‘I can’t lie’ - Slaven Bilic speaks out on West Ham’s Declan Rice amid honest admission

Former West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic admits he did not expect Hammers captain Declan Rice to become as good of a player as he is now.

Bilic, who managed 111 West Ham matches between June 2015 and November 2017, handed Rice his senior debut on the final day of the 2016/17 Premier League campaign as a substitute in a late cameo role against Burnley, a game which West Ham won 2-1 courtesy of goals from Sofiane Feghouli and Andre Ayew.

That late run out in Lancashire was senior outing No.1 in claret and blue for Rice, who is likely to make his 245th, and potentially last, West Ham outing on Wednesday night against Italian side Fiorentina in the final of the Europa Conference League, with Rice heavily linked with a transfer exit this summer. Arsenal and Bayern Munich are the heaviest linked sides, among others.

While Rice only made nine first-team appearances for West Ham under Bilic, it was the Croatian who gave Rice his first chance in the Premier League. Speaking on him, Bilic thought that while Rice had the potential to be a West Ham captain playing as a centre-back, he never envisaged him becoming one of the top midfielders, not just domestically, but in world football either.

“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,” Bilic told the Daily Mail.

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

‘i can’t lie’ - slaven bilic speaks out on west ham’s declan rice amid honest admission

Declan Rice of West Ham United runs with the ball during the Premier League match between Leicester City and West Ham United at the King Power Stadium

The season before Rice’s cameo at Burnley was all about the emergence of Reece Oxford, who never quite matched the potential that many had hoped for him when starring as a 16-year-old in a 2-0 win away at Arsenal.

Bilic feels that the hype and pressure on Oxford allowed Rice to go under the radar and meant he could flourish without the same level of pressure put on him.

“What helped him was that he was a bit under the radar,” Bilic explained. “A couple of years before, when I’d come to West Ham, I couldn’t move around the place without hearing that Reece Oxford was going to be the next big thing.

“Reece made his debut at 16 and we beat Arsenal 2-0, you can imagine the hype. He had an entourage, he got injuries, maybe lost a bit of confidence and focus.

“Dec’s was a different story. He was able to come in without the same expectations. I remember being in Germany on pre-season and walking round the hotel and seeing him with his mum and dad. They’d come over to see him, I had a chat and they didn’t seem the type to want a lot of fuss. Things like that don’t do any harm to a young player.”

Ever since that cameo at Turf Moor, Rice has gone on to be a regular for the Hammers, playing over 30 matches in each of the last six seasons at club level, being on the verge of playing 50 Hammers matches in all competitions for a second straight season.

Shortly after Rice’s debut, Bilic found himself entering the 2017/18 season short on midfielders due to injuries to Cheikou Kouyate and Manuel Lanzini, providing an opportunity for Rice to build on his senior debut.

Bilic believes his qualities and characteristics emulate that of former Manchester United captains Roy Keane and Bryan Robson.

‘i can’t lie’ - slaven bilic speaks out on west ham’s declan rice amid honest admission

West Ham United’s Declan Rice celebrates scoring his side’s first goal with Emerson Palmieri, Danny Ings, Pablo Fornals and Tomas Soucek during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Leeds United at London Stadium

“The next pre-season we had injury problems with midfielders Cheikh Kouyate and Manuel Lanzini,” Bilic added.

“Decs played there, he wasn’t the quickest or a maestro on the ball but his positioning was clever, he anticipated where the ball would be and reacted sharply. And he was good at distribution.

“What I liked was the way he reacted if he made a mistake, as he did in a game at Newcastle. He was angry with himself but he responded like an experienced player. S*** happens but I’m ready to go again.

“Young players can have great ability, physique, technique but let’s not forget that what Decs has — character, game intelligence, determination — are also qualities. That’s what made great captains like Roy Keane and Bryan Robson.”


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