Can the rise of youngster Declan Rice Bridge the gap between the West Ham’s fans and the board?
West Ham’s Premier League campaign has gotten off to an inauspicious beginning, with the club suffering back to back losses to Manchester United and Southampton, in the process conceding seven goals, leaving them bottom of the table. Faced with a trip to St. James’ Park to face Newcastle, where the Hammers have not won since 2012, and without their suspended record-signing, Marko Arnautovic, discontent amongst fans, simmering throughout last season’s mediocre results, is rapidly growing. Manager Slaven Bilic has faced criticism among West Ham fans, who argue that the defensive frailties of last season have not been addressed over the summer.
Indeed, some bookmakers name Bilic as the probable first managerial sacking of the season, with chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan lining up Roberto Mancini as a possible successor. The latter pair, along with vice-chairman Karren Brady, have, however, also earned the ire of supporters, particularly in the last two seasons with the controversial move to the Olympic Stadium. Indeed, the new stadium has meant that West Ham will end August having not played at home due to the stadium’s commitments to the World Championships in Athletics, despite statements made by the board that football would always be prioritised at the venue.
Amidst the fears that the club’s heritage would be lost amidst the move across London, David Gold earned criticism from sections of the club’s Twitter following last season, after posting a message in which he stated;
“I think that we all have to except [sic] that it is extremely unlikely that a teenager will break into a PL team full of seasoned internationals. dg”
For a club which associates itself with the ‘Academy of Football’ nickname, and which has in the past produced internationally capped players such as Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick, such comments imply a changing face of West Ham United, one which many supporters are thus far uncomfortable with.
Indeed, few of last season’s starting eleven were home grown players in the mould of the club’s history, with only captain Mark Noble originating from the youth team following the sale of James Tomkins to Crystal Palace. Of course, one reason for this may be that the youth team, as implied by David Gold, was simply not good enough, a youthful side having been thrashed 5-0 by Nottingham Forrest under Sam Allardyce’s tenure.
Yet Reece Oxford shone in both his and Slaven Bilic’s Premier League debuts at the Emirates in August 2015, only to be loaned to Reading the next season, following limited game time at West Ham. He is now at Borussia Mönchengladbach on a season-long loan. Meanwhile, the senior players continue to fail at meeting the aspirations of the owners and fans to compete with the top teams in the division.
One positive, then, for those supporters concerned at the lack of opportunities given to youth players, must be the performances of Declan Rice in the opening two games of the Premier League. Having made his debut as a 91st minute substitute against Burnley in last season’s final game, Rice once again began the season on the bench. Having replaced Mark Noble for a half-hour cameo in the 4-0 loss to Manchester United however, Rice earned himself a place in the starting eleven against Southampton. In both games, the Republic of Ireland youth international impressed.
Against United, Rice could boast a 96 per cent pass completion rate, along with two interceptions and having never been dispossessed. His passing accuracy was once again on display against Southampton, the youngster achieving an impressive 76 per cent completion rate in 76 minutes.
Moreover, Rice has earned numerous plaudits from pundits impressed with his communication and leadership abilities. Jamie Redknapp and the Soccer Saturday panel were all impressed by Rice demanding the ball from his teammates, and taking the initiative by quick movement of the ball, following his debut against Manchester United.
He looked similarly assured against Southampton, instructing Pablo Zabaleta, a veteran of the Premier League, to calm down and not rush a throw in. Having impressed as the captain of the West Ham U23 side, earning himself the Young Hammer of the Year award for 2016/17, these leadership qualities are likely to be a key factor in earning Rice a prolonged spell in the starting line-up.
With Mark Noble beginning show signs of age, the midfield will require a player who can mirror his passion and command, both of which Rice has cultivated over his time with the club. With his ability to play in midfield, as he has done thus far, or at the centre of defence, there seems to be no shortage of uses for the rising star.
What this means for West Ham is more than simply an effective player in the middle of the park. Instead Rice’s real significance may lie in his being the first youth player to break through to the first team since the move to the Olympic Stadium, a means of bridging the gap between the two sections of West Ham’s history.
For the fans, concerned by Gold’s apparent lack of faith in the youth system, Rice’s breakthrough may offer a salve to ease concerns that the traditions of the club will be lost amidst the corporate environment of modern football. For the board and management, Rice represents a low-cost alternative to bolster the side for a tilt towards sought-after European football. In this way, Rice may act as a cause for celebration for both parties, perhaps going some way towards re-connecting the board and fans after high-profile divisions.
This is all, of course, short-term thus far. Rice’s breakthrough will only be looked on favourably if results improve, which must start today against Newcastle. Were the form of the opening two games to continue much longer, Bilic would most likely find himself out of work, and Rice possibly added to the list of West Ham prospects who never quite made it.
Furthermore, West Ham continue to be linked with William Carvalho, a saga likely to continue until the end of the transfer window. Were the Hammers to sign Carvalho, and allegedly break the record-fee already spent on Arnautovic this window, one of the positions in central midfield would certainly be filled.
This would leave Rice competing with Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Pedro Obiang for the remaining spot, unless of course faith is lost in one of the central defenders, presenting an opening there, with Jose Fonte looking particularly suspect in the opening games. Finally, the example of Reece Oxford should not be forgotten, with his run in the first team coming to an abrupt end in 2015/16, leading to his current absence as a loan-player.
Nevertheless, Rice remains one of the few positives from West Ham’s first fixtures. The focus is now on him to continue to perform with technical and mental reliability, thereby confirming his place in the side, and also push for a senior cap for the Republic of Ireland. Were he to do so, it would certainly go a long way towards reassuring the West Ham faithful that the traditions and history of the Academy of Football have not been left behind at the Boleyn Ground.