Vanilla Rice

Not even twelve months ago, Declan Rice was the toast of the town. His strike against Lyon last April, helped propel West Ham into an historic Europa League semi final.

For the briefest of moments, his inspired performances had fans dreaming of European glory and a top four finish to boot. The natural heir to Mark Noble’s captain’s armband, the Hammers had a new ‘homegrown’ talent to adore. And not since Dimitri Payet had a truly World Class player donned the club crest.

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If West Ham were truly "massive", Rice was at the heart of the feast... What a difference a year can make.

It’s hard to describe Rice’s playing style. Arriving at the club as a fresh-faced, 14-year-old centre back, Rice was handed his Hammers debut back in 2017 by Slaven Bilic. The Croatian swiftly moved the youngster from defence into a holding midfielder role.

The rest, as they say, is history. But to call Rice a defensive midfielder would be lazy and simplistic. Mark Noble, Teddy Sheringham and David Moyes have all at some point, perhaps unhelpfully, compared Rice to ‘a young Steven Gerrard’. N'Golo Kanté is another name often banded around.

Of course, these comparisons are always unfair and probably wide-of-the-mark, but they were at the very least, a true measure of his potential.

Since an 18-year-old Rice pulled on the claret and blue, his performances consistently impressed. As winner or runner-up in four of the last five Hammer of the Year competitions, Rice proved he was the real deal. And although technically a Chelsea academy product, the fans took to him as one of their own.

On the pitch - desire, determination, blended with natural ability and flair etched on every one of his performances for both club and country. Off it, he was charming, charismatic and dare I say, liked by all… including rival fans. His stock truly grew to global proportions during Euro 2020, where he featured in every Three Lions match en-route to the final at Wembley, with those pesky pundits tipping him to become a future England captain.

Speculation surrounding the midfielder’s future at the London Stadium seems to have haunted Rice for what feels like most of his career. Now in his sixth season with the club, every year the midfielder is linked with a move away and yet he stays ‘one more season’. Rice, meanwhile, has kept an honourable silence throughout.

It’s no exaggeration to say that he has the pick of any of the so called ‘top six’ clubs in England and no doubt a fair few abroad too. Arsenal, Manchesters United and City and Liverpool have all been linked at one stage or another. Lesser players than him have stamped their feet and spat dummies out in order to force through moves to ‘bigger’ clubs. But not Rice… not yet.

Last season saw the good times reverberate around the London Stadium for the first time since the controversial move to Stratford. Rice was instrumental in those good vibes. In truth, our relative success last season was probably the time for him to take his bow.

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Surely not even the most hardened of West Ham supporters could begrudge the man a move away to chase titles and silverware. But instead, we got ‘one last season’. And here we are…

A few weeks ago, a season-ticket holder friend of mine did the unthinkable. He started laying into Declan Rice. He questioned it all. His desire, his attitude and even his ability. He lay many of the clubs’ problems at the captain’s door. Shocking, but surely an isolated opinion? Not any more. Not now. West Ham’s capitulation to Brighton has many more fans questioning where our leader’s headspace is right.

"He’s on the beach"... "He doesn’t want to be there". "He’s setting a poor example". Those are the printable, cleaner comments I’ve seen and heard recently.

And it’s not just the fans. Following the recent FA Cup defeat to Man United, the normally bright and cheery Roy Keane was quick to question Rice’s ‘world class’ label and the potential hefty price tag the clubs’ owners have put on his head.

“I don’t think he’s been that great this season," said Keane. "He’s not really kicked on… I think he needs to do a lot more. He doesn’t score enough goals and he doesn’t get enough assists."

Of course, Keane’s comments have nothing to do with Rice’s Republic of Ireland u-turn. The prickly Irishman was assistant manager of the national team in 2018, handing Rice his three senior Irish caps, only to watch the Englishman defect to join up with Gareth Southgate and his play for his country of birth. But does the Man Utd legend have a point?

Has this ‘one last season’ threatened to damage the star's legacy at the club? Have his performances really dropped to unacceptable levels, or is he a victim of his own high standards and fans' frustration at recent results?

With surely just a few months left of his Hammers career remaining, has our once-beloved Declan Rice become part of the problem?

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