More than 10 years have now passed since Sean Rice, the father of Declan, received the call that changed the course of his son’s career. Rice was 14 at the time, a die-hard Chelsea fan and John Terry obsessive, and the news was not good: he was being released from the club’s academy.

It remains one of the toughest experiences of Rice’s life. Chelsea, he has said, was everything to him. There was no expectation that he would be let go, and no reason provided when that call arrived. Speaking last year, Rice said he still does not know why the club decided he was not up to the required standard.

He has his suspicions, of course. At the time of the decision, Rice was going through a huge growth spurt. His co-ordination was affected and his running power was diminished. In a year group that was ludicrously talented, Rice simply did not stand out from the rest.

With the benefit of hindsight, now that Rice has been signed by Arsenal in a deal worth £105 million, the obvious conclusion is that Chelsea made a significant mistake back then. For some time, their fans have understandably asked how the club failed to see what Rice might become, and how they did not appreciate the talent they had on their hands.

All these years later, though, there is another question which is equally fascinating, if not more so: why has Rice not gone back to Chelsea? Within the game the expectation has always been that he would ultimately return to Stamford Bridge, and it is certain that numerous Chelsea managers have wanted that to happen. Instead, he has joined Arsenal.

It could be argued that Chelsea have let Rice slip through their fingers not once, but twice. Firstly as a 14-year-old, and secondly since his breakthrough at West Ham United. As a boyhood supporter of Chelsea, who grew up down the road and is best friends with academy graduate Mason Mount (pictured below, third from left, with Rice, second from right, and Reece James, far left, at Chelsea as children), Rice had effectively been there for the taking in recent years.

Frank Lampard tried to push for Rice during his first spell as Chelsea’s head coach. “When I was at Chelsea before, I wanted to bring in Declan Rice,” Lampard told the Diary of a CEO podcast this month. “I was like: ‘This kid is going to be the captain of Chelsea for the next 10 years.’”

Thomas Tuchel, Lampard’s successor, is also a huge admirer of Rice, so much so that he attempted to convince the midfielder to move to Bayern Munich this summer. And Graham Potter, Tuchel’s successor, is thought to have encouraged the club to move for Rice in the January transfer window, when Chelsea instead signed Enzo Fernandez from Benfica.

The fact that Rice has left West Ham for a different London club, then, is a measure of how quickly the footballing landscape in the capital has changed — and how quickly the situation at Chelsea has evolved.

A large part of it, evidently, comes down to timing. With a European trophy to his name and only two years remaining (including a one-year option) on his West Ham contract, this summer is the natural time for Rice to leave the London Stadium. And right now, Arsenal are a far more appealing option than Chelsea, not least because they will be in next season’s Champions League.

Mount’s dispute with Chelsea would have been followed by Rice

If West Ham did not have that one-year option in Rice’s contract, he would probably have been on the move a year ago. At that point in time, it was Arsenal who were outside the Champions League, while Chelsea were managed by Tuchel and had recently won the Club World Cup. Chelsea would have been the obvious destination, rather than Arsenal.

It is also worth considering the Mount situation. The Mount and Rice families are known to be close and it is inconceivable that Mount’s contract dispute with Chelsea and subsequent departure to Manchester United would not have been followed by Rice. The players are so close that, in the moments following Chelsea’s Champions League triumph in 2021, Mount spoke to Rice on a video call from within the dressing room.

The chaos of Chelsea’s 2022/23 season, and their failure to qualify for the Champions League, meant that they never had a chance of signing Rice this summer. That ship, which was within their reach not so long ago, had sailed into the distance.

For those of a Chelsea persuasion who had hoped to see Rice in a blue shirt, the timing of his exit from West Ham can therefore not have been worse. For Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, it has been perfect. As a club and a project, Arsenal are perhaps more attractive now than they have been for almost two decades – as evidenced by the fact that they went head-to-head with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the battle for a star player, and they won.

Rice grew up in Chelsea colours, with Terry’s name and number on his back, and even after his release there must have been times when it felt like he was destined to play for the club again. For the young Rice, heartbroken at 14, that was the dream. But people change and football evolves, and Arsenal have seized an opportunity to make Rice, once a Chelsea boy, one of their own.