West Ham almost let “ugly duckling ” Declan leave at 16


From a boy

Declan Rice has possibly become the biggest name in West ham football since Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and all the others but it really didn’t look as though it was going to turn out like that .

Having been released by Chelsea at the age of 14, he joined the Hammers but two years later opinion was very much split on whether the club should keep him on.

The idea that he would become one of the best defensive midfielders in the country was lost on Slaven Bilic, the manager under whom he received his first chance.

So it was not only Chelsea who had doubted him cutting him from their youth programme at 14 but us too, . Even at 16 years old, he did not especially look the part of future pro.

And some at West Ham were ready to let him go. Like Harry Kane, another potential £100m player this summer, he was an ‘ugly duckling’.

Bilic said:  ‘We thought he might one day turn out to be West Ham captain as a centre-back, a John Terry type, because he was very reliable and had that determination,’

‘But let’s not bull****. Did he look like he would go on to be one of the best midfielders in the Premier League? No, I can’t lie.’

Rice told the Mail: ‘It’s a crazy story. ‘They were going to release me. It was a 50-50 decision. Half the coaches wanted to keep me on. Half were saying: “We’re not too sure”. We played a game against Fulham, I played for the Under 18s that day at centre-half and Terry Westley told me after that he would give me my scholarship.’

Even then Rice was only offered a two-year scholarship. The better players had a three-year pro contract thrown in. Rice did not merit that but Westley, now technical advisor to Japan’s J-League, remembers the internal debate at the club over whether to keep Rice or not.

‘In the end I just said: “I’m Head of Academy at West Ham and I’m taking the decision to keep him”. I was convinced he was a late developer, that there was lots to come and he had an outstanding mentality. Those were reasons I made the case for him.

‘I pulled him to one side after that Fulham game and said: “Go home, tell your parents you’ve got a two-year scholarship”. 

The reaction was typical of him. There was no big-time about him just sheer delight. And he had earned that great feeling to be able to get into the car and tell his parents he was staying on.’

Rice’s life had never been the gilded path of a prodigy. Tony Carr, Westley’s predecessor at West Ham, remembers the day when he was tipped off about the 14-year-old midfielder rejected by Chelsea. 

‘Our head of scouting Dave Hunt told me Chelsea were letting two players go that we should have a look at. I didn’t know the names but when they turned up, I recognised them from academy games. What I liked about Declan was that he always looked you in the eye. If the coaches said something, he’d hold his gaze and show he understood.’

Westley said: ‘To be fair to Chelsea, they had so many good players in that group. Rice’s immediate contemporaries were his closest friend Mason Mount, Reece James and Trevoh Chalobah. Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tariq Lamptey were a year younger.

‘It was an age group in which they were blessed,’ says Westley, who writes for the Claret and Hugh website. ‘I can easily see that if they were going to take 10 scholars, they were all probably internationals. There might have been negatives [with Rice] rather than looking at two to three years’ time. The hardest thing in youth development is to look at what he might become rather than what he can’t do.’ 

‘He moved very quickly from full-time Under 16 scholar and was playing with the Under 21s at 17 and I needed to say to Karren [Brady], David Gold and David Sullivan: “Look, we need to put him on a pro contract quick”. 

Within a year, we had to call him into the office again and say: “Look we have to improve your pro contract”. He matured from 16 to 19 very quickly and was in the first team.’

The rest is history!

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Hugh Southon is a lifelong Iron and the founding editor of ClaretandHugh. He is a national newspaper journalist of many years experience and was Bobby Moore's 'ghost' writer during the great man's lifetime. He describes ClaretandHugh as "the Hammers daily newspaper!"

Follow on Twitter @hughsouthon


  • West Aussie Hammer 1 says:

    Thanks for this piece, that was a great read and a insight that most of us don’t know or see.
    It just highlights how good a person and indeed Footballer Dec is. A true working class Pro

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