In a similar way that North Korean leaders insist on fancy titles such as ‘Peerless Leader’ or ‘Great Sun of the Nation’ our club has adopted as its own the moniker of the ‘Academy of Football’. While initially this was attributed by the football press in recognition of West Ham’s proficiency in coaching young players it has in recent year become more of a self-proclamation.
The development of Moore, Hurst, Peters and Brooking set the standard back in the 1960s but there then followed, with the odd exception, a long unproductive period for the youth system until the arrival, over the course of just a few years, of (Rio) Ferdinand, Lampard Jr, Cole, Carrick, Defoe and Johnson. That the potential of the golden generation was dismally squandered is a painful tale of woe that we won’t go into here.
Awash with pre-season optimism there was much chatter that part of West Ham’s glorious future; along with a new stadium, a reinforced squad and European football was a new crop of youngsters that would soon be knocking on the first team door. As the early season has developed most of these dreams have turned out to be like beautifully wrapped Christmas presents that turn out to be very disappointing once opened. But can our young players give us real hope for the future?
In an article I read before the season started Slaven Bilic described the difficulty of introducing young players in the modern Premier League. My interpretation of what he was saying is that it was a risk not worth taking in a scenario where a few bad results can have fans (and owners) clamouring for your head; just like we have now! For young players, the more normal route is to spend time out on loan to get experience and see how they cope. Ferdinand, Lampard, Carrick and Defoe all had successful loan spells whereas Cole and Johnson went straight into the West Ham first team.
At the present time we 8 youngsters out on loan; Burke, Samuelsen, Cullen, Knoyle, Page, Belic, Dobson and Hendrie. Of these only Burke (who is now out injured following a hernia operation), Cullen and Page are getting regular first team football and of these only Burke is playing with a Championship side. Arguably the more exciting prospects (at least in terms of expectation) are still at the club compridsing Oxford, Martinez, Browne and Quina.
The Reece Oxford situation is very strange. An impressive debut against Arsenal over a year ago followed by a more difficult game at home to Leicester and he has only started one Premier League game since. The midweek EFL cup tie would seem to have been the perfect opportunity to give him another opportunity but instead a central defensive position was given to midfielder Nordtveit. It is easy to conclude that speculation about his future is playing a part in selection and my instinct is that he won’t remain a West Ham player for the long term.
Toni Martinez appears from the statistics to be a natural goalscorer something which typically our own academy has found it difficult to produce (Cottee being the last with Defoe having been snatched from Charlton) and how we could do with one of those in the first team at the moment. On the evidence to date it is difficult to see how Martinez and Fletcher would be worse striker choices than Zaza and Calleri.
Domingos Quina came to West Ham as a very highly rated and sought after player. Two substitute appearances against Domzale and nothing since; to the point that he doesn’t appear in any squad on the Official West Ham website. Marcus Browne also had a Europa Cup cameo but has not been considered since including being overlooked for the EFL Cup; and showing his disappointment on Twitter. Martin Samuelsen looks an extremely talented individual but, for whatever reason, he has not been getting regular game time on loan; either at Peterboro last year or at Blackburn, so far, this season.
When West Ham won the FA Youth Cup in 1999 only Bywater, Cole and Carrick went on to have top level careers. Many young players drop by the wayside and there is no reason to suspect that the current crop will be any different. There is nothing better as a supporter than witnessing a youth team player breakthrough into the first team. Obviously they need to have the talent but it would be disappointing if chances were not given simply because the manager is risk averse. I would like to believe that there are 3 or 4 regular first teamers in the current youth setup.
Another title that has been given to successive North Korean leaders is ‘Great Defender’. Now that would be a novelty this season; but maybe we already have one sitting on the bench.