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Declan Rice hopes to follow in the footsteps of Billy Bonds and Bobby Moore by lifting a trophy for West Ham United.

Moore lifted the 1964 FA Cup, with Bonds picking up the 1975 edition and then the 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup. For Rice, clinching some silverware and his own slice of history would be the perfect way to say farewell. The Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina could potentially be the midfielder’s last game for the London club with the 24-year-old, whose contract expires in 2024, linked with moves to Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Newcastle United and Manchester United.

With the focus firmly on him for this match and this summer, The Athletic wanted to find out when Rice’s team-mates — past and present — and former coaches realised he was special, and what his biggest assets are…

When I first realised he was special…

Youth team game at Dagenham

I remember going to watch the under-16s or under-15s at Dagenham & Redbridge. You could tell he was really good on the ball. He was both-footed and technically great. And then I think it was maybe 18 months later, he joined us on pre-season tour in Austria and Germany.

He was playing centre-half at the time and I remember the ball came from the right-back, he passed it first time to me, I set him back and he had a touch and he hit a diagonal pass with his left foot. As I saw the ball in the air, I remember looking around and thinking that was top, top quality. I realised what a good player we had.

Mark Noble, former captain and team-mate, now the club’s sporting director

Staff-vs-students match

I remember when it was staff vs students. Declan wanted to play in it so badly and I said he couldn’t play because he’s just too valuable. If he got injured, we would’ve been sued for millions!

But Declan kept begging to play, and that confirmed for me that he lives and breathes football. The staff were beating the students 4-0 and I let him play the last 10 minutes, and then he went and scored a brilliant goal. No one wanted to tackle him, though!

Although he played for Chelsea’s academy, Declan still desperately wanted to play for the school and that makes me so proud. He’s faced rejection and adversity, but he always had the inner belief that he was good enough.

Chris Rhodes, headteacher at Grey Court School, south-west London

When he caught Rashford

Declan Rice is one of the best defensive midfield players in the Premier League. As an example, against Manchester United, Marcus Rashford has gone through and is running into the box and he’s got probably 10 yards on Declan, but I just thought: ‘Dec is going to get the ball’. He cleans up everything. It’s just his stature with his long legs and he’s a tall guy. He keeps the team ticking, he’s technically quality, he’s got his left foot and his right foot and he’s young.

Dec has not even touched his best yet. He is unbelievable. What I see every day in training, he’s got so much more to do, so much more to learn. But what he’s doing right now, he’s up there as one of the best in the league already. I love him as a player, I love him as a person.

Michail Antonio, team-mate

After the growth spurt

In each position, we had player characteristics. So if a 15-year-old was excelling then we would move them up because they were advanced for their age. In Declan’s case, when he arrived he had a growth spurt and he was always hitting the characteristics above his age group.

Some people may remember one game or one training session but, having worked with him every day, it was a case of him being advanced for his age. When he reached 19, we knew we had a first-team player on our hands. Now you think what does a £100million ($124.1m) player look like? What are the characteristics of that? Declan is also ticking that box.

That’s why Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich all want to sign him. With Declan, it was always a case of: what’s next? When he was 15, he wanted to play for the under-18s. When he was 17, he was captain for the under-21s. At 18, he’s making his first-team debut. At 22, he’s playing for England. I wouldn’t be able to say it was one moment with Declan; it was his continuous growth from the first day I saw him until the day I left.

He gets criticised by pundits on Sky that he can’t do this or that. Then Declan will score a terrific solo goal against Gent. That’s his way of responding to criticism because he can do it all. That’s why so many clubs want him.

If he does leave and goes to a Champions League club, he’ll want to be one of their best players. Just joining a new club wouldn’t be enough for him. Declan, without realising, is an inspiration to all the young players in West Ham’s academy. They won’t all break into the first team but someone like him gives them hope.

He’ll give it everything to try and lift the trophy for West Ham. He won’t be entertaining anything about his future right now. His motivation will be winning something for the club.

Terry Westley, former West Ham academy director

Confidence against Kazan

I know I play with him, so I’m not going to sit here and say otherwise, but he is unbelievable. I remember a pre-season game against Rubin Kazan in 2016. Slaven Bilic was manager and he brought on this 17-year-old called Declan Rice.

I remember him giving the ball away for a goal. How did he react? From the off, he was screaming for the ball. I was thinking, ‘Bloody hell, he’s just given a goal away’ but he was that confident, he could let it go.

He wanted the ball and to take authority of the game. For someone of that age to do that was unbelievable.

Aaron Cresswell, team-mate

His first under-23s match

I remember playing alongside Dec in his first under-23 game. This game always stands out to me because we played Brighton & Hove Albion at The Amex. Dec played as a centre-back and he was confident. He was probably 16 or 17, and he was brilliant. He showed his leadership; it was a new environment for him, yet he wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion or coach players in front of him.

It was a strange one with Dec because at the time he wasn’t the standout player. But you could see the quality he had. It was just a case of his body developing.

I remember dropping him home at digs once. His age group had been offered scholarships and a few boys were offered professional deals. But Dec had only been offered a scholarship and he was a bit frustrated and down, which is natural. I told him not to worry about it because he had years to work hard and get what he deserves. Look at him now. I’m delighted to see how well he’s doing. The scary thing about Rice is he’s this good and he’s nowhere near his prime.

Leaders have an aura about them, it’s hard to put a finger on what stands out, but he has that about him. When he first trained with the first team, he was full of confidence and believed in himself. He wasn’t scared to communicate with the senior players. That can be tough for young players but it didn’t faze Dec at all. It’s no surprise to see how well he’s done.

Josh Cullen, former team-mate, now Burnley midfielder

What are his biggest qualities?

All-rounder 

He’s become more confident. He’s starting to realise just how talented he is. I had a conversation with him and I told him he has a lot more to his game. He recognises that he’s a very good player. He’s become really important for England, which has also helped instil confidence in him.

Declan will continue to develop and improve because of his attitude towards the game. He initially saw his role as a defensive midfield player but he has so much more to offer.

He’s only using a small part of his ability if he’s limiting himself by only being a defensive midfield player. We had a situation where a lot of the players stayed back after training, with Dec being one of them. He’d practise free kicks and shooting. He’s very dedicated.

Alan Irvine, Moyes’ former assistant, now West Ham’s technical advisor

You only have to tell him something once

When I joined West Ham, it was two years before giving him a debut. The best prospect at the time was Reece Oxford and Declan was Reece Oxford a year and a half after, because he was the best player in the academy. What set apart Declan from the others is how dedicated he was. He was what we call in Croatia “a strange body” — someone who isn’t afraid. Straightaway, he was involved and it’s been great to watch his progress from afar.

He’s a top player and his game intelligence is so good for his age. He’s improved so much and every few months you’re discovering something you didn’t know he had in his locker.

He’s not a Paul Gascoigne, where every day you have crazy stories. Declan was serious for his age and you only had to tell him once. Some players, you tell them something four times and they still don’t get it. I remember, after the game against Burnley, I called him into my office but he called me “Slav”.

Even Mark Noble calls me “boss” or “gaffer”, so when Declan Rice said “Slav” I knew it wasn’t in a bad way or disrespectful way but I made my face serious and I said, “How did you call me Slav?” And then he just f***ing froze and said, ‘I’m so sorry’. Then I started laughing. That’s probably my favourite memory of Declan.

Slaven Bilic, former West Ham manager

An inspiration

I know he’s a really good leader on the pitch and in the changing room as well. He’s a really good guy and everyone knows how hard he works and the other guys are inspired by him and what he can do for us.

Tomas Soucek, team-mate

Thrives on pressure

From very early on in his time with us, he was showing improvement all the time. He made massive progress whether it was as a centre-back or midfielder. He always impressed us when he played for the under-21s and we knew it was only a matter of time before he’d break into the first team.

I left and Terry Westley was there at the start of Declan’s first-team career. He’s had a remarkable rise since that point. In some respects, the speed of his development has been the biggest surprise. He was great at coping with whatever was thrown at him. The pressure never got to Declan. Instead, he would also thrive on it and there were very few occasions you could turn around and say he had a poor game.

If there was one criticism, it would be his lack of goals but now whenever he scores it’s either a winning goal or a spectacular goal.

Tony Carr, former academy director

He saved our season

We all know how good he is because he always takes responsibility when he’s on the ball. He’s been our main leader this season and he takes responsibility for everything. He’s still a young player but he saved our season mainly with how he played on the pitch. When he plays like that everyone else feels more confident.

You see it every day in training, whether it’s his passing, dribbling or speed, because he’s really quick on his feet. He has everything and I’ve said it many times: he’s on his way to becoming one of the best holding midfielders in the world.

Vladimir Coufal, team-mate

(Photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)



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