Old-school teacher Declan Rice believes his “bubbly and infectious character” is one of the many reasons the country has fallen back in love with the England national team.
The West Ham midfielder is set to make his seventh Euro 2020 start on Sunday when the Three Lions face Italy at Wembley in their second major final.
For everyone at Gray Court School in Ham, it will be a moment of pride – and especially for PE leader Steve Willmore, who taught and built the school team around Rice.
He keeps in touch with the 22-year-old and insists his personality is exactly what it was when he first showed up at Richmond Academy as a sixth-grader. for the integration day.
“I haven’t seen a change, and I really mean it. He’s the same bubbly, infectious character, with a good sense of humor, ”Willmore told the PA News Agency. “It didn’t affect him and he’s a really nice human being.
“He came back about 18 months ago for a visit. We had a question and answer session for some of the kids and at break time we took him for a walk and he was mobbed but it was great as he had time for everyone.
“The kids would come for photos and he had a photo here, a photo there and so a 30 second walk took about 15 minutes and the kids are looking after him.
“Watching this young man grow up and reach the top knowing he started his journey at Gray Court inspires so many children. It shows them that if you work hard you can potentially make your dreams come true.
Rice is a key part of a team that has seen their popularity skyrocket over the past month, although there has been a lot of progress in the department since Gareth Southgate’s appointment.
A more open and honest strategy with the media helped, but the public can also understand the various stories of rejection and adversity that led this group to the European Championship final.
Willmore added: “There might have been a disconnect before, but this whole team is great.
“Especially with Marcus Rashford last year and the free school meals, you think these players aren’t supposedly greedy people who take, take, take. There is so much you love about this squad.
Rice arrived at Gray Court at the age of 11 already at Chelsea academy but without an attachment to a junior team, life as a student meant more than lessons – it allowed him to play games regularly.
“You saw something special with Declan straight away. He had two big feet, an incredible work rate and he was also a superb speaker at the time, ”said Willmore.
“He was so confident and leading the team that you saw someone in those five-a-side sessions that stood out for a lot of different reasons. We knew we had a talent, but when we first saw him in a game we knew he was special.
“And he was awesome and played every game for school. He also wanted to play for the school team, which was huge for us.
The Gray Court captain helped the team reach the Surrey County Cup final during their three years there and played regularly for school in the afternoons before heading to Chelsea for s ‘train later in the evening.
Rice insolently asked his PE boss to change kick-off times so he could play, but that all changed when he was released by the Premier League club at the age of 14.
Willmore revealed: “He would play for us and then go to train at Chelsea, so he wanted to combine everything and he was motivated.
“He was a special player so it was a huge surprise for us when he was released. Nobody thought that was going to happen, so for him it must have been a huge shock.”
While Rice was not short of offers, the decision to join West Ham meant his time at Gray Court would end prematurely with the Kingston-born footballer moving to live closer to the east London club.
This meant that the cheeky chappy would no longer roam the halls of Ham’s school, but he kept in touch with the teachers and students who followed his journey, especially on social media where the England international was. is regularly turned into a meme for his confusing reactions. .
“You can see it in him now that he’s a little innocent as to the way he presents himself. A few of those practical jokes that have been played on him show his adorable side,” Willmore said.
“He also did his best in everything. It wasn’t just football, it could be on the athletics track – he always put in great effort and there were special traits about him that you can see got him to where he is now. .
“His background, his hard work and dedication and what he has been through, he is an inspiration to all students.
“It will be emotional to see him come out on Sunday, but ultimately I’m just over the moon for him and so proud of his journey knowing how lovely a human being he is.”