When the new year came around in 2023, West Ham United was having an uneasy time, occupying 17th position on the league table, level on points with Nottingham Forest in 18th.
This was a shock as the team had finished the 21/22 season in seventh place, cementing a place in the UEFA Conference League. The club had also managed a run to the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League semifinals, losing out to eventual champions Eintracht Frankfurt.
Advance five months, and the club has turned it around, managing to stay up, finishing 14th in the league. It is also in uncharted territory, looking forward to a European final, it’s first since 1975-76, against Fiorentina at the Fortuna Arena in Prague.
One key factor in the team’s success over the last few years has been its skipper and midfield powerhouse Declan Rice.
The armband of West Ham United has been worn by many legendary players in the past, from Bobby Moore and Paolo Di Canio to Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble.
The 24-year-old Rice has thrived under the pressure of being club captain, guiding West Ham through its new-found purple patch.
Rice made his Hammers debut in the final gameweek of the 2016/17 season, as a defensive midfielder, in a 2-1 away success at Burnley.
In the following season though, he made 15 appearances playing at centre-back, providing the team with a ball-playing defensive option, helping West Ham to a 13th-place finish.
In the six years since, he has transitioned from a centre-back to a dominant midfield shield. In the Premier League this season, Rice has won possession more times (334) than any other player while also managing the most interceptions (63).
The midfielder has also been a revelation for England. He was an integral feature in England’s run to the finals of Euro 2020 and the quarterfinals of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In last year’s World Cup, Rice averaged more passes per 90 (68.5) than any other player in the England squad.
His game for his club though isn’t just about marshalling the defensive third.
West Ham’s number four has an eye for a dribble, best demonstrated by his incredible goal scored against Gent in the quarterfinals of the Conference League. Rice’s chance creation rate (30) for the club this season in the league has been second only to Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma.
A midfielder who provides this complete package is rare in football, leave alone in English football. That explains the long queue of suitors that are looking to snap him up despite West Ham’s high price tag. Reports suggest that Arsenal, Manchester United and even Bayern Munich are interested in his services.
Apart from technical qualities, his ability to come up clutch in important games and the admirable leadership he has shown give the impression that he is a man made for the big stage.
While West Ham will be sad to see a player of his calibre leave, the club will hope that he leads the team to success in the final, marking his stamp on the club’s greatest moment in more than half a century.
And after a few years, even if he goes onto achieve untouched heights in his career, he will always be a West Ham boy for the fans, much like Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick.
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