We all know that West Ham United is famed as the Academy of Football. But if we take off the claret-and-blue-tinted specs for a minute, only the most hardened of West Ham fans would be able to argue that in recent years, the Academy has produced a large number of the West Ham players of the future.
Sam Allardyce’s remit, for example, wasn’t to bleed youth players into the first team – it was to buy players to keep us up. And while Slaven Bilic received plaudits for the style of football, especially in his first season, there aren’t many names of players graduating from the Academy that jump out.
The policy, for the neutral observer at least, has been to buy players perhaps past their peak and hope that they can do enough to keep our heads above water. Perhaps, however, things are changing. Anyone who watched the match against Manchester City recently can’t have failed to notice a number of promising youth players on display.
One debutant to come from that game, and a name to watch out for in the future is Ben Johnson. We’re not talking about the disgraced Canadian sprinter though: instead, it’s a 19-year-old who is rapidly making waves and, for that match against Manchester City, a lad who has successfully forced his way into Manuel Pellegrini’s first team.
He joined the West Ham Academy at just seven years old and has worked his way right through the system, having played for each of the age-group teams. This season, he’s been a Premier League 2 regular, as well as starting in each of the EFL Trophy ties.
And since being converted from a winger into an attacking-minded right back, he has thrived and placed himself very much in the thoughts of Pellegrini, particularly coming to his attention in the recent warm-weather training camp in Spain. It will have warmed the heart of every West Ham United fan, then, to see one of our very own start against Manchester City, and pitting himself against the very best, acquitting himself extremely well.
As Terry Westley, Academy Manager for West Ham United has said: ‘Everybody who has worked with Ben since he came to the club should be very proud that he’s one of our own who has made a Premier League start.’ Johnson isn’t the only Graduate to come through the ranks and play in the first team this season.
Indeed, he is the sixth Graduate to play for West Ham United since last summer. To underline Pellegrini’s commitment to youth, it was wonderful to see three under-20 players for West Ham on the pitch against Manchester City, even if it was in a losing cause – Declan Rice, Ben Johnson and Grady Diangana.
It is true to say that West Ham have been unluckier than most Premier League teams with injuries this season, and this may have been a contributing factor to seeing more youth on the pitch. Injuries are always an opportunity though, when the squad is a little thin, to see what the younger players can do.
Westley has his own views on how important Pellegrini views the younger players coming through the Academy: ‘The manager and his staff deserve great credit. In all of my time working with lots and lots of different managers, we have a manager who is not afraid of throwing a young player into the team and he has done that consistently over the course of the season.’
Whether you consider that to be a damning indictment of the previous managers, a compliment towards Pellegrini or perhaps a mix of both, for a club that prides itself as being the Academy of Football, Pellegrini’s approach to youth goes some way to restoring some substance to that claim.