There was a time quite recently that I thought a great West Ham tradition was dead and buried. It was an important tradition that was one of the founding blocks in the last 50 years of what was good about being a West Ham supporter.
It is clear that the one thing we all love is a homegrown player, not necessarily a local lad, although that does have its advantages, but one that has come through the ranks and through our famed academy. But, sadly, it did seem at one point that the great days of Academy players making the first team were a thing of the past.
I remember sitting in a slightly dilapidated stand in Nottingham one January afternoon seeing the latest crop of Academy graduates getting mauled by an average Nottingham Forest team and thinking if this is the best we have to offer that the Academy days are well and truly behind us. But things are about to change and a corner just might have been turned.
Against Spurs this season we had three graduates on the field of play in Mark Noble, Declan Rice and Grady Diangana and this was a Premier League game, not a ‘meaningless’ cup one. But it is true to say that it is a difficult transition from youth team football to first team action in modern football, and the fall out figure is high.
This year marks the anniversary of our Youth Cup win against Coventry with a team that ignited interest throughout football, and I want to recount the careers of two of them. Those of us old enough to remember will be aware that the star of this team was a certain Joe Cole.
He ended up being not only a star player for Chelsea but also for England. Three Premier League championship medals, two FA cup winners medals and over 50 England caps by the age of 30 is no mean feat. Sadly though after a move to Liverpool his career seemed to come slightly off the rails and Joe became a bit of a journeyman, which included a short term contract back with us, and last played in the good old US of A and not even in the Major League.
Looking at his career overall, it is one not to be sniffed at but in my humble opinion is one of ‘what might have been’ where his projected potential was not quite achieved. The other name that would immediately come to mind from this team was a certain ‘adopted East End’ Geordie by the name of Michael Carrick.
I must admit that I had never heard of Carrick until seeing that Youth Cup Final, which unusually for the late 90s was actually shown on television, but at the end of that game he was the one that even outshone Cole. Carrick scored twice over the two legs and seemed to read the game as one a lot older than his 18 years. Michael retired at the end of last season after a stellar career at the Hammers, Spurs and Manchester United.
Carrick remains one of two English players, the other being Wayne Rooney, who has won every single domestic honour available. He won the Premier League, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, League Cup, FA Community Shield, UEFA Europa League and FIFA Club World Cup. Not a bad haul for someone who strangely was largely ignored by successive England national team managers, and was capped just 34 times.
Carrick, along with Rio and Frank Lampard, was simply the best to come out of the Academy in my years as a West Ham supporter. He was a true great. But isn’t it strange that out of a team deemed to be one full of stars 20 years ago that only Carrick and Cole had successful Premier League careers?
I guess this is no real surprise as from the side that lost in the final to Liverpool three years earlier, only Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard were to have long Premier League careers. It does seem as if two successful transitions is the norm as both Jermaine Defoe and Glen Johnson, and then Mark Noble and James Tomkins were successful graduates from the same youth squads.
So what of the current crop? With Declan Rice now being one of the first names on Pellegrini’s team sheet and Grady Diangana coming on every now and again, the question has to be asked can the maximum of two graduates be broken? Will Joe Powell, Matty Holland, Conor Coventry or any other youth team player break into the first team squad like Declan has? I guess we will have to wait and see.