The game-changing £40m signing who would see West Ham challenge for Europe again next season

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West Ham United are set for a busy summer, and one big transfer in particular could see them challenge for Europe next season.

I used to watch a lot of Japanese classic Takeshi’s Castle; every Saturday morning, Challenge, double bill, bowl of cereal, starting the weekend off properly. If there is a better televisual combination than 100 suckers in bulky leisurewear pushing themselves to the brink of physical sanity while Craig Charles rips them to shreds in his chirpy Scouse accent, I am yet to stumble across it.

Anyways, among the various health and safety horrors on exhibition was a task called the Honeycomb Maze, in which contestants would rush blindly through, well, a honeycomb-shaped maze, dashing at doors, pursued by men in fancy dress, and hoping to find the one, singular safe route to dry land. Every other option led, inevitably, to a pool of water that wouldn’t have looked out of a place in an infomercial for an industrial carpet cleaner.

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On occasion, however, some competitors would take a slower, more measured approach, tentatively peeping over thresholds and praying that some gadgie in a geisha costume wasn’t waiting to throw them in the drink. Every now and again this would work, but more often than not, it would leave them backed into a corner, surrounded by glowering menaces and teetering on the brink of a dunk in the murky depths. In short, no matter where they went next, their situation was about to get considerably worse.

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And that brings us on to West Ham. The Irons know that in the coming weeks and months, they are going to face a barrage of interest in talismanic captain Declan Rice. The overwhelming probability is that he will leave the club before the summer transfer window is through, and regardless of who they sign to replace him, the chances are that they are going to be a downgrade in most ways.

Rice, after all, is one of the finest young midfielders in world football. He is a full England international, a dominant presence in the centre of the park who possesses an ever-burgeoning attacking threat, and a natural, charismatic leader. He is a player that any club would be fortunate to have on their books.

Among those interested in the 24-year-old are Chelsea and Manchester City, according to those who claim to know these things, but it is Arsenal who are understood to be leading the race for his signature. Regardless of specifics, it’s bad news for the Hammers. Rice is almost certainly leaving, and they will be worse for it.

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But how exactly do you begin to go about plugging such a yawning vacuum in the heart of a team? Well, three words - or two words if you count hyphenated words as all one word - James Ward-Prowse.

Almost everything written above about Rice, and especially the tangential Takeshi’s Castle introduction, could be taken and applied directly to Ward-Prowse and his current situation at Southampton. With the Saints relegated, they have little to no hope of retaining the services of their skipper this summer and a bidding war of sorts is likely to ensue.

Ordinarily, this is the kind of financial arm wrestle that West Ham would find themselves on the periphery of; mentioned and interested, yes, but also very much at the behest of the whims and fancies of the bigger, richer boys in the Premier League. This summer should be different, however. The Hammers are reportedly demanding as much as £120 million for their star man, and while that may be aspirational, if they were to get even half of that figure it would still leave them with change to spare should they meet the £40 million price tag that has apparently been slapped on Ward-Prowse’s furrowed brow.

From a footballing perspective, a move for Ward-Prowse makes absolute sense. In recent times, it has been something of a misnomer to describe Rice as a defensive midfielder. There is certainly that aspect to his game, of course, but he is also a lot more than that. With Tomas Soucek acting as his foil - his towering obelisk of implied threat - the Hammers poster boy has been able to stride forward much more often of late, and his tally of nine goal involvement this season shows that he is starting to do so with a greater effectiveness.

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That being said, Ward-Prowse still outstrips him in a creative sense. He has nearly twice as many goal involvements this term, having played for a truly abysmal team, and he makes over twice as many key passes per game, according to Whoscored. Then, of course, there are the set-pieces. A deal for Ward-Prowse is about as close as a Premier League side can ever come to signing an NFL kicker, such are his lethal proclivities with a dead ball at his feet. As an extra little sweetener, the Southampton midfielder created more chances than any other English midfielder in the Premier League this season, with 74. And again, just to reiterate, he was playing for Southampton.

Bringing in Ward-Prowse as a means of replacing Rice would not necessarily be a like-for-like swap, but it would be a wise move nonetheless, accentuating certain facets of their midfield while still retaining an air of dependability and experience. If they can’t keep their current captain, a raid for the Saints’ might just be the next best thing.

It sort of reminds me of the time that a contestant on Takeshi’s Castle entered the Honeycomb Maze and, like so many before him, found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place - or more precisely, a paddling pool full of suspicious liquid and a weirdo in face paint. One wrong move and he would have been soaked. Instead, he took a look around, surveyed his surroundings, bolted up the wall of the maze, and ran across its top to the sanctuary of terra firma.

The moral of the story? Sometimes, when backed into a corner, you’ve got to think outside the box.

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