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West Ham showcase newfound unity on perfect day as Declan Rice joins the greats

At the far end of the London Stadium, fans cheered as midfielder Lucas Paqueta’s adorable young son sprinted and found the net, the fourth player in red and blue to do so in the afternoon.

All around the floor they sang, as, mischievously, Jarrod Bowen’s face was projected onto the big screen, the closing bars of ‘Freed From Desire’ playing as the winger strolled around the pitch with his heavily pregnant partner , Dani Dyer, West Ham fans’ rewrite of this song alluding a little too explicitly to the root of its joyful burden.

And, in the quiet center of it all, was David Moyes, fists clenched in the air in a salute, then opening to leave a finger sticking up, a reference, presumably, to the number of matches between his side and the immortality of Hammers ahead of next month’s Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina in Prague.

A trip to Leicester next Sunday, when a turbulent Premier League season finally comes to an end and injury avoidance is the main focus, is also yet to come.

But the idea that West Ham’s home season could end on an afternoon like this – the sun is shining on a united club, a welcome but not crucial three on the board, players slandered and a manager pilloried at the edge of the bag parading together in front of an almost still full house – did not seem likely just a few weeks ago.

Not when Brighton’s traveling contingent were rightly furious at their side’s pitiful 4-0 collapse on the south coast. Not even at Fulham, when a vital win in a relegation battle that then looked set to go to the wire still came with calls for Moyes’ header.

After Thursday night’s famous triumph at AZ Alkmaar, however, all the grumbling – and many persist, despite what could still be a historic end to the campaign – has been put on hold, Pablo Fornals’ late Holland goal and the full-time gruesome scenes contributing, in different ways, to bringing together what has at times felt this season as a fractured club.

From the start, the atmosphere here was one of celebration, with Declan Rice joining the greats – Billy Bonds, Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking – in winning the club’s Hammer of the Year award for the third time, while ‘ Knollsy’, the Hammers fan dubbed a hero for keeping the Alkmaar ultras at bay in their shameful attack on the players’ families, received less formal recognition in the form of a standing ovation as he took place.

That Rice would score on what is almost certain to prove his final appearance at the London Stadium in West Ham colors seemed inevitable, with the midfielder admitting he had a hunch himself after guiding home from Bowen’s cross to cancel Rodrigo’s first game.

On the move: Manuel Lanzini bid farewell to West Ham fans after his latest home outing

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Arms outstretched in celebration, there was perhaps a foreshadowing of the wing spread that will come with what West Ham hope will be a £100m+ move.

More poignant moments of appreciation would follow: firstly, during a second-half injury break, when the 24-year-old seemed to hold on for a while, take it all in and pull himself together; and still long after full-time, having joined his teammates for their traditional season-ending home run, Rice embarked on a solo second lap to cheer on a dwindling home crowd.

With a European final yet to come, there has been no overt acceptance or acknowledgment of what we all know, no wave of farewells, no farewell declarations, the explicit farewells left to Manuel Lanzini , whose goal off the bench in stoppage time sealed a 3-1 victory after Bowen finished smartly through Danny Ings’ assist.

Lanzini is out of contract at the end of the season and in a sign of the Argentine’s limited involvement this season, Moyes couldn’t help but turn his attention immediately to his stunning comeback in the 3-0 draw. 3 against Tottenham in October 2020 when discussing his contribution to the cause.

That goal, scored in the grim surroundings of an empty stadium at the height of the Covid pandemic, prompted a celebration as visceral as those times had to offer. This capped off an afternoon about as perfect as West Ham have enjoyed all year in the Premier League.

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