As the heavens opened on Monday night, with an unholy amount of water chucking itself down and thunder reverberating across the still air like Godzilla clearing his throat, fans of West Ham United learnt of the inevitable.
Jacob Steinberg, Guardian reporter and West Ham supporter, broke the news that Arsenal were close to agreeing a £90million fee with the Hammers for Declan Rice (£100million with add-ons should Arsenal shake their addiction to bottling).
Most of a West Ham persuasion had accepted Rice’s departure months ago; world-class midfielders don’t tend to stay for a lifetime of jellied eels and flirtation with relegation in the modern era.
And club chairman David Sullivan, with his moth-like inability to resist the limelight, confirmed he’d leave during a recent interview with talkSPORT.
But his departure still hurts. Less than a week ago, Rice led the celebrations in Prague as West Ham ended their 43-year wait for silverware with a dramatic victory over Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final.
The 24-year-old wept with joy, as did the legion of hard-looking Essex men in the stands. As did I.
Moments like that were supposed to be the preserve of the Big Six, rather than a West Ham side spearheaded by Michail Antonio dispensing with football for a spot of sumo wrestling at every 50:50 challenge.
With the England international – second name on Gareth Southgate’s teamsheet behind Harry Kane – in tow, the Hammers have been transformed from perennial flakes to tough, gnarled European operators.
West Ham’s success owes plenty to the pair of sturdy Czechs Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal, the thrilling directness of Jarrod Bowen, the enigmatic Said Benrahma and creative fulcrum Lucas Paqueta as well as the management of David Moyes.
But, without Rice’s driving runs from midfield, I wouldn’t have been sipping Cruzcampo in Seville for a Europa League knockout tie.
Without his leadership ability, I wouldn’t have travelled to Lyon and Frankfurt in the heroic, but doomed, quest for Europa League glory.
Without his expert ball-winning ability, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be pepper sprayed by Belgian police, presumably for my expert resting bitch face, during a Conference League tie at Anderlecht last October.
And, without his penchant for curling long shots, I wouldn’t have spent last week in Prague, soaking in one of Europe’s finest cities alongside 25,000 other fellow West Ham supporters, to see my team win an actual European trophy.
Not even Saudi Arabia could put a price on those memories.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) June 8, 2023
From Turf Moor, where Rice made his debut under Slaven Bilic in May 2017, to the Fortuna Arena, the midfielder has blossomed into one of life’s good eggs.
After beating Manchester United last month, he reduced a young supporter to tears by saying: “Do you know what? I did promise I’d give my shirt to Marcus Rashford. Don’t show them lot [points], I just told them I’m going to give it to Rashford but I’ll give him another one. Here you go.”
His legacy at West Ham is secured. Thousands of Hammers still hold grudges against Paul Ince, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe and Dimitri Payet for the manner of their departure from east London.
But Rice will be remembered in a similar vein to Joe Cole; an immensely talented player without a bad bone in their body that gave their all for the club. Give it eight years, and a succession of injuries, and there’s a good chance he’ll be back at West Ham anyway.
As Arsenal celebrate Rice’s impending arrival, Moyes will need to reinvest the transfer fee wisely to ensure West Ham don’t spend another year dangling the prospect of a league game at Plymouth in front of their supporters.
But the maxim that’s it better to have loved and lost, rather than never to have loved at all, rings true now. Thank you, Declan.
By Michael Lee