Rice relishes West Ham history as Euro glory marks potential farewell

West Ham United’s Declan Rice (centre) holds the trophy as the team celebrates winning the UEFA Europa Conference League football final match against ACF Fiorentina in Prague, Czech Republic on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)

LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — As Declan Rice cradled the Europa Conference League trophy in his arms, the West Ham captain could reflect on the end of a 43-year odyssey and the likely start of a new chapter in his inspirational story.

In what looks set to be his last West Ham game, Rice bowed out in fairytale fashion as Jarrod Bowen’s last-minute goal clinched a dramatic 2-1 victory against Fiorentina in Prague on Wednesday.

Written off by Chelsea as a tearful teenager and doubted even by the club where he eventually made his name, Rice will go down in history as only the third man to lift major silverware in West Ham colours.

Bobby Moore hoisted the 1964 FA Cup final and 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup, while Billy Bonds was skipper when West Ham won the 1975 and 1980 FA Cups.

Both Bonds and Moore are West Ham legends, a status Rice now enjoys as well after Wednesday’s cathartic Conference League triumph ended the club’s trophy drought.

“I’m still in shock. It’s incredible. I love this club, they’ve made me one of their own,” Rice said.

“There is interest from other clubs. Let’s wait and see. Who knows.”

Yet, as Rice blinked away tears of joy after the final whistle, the 24-year-old knew he would be leaving the Czech capital facing a defining moment in his career.

West Ham boss David Moyes last month admitted he was “fully aware” there was “a good chance” the England midfielder will be sold before the start of next season.

Rice has made it clear he wants to play in the Champions League, something currently beyond the wildest dreams of West Ham, who finished 14th in the Premier League this season.

He is valued at around £100 million (US$124 million), but that won’t deter Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich in the race for his signature.

Even if Rice strikes it rich by ending his nine-year stay in east London, the scars from his painful Chelsea exit as a dejected 14-year-old will continue to spur him to new heights.

Rice’s rise to stardom began with a kick in the teeth when he was released by Chelsea in 2014 after eight years in their youth academy.

Even after joining West Ham, Rice was the only player in his year group given a scholarship without the offer of a guaranteed professional contract.

But over 200 appearances later, with three club player of the year awards on his CV and a Europa Conference League medal around his neck, Rice has proved all the doubters wrong.

While Rice’s emotional response to the victory over Fiorentina was understandable, his usually taciturn manager gave voice to his own feelings in the afterglow of a victory that could have saved his job.

Reports last week suggested Moyes might be sacked if West Ham lost the final after a troubled domestic season.

But the 60-year-old Scot has surely earned a reprieve thanks to the first major trophy of his career.

Since becoming a manager 25 years ago, Moyes’ only silverware had been the 2000 third-tier title with Preston and the 2013 Community Shield at Manchester United.

He lasted just nine months at United in a disastrous spell as Alex Ferguson’s successor that came to overshadow his otherwise admirable career.

“This is fantastic. I’ve had a long career and you don’t get many moments like this,” said Moyes, who celebrated on the Eden Arena pitch with his 87-year-old father.

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