Rice too nice? Jude Bellingham doesn’t need Declan love in fight for supremacy

Will Ford
Bellingham Rice England

England’s performances in the international break have done little to quell doubts ahead of the World Cup. One thing at least became clear: Jude Bellingham is good. Even clearer than that? Declan Rice loves Jude Bellingham more than anyone.

“He’s 19 but he’s got the body of a 28-year-old – he’s a man!” Rice gushed after the 3-3 draw with Germany. “He thinks like a man, plays like a man and shows personality and character.”

The West Ham star’s comments wouldn’t feel out of place in the agony aunt section of a tabloid magazine, as if he’s a 55-year-old stay-at-home writing to Deidre to explain the battle to suppress venereal feelings towards the new handyman.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as good as he is for 19. He’s got the whole package.”

Please help Deidre, I can control myself no longer. Sincerely, Declan.

Rice clearly sees more than the glimpses of Bellingham’s brilliance to which we’ve been privvy, having spent time in England training with him, and it’s clear when you watch Rice talking about the teenager that this isn’t bullsh*t; Rice is in awe.

But they’re the sort of patriarchal comments you might expect from Jordan Henderson, not the 23-year-old Rice. Apart from drooling over Bellingham’s “28-year-old body” and those “eyes you could get lost in” (OK, he didn’t say that), Rice also said Bellingham has an “old head”, but it’s Rice who’s talking as though his own testimonial is around the corner.

The Hammers midfielder is aggrandising Bellingham as this generational talent despite being from that same generation, playing in the same position, and potentially being in direct competition for a starting spot for England in the future and for a transfer to one of the top Premier League sides.

“He’s the future of English football for the next 15 years if he wants to be,” Rice added, seemingly unaware, or not caring, that he’s adding more fuel to a transfer fire while the embers of his own still need stoking.

Liverpool admire Bellingham

It’s now Bellingham who is the answer to Big Six midfield woes, not Rice. It’s Bellingham linked with £100m-plus transfers, with Rice the fall-back Plan B.

A Telegraph report on Wednesday claimed Chelsea – the club most heavily linked with Rice in the last two years – have ‘gatecrashed the race’ (whatever that means) between Liverpool and Real Madrid for Bellingham, with one sentence of a 400-word story dedicated to Rice, who’s ‘still on the radar’ at Stamford Bridge.

Having been snubbed by Chelsea at a young age, fighting to get himself into the West Ham first team, then into the England senior side, before becoming a very young Premier League captain, it’s no particular surprise that Rice has a more paternal outlook than your average 23-year-old. His experience belies his age. But then you might expect that experience to have bred caution when asked about the younger guy who eyes the same future.

That would require a level of cynicism Rice clearly (and refreshingly) doesn’t have. He’s not the sort of person who would temper his enthusiasm or honesty when asked about Bellingham to get a leg up (or over) his midfield partner.

But it feels as though he needs to be more self-serving. He’s so far refused to force a move away from West Ham, undoubtedly in part because they’ve been very good under David Moyes, but also perhaps because of his desire to remain on good terms with the Hammers fans who adore him.

But few can have watched their start to the season and believed there isn’t at least part of Rice that regrets not pushing for a summer exit, which would have been more timely than it will be next summer, when Bellingham’s availability will limit interest and options.

And it’s not just club football where Bellingham could infringe on Rice. Because although they are currently playing together in the heart of England’s midfield, Gareth Southgate will likely leave his position after the World Cup and who knows how tactical shifts or formation changes under a new boss could affect their burgeoning partnership. It could soon be one of Rice or Bellingham, not both.

Rice playing daddy to Bellingham is positive for England, positive for the clubs that want to buy him and positive for Bellingham himself, and Borussia Dortmund will be very happy to see Rice waxing lyrical as they look to amp up excitement ahead of a summer bidding war.

The only person not benefiting from Rice’s hyperbole it seems is Rice himself, with this the key takeaway from his comments: Rice is nice; Bellingham is better.

It’s like they’re a couple of blokes who turned up early for a speed dating night, had a pint before it kicked off, then one of them spent every four-minute date talking about how much better the guy coming next is. “My arms are fine, but look at the pythons on that fella.”

Rice had the pick of the dates a year ago but has now been usurped by a young man he confusingly both wants to foster and f***. He would be better off focusing on his own future, with Bellingham narrowing those options whether Rice draws attention to him or not.