Former West Ham United favourite Joey O’Brien has backed fellow Irishman Declan Rice to continue his meteoric rise under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.
Still just 19, Rice made 31 appearances for the Hammers last season, earning rave reviews for his ability, composure and leadership while playing at either centre-back or in a central midfield role.
The equally versatile O’Brien, who was 19 when he made his own Premier League debut, before going on to make more than 100 top-flight appearances for Bolton Wanderers and West Ham, believes Rice has the talent to build on the impact he made under Slaven Bilic and David Moyes.
Declan looks the part and hopefully he can stay away from injury and keep progressing at West Ham
“It's a massive season with a new manager and hopefully he gets into the team and plays regularly – that can only benefit Ireland,” said O’Brien, who totalled 105 games in Claret and Blue between 2011 and 2016 and is now plying his trade for League of Ireland Premier Division side Shamrock Rovers.
“It's all about the manager who’s there and they have a new one coming in. You'd like to think he’ll carry it on but he’ll bring in his own players too.
“From Declan's point of view, you hope he’s in his plans and that he’ll start him so that progression can continue.”
Now 32, O’Brien was a teenage prodigy himself, going on trial at a number of England’s leading clubs before joining then-Premier League Bolton at the age of 16 in 2002. He was named FAI Under-19 International Player of the Year in 2005 – an award Rice also won in 2017.
After breaking into the first team, he was part of the Trotters squad which finished eighth in the Premier League and reached the UEFA Cup knockout stages in 2005/06.
Knee injuries slowed the Dubliner’s progress, but he was still able to put together a career the vast majority of players would be proud of, making more than 200 senior appearances and earning five caps for the Republic of Ireland.
While his own career is winding down, O’Brien retains a keen interest in the fortunes of his national team and believes Rice can be a central figure for the Boys in Green for years to come.
“He was a young kid when I was at West Ham,” he said. “There were a couple of players in that position a year older than him and ahead of him. The manager [Sam Allardyce] left, Slaven Bilic gave him his opportunity and he has taken it really well.
“I’ve watched him at West Ham and have seen him in the Ireland games, he looks the part and hopefully he can stay away from injury and keep progressing at West Ham.
“It’s a massive season with a new manager. You need a manager to back you, play you and see what you are about.”