Over the years, dozens of future stars have worked the way through the youth ranks at West Ham United and our highly acclaimed Academy of Football has been a staple that, for decades, has set our great club aside from the rest.
With the likes of Bobby Moore, Rio Ferdinand and Mark Noble graduating to become West Ham United greats, it isn’t hard to see why everyone affiliated with the club takes immense pride from that fantastic work over the years. However, in an era when imported players have a bigger impact than ever before, it has been particularly hard for our upcoming talent to break their way into the senior squad and the majority of academy graduates are sadly forced to seek pastures a new in the quest for first-team football.
It is an unfortunate repercussion of the evolving times in English football, especially for a club that prides itself on the tradition of nurturing young talent. However, in Reece Burke, the club may have unearthed a future Hammers gem.
Burke, who was born in Newham, joined the Hammers as a nine-year-old and has climbed the ranks to a point where he is now training with the senior side whilst still turning out fantastic performances for Nick Haycock’s Development Squad. It may be premature, but a bright future is already being forecast for the 18-year-old. The defender operates best from a central position but also boasts the versatility to fill in a shift at right-back, which could be pivotal as he breaks into the senior team.
The rapid nature of his progress thus far is particularly pleasing and if he can continue to grow at this rate then he could become a fantastic player in years to come. Only a year ago Burke made the step up from U18’s to Development Squad and within three months he fulfilled the dream of making a senior debut in the FA Cup trip to Nottingham Forest. A 5-1 loss for an inexperienced Hammers side shouldn’t detract from the progress made and a first taste of elite level football will forever remain a key moment in his career.
Meanwhile, his introduction to England’s youth setup last October and subsequent promotion to the U19s have certainly helped. Last season was undoubtedly a success and 2014-15 is already promising to follow suit. Having joined the senior team’s tour of New Zealand, Burke signed off a positive pre-season schedule by netting a last-gasp winner against Sampdoria at the Boleyn
He wouldn’t have to wait long for a competitive home debut either as Sam Allardyce gave him the nod for our Capital One Cup match against Sheffield United. Whilst the night would end in bitter disappoint, thanks to a 5-4 shootout defeat to the Blades, Burke could take heart from an assured individual performance.
The performances of Burke was one of the biggest positives to come out of that game and that experience should further accelerate his development, just as the lessons learnt against Forest did last term. Burke is certainly blessed with the attributes to become a commanding centre-half and it is pleasing to see him coping with the demands of senior football so well.
What Sheffield United lacked in technical ability was more than compensated for in physical presence, but the 6ft 2in defender dealt with that challenge effortlessly and there is little doubt that the youngster could do a job if Allardyce’s defensive options become strained. With the likes of Winston Reid, James Collins and James Tomkins ahead of him in the pecking order, Burke’s first team duties in 2014-15 will probably be restricted to cameo appearances at the very most.
However, being around the senior side can only assist the youngster and promotion to a more prominent role could be on the horizon sooner than you’d think. In recent years, West Ham supporters have become accustomed to seeing academy graduates fade into careers occupying in the lower leagues. However, there is a real sense that there could be a number of gems amongst the current crop of youngsters and Burke is unquestionably one of the leading candidates.
Hammers fans will be relieved to learn that the youngster penned a three-year contract with the club just last month. Let’s hope this signals the start of a long and successful career at the Boleyn and Olympic Stadium.