We collectively flinched when Declan Rice diverted from a carefully prepared press brief and confided that he had ambitions to play in the Champions League. It was December 1 and the World Cup was in full swing. We savoured the temporary banishment of domestic woes and the cold reality of a relegation zone snapping at our heels.
And then like a blow to the solar plexus it landed with a deafening thud. Well it had been coming and anyone who thought otherwise was being hopelessly optimistic. But whilst the timing might seem strange the circumstances were a perfect statement of intent at least where Rice is concerned.
The World Cup in Qatar was, like all others, a great venue for agents, coaches and managers to network and watch potential signings in the greatest showcase of all. So it’s no surprise that Rice’s comments came out when they did. It’s a convenient means of alerting potential suitors and an opportunity to open talks.
Joining up with national squads can trigger a wish list for players. Rice may well have looked around the dressing room and clocked a simple fact; with the exception of Jordan Pickford, he is the only regular starter in the England side not playing in the Champions League. No one would blame him if he thought: ‘I want some of that’.
During the press conference Rice was predictably asked a question regarding his future. His response was refreshingly candid: ‘One hundred percent I want to play in the Champions League. For the last two or three years I’ve been saying that’.
I don’t think that’s entirely true, it’s the first time he’s been this unequivocal although privately would have long harboured such thoughts. He continued: ‘I’ve been playing consistently well for my club and I feel like I want to keep pushing. You only get one career and at the end you want to look back at what you’ve won and the biggest games you’ve played in’.
Whilst there is absolutely no argument with the logic it seems a deliberate ploy to set hares running. A more diplomatic response would have been along the following lines: ‘I’m here with England for the World Cup and that is my current priority. There are issues regarding my contract at West Ham and will be resolved at the end of the season’.
But no it was the ideal opportunity to drop a truth bomb and say to clubs “here I am come and get meâ€. All of which is in Rice’s best interests but has shown little consideration for the club that pays his wages.
West Ham are hovering above the relegation zone and had a challenging Premier League return against Arsenal. It is the talismanic Rice who will lead our assault in the knock-out stages of the Europa Conference League.
Did he have to state what was so blatantly obvious and destabilise the club that has nurtured his career? David Moyes for his part seems hell bent on keeping Rice. On the eve of the Arsenal game he was in a bullish mood: ‘It is looking difficult at this moment in time but we are not just going to roll over and let Dec walk out of the building. It is going to be a big fight’.
I do wonder what planet Moyes is living on; it’s poor management to keep a player who doesn’t want to stay. Why not be pragmatic and let him leave on the best possible terms for the club rather than brow beat him into a contract extension. It feels more like a toss-up as to who leaves the club first, Moyes or Rice?
We are surely resigned to Rice leaving and would wish him the best of luck. But was there any way of avoiding the impasse in which we now find ourselves? Some might attribute his position to unbridled greed in wanting away. However, I don’t think money is the issue as West Ham would have broken the bank to keep him.
Moyes said of Rice: ‘He wants to win and he wants to play for a really good side. We hope that we can reach the Champions League’. He’s not fooling anyone and doesn’t sound even vaguely convinced by his own words.
Had West Ham won the Europa League last season it would have assured qualification for the Champions League. Our level of success is open to debate, but the slot would have increased our purchasing power and Rice might have extended his contract.
But there is little to be gained in contemplation of the ‘ifs’ in football. On this occasion we just couldn’t match his ambition, another missed opportunity — so what else is new?