Declan Rice is poised. Ready for anything and everything. He sits up, ramrod straight, maintaining unwavering eye-contact, oozing self-confidence. Every item of Prada clothing he tries on throughout our shoot seems to fit him perfectly, instantly. No wonder Gary Neville describes him as “Authoritative, confident, humble and quite simply the most impressive young footballer I’ve interviewed in 11 years”. Rice is 23 years of age but has the bearing and calmness under pressure and, yes, poise, of an old hand. Nothing fazes him, including the fact that right now, as we speak, in this world exclusive and extremely rare print interview, he is one of the most sought-after talents in football. First choice in midfield for England (he played in all seven games in the 2020 Euros), vice captain of West Ham, and worth, according to his club manager David Moyes, at least £150 million, Rice is surely poised for a massive move before too long. But with the World Cup a matter of months away, and Gareth Southgate’s England reaching new heights as each tournament arrives, and possibly, maybe, edging ever closer to the glittering prize of actually winning something, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine Rice holding aloft the ultimate trophy in football, as a West Ham player.
“I don’t get too nervous or feel pressurised,” says Rice, of playing at the highest level, “but you know how many eyes are on you, and how many people are watching, especially with England. I feel like we’re the most watched nation in the world when it comes to football. So when I’m out there putting on the shirt and playing I know that I’m being watched and my performances will be analysed”. But does his ability to absorb such pressure come naturally to him, or is it something he learned to deal with along the way? “I feel like it’s always been natural to me to be honest,” Rice explains. “Ever since I was thrown into the first team at that young age, I kind of just dealt with it. So everything that comes or gets thrown at me, I just kind of take it in my stride”.
After four years as an Academy youngster, Rice made his debut for West Ham age 18 when he came on in the last minute of the last game of the 2016/17 season. A year later he was voted second only to cult hero Marko Arnautovic in the West Ham fans’ player of the year poll, and in December 2019, he was already captaining the team, at a mere 20 years of age. As for what kind of Captain he is – the Tony Adams giving a rousing Churchillian speech kind of leader, or the calmer, quieter Bobby Moore-style figure with an innate sense of authority, Rice says, “I’m pretty relaxed in the dressing room. Of course before we go out onto the pitch I’ll say a few words. But nothing major. Some players don’t like to hear it, some players do. You know, some of them have got headphones on. But I’m mostly relaxed, chilled and just ready to go out there”.
It hasn’t all been serene plain sailing for Rice, though. Having been signed to Chelsea’s Academy as a seven year old, they then let him go when he was 14, at a key moment in any prospective footballer’s development. “Yeah, it was tough, really tough”, he remembers. “I was just heartbroken at the time, but I also realised I had to move on fast if I wanted to become a footballer and that I’d have to give everything I could at that age to make it”. He credits his dad for not forcing him at a young age to join an organised, competitive team like most potential professional players do. Instead, he simply played in the streets and around the youth club in Kingston upon Thames where he grew up with his two older brothers and their mates. Playing in pressurised matches as a kid with parents screaming and shouting from the sidelines was never a situation that Rice faced, thanks to his dad, who just wanted Declan to have fun and enjoy playing football for the sheer hell of it. Maybe that’s why he’s so well-adjusted and chilled-out now. Until, of course, he gets out onto the pitch and instantly starts imposing himself on the midfield. No matter who he’s up against.
Rice’s entirely self-assured playing style and immensely effective performances, particularly for England, have made him one of those rare figures – a footballer widely liked and admired by most fans, no matter what club they support. Is he aware of how he’s transcended club loyalties like this? “Yeah, I think so”, he nods. “I feel like the fans know after watching me with England and West Ham that I’ll always give my best for the team”. It’s clear he regards his experiences in the England camp as overwhelmingly positive. Even that devastating loss to Italy on penalties in the Euros Final. “It was an unbelievable experience”, says Rice. “Probably the best of my football career so far. Obviously I was gutted to lose the final. But that’s football. I’m sure we’ll bounce back and we’ll be better for that.”
He credits the players and coaching team for creating a unique sense of camaraderie in the England set-up, which not so long ago in the pre-Southgate years, was reportedly riven with factional cliques. “I feel like you look at the lads that we’ve got there now – everyone’s so happy to be there. You can see us on the pitch, and in training, and how we get on from our social media just how together everyone is – not sure it would have been like that years ago. It would probably have been completely different back then, so credit to the staff who’ve changed that, and of course, to the lads as well who all get on with each other.” When asked about the differences between his England boss Gareth Southgate and his club manager David Moyes, the two coaches who have had such an effect on his career, he immediately delivers a tactical analysis of their contrasting styles. “They’re both completely different from each other just in terms of tactically the way they set up their teams. With Gareth and the players we’ve got in the England team, you know he wants us to play out from the back and pass the ball through the thirds, whereas with David Moyes we’re much better at West Ham when we’re counter-attacking, so we sit in and then win the ball back and because we’ve got so many good attackers, we attack teams really quick”. He says Southgate is in regular dialogue with Moyes, and his assistant Stuart Pearce, so when he joins the England camp he knows where he’s going to be played and in what position. “I feel like they both have a good understanding of me and my game.”
Rice is also proud of how the England team and management rallied round and supported the England players who missed penalties in that Euro 2020 final and who then had to endure moronic racism because they happen to be black. “It was horrible for them to receive that abuse”, says Rice. “But straight after the game, the lads were there to support them straight away. And the manager was speaking about how united we are as a team, and we’ve experienced it before when we’ve gone to go to a country which has a history of hostile racist remarks. The good thing now is we know what to do as a team, when one of our teammates gets racially abused”. Whereas years ago footballers seemed to shy away from even talking about such issues publicly, Rice embodies the current open-minded, seemingly fearless generation of young footballers who engage with what’s going on in the world. “If there was a cause I felt really strongly about, I’d definitely promote it”, he says, “And I think that’s the same for most players now”.
The ease with which Rice deals with seemingly all situations and challenges is evident in every aspect of his professional life, from the moment he enters the dressing room to the trials of media duties and the dreaded post-match interview. In fact, he was recently hailed for giving one of the best such interviews of the season when West Ham knocked heavily fancied Sevilla out of the Europa League in March. Rice smiles wryly at the memory. “I do actually enjoy chatting to people generally and try not to be a robot”, he smiles. “But yeah, after that game, I was buzzing and so decided to give a good interview!”
As composed and unruffled as he usually is, he does admit to being star-struck, albeit briefly, the first time he played against Ronaldo, one of his main footballing heroes growing up. “I’ve watched and admired him for years so I did think, ‘Oh yeah that’s Ronaldo!’. But then I just got on with the job”. Did he at least try to swap shirts? “Oh yeah I got his shirt!”, he says, as if there was no way he would have let that opportunity pass him by. “I do love my shirts…” he adds.
He means football shirts, of course, but it’s also clear from his enthusiasm for the outfits CircleZeroEight shoots him in today that he’s also got a keen interest in what he wears. “It’s a massive part of my life. Every day it takes me about a half hour to decide what to wear”, he says. “I feel like it’s important to feel good and also to look good as well. I like the fact that Prada is really classic but also daring”. Prada also dressed him for the London Football Awards this year, where he was crowned Player Of The Year. But he also likes his streetwear, from Supreme to Palace, and says he’s always poised on the Supreme app to check out the new selections and collabs each week, just like the rest of us. In fact he just got the alert on his phone that the new Supreme drop has arrived, the minute before we sat down for this chat. “I do love the box logo Supreme hoodies”, he continues, warming to the theme. “Just the way they fit, slightly over-size, is really cool and they can go with anything as well”. As for who his most stylish colleague is, he says, “We’ve got a player at West Ham called Alphonse Areola. He’s French, and he’s played at Real Madrid and PSG and I’d say he’s probably the best I’ve seen, just in terms of what he wears every day, and the outfits he puts together.
He’s a massive sneaker-head as well, and he doesn’t really care what anyone thinks, and it really suits him”.
It makes total sense that Declan Rice admires Areola for not caring what anyone thinks. You get the sense from hanging out with Rice for even a relatively brief period of time that he has a totally clear-eyed sense of what to do with himself, on the pitch, in the dressing room, in post-match interviews and in world exclusive magazine fashion stories. So when asked if he’s affected by the simple fact that he’s one of the most valuable and sought-after players in the world in his position right now, he says, honestly, “Not really. I can’t control what people write or say about me or what price they put on my head. I can only control what I do on the pitch and obviously that determines whatever else happens to me. So I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and all the rest of the stuff is pretty much just… noise”.