Sam Allardyce has many flaws and much of the criticism he has received from fans since sitting down in the Boleyn Ground hotseat two years ago has been deserved.
But where criticism is due, praise is also, and the 59- year-old’s policy on bringing young players through is one which the club have needed for years and which must continue if we are to bring through the next generation of England internationals. It might be hard to hear but with the notable exceptions of Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson, the players which have graduated from our Academy since the famous FA Youth Cup winners of 1999 just haven’t been good enough. It is one thing to be a club which brings young players through into its first team, a laudable practice, it is quite another for those players to be any good.
Currently, I read a lot of messages on Twitter about our would-be England internationals. In fact, I can’t spend a day online without hearing one of our fans bleating about how elitist Roy Hodgson is and how he only picks players from the big clubs (complete with the wonderfully cringeworthy hashtag #Noble4England). I’m very aware that I’m probably almost entirely on my own in this but have any of you considered the fact that our players don’t get picked for England might be not because the England manager is prejudiced against them but because they are not good enough?
James Tomkins, Jack Collison and Mark Noble are all fine players capable of doing a job in the Premier League but they have never quite achieved their true potential. Tomkins is an excellent footballing centre half but is still prone to schoolboy defensive errors, Jack Collison is arguably the best on the ball of all our midfielders but found himself palmed off on loan at Bournemouth last month and Mark Noble has, for almost his entire career, flattered to deceive. Hailed as the next big thing after making his debut as a 17-year-old, a succession of West Ham managers have failed to get the best out of him.
Having said that, he performed very well consistently during our successful Championship promotion campaign in 2011/2012. He was also our best player in the second half of last season and has started this season where he left off the last campaign. However, Mark is now at a make or break stage of his career. He is no longer a talented youngster, he is now an established pro and the longest serving player currently on our club’s books and must, for the first time in his Premier League career, keep up this run if he is to have any hope of making an impact on the international stage.
And these are but the boys who made it. Junior Stanislas, Zavon Hines, Freddy Sears, Anthony Edgar, Cristian Montano, to name but a few, were deemed surplus to requirements at Upton Park and now ply their trade in the lower leagues.
Compare this to Southampton, who have produced five England internationals in the past seven years and are still churning out new talent. The first step to solving any problem is accepting that it exists and the famous Upton Park conveyor belt of talent hasn’t been working properly in years. The reason for the problem, in my not-so-humble opinion is the reason for a lot of the problems the club currently faces; mismanagement on and off the pitch.
A lack/misuse of transfer funds in previous years by previous West Ham managers has meant that young players such as Stanislas, Hines and Sears have been rushed into the first team without the opportunity to learn their trade properly and their careers have suffered. Just look at young Hines. In November 2009, he scored the winner for us against Aston Villa in the Premier League but today, just four years down the line, he finds himself scrapping for a place in the first eleven of League Two Dagenham. Funny old game.
Fortunately, we have a man with a plan. Oft accused of a lack of imagination and tactical nous, Sam Allardyce has been highly shrewd in his disposal of our young players. Through blooding promising youngsters such as Elliot Lee and George Moncur into the first team in cup matches and sending them out on loan to Football League sides to learn their trade, he has given these players the best possible chance of making it at West Ham and not having to drop down the divisions in order to make a living, as per their predecessors.
Another popular criticism of the former Bolton manager is that he lacks imagination in the transfer market and only targets established players with big reputations and bigger wage demands.
However, his summer capture of the promising Danny Whitehead from Conference North outfit Stockport and his earlier steal of the man of the moment, Ravel Morrison for just £650,000 from Manchester United and his thus far successful blooding of the 20-year-old in the Hammers show that Sam Allardyce is a man capable of insight in the transfer market. He has also been linked with a January move for Shrewbury’s highly-rated midfielder James Woods and is said to be in the market for further young talent.
So am I saying that all our problems with youth are solved? No. But at last, West Ham have a manager who knows how and when to blood young players, bring new talent to the club and nurture and develop it until the time is right. The gaffer is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and his summer transfer dealings may well have landed us in a relegation dogfight. But his refurbishment of our youth system and determination not to repeat the mistakes of previous Hammers’ bosses is something for which he is due credit.