We’ll always feel regret for the home grown kids who got away

Not every player to make it from our youth team got to shine in claret and blue

If you love someone set them free; if they come back to you it was meant to be. 

A refrain from literature and popular song that might leave you crushed by emotion or spitting at sentimental tosh. 

Either way West Ham are only half way towards that epithet; no problem setting players free but rarely do they ever come back. 

West Ham’s habit of nurturing young talent only for others to reap the benefit is almost legendary.

The departure of Grady Diangana to West Brom is a case in point. A player of great potential was slowly finding his feet before a loan spell changed everything. 

Diangana was allowed to leave for a modest fee of £18million. A 20% sell-on clause is cold comfort for fans with little interest in the club’s balance sheet. 

Similarly, Jeremy Ngakia signed for Watford on a free transfer when new terms couldn’t be agreed.

Fans sniggered at the thought of a player backing the wrong horse. Ngakia might have signed for a relegated club, but we lost the services of a talented player for want of a decent contract.

Reece Oxford was rightly thought to be a star in the making; capped at five levels for England he was hailed as the new Bobby Moore. 

Such a millstone undoubtedly weighed heavy around Oxford’s neck. He made his league debut in a 2-0 win against Arsenal in August 2015, becoming the second youngest Premier League debutant at 16 years 237 days.

However, three managers played him and failed to spot his potential. Farmed out on loan to Reading and then Borussia Monchengladbach was an ominous sign. 

The allure of Bundesliga proved too great as Oxford signed a permanent deal with FC Augsburg in August 2019.  Diangana, Ngakia and Oxford could only muster 30 league appearances between them.

Yet all are in their early twenties, and could have formed the backbone of West Ham’s side. It boils down to opinions and many will see them as expendable fringe players. But they were never given the chance to prove otherwise.

West Ham are wonderfully consistent in the worst possible way. Like a faulty gene woven into the club’s DNA, they repeat the same mistakes over and over again. 

Just as players are signed with major injuries, many more are allowed to walk away often to greater success and recognition.

Ray Houghton remains a prime example of this tendency. The Glasgow-born Irishman signed professional forms as a 17-year-old in 1979, but in three years he made just one substitute appearance, replacing George Cowie in a 2-0 defeat against Arsenal in May 1982. 

Naturally, Houghton was allowed a free transfer to Fulham before embarking on a trophy-laden stint with Liverpool. 

He won 73 caps for Ireland, starring in a glorious run to the quarter finals of the World Cup in Italia 90. 

To rub salt even more deeply into a festering wound, Houghton featured in a series of high value transfers. When Oxford sold him to Liverpool they made a profit of £2 million in modern values.

Jimmy Bullard is one of football’s great characters; mischievous and unpredictable he could turn a game on his day. 

The club released him as a youth player in 1998 and later drifted into non-league football, first with Dartford and then Gravesend & Northfleet. 

The latter obviously saw West Ham coming as they paid £30,000 for Bullard in 1999. A trifling sum maybe, but a ridiculous amount to buy back a player the club had developed. 

Two years without a first team game would give most players itchy feet. Unsurprisingly, Bullard moved (yes you guessed it) on a free transfer to Peterborough in 2001. 

Manager Barry Fry saw his potential and flourished as an attacking midfielder. Bullard was later sold to Wigan for £275,000 where he played his best football. Subsequent moves to Fulham and Hull generated fees in excess of £7 million. 

What’s curious about Bullard is that he never played a single game for the Hammers even though he was signed by Harry Redknapp. 

Why couldn’t he see what Barry Fry saw at Peterborough? Harry confided recently that Bullard became a very different player to the one he first saw. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it feels like another clanger in a litany of missed opportunities.  

This tale would not be complete without reference to our golden generation of the late 90s and early noughties; the greatest West Ham side never to take the pitch.

Just imagine Rio and Anton Ferdinand in the centre of defence; Frank Lampard and Joe Cole in midfield and a certain mercurial Italian upfront. 

Throw in Michael Carrick and Glen Johnson and we’ve got a team that could have dominated the Premier League. Alas, the dream team never materialised. 

Is it not symptomatic of the ‘selling’ mentality that continues to stalk the club?

We tacitly accept a cash-in on players eager to test themselves at the highest level. But what was actually gained from this rich seam of talent? 

With the exception of Glen Johnson, all played at least a 100 league games for the Hammers.

Excluding sell-on clauses, the club made around £45 million from the sale of the golden generation. 

It’s nothing like a reasonable return when they won trophies with other clubs. In an unashamed burst of nostalgia, Joe Cole returned to the club in 2013. 

It was a reminder of a unique talent I first saw in West Ham’s youth team 15 years before. The close control was still there and the comparisons with Maradona weren’t out of place. We all wondered what might have happened if he stayed?

Declan Rice is doubtless running through the options as he contemplates the next transfer window. 

Will his sights turn to the opposite point of the compass and a move to the King’s Road? 

Fans rejoiced when it was announced he signed a five year contract. Such agreements are nothing more than compensation to guard against a forced transfer. 

Fans bemoan players with no affinity for the club. But loyalty is transient and only lasts until a better offer comes in. 

Chelsea can offer Champion League football while West can’t even qualify for the Europa League. All we can do is wish him luck and say it’s been emotional.

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