From Sweet Caroline to Ed Sheeran and Vanilla Ice it is impossible to know where to begin as Declan Rice searches for the defining image of his footballing year, and settles into Euro 2020 when the good times never seemed so good.
‘When Jorginho missed his penalty,’ says Rice, turning his mind back to Wembley Stadium and the heartbreak of the shootout in the final against Italy. ‘When Jordan Pickford saved it and the fans erupted I thought the tables had turned.
‘I had thought, “he’s so good at penalties Jorginho, it’s done”. But when Picks saved it, I was thinking “hold on, their best penalty-taker has missed and we’re going to kick on and win it” but it wasn’t meant to be. Penalties are a roulette, a 50-50 chance.
Declan Rice helped England reach the final of Euro 2020 during an exceptional year
The 22-year-old midfielder can reflect with satisfaction on efforts for England and West Ham
‘Or when the fans were singing Sweet Caroline before the game. Stood in the tunnel, just hearing it. I was buzzing. I had no fear. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything. It was a one-off game. We were so close to winning that trophy.
‘Just to think I was there. Even now, to this day, I will forget about it and then I’ll see a clip on TikTok or YouTube of them saving the final penalty or running towards the goal and it brings back memories.
‘It was the whole Euros experience. Being at Wembley, away for six weeks with the team. It’s something that will live with me forever.
‘It was such a proud and unbelievable moment even though it was so gutting to lose, and such a valuable experience. For that, in 2021, that was my highlight.’
Quite a highlight. Indeed, quite a year for a 22-year-old instrumental for club and country, at the vanguard as West Ham scaled the Premier League and qualified for Europe, in the engine room of an England team inching closer to that elusive trophy and stepping into a World Cup year.
Rice earned the trust of England boss Gareth Southgate and became a regular starter
But England’s Euros ended in heartbreak as they lost to Italy in the final at Wembley Stadium
Rice has now turned his attention to trying to bring home the World Cup for England
‘That’s the next big one for us,’ responds Rice without hesitation. ‘We are building and gaining tournament experience. I don’t think it’s going to be too long before England win something, 100 per cent.’
It is testament to the changing culture under Gareth Southgate and to the fresh ambition of Rice’s generation, unburdened by past failures.
‘Everything I’ve done this year has been like a vision, things I wanted to do. To actually get there and do those things is really special. I couldn’t honestly sit here and say I would have believed I have done half the stuff I have done in 2021.
‘It’s come as a shock, well not a shock but a bit of a surprise really. There are no limits to where I can go. If I keep working hard and keep giving it everything then hopefully I can have more memorable achievements and big moments in my career.’
Spoken with the supreme confidence of a young man who is learning to trust his talent.
‘You can’t play football without confidence,’ says Rice. ‘That’s something I’ve added to my game this season.
‘In my mind, I’ve always had this ability. Everyone’s always told me. But I have been adding to it, season on season, and I feel like this season I have matured, I have pretty much grown into a man now.
Rice jumps onto an inflatable shark at England’s training camp as Mason Mount watches on
Ed Sheeran (right) visited the England camp during the Euros and duetted with Rice
‘I’ve been doing things people obviously didn’t think I could do on a football pitch, but I’ve always known I can do it.
‘My dad always says: “What have you got to lose?” and I have that mind-set. Like I have 90 minutes here, why hold myself back? Why limit myself?
‘I’m being compared to so many top players and to be a top player you need to be in the game all the time.
‘I am being constantly watched. I need to try to be the best player on the pitch every time I go out there. Honestly it’s my mentality and confidence, really. Just the fact that I can be the best player on the pitch.’
On reflection, he thinks success in the latter stages of Euro 2020 proved a catalyst. His form continues to soar. As does his valuation.
West Ham boss David Moyes warning covetous rivals, in October, they can no longer expect to sign the midfielder for the ‘bargain’ price of £100million.
David Moyes has slapped a huge price tag on Rice as Premier League rivals circle around him
‘Probably after the summer, after I played in the final and got a lot of praise,’ says Rice. ‘I thought if I can do this on a European stage with no nerves then I can do it easily in the Premier League.
‘The first game at Newcastle. We were 2-1 down at half-time, and I’d only had two weeks of pre-season and played one game. I was a bit rusty and I remember second-half just taking off. I felt unstoppable. Doing things with the ball, dribbling past players, starting attacks, running past people.
‘It felt like everything fell into place. What I had done in the final, it felt like it just clicked in that first game at Newcastle and I just felt from there that if I carry on like this I don’t feel that anyone, when I am on the game, can stop me when I run past people and show my strength.
‘From the first game this season I have had that confidence and it has just built and built and built.’
Rice has taken on captain’s responsibilities for West Ham, who are pushing for a top four finish
Rice’s ebullience shines through the screen. He starts his interview by Zoom from the West Ham training ground, talking openly and freely for 20 minutes until dragged away to train, before insisting upon reconvening, later in the day, conscious there were questions he had no time to answer.
He reappears via Face Time, two hours later, still in his training gear with hair all over the place.
‘I’ve always been that loud kid, always outgoing,’ he grins. ‘I’ll speak to anyone. My job is a footballer but I’m a normal person. I wouldn’t look at anyone any different. So when I get the chance to speak I’m just my normal self really, who I am away from football.’
His everyman quality connects with the public. Amid the celebrations of England’s 4-0 win in Budapest, in September, he picked up one of the many beer cups, thrown down with various by Hungary fans in the stands, and pretended to take a swig.
‘Luckily there was nothing in it,’ Rice adds. ‘There could’ve been anything in it but I picked up the right cup.’
Rice takes a pretend swig from a beer cup thrown onto the pitch by Hungarian fans
The midfielder gutsily fronted up to the hardcore Hungarian support as England won 4-0
Last month, came an impromptu live karaoke session on social media to perform Vanilla Ice’s biggest hit, changing the chorus, naturally, to ‘Rice, Rice, Baby’ and complete with the dum-dum-dum-de-de-dum-dums.
‘I was sat at home when I got tagged into that,’ he explains. ‘I was sat with my missus and she was going, ‘just do it Dec’.
‘I was umming and ahhing, and I thought, ‘you know what, I’ll do it’ and to be fair it didn’t go down too bad. The gaffer obviously didn’t have a clue it was going on. It was all good in the end.’
Perhaps he was still high on memories of a duet with Ed Sheeran, initially handed down as a forfeit during England’s Euro 2020 camp.
‘I was late for a meeting and they said, ‘you’ve got to sing’. I said, ‘no chance, I’m not singing, I’ll do anything but sing’. They were all cracking up.
‘Then they went quiet on it. Then Harry Kane organised for Ed to come in and see the lads and have a bit of a chill night and he’s gone, ‘You’ve got to get up now and sing’.
‘I thought, ‘What, in front of everyone?’ So we’re sat outside on benches and Ed was just playing his guitar and I’m singing Wonderwall. Incredible, amazing, so good, and obviously to see Ed and sing with him was another of the great experiences from the Euros.’
None of which makes him immune in any way from those determined to bully and troll on the social media networks.
‘I’ve had the brunt of a load of abuse,’ says Rice. ‘When I chose England over Ireland, a lot of that stuff was coming through. Even during the Euros.
Harry Kane arranged for Ed Sheeran to perform for the England team during the Euros
Rice made the decision to take a social media break after a poor performance against Scotland
‘We played Scotland and I didn’t have the best of games, and my phone was going nuts with fans just hammering me.
‘I actually came off Twitter during the Euros until after the Germany game. I just didn’t want to be on it and it was taking my mind away from everything. Obviously, after we beat Germany, I went back on!
‘It’s important and it’s great to interact with fans. They pay a lot money to come and watch us. They sing their hearts out. They give a lot of support. It wouldn’t be authentic if it was someone else replying and doing stuff on a player’s behalf. That’s why I do everything myself and I like to have a bit of banter and a laugh.
‘I feel like it’s important to be yourself. You don’t need to be anyone different to who you actually are.’
Rice, set for his 150th Premier League appearance on New Year’s Day at Crystal Palace, has eased into the role of West Ham’s on-field leader as captain Mark Noble winds towards the end of his career.
Rice has looked comfortable as West Ham’s leader as Mark Noble (right) winds down
‘It’s weird because I’m still so young, only 22,’ he says. ‘If I want to tell someone off it feels a bit strange. Captaincy is usually associated with an older player. But I feel like I’ve got the respect of the players and if I’ve got something to say of course I’ll say it.’
Manuel Pellegrini first gave him the armband but he has led the team out more regularly since Moyes returned, challenging him to seize responsibility at a club where, in Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds and Noble they have a reputation for forging fine leaders.
‘He didn’t really talk to me about it,’ says Rice. ‘He said, ‘You’ve played in big games, you’re a leader, one of the best trainers, one of the best players, you need to go out there and lead’.’
Typically abrupt and direct from Moyes, the man Rice sees as key to the transformation at West Ham.
‘We lost our way a little bit and he was someone we needed at the time,’ he says. ‘He’s got that presence, authority, he’s no nonsense. He won’t take any sh** and he’ll say it how it is.
A no nonsense approach from David Moyes has West Ham dreaming of the Champions League
‘If you don’t like his methods and the way he plays you can do one. That’s pretty much what he said when he came in.
‘We had a meeting and he put up loads of stats on a board, running stats, distance covered and said it’s not good enough, and if you don’t want part of it don’t play. It was literally like that.
‘He got us back to where we needed to be. He’s been here two years this week and everyone can see we’re in full flow under him.’
West Ham are fifth with 31 points at half way. They have beaten Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea at home, finally bringing the London Stadium to life, and looking to build on sixth and 65 points last season having ended a run of one point from three games with a win at Watford on Tuesday.
The Hammers are aiming to bring top European football to their London Stadium home
‘We’ve maybe started to tire a bit, lost games we should’ve won,’ says Rice. ‘There’s no downer on it, though. Everyone has a dip in form. I still think we’re better off than we were last season.
‘There’s so many positives to take and if we can add one or two in January and really look towards the European games coming up, when we’ll probably play a big side, we can go far.
‘We can achieve good things. We want the Champions League, that’s what everybody wants but I feel top six is more of a bigger aim for us. There’s no limits to what we can do.’
No limits. Again. He can probably feel another song coming on.