The Academy of Football has not been what it used to be for some time now. Not since the emergence of Mark Noble, James Tomkins and Jack Collison in the Hammers first team have we really been able to boast about having exciting young talent coming through the youth ranks.
We’ve had a few who have shown promise but none who have really been able to establish themselves in the first team for long periods of time. This season, though, the emergence of young Declan Rice has given every West Ham fan hope that the Academy of Football will once again shine brightly on the English game.
Following on from a relatively impressive cameo on the final day of last season, Rice has worked hard to force his way in to first team reckoning this term. And while his game time will have almost certainly been boosted by a number of injuries to first team defenders, his rise this season can only really be attributed to him and his impeccable attitude and promising talent.
It is fair to question whether Rice’s first team place can yet be a guarantee once the likes of Winston Reid and James Collins return to full fitness. But if ever there were any doubts over his ability to step in and deputise at the highest level when needed, then they have well and truly been quashed.
Rice is yet to have a bad game in a West Ham shirt and of the 24 first team appearances this season, the 19-year-old has impressed in every single one, even when coming off the bench. It’s testament to the youngster that even when David Moyes replaced Slaven Bilic, he remained in the first team and wasn’t sent out on loan like a number of other youth prospects.
Moyes’ arrival will have benefited Rice’s development too, as the Scot does have a reputation for showing trust in young players – he is the man responsible for the emergence of the likes of Wayne Rooney and Seamus Coleman, after all. And the defender’s stock is only going to rise if he continues the way he is, even on an international level.
His man of the match performance on his debut for the Republic of Ireland shows just how far he has come in such a short space of time and there have been a number of times this season where he has deserved the man of the match award for West Ham. While the defender’s ability and calmness on the ball is so impressive for a youngster in his first full season, it’s his attitude that has impressed the most.
He is rarely seen without a smile on his face and it’s clear all Rice wants to do is play football for West Ham and his country, at any level. He is enjoying himself and if a player is enjoying his game then that will always shine through in performances. During the international break, Rice came off the back of his MOTM performance for the Republic of Ireland first team and joined straight up with his country’s U21s for an important European Qualifier v Azerbaijan. Not because he had to but because he wanted to.
He said in an interview with RTE: ‘I’m only 19, I can’t be making decisions where I’m only going to play for one. Where I can play for the 21’s and the first team, I’m happy to do just that.’
It’s that kind of attitude that we’ve witnessed so much at West Ham this season and if Rice can keep that positive mind-set and continue to improve his game at the rate he is, then there is absolutely no reason why he can’t become a mainstay in claret and blue for many years to come.
He is a player who other young players in the Academy should be looking up to and learning from, both as a player and a person. The Academy of Football is still alive and Declan Rice is the man who can give it the revival it desperately needed.