It did not take long for word to spread among London’s academy community that Chelsea had cut loose a talented 14-year-old by the name of Declan Rice.
Rice was a Year Nine student at Grey Court School in Richmond at the time when he arrived home to be told the bombshell news by his father, Sean.
There were tears, then came an invite from Fulham to train with them later that night. The next day, West Ham’s then head of academy recruitment Dave Hunt called.
Declan Rice is one of the most coveted players in the Premier League after a superb season
Rice (right) pictured as a Chelsea youngster alongside Mason Mount (left), who has gone on to play for the first team, was left distraught when the club released him at the age of 14
Frank Lampard sees Rice as a defender and could use him to sure up the Blues’ rearguard
Hunt had spoken to Tony Carr, the club’s director of youth development who famously helped nurture Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, John Terry, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and many more.
Carr can recall the short and sweet conversation now. ‘I remember Dave coming to me and saying Chelsea were releasing two young players,’ he tells Sportsmail.
‘One was Dec. He was surprised they were letting him go. I said: “Let’s bring him in and see.” That was it.’
In hindsight, that call could turn out to be worth £70million to West Ham this summer, should Chelsea decide to bring Rice back to Stamford Bridge. Hunt, now talent identification manager at Base Soccer agency, adds: ‘I was shocked.
Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba posed for photos with Declan Rice and Mason Mount
West Ham were quick to sign him and could make a huge profit if Chelsea come calling again
‘As soon as I heard I got on the phone. His ability on the football pitch was noticeable. That’s why I drafted him. But it’s the way he conducts himself off it. He’s a super kid.
‘Mark Noble has one more year on his contract. Declan is the natural successor if he does stay.’
Therein lies the debate. Is Rice the next captain of West Ham, as mooted by David Moyes last week? Or are we we about to see a homecoming of sorts with Chelsea?
There has not yet been a bid lodged by the west Londoners, nor has Rice told his club he wants to leave, despite reports. He is currently on a post-season holiday, notably relaxing with Mason Mount and posing for pictures with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba.
To this day Rice does not know why he was released but by his own admission, his body had gone through changes and he was running like Bambi on ice.
Rice (second left) still doesn’t know why he was let go, but Chelsea’s loss is West Ham’s gain
The Blues shipped four goals in the Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich on Saturday
Mount and Rice have since reunited in England’s midfield, and it could be Chelsea next
A meeting was arranged with Chelsea so he could be told why – a chance for closure, or to find out what areas he should work on – but it was cancelled.
One suggestion is that spaces had become limited due to a sudden influx of new youth players. Whatever the reason, their loss has proven to be West Ham’s gain.
‘You could see Dec was talented,’ Carr adds. ‘He’d take responsibility and wouldn’t shirk away.
‘If Chelsea had known what they know now, of course they’d have never released him. It’s about development and giving him the opportunity. He got that at West Ham.’
It says a lot about Rice’s character that he turned down an invitation from Fulham’s academy – within walking distance of the family home in New Malden – to join West Ham instead. He preferred the challenge.
Salt Bae himself posted a photo which included Mount (second-left) and Rice (far-right)
The midfielder never chased personal glories as a youngster and always put his team first
Rice was placed in accommodation provided by his new club in Romford, away from his parents. Occasionally, the young boys can get into some form of bother.
‘But not Declan,’ says Hunt. ‘The way West Ham was set up then, we had good mentors, (youth development officers) Jimmy Hampson, Jimmy Tindall. We didn’t have the finances to compete with other clubs but it was about relationships, looking after people.’
The move meant Rice had to leave Grey Court. Stephen Willmore, his PE teacher at the time, recalls how he was forever desperate to represent his school team.
‘He never missed a game,’ Willmore tells Sportsmail. ‘That type of thing rubbed off on the other boys. That passion, that enthusiasm. It was never beneath him.
‘He didn’t have to play for the school team. But he led by example. He put the team first – it wasn’t about personal glory. The boys respected him hugely for that.’
He has shown tremendous character and desire to break into the team and succeed at the club
Rice (right) scored for fun as a schoolboy, but West Ham saw him a defensive future for him
Rice started attending Robert Clack School in Dagenham, where West Ham send their older scholars. Parents Sean and Stephanie, as much as they missed their son, who also became homesick, supported him fully.
Willmore stays in touch with Rice via WhatsApp now and adds: ‘He was a smashing lad, a funny infectious character to be around with a charisma about him.
‘He was incredibly upset (about Chelsea) but it shows his character that he went to live in digs and two years later he’s being pushed towards the first team by Slaven Bilic.’
His manager David Moyes currently plays him in midfield but he could be defender at Chelsea
At school, this future England international was always a midfielder. He would score for fun, too, with either foot. Yet West Ham saw signs of a defender, especially after a sudden growth spurt.
‘After one pre-season, he came back and had grown three, four inches,’ Carr says. ‘It was noticeable. We played him at centre-back and he looked comfortable.’
It is understood that, while Moyes uses Rice in his midfield, Frank Lampard sees his future as a central defender. Time may tell, but his ability to do both adds to his value.
The Blues’ need for defensive solidity was underlined again in their crushing Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich as the German champions smashed four past them to eliminate Lampard’s side on Saturday.
Perhaps Rice has been earmarked as the man to bring much needed steel to Chelsea’s rearguard.
Chelsea have not yet launched a bid for Rice, but his versatility only adds to his transfer value
The 21-year-old has been tipped to become West Ham captain if he commits to the club
‘I wouldn’t want to pigeon hole him by saying one or the other, because he’s good enough to play either,’ Carr adds. ‘From a selfish point of view, I hope Dec stays.’
Rice is contracted until 2024 and as someone who was pivotal in bringing him to the club in the first place, Hunt also hopes to see him go far in a West Ham shirt.
‘I know how much he cares for the club, for the fans,’ Hunt says. ‘I’d love him to be West Ham captain. He could captain England someday.’
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