If you had sat down with Declan Rice on his 22nd birthday on 14 January 2021 and told him what he, West Ham United and England would achieve by the time he celebrated turning 23 on Friday, he would not have believed you.
A year ago this week, Rice’s West Ham United sat ninth in the Premier League following a hard-fought 1-0 home win over Burnley, only a few short months after staving off relegation with just a game to spare.
Not one member of the Claret and Blue Army would have predicted a top-six finish, progress to the UEFA Europa League round of 16, memorable domestic cup wins and another sustained challenge for European qualification in the Premier League.
Rice’s England had qualified for UEFA Euro 2020, with their three group-stage matches, the semi-final and final to be held at Wembley, but only the most optimistic of Three Lions supporters would have forecast a run to the final.
As he turns 23, Rice has become, almost without doubt, his Club and country’s most important player.
Nominated for the Men’s PFA Young Player of the Year award last season, the midfielder has taken his game to an unprecedented level this term, drawing comparisons with England legend Steven Gerrard for his leadership, drive and all-round ability.
For West Ham, Rice has assumed the captaincy on matchdays, taking the knowledge and experience he has learned from his teammate, mentor and friend Mark Noble and leading by example, game after game after game.
For England, Rice has become arguably the first name on Gareth Southgate’s teamsheet and, having starred at the European Championship finals, will surely play an influential role again at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar next winter.
Through it all, the No41 has retained the humility, approachability and sense of humour that originally made him such a popular figure as a schoolboy at the Academy of Football.
Greatness seemingly awaits Declan Rice – and nobody at West Ham United would begrudge him it.
Everything I have done over the last year has been like a kind of vision.
They were things that I wanted to do and wanted to achieve but to actually get there and do those things, for me, is really special.
I honestly can’t sit here now and say that I would have believed I have done half the stuff I have done in 2021. It’s come as not a shock, but a bit of a surprise, really.
There are no limits as 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.
I feel like playing with confidence is something that I have added to my game this season.
You can’t play football without confidence. I have always had this ability in my mind. 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.
I have been doing things that people obviously didn’t think I could do on a football pitch, but I have known myself I can do it. It’s just building the foundations to keep improving and getting better.
My Dad always says it to me, when I step on the pitch, he says ‘what have you got to lose?’ And I have that mindset. It’s like ‘I have got 90 minutes here, why am I going to hold myself back? Why am I going to limit myself?’.
Now I am being compared to so many top players and if you want to be a top player you need to be in the game all the time. I am thinking now that when I go out on the football pitch I am being constantly watched and I need to try and be the best player on the pitch every time I go out there.
Honestly, that’s my mentality and confidence really – just the fact that I can be the best player on the pitch.
I have noticed more and more this season that teams are trying to stop me, stop the way I am playing a little bit more, driving forward with the ball, trying to get as many touches as possible.
It does become frustrating but that is part of learning, learning different ways to get on the ball, learning how not to be selfish and moving out of your position to get other players on the ball.
Always in games you are constantly thinking about the team and how you can beat the opposition.
I am always watching the Premier League, and always watching the top midfielders to see how they play.
Obviously now I have gone more box-to-box I have been watching [footage of] Steven Gerrard just because of how good he was. He had everything. He could tackle, was tenacious, was fast, was a leader, could score goals, he wore his heart on his sleeve. He was just unbelievable. He was one of the greats but you don’t actually really fully appreciate him until you watch him.
I [have also] watched the likes of Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira in terms of driving forward with the ball, their silkiness, when to hold people off, when to run with it, when to play the passes. But at the moment I am watching more Gerrard for all-round play and to look and aspire to.
You have to be superfit to be a box-to-box midfielder.
After ten minutes you are breathing heavily! It’s really tough. You come up against different opposition teams and players all the time and obviously different opposition pose different challenges.
As a holding midfielder you are always in front of the back four so when attacks build you are there to protect. But as a box-to-box midfielder you are trying to get involved and they break you have to be the one to get back as well.
So, in that aspect it has changed but it’s one that I am really enjoying as well. I am enjoying being involved in most parts of the pitch.
After the summer, after I had played in the Euro 2020 final and obviously I got a lot of praise for the final, I felt like: ‘If I can do this on a European stage, in a final, with no nerves and go out there and do what I have just done, then I can do it easily in the Premier League.’
I remember the first game of the season at Newcastle and we were 1-0 down at half-time and I had only had two weeks of pre-season and had played just one game and here I was playing at Newcastle.
It took me half a game, I was a bit rusty and I remember second-half just taking off. I just felt unstoppable. I was doing things with the ball, dribbling past players, starting attacks, running past people. It felt like everything fell into place.
After 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.
I feel like we can achieve good things at West Ham United this season.
The top four is looking really strong. We want to qualify for the Champions League, that’s what everybody wants.
I feel like top six is more of a bigger aim for us. We can add strength in January as well.
There are no limits to what we can do. We just need to stick together, keep doing what we do best and see where the season takes us.
We’ve gone for everything this season. We’ve rotated the squad as much as we can. We haven’t got the biggest squad and it is tough playing all the games, physically and mentally. It’s our job and it’s the best thing in the world but it is tough.
There’s no downer on it, though. There are 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, I feel like we can really go far.
When people ask what has changed at West Ham, I’d say the manager [David Moyes] coming back for his second spell, and the way he is as a person, his authority.
He was someone we needed at the time. When Manuel Pellegrini left, we had lost our way a little bit and the manager (Moyes) has got that presence, that authority. He’s no nonsense. He won’t take any rubbish and he’ll say it how it is.
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.
He’s been back here two years and everyone can see we’re in full flow under him. That’s the been the biggest change. We’ve got someone we all listen to and we all have to work hard for.
I felt like he wanted something to prove. It was tough for him to be replaced by Pellegrini but he was the perfect replacement. He knew most of the lads here.
We loved it under Moyes first time around. We loved his backroom staff. We loved everything.
To have that changed was tough but then to have him back was a real boost. Two years on from his reappointment and it’s been really successful.
Being appointed captain on matchdays just happened naturally.
Pellegrini first gave me the armband then when Moyes came in it just happened naturally. He didn’t really talk to me about it, but 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.’
It’s weird because I’m still so young, only just turned 23 and 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. That’s a part of why we’re doing so well as a team.
We can take criticism. If you can’t give it out and take it, you’re not going to learn. Even me, I like to be told because it keeps me on my toes.