laven Bilic remembers the Declan Rice early days very well knowing he had a huge star in his care.
Declan was captain of the under 23s when he was plucked out of the academy and launched on his early steps towards a Premier League career.
It was Slav who gave him his first team debut at Burnley and the former boss who first hooked him when he made his full debut at Newcastle.
But he always recognised the talent he had on his hands and was sure that he was a player who was going all the way in the game.
He has come a nearly unrecognisable distance from those days and tomorrow night he could make his first full England debut in Montenegro as England look for a second Nations Cup victory in four days.
It’s more likely that Eric Dier will start but such has been the story of Declan’s life so far this season, rule nothing out.
‘Bilic holds him in the highest regard and recalled in the Daily Mail: “He has a bit of everything; very strong in the tackle, good in positioning himself, decent quick and hungry for the second ball.
‘We got him mainly as a centre-back in training, then we put him as a holding midfielder because he keeps the position there and can pass the ball.
‘He’s like the metronome, he keeps the balance of the team, doesn’t go up or down or left or right. He stays in position which was unbelievably mature for his age.’
He’s doing exactly the right thing to play in different areas of the pitch and see which one he is most suited to. He is learning all the time.
‘I remember how happy and proud he was to come off the bench against Burnley for his step. Since then he’s shown everything you need in midfield. To take the next step to be world-class, you need that cleverness in passing, like we have in Croatia with Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic.
‘Declan liked to smile and laugh but he was serious about listening and playing the game, that is why he was involved at such a young age. We liked to bring players in from the academy and under-23s to to train with us but not many were able to take on the information.
‘He was able and though I couldn’t say he was a regular at 18, he was always involved.’