Declan Rice turns 20 today, but it was at the weekend he came of age with a man of the match performance and the only goal of the game to settle a big London derby to confirm his status as a rising star.
That will, of course, add even more heat to the debate surrounding his international future with England keen to select the London-born midfielder who played three times for the Republic senior side last year.
West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini said afterwards Rice would be an international star for “whatever country he chooses to represent” and former player turned TV presenter Gary Lineker quipped when hosting the BBC’s Match of the Day coverage that ‘he is going to score a lot of goals for England’ .
The young player was not up for talking about international football, so Mick McCarthy and Gareth Southgate will have to do their bit to persuade him in private ahead of the next round of games in March.
For it was not just Rice’s debut Premier League goal that caught the eye at a packed London Stadium. He also dominated the heart of the midfield alongside experienced captain Mark Noble and his telling interceptions were almost as crucial in settling the outcome as he denied Arsenal clear-cut chances.
After the match, the down to earth youngster was pictured briefly celebrating in a local pub with West Ham supporters, but he made time to speak to the media first.
He said: “I think people could see on my face how much the goal meant to me and how much it meant to the team. They have all been on to me to score, so to get a goal that secured three points is unbelievable.
“It is the perfect birthday present even though I don’t think I want to turn 20 now. Thankfully, we have a couple of days off and I will be chilling with my family. My brother was crying afterwards, and he has just had a baby too. It was a special day for my whole family as they watch every game.
“My dad sent me a text message before the saying ‘Don’t forget to SHOOT!’ To get my first goal, beat Arsenal, and be named man of the match tops everything I have done so far here.”
Having Noble alongside Rice clearly helped and the West Ham captain was aware enough afterwards to say “what a fantastic win for us, but I’m sure you want to talk about Declan?” ‘Er, yes please.’
Noble continued: “I don’t think he will have a problem dealing with the attention. We are close. He said today on Sky he knows he can ring me or ask me anything he needs to know. He’s a fantastic talent.
“I said to him in football you have really good times and the last six months have been fantastic. He’ll have tough times but I’ve said at the minute enjoy it and he looked like he did.
Rice’s display overshadowed a sub-standard Arsenal effort, the visitors lacking invention in midfield and again shaky at the back.
They are now slipping out of the race for European qualification and have personnel issues to resolve after head coach Unai Emery left Mesut Ozil out of his 18-man squad and Aaron Ramsey on the bench amid interest from Juventus. Emery was strong afterwards in his conviction Ozil would not have added anything to his side’s chances, but admitted their hopes of a top-four finish are as good as over after Rice’s 48th-minute strike settled the match.
The Spaniard concluded: “Now the top four is more difficult, it’s clear. We need to recover our confidence and be more competitive. Now it isn’t enough at the moment. If we had won we would then be close to Chelsea when we play them next, but it is out of our hands now.”
WEST HAM (4-2-3-1): Fabianski 6; Zabaleta 6, Diop 7, Ogbonna 7, Cresswell 7; Noble 6, Rice 8; Antonio 7 (Obiang 82, 6), Nasri 7 (Snodgrass 71, 6) Anderson 7; Arnautovic 5 (Carroll 71, 6)
ARSENAL (3-4-2-1): Leno 6; Koscielny 6, Sokratis 6, Mustafi 5 (Torreira 59, 6); Maitland-Niles 6 (Bellerin 69, 6), Guendouzi 6, Xhaka 5 (Ramsey 59, 5), Kolasinac 5; Iwobi 6, Aubameyang 5; Lacazette 6.
Referee: Jonathan Moss 6