Declan Rice’s journey from being released by Chelsea as a teenager to becoming a key player for West Ham and England on the European stage is now well established, as are the seemingly constant rumours that the 23-year-old’s remarkable rise is set to earn him a move to one of the continent’s biggest clubs.
Rice’s status as one of the country’s standout midfielders was established by his performances during England’s run to the Euro 2020 final last summer, when he started all seven of his country’s games, and has been enhanced by his displays for West Ham during another impressive season in east London.
But as well as tasting disappointment during his time at Chelsea, Rice admits his Hammers career was also nearly cut short before it had begun thanks to factors that were beyond his control.
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Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of West Ham’s Premier League game at home to Arsenal on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, Rice said: “I was really small when I was a kid. Not too small, but smaller than most.
“Then when I joined West Ham, when they were thinking about getting rid of me, I was in the middle of a growth spurt. I could play, but I just looked so gangly and unorthodox – it didn’t look right.
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“I knew if they gave me the time, I had the ability and I could still play. It was just my running technique – I looked long in the legs and everything was off.
“Nobes [Mark Noble] tells a funny story where he came to watch me once with the U23s and he thought, ‘who is that?’. I could run, but I couldn’t, it just looked so off.
“You know yourself though when you’re going through things like that. It just doesn’t feel right in your running patterns.”
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice says he feels he has improved as a player this season and has backed himself to get even better
It’s a tale that will be familiar to a huge number of people with experience of the academy system at professional clubs, where the vast majority of players are unable to make the journey all the way to the first team.
But fortunately for West Ham and for Rice, the club gave him the time he needed to adapt to his new frame, after which he says his desire to make it to the top was able to shine.
“Once they gave me that time and that space to grow into my body, everything else came through,” said Rice. “My personality as a kid, I always wanted to be a captain, I always cared about the game and wanted to learn. As I got older, that started to show through.
“When you’re younger, ability is one thing, but you have to want it the most. I feel like that gets you further. I hear so many ex-pros say it, that they come across players where they were better than them but they didn’t want it enough.
“For me, I came across so many players who were better than me, but they didn’t have the mentality, the head, the heart to want it enough and keep pushing themselves. Luckily enough in the end, I had both.”
Another player who turned out to have both the technical and mental qualities to make it into the elite ranks is Mason Mount, Rice’s old friend from their days together at Chelsea.
Rice and Mason Mount became friends during their time together at Chelsea's academy
Rice left Stamford Bridge at the age of 14 while Mount continued his progress through the ranks in west London, via loan spells at Vitesse Arnhem and Derby, but the pair have remained extremely close and now help to make up the core of Gareth Southgate’s England side.
“It was from the start really – me and him, we clicked straight away,” Rice says of his relationship with Mount. “When I was a kid, I’d go to Portsmouth after training and stay at his house, he’d stay at mine.
“Even our mums and dads the other day, they sat together at the game and everyone is still really close. It’s really good.”
The game in question was West Ham’s trip to Chelsea, which saw the Blues secure a late win against a stubborn Hammers side that rested a number of key players – including Rice – ahead of their Europa League tie with Frankfurt.
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Taking the field against Mount is now a fairly regular occurrence, but Rice says: “The first time we did it, it was a bit odd. We didn’t speak for a few days before it.
“I think I’ve beaten him three times and he’s beaten me twice. After the weekend, it’s 3-3! On the pitch there’s no friends, you do what you need to do – it’s football. But off the pitch, after the game, you can talk and have a laugh about some of the things during the match.”
West Ham’s defeat at Chelsea was a rare disappointment for Rice, who has regularly captained the Hammers at home and abroad during their impressive campaigns in the Premier League and Europa League.
Rice has caught the eye to such an extent that only Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne stood between him and a first Football Writers’ Association Men’s Player of the Year award.
“It’s not bad,” Rice says. “I would like to have won it, but obviously up against Salah and De Bruyne it’s hard to say, because I can never imagine putting my name with those types of players.
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“To come third, it shows that people have appreciated what I’ve done on the football pitch. This season, I feel like I’ve taken another step in the right direction in my career, but I’m still only 23 and trust me, I know myself and I’ve got so much more that I can let out of the bag.
“I know that, my coaches tell me that and I think it just comes with time and as I get older, it’ll keep coming and coming. I feel like you’re only seeing the start of me. I’m going to keep pushing and getting better.”
Unsurprisingly, Rice’s name is one that regularly crops up in the transfer rumour pages, with former club Chelsea, as well as Manchester City and Manchester United, regularly linked with him.
Rice doesn’t appear to be too fazed by the scrutiny, although he admits the interest in his future hasn’t escaped the attention of those on social media or at West Ham’s training ground.
“I feel like playing well comes with speculation,” he says. “I’ve had two or three top seasons with West Ham and the top clubs around the country are always going to be watching. It’s not just me, it’s the same for every player.
“I think it’s important not to get too carried away with that. We’ve had a good season with West Ham and there have been big games I’ve had to play in so I feel like my focus has always been on that. If I thought about other things, I’d get carried away and that wouldn’t be fair on the team or the manager.
“I can’t help speculation, even with the numbers that get talked about. I get battered for it all the time on social media, but I can’t help that. I can help by going on the pitch and performing as best as I can.
“They [West Ham team-mates] wind me up all the time. It’s crazy to speak about to be honest, so I just kind of block it out and do what I do best and that’s play football.”
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Rice will no doubt continue to block out the noise on Sunday when Arsenal visit the London Stadium in a game that West Ham realistically must win to keep their slim hopes of finishing in the top four alive.
Rice’s first goal for the club secured a 1-0 win over the Gunners three years ago, and asked whether he feels pride when looking back on how far he’s come in his relatively short career, he says: “Yeah definitely.
“I feel like the way I’ve done it, it’s unique really. I probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way because the setbacks have shaped me into who I am and made me into the player I am today.
“There are going to be other setbacks along the way, things are going to happen and I know nothing is ever going to be plain sailing, but I’ll be ready for that and I want to keep going up.
“My mentality and my brain and the way everything works, I want to be the best I can be. I’m still only 23, I feel like I’ve played so many games already, but hopefully there’s another 10 years left and I’m going to learn so much more and improve so much more.”
Watch West Ham vs Arsenal on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Premier League from 4pm; kick off at 4.30pm. You can also follow the game on Sky Sports’ digital platforms with our dedicated live match blog, including in-game clips and full match highlights shortly after full time.