West Ham showcase new-found unity on perfect day as Declan Rice joins the greats

Final farewell? West Ham star Declan Rice is expected to move on this summer in a deal worth over £100m  (Action Images via Reuters)
Final farewell? West Ham star Declan Rice is expected to move on this summer in a deal worth over £100m (Action Images via Reuters)

At the far end of the London Stadium the fans cheered, as the adorable young son of midfielder Lucas Paqueta sprinted clear and found the net, the fourth player in claret and blue to do so on the afternoon.

All around the ground they sang, as, mischievously, Jarrod Bowen’s face was beamed onto the big screen, the final bars of ‘Freed From Desire’ playing as the winger strolled the pitch with his heavily pregnant partner, Dani Dyer, the West Ham fans’ rewriting of that song alluding a little too explicitly to the root of her joyful burden.

And, at the quiet centre of it all, was David Moyes, fists clenched in the air in salute, then opening to leave one finger held pointedly aloft, a reference, presumably, to the number of games between his side and Hammers immortality ahead of next month’s Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina in Prague.

A trip to Leicester next Sunday, when a turbulent Premier League season will finally come to an end and avoidance of injury will be the primary aim, still lies ahead, too.

But the idea that West Ham’s home season might end on an afternoon like this — sun shining on a club united, three welcome but not pivotal points on the board, maligned players and a manager pilloried to the brink of the sack parading together in front of an almost still full house — did not seem likely mere weeks ago.

Not when the travelling contingent at Brighton were so justifiably furious with their team’s pitiful 4-0 collapse on the South Coast. Not even at Fulham, when a vital win in a relegation battle that then looked set to go to the wire still came with calls for Moyes’s head.

Following Thursday night’s famous triumph at AZ Alkmaar, however, any grumblings — and many linger, despite what could yet be an historic end to the campaign — have been put on hold, Pablo Fornals’ late goal in Holland and the horrendous scenes at full-time contributing, in different ways, to bringing together what has at times this season felt a fractured club.

The atmosphere from the outset here was one of celebration, Declan Rice joining the greats — Billy Bonds, Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking — in winning the club’s Hammer of the Year award for a third time, while ‘Knollsy’, the Hammers fan dubbed a hero for keeping Alkmaar ultras at bay during their shameful attack on players’ families, received less formal recognition in the shape of a standing ovation as he took his seat.

That Rice would score on what is almost certain to prove his final London Stadium appearance in West Ham colours seemed inevitable, the midfielder admitting to having had a hunch himself after guiding home from Bowen’s cross to cancel out Rodrigo’s opener.

On the move: Manuel Lanzini waved goodbye to West Ham fans after his final home outing (PA)
On the move: Manuel Lanzini waved goodbye to West Ham fans after his final home outing (PA)

Arms outstretched in celebration, there was a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the spreading of wings that will come with what West Ham hope will be a £100million-plus move.

More poignant moments of appreciation would follow: first, during an injury break in second-half play, when the 24-year-old seemed to hold a moment, take it all in and compose himself; and again long after full-time, when having joined his team-mates for their traditional end-of-season circuit, Rice embarked on a second solo lap to applaud a diminishing home crowd.

With a European final still to come, there was no overt acceptance or acknowledgment of what we all know, no goodbye wave, nor parting declaration, the explicit farewells left to Manuel Lanzini, whose goal off the bench in stoppage-time put the seal on a 3-1 victory after Bowen had finished smartly from Danny Ings’s pass.

Lanzini is out of contract at the end of the season and, in a sign of the Argentine’s limited involvement this term, Moyes could not help but turn immediately to his comeback-completing stunner in the 3-3 draw against Tottenham in October 2020 when discussing his contribution to the cause.

That goal, scored in the grim surrounds of an empty stadium at the height of the Covid pandemic, brought about as visceral a celebration as that era had to offer. This one capped an afternoon about as perfect as West Ham have enjoyed in the Premier League all year.