Declan Rice is on top of the world right now. On Thursday evening, he’ll step out against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semi final, the biggest night in West Ham United’s modern history and his club career to date. But the noise surrounding him echoes much further than the east end of London. With a new contract not yet agreed, Rice’s future, which has been a hot topic ever since he broke into the Hammers side five years ago now, is the centre of the soccer news cycle; he’s not for sale, but his ambitions are clear and it feels like a crossroads moment is approaching.
It could have been so different. One of the clubs invariably linked with a move for the England midfielder are Chelsea. Rice was released by the Blues as a 14-year-old; he was part of one of the most talented groups of youngsters seen in recent times alongside regulars Reece James and Mason Mount, his best friend, and Crystal Palace loanee Conor Gallagher. A reunion, should Chelsea want to pursue it, will cost them dearly, and with so many complications surrounding their ownership, whether they can afford one is far from certain.
Martin Taylor, a former youth scout at the club, says there must be a lot of people regretting what has transpired since, as Rice has developed into one of England’s most-wanted stars.
Straight to the away end. What a moment. What a player. 😍 pic.twitter.com/W1XwOwwbUW
— West Ham United (@WestHam) April 16, 2022
“He had such great character and desire,” Taylor tells Compare.bet. “He lacked pace and that is why Chelsea released him. They thought he wasn’t athletic enough. He was a polite boy and a good lad; he always listened. I was there the day he got released and spoke to him; he was very upset, and I just said ‘you’ve got to go and prove Chelsea wrong, haven’t you?’ I was confident he’d find another club. He’s proved that and that is down to his character. I thought West Ham would be a good fit for him at the time.
“A lot of players have got more technical ability than him, but they don’t have his desire and his will to win. That is what he’s got and why he is where he is. He is a seven out of 10 every week, whereas other players, especially at youth level, could be a nine one week and a four the next; he is so reliable and he’d be the first name on my team sheet. A lot of players with more ability than him will never go as far; they don’t have what he has. Consistency is key because it keeps you in the team and then you play more games and get better.”
It had long been the consensus that Rice will outgrow West Ham if he hasn’t already, but their position in the Premier League and their European excursions make Champions League qualification a definite possibility. Their ability to keep him has seldom been stronger, but this has, in some ways, been a key season for the 23-year-old. If there had been one major criticism of his game, it was that he is too one-dimensional, but he had worked on becoming more involved going forward.
While Taylor still thinks he can work on impacting games, he continues to laud his defensive capabilities.
“You wouldn’t look at him and say he is world class, not yet. But what I like about him is that his ball retention is incredible. He never loses it and his positioning is superb; as a number four, he is perfect. He’s added to his game that he gets forward now, but it struck me how he always kept possession when he was at Chelsea. He presses and gets players to turn; he’s improved a hell of a lot and he’s got a lot in his game now. It is impressive.
“But he’s cost Chelsea a lot of money because he’s left. Wherever he goes, he’ll need to play in a few good tournaments, but he’ll make the England World Cup squad.”
Two leaders 👊 pic.twitter.com/2G5wVVIgwa
— West Ham United (@WestHam) April 20, 2022
Rice is one of many through the conveyor belt at Chelsea. For all their issues off the field, their academy could well be their saving grace. While the first team has long been the focus in the near-two-decade reign of Roman Abramovich, which perhaps contributed to Rice’s premature departure, their youth system has always been impressive but often forgotten. A transfer ban and the return of a club legend in Frank Lampard changed a lot of mindsets and focussed everybody; now there is a desire to promote youth and give it a chance.
That means the rest of Rice’s group, as Taylor says, have been given opportunities, including James and Mount. Others, like Marc Guehi and Tino Livramento, have shone elsewhere like Rice, but where he could cost them dearly, there is one player who could save them money in the long run.
“Gallagher is the one I always thought would make it,” Taylor says. “He’s another one who works hard and plays consistently well. Neil Bath (Chelsea’s academy manager) told me 10 years ago that they’d be creating players for England and look, he’s right. Chelsea have lost a lot of money in the past if you look at Rice, and even Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah in the first team. They’ve let them go with no repercussions, but Conor will save them money next season.
“He used to go under the radar next to Mason and Declan, but he’ll make a difference. That was a fantastic group of players.
Will Chelsea learn their lesson from one when it comes to the other?