Declan Rice’s rise has been meteoric yet his humbleness is his greatest asset
Ask any West Ham United fan who their greatest ever manager was and a fair few would go for the choice of Ron Greenwood.
As boss of the Hammers from 1961 to 1974 Greenwood achieved an FA Cup triumph in 1964 and then more even more remarkably won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup the following season.
Yet although success on the pitch was influential to his establishment as a man to be reckoned with across the East End, it was the work away from the cameras that will prove to be his long-lasting legacy.
He had inherited a young team from previous West Ham icon Ted Fenton and turned them into a force, creating a persona which really only Sir Matt Busby had been famous for- creating an identity out of youth.
Fast forward from the 1960s to now and that ideology is best seen as an individual metaphor in the Hammers’ current youth prospects.
Born in London, Declan Rice experienced football from a tender age, much to the help of his parents who he has consistently recognised as the protagonists there for him in his early life.
Football heritage then, albeit local, was never too far away. His brother played for Chelsea for five years when they were both kids but an injury forced an early career finish, while his dad competed week-in-week-out for Hampton and Richmond and Molesey.
The noting of the significance of the influence that his parents provided him in his early football life highlights Rice as a character who knows himself in a nutshell. Down to earth yet determined and humble yet hungry, combined with a leadership quality rarely seen at such an age.
The advice and drive to be the best, which Rice followed from the very beginning, is why he is at West Ham now.
Released at Chelsea at 14, a young boy’s self-confidence could be severely hampered given perspective of life is not fully understood at that age, so the issue of guidance was important.
And whatever the reasoning behind the decision to move east to West Ham, it turned out to be a life choice that Rice will always look back on in admiration and perhaps relief.
There is no doubt that he feels lucky and privileged to have made his living at first Upton Park and now the London Stadium.
Picked up by the club as a teenager, Rice has progressed well through the club’s U23 set-up, still abiding by the ethos of Greenwood all those years ago.
The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick have passed the training pitches, whiteboards and boardrooms at the base just a few miles away in Dagenham.
It’s perhaps a testament to West Ham that criticism over the policies implemented within their youth set-up have always been about quantity over quality, the Irons gaining a reputation as a feeder club to the giants of English football.
Rice, similarly to those others has shined in the later years of his youth career, eventually becoming captain of the U23 team.
The ability to lead a squad is not just working out what players are in the right position, it’s about the responsibilities and temperament needed to make the tough decisions while commanding the respect of your fellow teammates.
In a youth set-up that can always be difficult as a myriad of players look towards the same goal of breaking into the first-team. Jealousy can, of course, get in the way but it’s not too hard to work out the likability and respect that Rice attained from his teammates.
Which has now transpired to the fans. They appreciate his ability to learn every day, a willingness to improve that transpires into an identity associated with a club that fans have supported for their whole lives.
When Rice once talked about looking at the footwork of Winston Reid in training in an attempt to calculate the angle of turns and passes under pressure, you could’ve sensed a cheer within every single Hammers fan who found out about that.
It’s why Rice is now favourite to be a future captain of the club. His attitude to do what is right for the team on the pitch, even if he has to be sacrificed, is part and parcel of the thought process which revolves around every Hammer when they wake up on the morning of a matchday.
The best example of this was his role as wing-back against Chelsea in the recent 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. In an unnatural position Rice listened, learned and quite simply evolved as a player in 90 minutes against the club which released him.
Yet this isn’t much of a surprise. When he was at Chelsea as a youngster he used to play in midfield but developed as a centre-back, soon after, a versatility which managers look on in pleasure.
And although likely to remain a centre-back for the rest of his career, there is no doubt that if David Moyes asked Rice to play in midfield, the 19-year-old would do so without hesitation if it meant that the team had a greater chance of achieving a result.
Rice just feels lucky to be selected and given a chance to prove his worth. When he first got the call-up for the Republic of Ireland squad, qualifying due to his grandparent’s Irish nationality, he spoke about how he never expected to get it.
Named U19 Irish Player of the Year Rice went onto make his senior international debut in a 1-0 defeat to Turkey two months ago, with the hope of staking a place in the back-line in the near future.
The error was obvious and it proved pivotal in the match but straight after the result, Rice went onto social media to state that he is young and that learning from those mistakes is what was important.
Just last week, Moyes then stated that Rice had his best game in a West Ham shirt in the 0-2 win away at Leicester City, but whatever the comments Rice knows better than anyone that he has to stay true to himself and abide by the values that were installed into him at a young age.
For him, family is the reason why he joined West Ham and in truth, the 60,000 inside the London Stadium can probably be classed as that now too.