West Ham will forever be Th e Academy of Football. It’s the academy that gave the world the triumphant trio of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, produced club legends like Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds, gave giants of the modern era Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick their footballing education and that manufactured current incumbents of the Premier League Mark Noble and James Tomkins.
A look at this season’s victorious U23 squad as well as the highly rated Reece Oxford, Reece Burke and Josh Cullen and it is safe to say that Th e Academy – our crowd jewel – is still very much part of the much maligned modern West Ham. And whilst the current crop can count on the tutelage of Terry Westley and his staff to fi nely tune their footballing talent, two former Hammers can off er a cautionary tale to help them navigate the perils of being a professional footballer.
Gary Charles, who made just fi ve appearances for the Hammers between 1999-2002 due to injuries, revealed in an interview with BBC’s Inside Out that during his career he had ‘issues with drinking and (is now) a recovering alcoholic’. He explained that during his time on the sidelines he would ‘go out a bit more’ and that towards the end of his career the drinking would last ‘a little bit longer’.
In an interview with ITV he said: ‘When I was at West Ham, I was drinking a lot more. I really wish I’d sat down with Harry Redknapp and told him how I was feeling.’ Th e former Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and England right back found that following the end of his career the drinking worsened, his problems culminating in him being found guilty of dangerous driving and failing to provide a breath sample and receiving a six-month prison sentence.
Aft er seeking the help he needed he is now aiming to raise awareness of addiction amongst young footballers. He works with Priority Health Care in order to help provide a safe place for footballers to turn to get the help they need.
He said: ‘I know it is hard for a young player to go to a coach or an assistant manager and say “listen I am struggling with drinking” or gambling or whatever because they do think it could be detrimental to their careers and maybe they will not get the contract of their dreams.’
Priority is designed to offer an alternative avenue for advice. Charles, however, also conceded in an interview with the Daily Mirror, that ‘to play professional football at the highest level you have to be right psychologically…that is why drink is going out of the game a bit because they are looking after their bodies’.
Gambling has become the new drug of choice and another former Hammer, Matthew Etherington was hooked. Etherington, who made 165 appearances scoring 16 goals and won Hammer of the Year 2004 in his time at the club, has had well publicised problems with addiction.
Lucy Woolford has written before in Blowing Bubbles (issue 52) on Etherington’s openness and honesty about tackling his demons and how he dealt with his gambling addiction. He has explained that during their time away from training and playing, players get bored and that his gambling was to ‘recreate the buzz (of playing)’.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, he said: ‘Looking back on it now, how can you prepare for a game when you are playing cards on the bus with lots of money changing hands? ‘There were card schools at West Ham and it did get a little bit out of hand. People were taking three, four, five grand on the bus with them. When that was gone, you were borrowing more. You could win 20 grand or lose 20 grand on a single journey. It was ludicrous.’
He also pointed out that: ‘It can’t be good for team morale. Any normal human being, if you are losing a lot of money, you are not going to be happy about it and you are going to resent the person taking it off you.’ The bottom line is that the pitfalls for our future Academy alumni are plentiful and that addiction is a very real issue.
If we want to really ensure the legacy of our academy, and produce players not only capable of achieving greatness on the field, but also able to deal with the pressure and dangers of it we have to educate them and find them avenues to pursue outside of the game. Making them aware of organisations like Priority and Sporting Chance, set up by ex-Arsenal star Tony Adams, would be a good first step.
Encouraging the likes of Mark Noble to consider coaching badges once their careers begin to enter their later years would also be a move in the right direction.
Both Charles and Etherington’s tales highlight the detrimental effect addiction can have on a playing career, and make you wonder what potential they had that wasn’t met due to the issues they were tackling off the field. We have to ensure that the same questions cannot be asked of Oxford and co in the future.