Our club is proud of its tradition of nurturing young players into fully-fledged footballers. In recent times, however, there has been a grumbling amongst fans that the club isn’t keeping up its responsibilities as an Academy-centred team.
Possibly the most high-profile example at the moment is Academy graduate Reece Oxford, who committed his future to the Hammers back in December at the age of 18. His signature was swiftly followed by a loan move to Championship side Reading to play under Jaap Stam, a move that prompted some head-scratching on the terraces.
From the limited game-time that Reece Oxford had been given, he’d done enough to convince us that there was something there worth paying to see, and we hoped we’d be watching him bring some solidity to an inconsistent defensive setup. His biggest moments in claret and blue came in 15/16, becoming the youngest player to represent the West Ham first team.
His debut came in the Europa League (remember that?), and was closely followed by a Premier League start in the opening fixture of the season against Arsenal. Oxford’s display that day goes down in our history as something memorable.
Fans waxed lyrical about the starlet and wondered how, at the age of 16, he was able to put in such a mature performance in a defensive midfield position. This London-born teenager had just left Mesut Ozil standing and it was difficult to tell which player had more experience. High praise from Slaven Bilic, Winston Reid, Arsene Wenger and Graeme Souness proceeded the match at the Emirates and, they’re Niall Quinn’s words not mine, ‘a star was born’.
He notched up seven league appearances in that season, none of which gave any indication that he could be anything other than an Upton Park regular and soon to grace the London Stadium – along with the promised Champions League football. Ahem. Following his 2016 Young Hammer of the Year victory, we fast forward to his current location: Reading. (Follow the M4 for a bit, you’ll find it.)
Reece admitted that part of his decision to choose Reading, over other options open to him, was that he wanted to play under Jaap Stam and learn more about his style of football. Th at’s a reasonable, sensible justification. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been plain sailing for the now 18-year-old, who is showing signs of being unsettled in his current role.
Having appeared just five times since his switch, it’s understandable that the youngster is itching to get off the bench and get playing. Th at’s what young, English players go on loan for, right? Oxford recently took to social media to air his frustrations, to which Stam didn’t take too kindly, stating that players must be ‘realistic’. Realistic, Jaap?
We can all accept that English players are all too oft en over-hyped, but when players come along that genuinely excite fans, have the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City sniffing around to sign them and have already shone in the Premier League, getting some decent game time at Reading (no off ence), is pretty realistic. And this isn’t a claret and blue-tinted bias that’s making these statements, Reading fans have seen for themselves how much of a difference Oxford can make to a game.
In his few chances to shine, Royals fans have taken to social media to comment on his ability and class on the pitch. Many of the available superlatives in the English language have been utilised as well as calls of ‘sign him up’. It’s sad to know that no matter how professional a young player like Reece Oxford remains, personal feelings will always affect how well a career can progress. The warning lights have come on and it seems right for him to come back to east London and prove his worth at home. But is this likely?
Well, Bilic is a fan. His words about him are always complimentary and he knows that given time and the right attitude, Reece will be a big team player. West Ham, as a club, is clearly playing the waiting game here, which is understandable but equally risky.
If a ‘top four’ club comes along and offers great money for him, do you take it? Or put another way, how do you keep an 18-year-old grounded aft er that? His loan spell ends at the close of the season and it’s impossible to see how a manager couldn’t wish to bring a player like Reece Oxford back and to build a solid defensive midfield around someone with so much to off er
Th e purpose of a loan move for a youngster is to make progress that will benefit both the player and the parent club. If that’s not happening for Reece at Reading then it should be an easy enough decision to recall him for action at London Stadium.