Scriptwriters in the Premier League are so entwined in subplots and hidden messages that comments made in sincerity are often put under the microscope to create box office headlines. Now that was certainly the case when Declan Rice last boarded the bus home from Old Trafford in January.
How the tables have turned in the last nine months. Manchester United have gone from strength to strength under Erik ten Hag and Rice – subject to priority interest from the club before the Dutchman was appointed – remains at a crossroads in his career. But will they unite beyond their Sunday afternoon meeting?
In what was a rare highlight for Marcus Rashford and the team last season, his last-gasp winner gunned down Rice and his teammates as the Hammers captain drew attention with his post-match comments. With that bitter taste yet to disperse, Rice bizarrely shared his love for Old Trafford.
“I was loving it. I’ve always said it’s one of my favourite places to play. It’s an amazing stadium.”
You can forgive supporters for putting two and two together in that instance, but was Rice issuing a come-and-get-me plea or were his comments on the iconic stadium purely coincidental?
Either way, the reality might one day come to the surface. Meanwhile, yet another interesting subplot is brewing as Rice prepares to lead out the Hammers at a place he confesses to adore.
Standing in the opposite corner, or dugout, Ten Hag might well bear resemblance to a contestant on hit 1980s show Bullseye as he takes a first-hand look at what he could have won. He still might should United target further signings in their so-called problem position.
Rice would no doubt improve United even though Casemiro was signed. Then again, he would improve most teams in the Premier League and, whenever he does leave the London Stadium, will have a long queue of potential suitors armed with buckets and buckets of cash for his signature.
A grand prize beckons for one lucky Premier League club, and Ten Hag and United have the perfect opportunity to show Rice why it should be them – although the convincing might actually be a two-pronged task.
Before settling on Ten Hag as the man to rekindle past glories, United and figures who were responsible for deals were seemingly adamant Rice was the player to finally address concerns in the engine room. Regardless of the cost, they might have been right, but the Dutchman had other ideas.
Indeed, from the moment he was sworn in, the former Ajax manager switched focus to De Jong, even though that garishly public chase did not have the desired effect. Casemiro was certainly no downgrade, as such, but his partner in crime moving forward is yet to be set in stone.
Ten Hag has made it abundantly clear that, in an ideal world, he would be reunited with De Jong while putting faith in players he already knows has proven to be a sturdy tactic so far during his tenure. But one front-row ticket to the Rice show might be enough to convince him otherwise.
With each blade of grass he covers – and every 50-50 he wins against Casemiro and his teammates – Rice can nudge Ten Hag to rethink his transfer policy. However, revitalised United can also do their bit to entice the England international when proving to him there is more to love at Old Trafford than the stadium itself.