LONDON STADIUM — As soon as he strikes the ball, he knows he has scored. This might be Declan Rice’s first senior goal, but he knows well enough that nothing can stop the path of his curled shot. He runs to the corner flag with both arms raised, followed by a hoard of teammates desperate to congratulate the young man. In the stands around him, West Ham supporters jump and thrash in delight. Half of their happiness is for themselves. Half of their happiness is for Rice.
Scoring goals is no way to judge a holding midfielder, and Rice has received multiple standing ovations in this stadium over the course of his short career. But even for a defensive player, there’s nothing quite like 55,000 people dancing in jubilation because of something you have done. Goal-saving tackles might make as much difference as neat finishes from the edge of the box, but the latter provides football’s moments of Nirvana. Rice will remember this for as long as he lives.
There is a large piece of claret carpet on the side of the pitch at the London Stadium, matching one that was in place at the Boleyn Ground. On it reads four words that many West Ham supporters believe defines their club: ‘The Academy Of Football’.
It’s easy to be cynical about that phrase, and strap in because I’m about to be. Over the last decade, ‘The Academy Of Football’ has become more about clever marketing than a reflection of any ethos that runs like an aorta through the club. It may have been established in the 1960s by Ted Fenton and produced a wonderful crop of England internationals in the 1990s, but by 2017 West Ham’s academy had lost its lustre.
In June of that year, co-owner David Gold told Talksport that West Ham’s conveyor belt was a non-functioning relic. “There is nothing more pleasurable, for a fan, owner or manager, to have a young academy player breaking through,” Gold said.
“However, I think we’ve got to be realistic and say that is now virtually impossible. It’s just not going to happen on a regular basis. It’s different now. We have to face the fact that 17, 18 and 19-year-old young men are not going to get into the Premier League first-team.”
Green shoots of potential
Gold was guilty of little more than brutal honesty, but his admission stuck in the throat of West Ham supporters. For them, ‘The Academy Of Football’ is more than sugary corporate schtick. This is a fanbase that feels it has been neglected by a club that feigned to treat them so dear. The stadium move deteriorated into farce. The academy had fallen into neglect.
But nothing pushes harder through the cracks than the green shoots of potential. Despite Gold’s pessimistic warning, a young talent has graduated to the West Ham first team and is thriving. Twelve months ago, Rice was a starlet with a handful of Premier League appearances whose named prompted whispers in the pubs of east London. Now he is West Ham’s most valuable asset and fan favourite. When the teams are read out before the match, it is his name that is cheered loudest.
That could easily create a suffocating pressure for Rice; it has for many before him. But the most impressive aspect of the boom in young English-born footballers over the past two years is the ease at which they take their significant strides forward. Youth team to first team? No bother. EFL Cup to Premier League? Bring it on. Under-21s to senior internationals? Yes please.
But even by those standards, Rice is remarkably mature. Alongside Mark Noble, another West Ham academy graduate at the opposite end of his career, Rice’s passing is calm and simple and is positional discipline exemplary. When he does make inevitable mistakes, there is no panicked reaction. Nor does he fall into the common trap of trying too hard to impress. That alone speaks volumes.
A new six-year contract doesn’t tie Rice to West Ham for the long-term – supporters should be too savvy to believe that now. But it is does represent a message of intent from player and club that they can make this work. There is an issue of international declaration to be resolved at some point too.
Rice will turn 20 on Monday, and arrives at that tender age as one of the most exciting prospects in the country. His teenage years may be over, but he has already proved Gold wrong. Having found a place for him in their team, West Ham’s next challenge will be keeping him there.
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