Tony Carr MBE is a name synonymous with youth development, not just at West Ham United but around the world. Born in Bow, just spitting distance from Upton Park, Carr served the Hammers with unwavering loyalty for 43 years between 1973 – 2016.
Pictures of the 68-year-old alongside legends of the game, from Pele and Bobby Moore to Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand, adorn his home. They speak volumes of the esteem in which he is held, but in few places is Carr revered as much as he is among West Ham fans.
With it being the 20th anniversary of the famous 1999 FA Youth Cup Final drubbing of Coventry, a victory in which Carr’s contribution cannot be underestimated, now seems as good a time as any to appreciate his mammoth contribution to the club and the game as a whole.
Tony was kind enough to invite me into his home recently and I had the pleasure of discussing all things football, particularly his time at West Ham, with a man whose footballing CV would impress even the most cynical of pundits.
Having reached the Hammers’ reserves during a short-lived playing spell at the club, the eventual director of youth development did not always covet such a job. Initially, John Lyall invited him in to coach on a part-time basis in 1973 and that was thrilling enough for the local lad.
He said: ‘I was just happy being at the club I loved to be honest. I loved working at West Ham and I could have still been there now, I just loved it. ‘There was no big vision though, I was just trying to be the best I could be, do the best I could do, and that was my driving force. I was there every day, listening and watching.
‘John Lyall was very good at inviting me into the dressing room so I’d go in before the games, listen to his team talk and then I’d go and sit on the bench with him and the first-team and just listen some more. ‘It was great because I was in the dressing room at half-time, and at the end of the game, listening to the good, the bad and the ugly and that was a massive learning curve for me.’
After working his way through the youth teams Carr became regular boss of the under-18s, until the day a certain Mr Billy Bonds retired looking to develop a coaching ambition of his own. It was at this stage the seeds of a larger ambition were planted for the father of the academy of football.
Lyall, manager at the time, gave Bonds the under-18s job and bumped Carr up to the reserves – a team he ran for four years before everything changed. In June 1989, following relegation to the old second division, West Ham United did not renew John Lyall’s contract after 15 years at the helm.
But a fact unknown by many fans is that after this fateful event, Tony Carr applied, and was interviewed for, the manager’s job at Upton Park. Looking back, he said: ‘Funnily enough, I didn’t sit there and say I want to be the manager but I always wondered whether I’d be good enough to be.
‘It’s amazing because I can never remember wanting to do it, but it all changed when John got the sack. ‘I thought to myself: “well, a new manager is going to come in and we’re all going to lose our jobs anyway” so I applied.
‘I got an interview with the board and they asked me numerous questions like: “What would you do with the staff and how would you restructure?” and then they asked me how I’d deal with Frank McAvennie if he came in and asked for a pay rise. ‘My answer was: “He’s only just come back to the club so until he’s fit and scoring goals, he’d just have to get on with it”. They seemed to accept it, asked one or two other mundane questions, and that was it. ‘I walked out and I couldn’t have done anymore but I didn’t hear another word.’
Lou Macari was eventually brought into replace Lyall and while Carr had a lot of time for the ex-Man Utd man, he admitted the players did not. Despite the recruitment of future fan favourites Ludo Miklosko, Martin Allen and Ian Bishop, Macari’s short and unpopular reign came to an end in 1990 and he was replaced by cult-hero Bonds.
After getting the club back to the First Division, they were immediately relegated again in the 91/92 season which prompted Bonds to call on his long-time friend Harry Redknapp for support. As notable as that decision became for Bonds, it was also a turning point in Carr’s career.
Redknapp became Bonzo’s number two and as part of the restructure, Carr was put in charge of the entire academy – though he was not happy with the decision at the time.
Initially rankled, he said: ‘West Ham wanted me to go back into the youth programme which I thought was a little bit of a demotion at that point. ‘I’d done my bit with the youth team, I was with the reserves and I was helping out where I could with the first-team; so I saw myself maybe moving into the more senior ranks within the club.
‘But Bill (Bonds) said to me: “Tony, I think your expertise is with the youth team and we think you are best suited to that role”. ‘Peter Storrie helped too when he said: “Look Tony, we don’t want you to feel like you’ve been demoted. We want you to run the youth programme and we are going to give you a pay rise to make it feel like it’s a step up and not a step down,” which I appreciated.’
With a new found clarity of role and a real focus on the future, the revitalised Carr took the seat that he’d retain for the next 22 years.
While his work can still be seen at the London Stadium today in the shape of Mark Noble and Declan Rice, the names brought through in the 90s and early 00s undoubtedly define Carr’s legacy. Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson. Six players who were mainstays in juggernaut English football teams and who remained national team regulars throughout their careers.
World-class is a tag easily attributed to Ferdinand and begrudgingly applied to Lampard while Cole and Carrick scooped Champions League medals and Premier League trophies at an alarming rate during their time at the top.
And all of them, bar none, publicly laud Carr for his role in their glittering careers. One must only look the star-studded guest list at his 2010 testimonial to see, once again, in what high regard he is held.
Of his big six, only Cole and Carrick played in the Youth Cup final of ’99, with Lampard and Ferdinand already making first-team tracks and Defoe and Johnson being far too young. And while Carr remembers those evenings fondly, it would be wrong to focus on one achievement among decades of success for the east Londoner.
In 2014, the man who maintains friendships with Sir Trevor Brooking and current captain Mark Noble was moved into an ambassadorial role at West Ham making way for Terry Westley to take the reins at the academy of football.
The decision was not Carr’s and was taken by the board. But the amicable club servant embraced the change and entered into the new arrangement with a sense of optimism. Unfortunately, the ambassadorial role did not play out as either party envisaged and after communications between the former academy director and the board broke down, he left in 2016 amidst a fairly unsavoury and public break-up
A sad way to see a such a loyal club legend depart, he described it as disrespectful at the time but now the clock has ticked on, in totally unsurprising fashion, he now talks only of building bridges and a complete love for West Ham United.
Recently, and rightfully, the club honoured Billy Bonds by naming the East Stand after him – an event which Carr was gladly a part of – and there are few who can rival Bonzo for commitment to West Ham.
But in 43 years, the club’s longest serving member of staff ever brought through the greatest players of a generation, earned the club more than £60 million in transfer fees and more importantly, and for nearly five decades, Tony Carr carried himself in a way that represents the very essence of what it means to be ‘West Ham’.
Tony Carr MBE showed an unrivalled loyalty to West Ham United that will never be seen again. He represents a footballing era from a bygone age, but rather than dwell on that sombre fact, I will leave you with his thoughts on the players that defined his legacy.
William Pugh interviewed Tony Carr for The Daily Telegraph.