His debut was a night for all of us to remember and it could be one we look back on in years to come as the rebirth of our beloved academy that has produced Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters and others such as Trevor Brooking, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand.
As the fourth official’s board flashed up at half time showing Conor Coventry had replaced Pedro Obiang during our League Cup thrashing of Macclesfield we were already three goals to the good.
Come the end of the game we’d put eight past Macclesfield ‘keeper O’Hara and the talk for many on the way home was of the sight of the latest Academy products Declan Rice, 18-year-old Conor and fellow debutants 19-year-old Joe Powell and Grady Diangana all being on the pitch at the same time – and impressing. While we already knew a lot about Rice, the night saw Diangana start to scale the heights towards stardom with two goals.
We also got to witness what Conor and Powell could do with the latter’s assist for the eighth goal catching the eye – an excellent, defence-splitting pass from deep which put Diangana through one-on-one. Following that memorable evening, Rice and Diangana have been continuing to bang the drum for the Academy with their efforts in the first team but Conor has also been a name seen on the team sheet – making the bench for our game away at Leicester and also our League Cup defeat at home to Spurs.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind few months for Conor but he is hoping to continue to impress with the first team and get another chance to join Rice and Diangana this campaign. And with Manuel Pellegrini as West Ham manager, Conor feels very comfortable about his short-term future.
‘He has given me so much confidence within the first team group,’ Conor said in an interview for Blowing Bubbles. ‘Before you were in and out at training but he has made me feel part of it and made me feel like I can play my normal game. When he has spoken to me in pre-season and before I came on against Macclesfield, he just wants me to do what I normally do; Get on the ball, and try to make passes.
‘He makes you feel so calm out there. Everyone can see the mentality he is bringing to the team, and I think he is different class. Before the season started, I remember speaking to Liam [Manning, West Ham U23s coach] and my initial aim for the season was to try and be one of the best players in the U23s every week and training with the first team as much as I can.
‘I’ve probably done better than I thought I would because I’ve trained with the first team quite a lot, been involved on matchdays and made my debut as well. Going forward now, I want to try and stay with the first team as much as I can and keep improving in their sessions. Hopefully I will get on the bench a few more times and hopefully get on the pitch again, and I want to keep being one of or the best player for the U23s whenever I play.’
There are similarities between Conor and Rice that could bode well for us. Both have won the Dylan Tombides Award, which is handed out each year to the Club’s outstanding Academy player. They have also both represented the Republic of Ireland at U17 and U19 level, and whenever you talk to someone who has watched Conor play for the Premier League 2 they say, like Rice, he possesses a maturity beyond his years and is well placed to keep that upward trajectory on course after, like Rice, rising through the ranks rapidly at the Academy.
‘Rice has almost made the move from Academy to first team effortless at times,’ continues Conor. ‘He has just slotted in so well. A lot of the time he is one of the best players on the pitch. For us to see how he has done it, we can just see it’s hard work with his talent so everyone is trying to do what he has done. He is the kind of person you can ask advice from. Before I came on, he was talking to me in the tunnel about keeping in simple, getting on the ball and being brave. He is someone that I can trust and we can all look up to because he is a hard-working guy.’
Conor was signed by West Ham aged 10 after being spotted ‘showing passion’ in a 1-1 draw for a Walthamstow team that resulted in him getting booked. It’s this fire that’s helped Conor make his way through the ranks which he admits has been challenging. If I look at the players I was with when I first joined, there’s only four of us left including me,’ explains Conor. ‘It’s so hard to stay in and keep progressing. There are some players who are the standout players in the group and a lot of the time other players are there to make these players better in a way. It’s tough to try and make yourself one of them. You just have to keep working as hard as you can at that age but obviously you have to enjoy it as well.’
And while Rice’s international future continues to make headlines, Conor is happy with the pathway ahead. ‘My mum is Irish and I love playing for Ireland. There’s so much passion in the team and it’s been a great experience,’ Conor said. As for how Conor would describe himself as a player currently, he continued: ‘I’m a central midfielder who likes to try and get on the ball, and I start off from deep most of the time. I like to try and defend as well, and I think I do a bit of everything apart from scoring goals at the moment – that’s something I’m still working on and trying to get better at. But yeah, trying to get on the ball and making things happen, and trying to do everything I can to help the team.’
Conor beams as the conversation reflects back on the build-up to and the night of his West Ham debut. ‘I found out two days before the match that I was going to be involved,’ he explains. ‘Me and Powelly went to head out for training with the U23s and we were stopped by Liam who asked if we wanted the good news or the really good news. He said the good news was that we didn’t have to go to Exeter away anymore and the really good news was that we were both in the squad for the Macclesfield game.
‘We went straight into training with the first team on Monday and Tuesday and then on the Wednesday we played. It was just a crazy feeling. You never really think it’s going to happen when you are coming through the ranks so for it to actually happen was just amazing. As soon as we scored the first goal, the manager turned around to me and said to warm up and from then I was just buzzing to get on and get started and then coming on, it was so surreal. The boys played really well. We created so many chances and we were clinical so it was an easy game to play in to be fair.’
As for all the talk on social media and the press about all four Academy players being in the side that day, he said: ‘The club has got the reputation as being the Academy of Football and it’s something that’s so special to be a part of. ‘To have Grady and Powelly making their debuts on the same night alongside Dec who is an inspiration to all of us young players, was a very special moment. To make my debut with three guys that I have known for years now, all good people as well as great players, made it even more special I think.’
*Conor Coventry was speaking to the West Ham Way show on Phoenix FM