Declan Rice is a throwback to an era when young players were mentally strong enough to withstand a rollicking.
West Ham boss David Moyes was questioned for pointing the finger at the rookie after his mistake against Arsenal opened the floodgates to a 4-1 defeat.. Rice was in his first full season at the time, but now 20 and firmly established in Gareth Southgate‘s England side as a holding midfield player, he thinks the tough love in 2018 worked in his favour.
‘You know what, he was right to hammer me,’ says Rice, who exudes personality in front of a microphone as he does on the pitch. ‘I ducked for the ball and it’s gone in the back of the net. It was one of my early league starts [his 10th] and he absolutely grilled me in front of the lads.
Declan Rice has cemented himself as an England regular despite not playing at a ‘top six’ team
‘I just sat there and took it but looking back on it now I think you need those moments, something to make you realise you have to get better. You can’t be thinking after a few games that you’re in.
‘You are going to get hit with something, and when I made that mistake against Arsenal it was kind of a reality check.
‘It was tough when Moyesy was grilling me in the dressing room, it hurt. But it was the right thing to do because I needed to be told.’ Those who bemoan the softness in modern players would love that.
It’s possibly why Rice has already won six England caps under Southgate despite not playing for one of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ – an attitude the Three Lions will need against Bulgaria on Monday after suffering a rare defeat to the Czech Republic on Friday night, with Rice’s own contribution scrutinised on TV by pundit Roy Keane after slipping to concede the opening goal.
Rice’s Czech Republic performance came under criticism, and showed he is still leanring
Responding to adversity has been a feature throughout his short career. Amid the hype about Chelsea’s new generation – with England call-ups for Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, with Callum Hudson-Odoi waiting in the wings – it is easily forgotten Rice was part of that Chelsea academy until he was dumped without warning in 2013.
‘It was a massive shock,’ he says. ‘I came home after school and thought I was odds-on to go full time and my dad said I was released. I just broke down because that was all I’d known since I was eight. I lived 10 minutes away in Kingston, it was training every Tuesday and Thursday, playing every Saturday.
‘I’d gone through a massive growth spurt that year and was running like Bambi on ice, my body wasn’t used to it. I don’t know if that was the reason I got released because I never got told. They said I should come in for a meeting but then they cancelled it.
‘Word gets round when players get released. I found out I was being released at half-past three and then I got a phone call of Dan Rice [Fulham scout, no relation] and at seven o’clock that evening I was training there. The next day, Dave Hunt from West Ham called my dad and after two sessions there they wanted to sign me.
‘I had to deal with a lot at a young age. Being released, then having to move away at 14. When I got released, me and Mase [Mason Mount] always said we’d play together again, our families said it too. We just thought it would be at club level some day, not England.’
At West Ham, Rice overcame early homesickness thanks to the couple running the club digs, Bob and Val, who had earlier looked after the likes of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick.
The defensive midfielder burst onto the scene with West Ham United and has not looked back
Since then, he has transferred international allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England, and positionally moved from centre-half to midfield anchor, a role England have struggled to fill in recent years.
Whereas most youngsters would parrot the ‘one game at a time’ cliché they learn at media training, Rice is honest enough to reveal he is already thinking about the summer and Euro 2020 with group games and the final at Wembley.
‘It’s pretty much like a home tournament. By then we are all going to be more experienced, better players,’ he says. ‘That Chelsea group of 2015, hopefully everyone is in and around the squad. We want to go out there and perform at the highest level, and win something for England again like they did in 1966.’
There is also a strong West Ham-England connection as they provided three players for the 1966 winners; captain Bobby Moore and goalscorers Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters.
‘The academy has just been renovated and there are pictures all around of Bobby, Sir Geoff, Trevor Brooking. Obviously I’m the latest one to play for England and I know people are proud of me,’ he explains.
‘When I go over there sometimes I have a little laugh and say “Euro 2020, got to bring it home” and they say Bobby Moore won the World Cup!’ ‘You notice how much of a big player Bobby Moore was for England, for West Ham and maybe I can be the next one.’
Southgate clearly trusts him. There is strong competition from Harry Winks, Fabian Delph and Eric Dier while Jordan Henderson fulfilled the role at the last World Cup before being pushed further forward.
Rice’s experience as a central defender gives him an advantage however in sniffing danger and protecting the back four.
‘For sure I have got a defensive mind-set. I maybe get into positions to intercept where other midfielders might not. To read the game and be there before another player to win the tackle,’ he says.
‘Maybe that’s why Gareth plays me in there because I have a defensive mind, sat in front of back four. I won’t do a crazy run, do a stepover and play a through ball. My game is pretty simple, I break up the play, intercept and give the ball to keep it ticking over.
‘I think a lot of people complain and say he only plays passes that way but I think it’s a bigger job. It doesn’t look pleasing on the eye but on the pitch, for me, I’ve got a big job on my hands.
‘If you look at the big names that have been left out of this squad, it shows you’ve got to be on your game constantly for your club. It’s not just a given you’re in the England squad. Everyone is fighting for those spots.’ To underline the need to concentrate all the time, Rice’s excellent early-season form didn’t help when he conceded a penalty for handball in his last West Ham game, turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat.
‘It was so close my natural instinct was to put my hands up. You know, I still don’t even know why I did but it’s one of those ones I have to learn from,’ he concedes.
David Moyes once slammed Rice’s performance during a difficult match for West Ham
Otherwise, West Ham have done well this season under Manuel Pellegrini. Rice has formed a ‘surprise friendship’ with Jack Wilshere whose own England prospects have been undermined over the years through injury. Captain Mark Noble gives Rice the gee-ups that were once Moyes’ domain.
Moore won 108 caps for England at West Ham. Times have changed and the perception today is the top players have to move to the biggest clubs at some point in their career. Rice has been linked with Manchester United and Manchester City and when asked about his future, for the first time gives the standard answer you’d expect.
‘I signed a five-year contract with West Ham last year. For me this is the best place to be right now,’ he says.
‘I don’t really think about the speculation. It is all talk until something happens. Nothing has so I’m just focused on West Ham and doing my best there and making fans happy.’
For now, his priority is getting Mount back for a social media prank that saw the West Ham player woken up in a fright. After revenge has been taken, Rice looks forward to playing at Euro 2020 with his good friend. ‘That would be a dream,’ he says.