Declan Rice in line for one grand final farewell with West Ham

Around West Ham, there is zero bitterness at the thought of their most cherished talent moving on this summer. They have been crucial to Declan Rice’s progression into one of the best midfielders in the world, giving him a chance after he made a tearful exit from Chelsea at the age of 14, but the clock has been ticking all season. The mood is one of acceptance rather than anger and if there is regret it has to end this way any pain will surely float away if Rice’s final game for West Ham brings them their first major trophy for 43 years.

There are ways to say goodbye to the club that made you. The exit beckons, but so does immortality in the East End. So does the chance to follow in the footsteps of the great Bobby Moore, the only player to captain West Ham to a European trophy.

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It is a defining moment for Rice. Lead West Ham to victory against Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final on Wednesday and the 24-year-old would cement his place as a club legend. He would not have the longevity of Moore, who led Ron Greenwood’s side that defeated 1860 Munich 2-0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1965, but that was a different time. The simple fact is that Rice would have achieved more than any player in claret and blue since the 1980 FA Cup final, when Billy Bonds captained the team and Trevor Brooking’s header helped John Lyall’s Division Two side shock Arsenal.

Fans still stew over the club’s failure to build around Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Glen Johnson at the turn of the century. The difference with Rice is that West Ham have seen the best of him. They would not have finished sixth in 2021 or reached the Europa League semi‑finals last season without him. He is a transformative presence and those who know Rice say he refused to let his final season end in relegation.

Declan Rice scores for West Ham in their Europa Conference League quarter-final against Gent.
Declan Rice scores for West Ham in their Europa Conference League quarter-final against Gent. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Not once has he let his desire to compete at a higher level or his dissatisfaction with the team’s Premier League results this season affect his commitment. Rice drove West Ham to safety and pushed them to their date with Fiorentina in Prague.

His professionalism explains why nobody will be angry when the England international leaves. West Ham have to be realistic. Rice’s contract expires next summer, with a club option of an extra year, and he has no intention of signing an extension. “I want to play in the Champions League,” he said last year. Candidates for West Ham’s new director of football role have been told Rice is going.

West Ham’s best hope is to get as much money as possible for Rice – they are holding out for at least £100m – and reinvest wisely. Too many top managers admire his tackling, energy, reading of the game, passing and growing goal threat for him to stay.

Lately, there have been discussions with Thomas Tuchel about Bayern Munich, although a move to Germany is regarded as unlikely. Rice, who is extremely close to his family, became a father last summer. His preference is to stay in England and the smart money remains on him joining Arsenal. There is mutual admiration between Rice and Mikel Arteta.

Arsenal have the upper hand. Manchester United could make a late move, but their focus is on signing a striker. Liverpool have other targets in midfield. Pep Guardiola has spoken to Rice, but Manchester City are not seeking to replace Rodri. Newcastle’s interest is unlikely to go far. As for Chelsea, they are not in Europe next season and the prospect of losing Mason Mount has not helped their chances of buying his best friend.

Arsenal, who are about to make space for Rice by selling Granit Xhaka, are the cleanest choice. West Ham would benefit from the move happening quickly, allowing them to rebuild, and Arsenal sense Rice will give them a better chance of winning the title. A bit more oomph in midfield could be vital. Would Arsenal have blown those 2-0 leads against Liverpool and West Ham during the run-in if Rice had been protecting the back four?

Not that Arteta’s interest is solely down to Rice’s defensive qualities. When Rice ran half the length of the pitch to score against Gent in April, the response from one person who knows Rice’s game inside out was to expect him to do even more in the final third in a bigger team.

Nothing fazes Rice. West Ham’s academy staff had tracked him since he was nine and could not believe their luck when Chelsea let him go. Rice was invited to Chadwell Heath, West Ham’s training ground, and was the best triallist staff had seen.

Giving him a deal was a no-brainer. Rice had gone through a growth spurt and his physique needed attention, but his ability and attitude stood out. It was immediately apparent he was a leader. He got on with everyone and the coaches could rely on Rice to make sure his teammates behaved well. He was the type of person to make sure staff knew if another boy was struggling emotionally.

Declan Rice poses for photographs with fans after West Ham’s final home match of the season.
Declan Rice poses for photographs with fans after West Ham’s final home match of the season. Photograph: Simon Dael/Shutterstock

“He’s a better person than he is a player – and that’s saying something,” says Mark Noble, a former teammate who is now West Ham’s sporting director. There are times when Noble walks into his son’s bedroom and finds him talking to Rice about football on FaceTime.

Rice has time for everyone. Last month, walking around the pitch after helping West Ham overpower Manchester United at the London Stadium, he spotted a young boy in tears. He responded by hugging the boy and giving him his shirt.

That is how they will remember Rice at West Ham. A leader, a top player and, most importantly, a good person. There are no hard feelings. All the story needs now is a fairytale ending.