Football may have disappeared off the radar for a while, but now it’s back and not much changed from a West Ham fan’s point of view. There have been glimmers of hope, but we’re still nervously looking over our shoulder.
The break in sport was a time to reflect on times gone by, the ‘good old days’ if you like. One such former Hammer to look back and compare his playing days to modern day football was Rio Ferdinand. Speaking to Robbie Savage for the BBC, Rio’s focus turned to recruitment in east London, particularly the signing of young players at the very first stages of their careers.
Rio commented on how much better the Hammers’ recruitment could be, and reflected on his own experience as a 13-year-old: ‘West Ham wasn’t a fashionable club, West Ham wasn’t the club to go to, it wasn’t the breeding ground for young players and hadn’t brought a young player through to play in the first team since probably Paul Ince.
‘So there weren’t too many reasons for me to go there, but what they created there was a vision, a pathway and a story board for the young kids to say we are going to bring the academy back and invest in young kids around the local area to come in and play for the first team. ‘When I heard that, that was enough. That’s all you want to hear as a young kid, that you are going to have a chance to get in the first team and be at the forefront of it.’
This story is interesting enough in itself. West Ham wasn’t the club to be seen at, it wasn’t billed as the club that would change your life as a young footballer. But as it turned out, it was just that for a handful of players, Rio being one of them. Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe are some of the other biggest names to have come through the West Ham youth system and gone on to have fantastic footballing careers.
The question is, when will we be able to say that again of the West Ham Academy? Rio continued: ‘West Ham are in an area that is a hotbed for talent, it is a ridiculous area for talent, but all of these kids are going elsewhere, to other parts of London or the UK. It shouldn’t happen. They should be pulling back and making a real effort, I think.’
So what’s going wrong? Why aren’t the youth of today seeing the potential in West Ham? What’s not being promised or delivered by the club? Rio does highlight Declan Rice as an exception to the rut of the current youth set up.
Rice has risen from the Academy and continues to be a pivotal member of the first team but, as sad as it is to say, he’s the kind of player who will sell for a ridiculous fee. West Ham just don’t seem to be producing enough players any more, whether they choose to stay or leave for bigger and better things.
There are a few notable mentions to make other than Rice. Ben Johnson, Grady Diangana and Jeremy Ngakia have all recently been successful graduates from the youth setup to the first team. However, the results following debuts have been mixed. Diangana looked to have potential and was loaned to West Brom for this season in order to get regular playing time. So far he’s scored five goals in 23 appearances and has earned a place in the England U21 squad. Things are looking pretty good for him.
Ben Johnson made his first and only first team appearance against Man City towards the end of last season and the post-match chatter was all about him. He put in a solid, confident performance against the Champions. It’s all gone a little quiet since having been unfortunate with hamstring injuries.
He does have a contract until the end of the 2021/22 season, so there’s time for him to shine yet and he has made his way back on to the bench. Incidentally, Johnson’s injury woes paved the way for Ngakia to show what he had to offer.
Of his five games, the first few showed the potential star in him but he had a shaky finish to his time in claret and blue, coming in for heavy criticism after the defeat to Wolves in June. Ngakia refused to sign a new contract and he became a free agent at the end of June.
Therein lies the problem; he didn’t sign a contract because he knew he had better offers to come. West Ham simply weren’t willing to succumb to his demands and made clear that the offer on the table was ‘significant’ enough. Of course, there are two sides to any similar situation. The club may feel that the player (or agent, more specifically) is asking too much.
Or the player may think that the club is not offering enough to keep them happy. After all, the player is the asset in this scenario. Those in control of the purse strings at West Ham need to realise that the players they have nurtured are worth investing in.
And if they’re not, then yes Rio has hit the nail on the head, the youth system and recruitment needs to be turned upside-down and revamped. But it’s not solely a problem for West Ham, Rio does recognise that other Premier League clubs face similar struggles.
The modern game is, to coin a cliché, a different ball game to what it used to be. The transfer market, finances, contracts and personalities are all very different to what they were in Rio’s time on the field. Academies are appealing to very young players and what impresses young players today isn’t necessarily what attracted them 20 years ago.
The opportunity to play at London Stadium should be an incredible draw to a youngster but it’s what comes before that that needs to be inviting and incentivising. If Rio’s experience is anything to go by, the club doesn’t have to be the biggest, the best, the trendiest. It needs to be the dream package, the promise of hard work and achievements.
In fairness, that’s what kids want and it’s what fully fledged footballers want. There’s no better time to start reviewing policies and plans than when finances and transfer windows are unknown entities in this ‘new world’, especially given the precarious league position the Hammers find themselves in. The future starts now!