It was 63 minutes into England’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, and Raheem Sterling had just netted his second goal to make the game safe for the Three Lions against the Czechs. But as the fourth official held the number 16 of 20-year-old Declan Rice aloft, it was also a special moment for Grey Court, the school in Richmond where Rice first made a name for himself as a schoolboy before his move to West Ham aged just 14.

One man in particular who watched Rice’s introduction with pride was his former PE teacher Stephen Willmore, a man who had a front-row seat as young Rice developed, and claims to have always known there was something special about him from the start. He continued: “Straight away you knew you saw a special player. He stood out, not just his playing ability, but also the character of the individual.”

Rice, on the books of Chelsea since the age of seven, inspired Grey Court onto huge footballing success during his time at the school, in the shape of three consecutive years as borough champions and two county cup finals in three years. Therefore, it came as a huge surprise to all involved when he was released by Chelsea aged 14. But, according to Willmore, this rejection only made Rice stronger. He stressed: “He had that bit of disappointment in his life, but that disappointment has only made him work harder, and the qualities he’s shown over the last six years to get him to where he is now have been unbelievable.”

After this huge setback, Rice was presented with two offers, one from Fulham and one from West Ham. While Fulham would have been the easier choice for him and his family, the 14-year-old was persuaded that a move to West Ham would be better for his development as a player. The young man and his family were left with a very tough choice, but in the end the only option was for him to leave his home in Kingston and with that Grey Court, so he could move to club accommodation in Romford and a new school closer to the Hammers academy.

It was a huge decision to make, and showed immense character on his part to be prepared to leave his old life behind to follow his dream of making it pro; but in the end the risk paid off, with his monumental rise to success well-documented this season. And Willmore has watched his rise as closely as anyone, feeling a personal pride each time he sees him step out onto the pitch in the claret-and-blue shirt of the Hammers. He continued: “In the first game of the season he was taken off at half-time against Liverpool, but he’s come back from that and shone in his position all year. He’s now the stand-out player in the Premier League in that holding midfield role.”

Rice has risen remarkably this season, catching the eye with his commanding performances in the centre of the park, and netted his first two goals for West Ham recently in home wins against Arsenal and Newcastle. And, after making the decision to switch his international loyalties from the Republic of Ireland to England last month, the 20-year-old was given his chance by Southgate on Friday and took it with both hands, not looking at all out of place on the international stage.

But his rise is nowhere near over, and as he continues to reach new heights both on a club level and internationally, Willmore and the rest of Grey Court, staff and students alike, will be watching every step of the way, bursting with pride at how far their former student has come.