The West Ham player billed as the new Bobby Moore takes a moment to think, attempting to process a remarkable couple of years since breaking into the first team. On the one hand it is a dream come true for Declan Rice to be reunited with long-term friend Mason Mount in the England side, with long international careers predicted for two players still shy of their 21st birthdays. Yet on the other hand you only have to consider the number of changes Gareth Southgate has made since last year’s World Cup to realise nothing can be taken for granted.
“When you see some of the big names who have been left out, it shows you have to be on your game constantly,” Rice says. “The competition is strong, so you need to keep your head down, keep working and make sure the manager can’t leave you out.
“I wouldn’t say I feel under pressure. You get that from playing in front of 60,000 at West Ham every week anyway but because of my background I don’t get fazed so easily. I’ve had to deal with a lot from a young age.”
Rice is not referring to the storm that followed his decision to switch to England after appearing for the Republic of Ireland in youth and friendly games but to the bolt from the blue that was Chelsea releasing him at 14.
Mount and several other friends who have subsequently reached first-team level were kept on but after six years at the club Rice suddenly had to find another. As it happens that did not prove too difficult – “word gets round when players are released” – and with leading clubs now forming a queue for Rice’s signature, Chelsea probably realise they might have made a mistake.
What Rice would have appreciated at the time was an explanation or any sort of feedback from the club. “I never got the reason why I was released,” he says. “When we tried to find out they told us to come in for a meeting, which was then cancelled.
“I was very close to my mum and dad, we did everything together, and I still remember the massive shock when I came home from school. I was thinking it would be something about when I could go full-time, and my dad said I was released. I cried my eyes out for about an hour.
“The only explanation I can think of is that I was going through a huge growth spurt at the time. I’m a big lad now but back then I was quite tiny.
“I felt I was still playing good football but suddenly I wasn’t moving in the right way. I was all over the place, like Bambi on ice. I don’t know for certain if that was why they let me go but Chelsea was 10 minutes from where I lived and had been all I knew from the age of eight.”
As might be surmised from Rice’s subsequent progress, this is not one of those stories of wastage rates or teenage devastation. Even in a Bambi on ice phase, the defensive midfielder’s ability had been noted and that same evening he was able to take up an invitation to train with Fulham. The next day West Ham were in touch and though Fulham were also willing to offer a contract, permitting the possibility of continuing to live in Kingston, this self-confessed home boy felt the time had come to make a new start.
“Fulham was only five minutes away and joining West Ham would involve moving from home and starting a new school but that’s the route I chose,” he says. “I was homesick for a couple of years. I thought about quitting at times but I’ve just signed a new five-year contract, so it didn’t turn out to be a bad decision.”
While the physical difficulties were soon surmounted, once Rice made it to the first team he discovered the realities of professional football. A mistake presented Arsenal with a goal and a path to victory and a grim-faced David Moyes did not spare the youngster’s feelings in the dressing room or on television.
“You know what?” Rice says. “Moyesy was right to hammer me. I remember the game well. It was 1-1 and I ducked under a ball that ended up in the back of the net. It was probably my fourth start or something and he absolutely grilled me in front of the lads. I just sat there and took it. It hurt but I needed to be told.
“You can’t be thinking you are a Premier League player after three or four games and that Arsenal game was a reality check. You need to learn if you are going to improve.”
The Moore comparison was made by club’s co-owner, David Gold, possibly unhelpfully after Rice opted for England, though the player appears comfortable with it. As he says, not much unsettles him now.
“There are a lot of proud West Ham people because I am playing for England,” he says. “Sometimes I have a little laugh and say: ‘Euro 2020 – let’s bring it home’ but Bobby Moore won the World Cup. Over at the academy you notice what a big player he was for England and West Ham. Maybe I could be the next one.”
The Guardian Sport