Declan Rice’s old school teacher believes his “bubbly and infectious character” is one of several reasons why the country has fallen back in love with the England national team.
The West Ham midfielder is set to make his seventh start at Euro 2020 on Sunday when the Three Lions face Italy at Wembley in only their second ever major final.
For everyone at Grey Court School in Ham, it will be a proud moment – and especially for head of PE Steve Willmore, who taught and built the school team around Rice.
He remains in contact with the 22-year-old and insists his personality is just how it was when he turned up to the Richmond-based academy for the first time as a year six pupil for induction day.
“I haven’t seen change, and I mean that. He is the same bubbly and infectious character, with a good sense of humour,” Willmore told the PA news agency. “It has not got to him and he is genuinely a nice human being.
“He came back in around 18 months ago for a visit. We arranged a Q&A for some of the kids and at break time we took him out to walk around and he was mobbed but it was brilliant because he had time for everyone.
“Kids were coming up for photos and he had a photo here, a photo there and so a 30-second walk took about 15 minutes and the kids look out for him.
“To have seen this young man grow up and go to the top knowing he started his journey at Grey Court just inspires so many of the kids. It shows them if you work hard you can potentially realise your dreams.”
Rice is a key part of a squad who have seen their popularity soar during the last month, even though plenty of strides have been made in that department since Gareth Southgate’s appointment.
A more open and honest strategy with the media has helped but the public can also relate to the various stories of rejection and adversity which have driven this group to the European Championship final.
Willmore added: “Before maybe there was a disconnect but this whole squad is great.
“Particular with Marcus Rashford last year and the free school meals, you think these players are not so-called greedy people who take, take, take. There is so much about this group that you like.”
Rice arrived at Grey Court as an 11-year-old already in Chelsea’s academy but with no attachment to a junior team, life as a pupil meant more than lessons – it allowed him to play matches on a regular basis.
“You saw something special straight away with Declan. He had two great feet, an amazing work rate and he was a superb talker back then as well,” Willmore said.
“He was so confident and led the team so you saw someone in these five-a-side sessions that stood out for many 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 superb and played every game for the school. He wanted to play for the school team as well which was huge for us.”
The Grey Court captain helped the side reach the Surrey County Cup final during his three years there and would regularly play for the school in the afternoon before he went to Chelsea training later in the evening.
His head of PE would cheekily be asked by Rice to change kick-off times so he could play but everything 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 train at Chelsea so he wanted to combine everything and he was driven.
“He was a special player so it was a massive surprise for us when he was released. No one thought it would happen so for him it must have come as a huge shock.”
While Rice was not short of offers, the decision to join West Ham meant his time at Grey Court would come to a premature end with the Kingston-born footballer relocated to live closer to the east London club.
It meant the cheeky chappy would no longer roam the corridors of the school in Ham but he has stayed in touch with teachers and pupils who have followed his journey, especially on social media where the England international has regularly turned into a meme for his bemusing reactions.
“You can see it in him now that he is kind of innocent in terms of how he comes across. A couple of those practical jokes that have been played on him show his loveable side,” Willmore said.
“He tried his best at everything as well. It wasn’t just football, it could be on the athletics track – he would always try hard and there were some special traits about him that you can see have got him to where he is now.
“His journey, the hard work and dedication and what he has gone through, he is an inspiration to all students.
“It will be emotional seeing him walk out on Sunday but ultimately I am just over the moon for him and so proud of his journey knowing what a lovely human being he is.”