While know footballer should ever be bigger than their club, some truly are irreplaceable for what they bring each and every day on and off the field.
Mark Noble certainly falls into that category at West Ham, who have shown just how challenging coping with a period of transition can be.
On top of the first-team squad getting its biggest overhaul in years this summer, having club captain Noble retire has been tough for those in the Hammers’ camp.
Canning Town-born Noble used his experience to regularly help new signings adapt to their new surroundings and lifestyle in east London, be it at training or at home.
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It’s fair to say the 35-year-old’s boyhood club have endured a slow start to the new season without him, as manager David Moyes has struggled to integrate his talented additions into the Premier League team as yet.
Wolves at home on Saturday is a massive match for both teams, with European qualification already looking a big ask for each side.
And one player West Ham fans have been able to rely on to not only dig them out of tough situations but act as a true inspiration on the pitch is new skipper Declan Rice.
The England international is priceless at the London Stadium – shown by his staggering £150m price-tag – but even he has found not being able to turn to Noble for support this season extra demanding.
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It is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a 23-year-old, who only became a father for the first time several weeks ago too.
But Hammers hero Tony Cottee is confident if there is any man in claret and blue who can step up and take on the responsibilities Noble juggled for years, it’s Dec.
Speaking exclusively to Daily Star Sport on behalf of Cheeky Punter , Cottee admitted Noble’s loss within the camp has been “absolutely massive” and cannot be underestimated, despite how cliche and obvious it may seem to any outsider.
He said: “When I played in the 80's and 90's the captain was the captain on the pitch and didn't have to do much else. They would liaise with the manager of course but your job was on the field.
“Nowadays, you've got jobs off the field, sorting new players out making sure they are ok, community work, charity work and then go on the pitch and lead. Mark was doing that for 20 years and he's now not there, so it was always going to have an impact on the dressing room.
“But they have got a wonderful replacement in Declan, we all know how good he is. Maybe he is feeling more responsibility on his shoulders, but he did it last year.
“By his high standards, he's had a relatively slow start to the season, I'm sure he'd be the first to admit it. You can't explain it sometimes as a player though, you can have a brilliant pre-season but then be awful for the first few games in the league.
“It works the other way as well, you just don't know, sometimes it takes a while to get going. There is no doubting the quality of Declan as captain but, yes of course we have missed Mark Noble.”
While Rice was away on international duty (another extra responsibility he has to manage during each season that Noble sadly never did), he would have seen the sudden news – which gave every West Ham fan a boost after a dismal display at Everton days before – that Noble’s upcoming return was official.
The club chose to share, at a time when there is a growing cloud of discontent in the air once again, that Noble would be the new sporting director from January 2, 2023.
The position did not exist at West Ham prior to Noble being appointed, and there has been some scepticism at the former midfielder taking on that responsibility without any natural experience.
However, Noble himself will certainly believe few would understand better than he what West Ham need in their dressing room in the short term and the long term.
Contract negotiations – with the likes of out-of-form Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek – are tricky hurdles for the club to sort in the coming weeks and months.
While the January transfer window could see West Ham potentially dip into the transfer market if necessary, with Noble having a big say in who to target.
Following the confirmation of Noble’s new role at the London Stadium, Cottee sent his own message of support, saying: “I’m so pleased that West Ham have given Mark Noble a role at the Club. One-club legends should always stay on at their hometown clubs! Congrats mate and best of luck…”
Few Hammers fans are genuinely optimistic at this stage that Rice will still be wearing the armband in east London come August next year.
His contract would have two years left to run, and West Ham may well accept they can’t keep a player of his calibre forever.
Noble would then have to shoulder a chunk of the responsibility once again at West Ham in overseeing one of the most important transfer windows in the club’s recent memory.
After all, how do you replace a man like Noble? Well, a top professional on and off the pitch like Rice is about as good a successor as West Ham could hope for. But how do you replace Rice?
The trouble is, for a club without the pull of Champions League football, an eye on the title, or a realistic shot at regularly clinching some silverware, it’s almost impossible.
Chelsea, who will no doubt be one of the leading contenders to sign Rice next summer, will still regret letting their former youth product go. And the service Rice has given to West Ham already since forcing his way into the first team back in 2017 has been outstanding.
Hardly any Hammers supporter would begrudge Rice a move to one of Europe’s truly elite teams, especially if the club underachieve this season.
For now, West Ham at least have reason for optimism still despite the worrying situation they find themselves in. Two wins from two in the Europa Conference League puts them in a strong position with knockout football likely on the cards again next Spring. And on paper, Moyes’ men should be hard to beat for any of their rivals for the trophy.
A back-door route into the Europa League, should their Premier League form fail to go from 0 to 100, via winning the Conference League would be a real delight for the Hammers and their fans – but even that is unlikely to be enough to show their world-class holding midfielder he should follow in the footsteps of Noble and become their latest one-club man.
Things could easily have looked a lot more rosy for West Ham too – and fans will point towards their lack of recruitment last January when the squad was in desperate need of some quality support.
Just two or three additions – a striker, a centre-midfielder, and perhaps a full-back – may well have been enough to give West Ham the legs to maintain their form from the first half of the season, see off Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semis, and battle Rangers in Seville for a momentous place in the Champions League, along with the added bonus of a UEFA Super Cup clash with Real Madrid.
That’s the sort of achievement that properly propels a club to the ‘next level’ West Ham fans were promised by the board before leaving Upton Park.
And while it’s clear Moyes has been backed in the transfer market this summer, with West Ham being Europe’s third-highest spenders after splashing out around £190m, it has the sense of being six months too late given the mood around the club heading into October.
That sort of disappointment can hang over a club who were touching distance from what’s been craved for so long, and Cottee admits: “It's called a hangover, isn't it? (Laughs) Yeah, they must have been so disappointed. If I was part of that dressing room and you go out to a decent Frankfurt team, but no more than that – the results in the Champions League have proved that. West Ham really should have beaten them and those opportunities don't come often.
“We had a similar one in 1985/86 where we finished 3rd and it was a great season but we didn't win the league which we should have done and the team last year was the same. So yeah, there will be a hangover but if anything it should inspire the players to want more of that. They are in the conference league now and they have to make it work. They juggled European football last season so there's no excuse.
“They all had that experience last year and the new players coming in are all international footballers they know how to do it. It's a bit of a hangover but it's a new season and they need to get on with it. The manager will be scratching his head and wondering how he can make it better. Sometimes the international break can be a nightmare when teams are on a roll, but in West Ham's case, this is a blessing without a doubt.”
Rice and his fellow international colleagues at West Ham return to Rush Green this week knowing they have a crucial run of games coming up where points are essential – so team selections, tactics and effort all have to be at 100%.
Should things begin to truly crumble – especially against some lesser oppositions – Moyes’ position could quickly become untenable, which seems incredible for a man who guided West Ham through one of their most memorable campaigns for decades just last season. A man who has given the club stability (on the whole) after coming into a toxic, relegation-threatened mess twice.
But does that man still 100% have the dressing room?
Cottee added: “It's been a slow start to the season and I don't see alarm bells ringing but it is a cause for concern. I'm a West Ham fan, I go to the games and follow them. The problem Moyes has got is that they have overachieved and when you do that it puts pressure on because fans expect it to happen again.
“To finish 6th and 7th and get to a Europa League semi-final is a great achievement, two great years and now a slow start. So straight away there's pressure on the manager and there's also been a lot of changes at the club. I'm not surprised, let's put it that way. But in my opinion, Moyes is the right man for the job.
“There shouldn't be (any worry around Moyes’ future), but this is the modern game, look at poor old Brendan Rodgers, he nearly got in the Champions League, he's won the FA cup with Leicester and he loses six games and he's in huge trouble. West Ham haven't lost six games on the trot but it's been a very slow start.
“But you mentioned the Conference League, 2 great results, 2 victories. What would you want to do, play great football and lose 4-3 and everyone comes away and says 'what a great game but we lost' you know? It's a results business in football.
“So as good as the results have been in that competition, in the Premier League they haven't been good enough. It's only 7 games though and what Moyes has achieved over the last few years, he has earned the time to get it right and bed in the new players. They did it 4 years ago at West Ham they brought in a lot of new faces and unsurprisingly it caused upset in the dressing room. But Moyes deserves time in my opinion.”
Wolves (17th) at home, Fulham (newly-promoted) at home, and Southampton (with manager Ralph Hasenhuttl clinging onto his job) away await in the Premier League, in and around two more Europa Conference League clashes with Anderlecht.
If ever Moyes needed to prove he still has it in the locker to steer the club out of trouble again, it’s now.
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