Having faced an early setback when he was released as a schoolboy from Chelsea, Declan Rice made a name for himself at West Ham United and is now ready to play in his first major tournament with England
Credit: SEAN RICE / GETTY IMAGES
Heard the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Chilean? Neither had Declan Rice until Manuel Pellegrini provided his own moment of clarity as the midfielder wrestled with one of the toughest decisions he will ever make in what already promises to be a stellar career.
Rice was deciding where his international future lay and England manager Gareth Southgate and Mick McCarthy, then in charge of the Republic of Ireland, had both made their pitches. It was not an easy call: Rice, whose grandparents are Irish, had played for the Republic’s under-16s right up to the senior team, but he had been born and raised in New Malden.
Rice, then 20, knew he had a big decision to make so Pellegrini, his manager at West Ham, attempted to simplify the debate. Pellegrini asked Rice which country he had supported as a boy. England, came the answer. And had he worn an England shirt or an Ireland shirt? England again. And had he ever been to watch England at Wembley or the Republic of Ireland in Dublin? For a third time, the answer was the same: England.
Rice finally opted to play for England, the country he supported as a boy
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
With that, Rice’s mind was made up. Southgate may want to thank Pellegrini if he ever bumps into the Chilean given that, just over two years since switching allegiance to England, Rice will be one of the country’s key men at the European Championships.
With fitness doubts hanging over Jordan Henderson, Rice – now firmly established as a key figure at West Ham – will be relied upon to be a leader in midfield for England, even though he still only has 17 caps.
Nobody who knows Rice well fears that he is not ready for that responsibility. Mark Noble has been a mentor to Rice since he started to train with the West Ham first team, with the 22-year-old adamant that his team-mate is one of the biggest reasons he is currently preparing for England’s first game of the Euros against Croatia on Sunday.
“I first watched him in a game at Dagenham and Redbridge for the under-18s,” Noble told Telegraph Sport. “And you could tell technically that he was very good, but he hadn’t really grown into his body then.
“Then he trained with us for a bit and he was such a lovely kid, and I had so much time for him. But when I really, really realised how good he could be was when he came on pre-season with us to Germany with Slaven Bilic. He was coming out of defence hitting diagonal balls and passing through the lines and I thought ‘Christ, this boy seems really good’. From that moment, he’s just got better.”
Mark Noble (right) watches over Rice as he signs a new deal with West Ham
Credit: SEAN RICE
Noble has been like a proud father, watching on in admiration as Rice has grown into the role of West Ham’s playing captain when he has not been on the pitch. Should he remain at the London Stadium, then Rice will succeed Noble as permanent skipper once the 34-year-old retires at the end of next season.
“To see another homegrown player come through and someone I think so fondly of captain the team when I’m not in… it gives me a sense of immense pride that I took him under my wing and I might have had an influence on him,” said Noble.
“The challenges of being club captain are different to being the team captain, so I’ll be trying to teach him more about that next season. But whether it’s at West Ham and we all hope it is, or even England in the future, Declan’s got all the attributes to captain any team that he plays for.”
‘Declan was cracking jokes at teenagers – and he was only nine’
Even when he made his debut for the Republic of Ireland’s under-16s, cries of “give it to the Englishman” were heard from some of the watching Irish families – a nod to Rice’s broad London accent as he bellowed instructions and encouragement to his team-mates.
Despite being a humble, placid character, Rice has never been afraid to make himself heard. Those who remember him at Grey Court School recall a warm, funny and loyal young man, determined to maintain the highest standards.
“Declan was captain of our football team and he’d never miss a school game, even when he had been training with Chelsea,” said Stephen Willmore, who is head of PE at Grey Court. “He was very loyal in that respect.
“He never got ahead of himself and he was still one of the boys within the team. He didn’t let his other studies go, either, and that’s something I kept an eye out for. He was a nice worker and I know for a fact that teachers loved having him in the classroom because of his personality and what he’d give to lessons.”
Rice (centre) showed plenty of early promise while playing in the under-11s
Credit: SEAN RICE
Had he not been a footballer, then his friends and family believe Rice might have tried his hand at stand up comedy given his talent for impersonations. His rendition of ‘Smithy’ from Gavin and Stacey has brought the house down with team-mates and coaches at Chelsea, the club he joined as a seven-year-old, and West Ham.
“The thing that always stood out with Declan was just that he loved it – what a personality,” said Michael Beale, who was a youth coach at Chelsea and is now a first-team coach under Steven Gerrard at Rangers. “We went away to Arsenal once and some lads made their own way there and Declan came with us on the coach, and we arrived early. It was under-14s, under-12s and under-10s and Declan was in the Under-10s. There were about 12 of the kids waiting around for the others and Declan just got up and just started entertaining everybody, making jokes and doing impressions. He was nine and he was doing a stand-up routine to 14-year-olds. Straight away you just knew this was a boy with character.”
‘We called him Dave after David Beckham – he was that good’
Rice did not play for a local junior team in New Malden after his father Sean and mother Stephanie had been put off by some of the noise made by coaches and parents of opposition players while watching his older brothers Connor and Jordan.
But Declan, who had grown used to having Connor and Jordan smash balls at him in the back garden from the age of three, was allowed to play football at the Dickeridge Lane adventure playground youth club he attended and as a six-year-old was playing alongside children twice his age, who nicknamed him ‘Dave’ after David Beckham.
Rice joined Chelsea after catching the attention of scout Bob Osborn
Credit: SEAN RICE
“Declan was the most talented sports person we’ve ever had at the youth club, he was good at everything, rugby, table tennis and, of course, football,” said Dan Slocombe, who is the centre manager at Dickeridge Lane. “He wasn’t so good at climbing slides, though, as he fell off one and broke his arm when he was quite young!
“We all called him Dave after David Beckham because he was so good at football and I remember us all watching the England v Greece game together at the centre, when Beckham scored the free-kick and everyone was shouting ‘Dave’ at him! He came on a trip to Wembley with us as well in 2013 to watch England v Scotland.”
On the orders of Sean, Rice was only meant to be going to a tournament in Guilford with his uncle Nick Munroe to watch his cousin Taylor, but, behind his father’s back, he ended up playing and caught the attention of a Chelsea scout Bob Osborn.
It was at Chelsea that Rice instantly struck up his friendship with England-team-mate Mason Mount, with whom he progressed through the age levels.
“He was always best mates with Mason and they used to take on the world together because they played in midfield as a pair at Chelsea,” said Beale. “It was a little partnership and they weren’t the biggest or strongest kids, but they had this real character and they were so competitive, they wanted to take on anyone and everyone. Don’t get me wrong, they were a little tag team for us but when they had to play against each other in training, they went at it hammer and tong.”
‘He was broken-hearted when Chelsea let him go’
Sean still remembers the Tuesday in February when Rice was released by Chelsea as a 14-year-old – one of his toughest days as a father.
“It was horrendous,” said Sean of Rice’s Chelsea release. “It was a Tuesday and we were all told we’d get a phone call between 3pm and 5pm. I was at work in my office and as the minutes ticked by I was getting calls from other parents to say ‘we’re in’.
Rice celebrates success with his soon to be former Chelsea team-mates
Credit: SEAN RICE
“I stayed behind at the office to wait for the call which didn’t come until about 7pm. When it did, they just said unfortunately Declan had not met the required standard, but that he would be welcome to keep training at Chelsea while he looked for another club.
“I remember that drive home just thinking ‘what am I going to say to him?’ I walked in and Declan was sitting on the stairs and I just shook my head, and he bolted up to his bedroom. He was broken-hearted, crying. I always remember saying: ‘There’s 91 other clubs out there’. John Terry, who was Chelsea captain then, got his number and spent 45 minutes on the phone with him, which meant a lot.
“We kept him off school the next day because he was upset and the next night was training at Chelsea. Declan was adamant he wanted to go, so we were in the car on the A3 when the phone rang and I answered it on hands free. It was Fulham asking if he wanted to go and train, so we turned the car around and he went there.”
Fulham made Rice an offer after that first training session, but he decided to keep training with them, rather than committing himself. He also trained with West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur as a steady stream of clubs, including Reading, kept coming forwards to register their interest.
Rice now ready for his first major international tournament
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
At one stage, he was training each night for a different club. But when the moment of decision came, Rice did not take the easy option of signing for Fulham, where he could have walked to the training ground, still lived at home and stayed at his school. Instead, he joined West Ham, which meant moving schools to Robert Clack in Dagenham, and moving out of his family house, aged 15.
His character pulled him through the early bouts of homesickness, along with the help of Dennis Lepine who was the club’s mini-bus driver and acted as a guardian for Rice. Lepine sadly died last year.
It had been Dave Hunt who had taken Rice to West Ham and his development continued under youth coach Mark Phillips, before he was made captain of the club’s under-23 team by Terry Westley when he was still only 17.
There was the familiar feeling of disappointment when, in 2016, Rice initially missed out on a place with the first-team squad for a pre-season tour to America. But, the following day, West Ham sold James Tomkins and this time Sean got a call to pass on good news to his son.
“We were asked to get Declan to Heathrow the following day because he had been given Tomkins’ place in the squad,” said Sean. “The rest of the team had already travelled, so Declan flew out to Seattle on his own to meet up with them.
“Me and my wife got up at 4am or something silly to watch West Ham against Seattle Sounders, thinking he might be on the bench but he started the game. From there, Slaven Bilic kept him around the first-team squad and he eventually made his debut in the very last game of the season against Burnley as a substitute.”
Rice has never looked back. Now, Pellegrini’s Englishman is more than ready for his next big step at his first major tournament.