Reasons to be cheerful have been pretty thin on the ground for West Ham fans in recent years.
One thing, however, that most people can agree on as being entirely positive has been the emergence of Declan Rice, from being one of the club’s most promising youngsters in recent years to a mainstay of the first team, and also breaking into the England set-up.
But if you want to call him boring, then the 20-year-old is fine with that too.
In a revealing interview for Blowing Bubbles, Rice opened up about the sacrifices he had made to achieve stardom at such a young age, the top level players he most respects, and also what he thinks fans probably think about him, revealing himself to be down-to-earth and refreshingly free of ego and self-promotion.
‘Most fans would call my style basic. It doesn’t hurt, the role I do is basic,’ he said. ‘Breaking up play and setting things up for someone else – fans don’t want to see that, they want me to win the ball, go on a run and do a stepover, then have a shot before I get praise!
‘Maybe because there’s hype around me, they expect more, but when I do a tackle and lay-off, they think “what a boring player”.
‘I wouldn’t say I’m a flair player. I know my limits, I’m not going to do a Maradona, I’m going to get the ball, turn, see my best option, do it – that’s the best way. Get it, give it, simple.’
Let go by the Chelsea Academy at the age of 14, Rice, who still lives with his family in Kingston, was soon snapped up by West Ham and relocated to digs across the other side of London, away from his friends and the temptations of teenage life, but such was his dedication to being a footballer that it was not a big sacrifice to make – an attitude he has carried into adult life as well.
‘Everyone has pals who want you to come out at the weekend, but when I was 14, I moved to digs in East London, so I only got to see them at weekends, and even then I had matches.
‘It was tough to turn down those parties, but in my head, I knew I couldn’t be doing those things, I really wanted to be a footballer and I had to focus on it.
‘There was always a house party somewhere every weekend, but my sleep was more important than going to a party for a couple of hours. To be a top-level pro you need to have that mentality, if you want that to be your job for the next 10 years.
‘Where I’ve got to is 90 per cent hard work. When I was younger, I was never the best, I was only ever in the middle of the group, but one thing I had on the others was my desire to play football. When you’re growing up, regardless of talent, if you don’t work hard, you won’t get there.’
When it comes to examples to follow, in mentality if not necessarily playing style, Rice looks up to one of the most successful players of the modern era, because he can see a resemblance.
‘Gary Neville wasn’t necessarily the best player but had one of the best careers you can have because he worked hard,’ he said
‘He studied his position and became the best by hard work and staying on the training field. That’s how I’ve been from a young age, it was always my mind to be a footballer, not to go out partying and not to think about other jobs. I was always destined to try and be a footballer.’
The hard work has paid off with Rice becoming a mainstay for West Ham and now an England squad regular as well, and fortunately when it comes to off-the-field behaviour, the attitude which propelled him to the heights is doing a good job keeping him there.
‘When you’re in the spotlight you need to be careful – I’ve not been taught that, I’ve just got on with it naturally,’ he said.
‘Every time you go out, you’re representing West Ham and you’re representing England, so you know that anything bad you do reflects badly on them, and if it happens the club will be informed and then the country will be informed, so you just need to be smart.’
On the pitch, after some dabbling with defence, Rice has settled down in a midfield role, where he does his “boring” work.
‘I see myself as a midfielder for now, but maybe as I get older, because I’ve got pace and I’m a good passer, I could see myself as a centre back again. I wouldn’t rule it out but for now my best position is in the middle,’ he said.
Confidence is certainly not an issue for Rice. ‘I don’t know why but I never get nervous,’ he said. ‘Even with my first start for England I didn’t.
‘If anything, it’s more of a thrill and a buzz, the noise of the fans gives me a boost. It sounds weird but if we go a goal down I get a spurt of energy, all the time, I think “come on, we can do something here”.’
That confidence and unflustered manner was evident from his first try-outs with the West Ham first team squad, under then-manager Slaven Bilic.
‘I first trained with first team when I was 17 – once or twice a week I got to come over, not because they needed an extra number, but because I was doing well with the U23s, where I was playing at centre back,’ he said.
‘The level of ability was definitely a step up. If you’re a youngster coming over to train with the first team, you need to be at your best because the coaching staff watching don’t miss a trick.
‘But after only about four or five first-team sessions, I was shouting from the back and ordering people around – it’s always been in me to do that, I’m not scared to speak my mind.’
A player Rice in some way resembles, and in whose steps he followed when, in Manuel Pellegrini’s final game against Leicester, he was named as captain, is one of the most important people in his footballing life – Mr West Ham himself, Mark Noble.
‘He’s my football dad – I’m a good son, I don’t bring him any aggro,’ he joked. ‘He’s drilled me well and since I’ve come into the side, we’ve become good friends and he’s taught me a lot. People underestimate how good he is, everyone in the Academy looks up to him and wants to be like him.
‘He’s had one of the best Premier League careers you can have without playing for England – I’ve got a few England caps now and he’s not got any, but in my opinion he deserves to have had loads.’
Considering his importance to the team, as illustrated by his leading the side, it is easy to forget just how young Rice is, and how much of a fixture he has become in this traumatic season.
Some spectators might suggest the tone for what lay ahead in the coming months was set by the Irons’ opening day 5-0 mauling by Manchester City, but not Rice, because as he explained, City’s players are on a different level.
‘Every time you play them you think “they’re so good”,’ he explained. ‘At half time in that game, we were only 1-0 down and had a few chances and were still in the game, but in the second half City turned it up another notch and we were looking at one another saying “this is ridiculous”.
‘Of course nobody likes to lose 5-0 at home, but after the game we just had to draw a line under it. We knew they’re going to do that again to someone else [in September, City beat Watford 8-0].
‘As a player, you know where you want to stand, but the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne, they’re so smart and their movement is ridiculous. They make the pitch so big and pull you into places you don’t want to go. They’re so tiring to play against.’
As one of the world’s richest clubs constantly in search of the finest talent available, it is no surprise that City are regularly linked with such a player as Rice.
And whilst it is only to be expected that someone of his age, talent and ambition, with such a bright career ahead of him, is motivated by the prospect of winning trophies, it is encouraging for Irons fans to hear that this is not his only inspiration.
‘Success means winning stuff – there’s no better feeling for players than winning things,’ he said. ‘Look at the look on Jordan Henderson’s face when he lifted the Champions League trophy, how much it meant to him.
‘Even if I managed a long career, playing as many games as possible, without winning a trophy, I’d still be happy as I’ve achieved my dream, but to win something would be extra special.
‘To win the Premier League, I can’t imagine what it would be like, and to win the World Cup, that would be the best thing ever – and West Ham have already done that.’
*Declan was speaking with ‘Ramble Meets…’ host Luke Moore. The podcast is part of Football Ramble Daily’s new format of six shows a week that sees Luke and Andy Brassell have personable, intimate conversations with the great and good of the game. From those involved in the highest levels of football, to authors, journalists and pundits, Moore or Brassell speak to them each Wednesday about their careers and experiences.