DANNY MURPHY: Declan Rice is learning fast and desperate to improve

At 22, Declan Rice has the football world at his feet with West Ham riding high and England bidding for European Championship glory this summer. He spoke to DANNY MURPHY ahead of Sunday’s London derby against Tottenham…

Declan Rice walks in fresh from the gym. West Ham’s man-of-the-moment looks cheery and relaxed and that’s no surprise given how things are going. He is not only captaining the team at the moment, he has also become penalty-taker and scored his first goal of the season against Sheffield United last week.

I know Declan, we don’t live far from each other in Surrey and are both members of Kingswood Golf Club. It is hard to believe he has only just turned 22. So many good young English midfielders are being talked up for the Euros but Declan has already established himself in Gareth Southgate’s plans and won 13 caps.

At the age of just 22, Declan Rice has the world at his feet with West Ham United riding high

At the age of just 22, Declan Rice has the world at his feet with West Ham United riding high

Now he has added penalties, he might even be an asset in a shootout this summer!

‘You know what, I am quite a clean striker of the ball,’ he says with a laugh, revealing that his club manager David Moyes had asked him to take the spot-kicks if Mark Noble wasn’t on the pitch.

I loved a penalty myself and was a bit worried he started with a straight run-up before shifting to give himself an angle.

‘It was about composing myself, taking a deep breath,’ says Declan. ‘When I went away with England, they recorded our penalties in training so you could watch them back. They say they want you to master two spots and hit them.

‘The Panenka isn’t me, just foot through the ball. It’s harder for keepers now they have to stay on the line. Put enough pace on the ball, they struggle to get down.’

Rice was pulled up by his manager David Moyes earlier in his career for costing West Ham a  goal in a game versus Arsenal, but he claims he took it on the chin and it is the best way to learn

Rice was pulled up by his manager David Moyes earlier in his career for costing West Ham a  goal in a game versus Arsenal, but he claims he took it on the chin and it is the best way to learn

A lot of modern football is based around numbers so I’m glad Declan does not seem to be obsessed by adding goals. I don’t remember the best defensive midfielders Dietmar Hamann, Michael Carrick, N’Golo Kante being bothered if they scored.

He agrees. ‘If I’m honest, I view it as a bonus. My job is to protect the back four, break things up and then get on the ball to start things for my team. It’s a nice feeling to score but I need to improve on other things before I worry about that. When Kante scores, I notice everyone crowds him, he’s not really expected to.’

That said, Declan did register his first England goal in his last international against Iceland with a neat header from Phil Foden’s free-kick. In fact, he seems to be on the cusp of different little milestones every week.

If West Ham beat Tottenham, they will go nine points ahead of their London rivals — and they haven’t finished ahead of them in the table since 2008. Should Declan stay fit, he is set to become the first Hammer since Rob Green and Matthew Upson in 2010 to represent England at a major tournament.

Rice says West Ham's manager is making sure they grasp the opportunity of European football

Rice says West Ham’s manager is making sure they grasp the opportunity of European football

Most importantly of all, it has been five years since the club played in Europe. Declan says the manager is reminding his squad behind closed doors they cannot let this current opportunity slip by.

One of Moyes’ biggest achievements has been to find the right blend of youth — Declan and Ben Johnson — and experience — Craig Dawson and Czech pair Thomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal.

‘After the Sheffield United game when we went joint-fourth, he’s told us there are 14 games to go and we need to be looking at a European spot,’ says Declan.

‘That is the aim now, where this club has to be. We’ve had years fighting relegation or even being in the Championship. He wants us to push on and, as individuals, Europe is the level we want to be playing at. The biggest thing is how well the lads get on. My best mate is Ryan Fredericks but I could just as easily sit with Soucek and Vladimir for a coffee and chat for 20 minutes. There are no cliques.

Gareth Southgate has plenty of options to choose from, but Rice hopes to be among the team

Gareth Southgate has plenty of options to choose from, but Rice hopes to be among the team

‘We got Vlad from the Czech Republic. No one knew about him and he was man of the match in his first game at Leicester. He’s up there as our player of the year. Tomas has added a goal threat. Daws is that no-nonsense defender you need. He just wants a clean sheet.’

I’m impressed that Declan has looked comfortable wearing the armband. I didn’t become a captain until my late 20s. Steven Gerrard was given the job early at Liverpool but he was quieter than Declan at that age.

‘Even when Nobes plays and I’m not skipper, I am quite vocal anyway. I have been like that since the academy, always handing out advice, encouraging, getting players up again,’ he says.

‘Wearing the armband is a privilege but it doesn’t change you. You hold a bit more responsibility but I still focus on my own game and try to help others.’

While nobody can play golf at the moment, I am envious that Declan discovered the game early. I didn’t seriously lift a club until after football. Looking back I would have found it a welcome relaxation.

Rice points out former Manchester City midfielder David Silva as the player he has found hardest to compete against during his career

Rice points out former Manchester City midfielder David Silva as the player he has found hardest to compete against during his career

‘You can take your mind off pretty much anything when you are having a round of golf,’ says Declan. ‘It’s refreshing, I love those early mornings in the summer, you’ve got a coffee, walking around with Dad or some of my mates. I’ve had lessons before and I hope to be a half-decent player by the time I retire and get into those golf days!’

He might find it hard to squeeze in a round this summer however, even when courses re-open. Declan hopes to be otherwise occupied with the Euros which begin on June 11. Gareth Southgate has plenty of talent to choose from but a fit and healthy Declan looks nailed on for a place.

Ironically, England’s group includes the Czechs, which will see an interesting battle with his midfield pal Soucek, whichever formation Southgate opts for.

‘When we beat the Czech Republic 5-0 at Wembley [2019], I didn’t realise Tomas had played. Vladimir was on the bench, we were speaking about it the other day funnily enough.

‘Now I’ve played with Tomas for a year, it is going to be a weird match-up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is giving his manager tips on how I play and I’ll be helping Gareth out about how he plays. It will be a tough one. After the 5-0, they beat us 2-1 in Prague.

‘Regardless of systems, I know as a holding midfielder the way Gareth wants to play. Either way I can slot in. You still do the same basics, it is still essentially the same position, it may just vary a little off the ball in terms of shape. On the ball, we have clear patterns on how we want to play.’

It will be interesting for me if England stick to 3-4-3 when they play again next month. I always like to ask players if there is any opponent who has caused particular problems. My most chastening experience was coming up against Paul Scholes and not being able to get near him. Declan singles out the Manchester City legend David Silva as his toughest challenge.

‘Silva played the No 10 and was everything you don’t want,’ he says. ‘I tried to mark him but it felt like he had all the time in the world.

Rice appears to be 'old school' when modern players are seen to struggle with hardship

Rice appears to be ‘old school’ when modern players are seen to struggle with hardship

‘He had clear pictures every time he received the ball. He knew when to get in between the lines, when to play one-touch, when to thread balls through, when to drop deep. Just a pain!

‘I wanted to cut off the service to him so he’d be smart and drag you in positions so another player came in. I’d be looking around thinking: “How do you stop this guy?” It was really tough.’

Talking to Declan, I do feel he is ‘old school’ at a time when modern players are seen to struggle with any criticism or hardship. There was an incident at the start of his career when Moyes pulled him up for costing West Ham a goal against Arsenal. Some felt the manager was harsh but Declan considers it an important part of his education.

‘I feel definitely you can’t say stuff to some players without them taking it on the chin,’ he says. ‘That experience with David Moyes, I was a youngster, I took it on the chin. I knew it was right because I made a mistake. I’d let the team down.

There are plenty of young players being hyped up, but Rice already has 13 England caps

There are plenty of young players being hyped up, but Rice already has 13 England caps

‘Those type of experiences have shaped me into the person I am today. Even now I have meetings with [West Ham coaches] Stuart Pearce and Alan Irvine, working on stuff, them telling me if I’ve done anything wrong so I can try to improve.

‘There are two types: people who take it and move on and those who sulk. You should be able to take some — that is how you learn.

‘If you don’t get told, how are you going to improve? Otherwise you’ll be thinking in your own mind, you are doing everything right when you aren’t.

‘Someone like Moyes, he is old school but he will tell you how it is. I think that is exactly how it should be.’

It has been a good season for West Ham and Rice, but they need to keep pushing onwards

It has been a good season for West Ham and Rice, but they need to keep pushing onwards

It has been a great season so far for Declan. It could turn out be historic. The first priority is to turn West Ham’s European dream into reality. After that all eyes will turn to the delayed Euro 2020.

The names available to Southgate are mouthwatering: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Mason Mount, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, John Stones, to name a few. It is exciting and it will be up to Declan to help the balance of the side.

On a personal level, I think it helps England to have Gareth’s assistant Steve Holland in their corner. Steve was my coach when I started my career at Crewe and he was excellent and could put a free-kick wherever he wanted! Since then he’s developed that habit of winning trophies with Chelsea.

England have a tradition of doing well with a bit of claret-and-blue in their ranks. And Declan knows all about 1966.

‘We have waited so long to win something in this country,’ he says. ‘This is a chance with so many good players on hand. We need to perform as a bunch. We can’t let it go to waste.’ 

source: dailymail.co.uk