson in the biggest games, and while the captain has rarely let down his manager, he is by no means watertight in protecting his defence and his passing range is unremarkable.
Pep Guardiola makes no secret of the importance of Fernandinho to Manchester City but at 33, a replacement is top of the priority list.
Chelsea have a surfeit of midfielders, and team-mate Michail Antonio has compared him favourably to N’Golo Kante, but they have found nobody of Rice’s stature, composure or promise on their production line of young talent.
At Manchester United, Nemanja Matic is 30, and until recently looked one-paced and outnumbered, while Arsenal and Tottenham probably do not have the funds to buy a player whose potential, improvement and versatility have already pushed his price into the highest echelons.
Should he go for England over Ireland, his value as a homegrown player would increase yet further and his club’s owners have been canny enough to tie him to a long-term deal.
Declan Rice is right now liking Happy Birthday messages on Instagram but has yet to like the FAI post. I need to get a life. #journalism
— Nathan Murphy (@nathanmurf) January 14, 2019
These are times of content at the London Stadium, the first period of calm since the club moved there in the summer of 2016. Marko Arnautovic has been agitating for a move to China, but unlike with Dimitri Payet two years ago, the Austrian’s departure would not be a disastrous cashing in of the family silver.
In Rice, and Felipe Anderson, the club has other jewels, and the £35m that has been offered could be spent on a squad that finally looks coherent and progressive.
Owners Davids Gold and Sullivan, have gone quiet on ambitions to lead the club into the Champions League, but that is where West Ham will have to be playing for Rice to be as long-serving as Noble. Hammer or not, English or Irish, he looks headed right to the top.