Tony Carr: ‘I look back on my time with immense pride – I loved every day’

Ex Academy boss Tony Carr lifts the lid on nurturing talent over four decades at West Ham

If former West Ham academy boss Tony Carr was on a percentage of the money paid for the players he nurtured and developed in his time at the club, he would probably be rich enough to mount a takeover bid.

Having been a two-time FA Youth Cup winner himself, coached by John Lyall, only to hit the buffers of the limits of his own talent before he made it to the first team, Carr returned to West Ham in 1973 as the director of youth football, and over the next 43 years was closely involved in establishing the club’s reputation as a conveyor belt of talent admired around the world.

From Tony Cottee to Declan Rice, via many millions of pounds’ worth of talent, caps and medals won at the highest level — sadly, by players no longer wearing West Ham colours — Carr’s contribution to West Ham and English football history is immense. 

He has now written a book entitled ‘A lifetime in football at West Ham United’, telling the story of the players he worked with and the magic he helped create.

‘I know how it feels’

‘I didn’t really think about it at the time, but looking back now, I think not being up to professional standards myself set me in good stead for this job, working with youngsters,’ he told Blowing Bubbles.

‘A lot of the lads who come through we have to release, and I’ve been there, I know how it feels, I know how devastating it is. But when I went into coaching rather than playing, particularly coaching youngsters, I felt a lot more comfortable. It was almost like it was written in the stars, I’d found my niche.’

Carr had a short spell at Barnet following his release by West Ham, only for a broken leg to end his career, and it was Lyall who brought him back into the West Ham fold, starting the new chapter of his life.

‘John was my youth team coach and I wasn’t going any further than the reserves, but he must have seen something in me to get me back in, and he encouraged me to take my advanced coaching badges.

‘He was a big mentor of mine – I absorbed and took on board lots that he said, so he must have seen that I had the ability to become a good youth team developer. He was the master, I was the apprentice.’

The role of a youth team coach is different from that of a first-team boss because it is not about the finished product, it is about preparing players to take the next step, and as much to do with character development and the maturing process as it is anything to do with actually playing.

‘…you hope that they’ll be ready’

‘It’s about seeing what they can take on board, so when the first team manager wants you to send over a couple of youngsters to join the senior squad, you hope that they’ll be ready to take that chance, not be a shrinking violet,’ he explained.

‘It’s about making them ready for the next part of their journey, not making them the complete article. My role is to lead them along the path of development and see how far they can go. It’s about improving their strengths and seeing what you can add. 

‘You can train players and put them in the position to show what they’ve got, but they’re the ones who have to cross the white line and perform. I always tell players that the easy part is making your debut, the hard part is staying in the team. 

‘Ben Johnson is a great example. He’s been given an opportunity, he’s taken it, and he’s still learning and making mistakes, but he always does enough to be in for the next game. At this stage, that’s what you want to see.’

‘…we should give them the benefit’

One of the reasons for West Ham’s continued success at youth level, Carr says, is patience.

‘Some clubs are too eager to get rid of players, but we would always keep them on as long as is realistically possible to show what they can do,’ he said. 

‘When we were deciding whether or not to keep someone, it was a five-man decision, and if two of the five said to keep a player on, we would, because the policy was that if a couple of people thought they could see something, we should give them the benefit of another season to develop.’ 

Character building is as much a part of the job as teaching football technique, too. 

‘We try to develop the person as much as the player has to be respectful and to have a good work ethic, and the five players I spoke to in the book — Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Mark Noble — all showed those qualities,’ he said.

‘You set standards and try to encourage them to develop good habits they will stick to, wherever their life or career takes them. The only time I would ever lose my temper with anyone was when they failed to live up to that.’

One of the inevitabilities of being on a production line, however, is seeing your products taken away, a situation Carr had to get used to over the course of more than four decades in the talent factory.

‘…a golden period’

‘Even in the days of Paul Allen and Tony Cottee, for various reasons we were always having to sell our best players, which was frustrating, especially when you look at the crop we turned out in the late 1990s,’ he explained.

‘Some people call that a golden period, and it was — look at what those players achieved. We had a fantastic decade or so, even with players who maybe didn’t necessarily make it to the very highest level. 

‘A great example is Chris Cohen, who was Mark Noble’s best mate. He had to leave West Ham to further his career, and ended up playing more than 300 games for Nottingham Forest, and is now coaching at Luton, and doing very well there. I’m as proud to have been part of his development as I am to have been part of Mark’s. 

‘Even if you only touch these players’ careers for a short while, you can still make a difference, and end up helping them achieve things somewhere else. The careers and success that players like Rio and Frank had, they learnt so much along the way that I can’t take credit for, but you do shape them a bit and they develop their own abilities.’

In their discussion in the book, Ferdinand tells Carr how he has deliberately kept his son away from becoming involved in overly-organised football too early, for fear it could put him off, an idea Carr agrees with.

‘…from 9-12 it should be fun’

‘There is a danger we over-professionalise academy football, and make it too serious,’ he said. 

‘From 12 onwards you get a better idea of where they might go and how they might develop, but from 9-12 it should be fun, with one eye on development, but it shouldn’t be about who should be able to do what.

‘It’s easy to put too much pressure on people who can’t absorb the information at that age anyway, so guide the way they play but keep them away from any pressure. Results don’t matter, try to fulfil your ability and don’t worry about making mistakes.

‘We’ve got to ensure we avoid 10 year olds being told they’re not good enough, it’s very tough. I’m not saying there isn’t a release and exit system, but we have to be careful how that’s handled and how we coach young players.’

When Lyall left West Ham in 1989, Carr did apply for the manager’s job, but he admits it was largely a matter of formality.

‘When I was working in the youth section, I was quite happy and I didn’t long to become a first team coach, I wanted to be the best I could be as a youth coach. John ran the entire club and knew everybody’s name, at all levels, so obviously when a new manager was going to be appointed, that was likely to change,’ he said.

‘I thought I’d apply for the job, at least to show that I’m fighting my corner trying to stay in work. As it turned out, Lou Macari came in and they wanted to go in a different direction, and I continued with the youngsters.’ 

‘…take great pride’

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, Carr’s fingerprints continued to be all over many of the best talents the club has produced, including Mark Noble and Declan Rice, and also some of those who are only just starting to emerge.

‘Conor Coventry was someone signed when I was at the club who is one to watch, and the player who could have gone on to our first team was Josh Cullen. He could have been on the fringes and waited for his chance, but instead he chose to go to Anderlecht,’ Carr said. 

‘He’s doing great there, and he’s a Republic of Ireland international, so I look at players like that and take great pride in their careers, even if it’s happening elsewhere. 

‘There’s a new generation coming through now who I can’t take credit for, but some of the players I coached, like Kevin Keen, are now the ones running the academy, and he tells me they’re still using a lot of the techniques I taught them, so that’s nice to hear.’

Out of the 15 managers who have occupied the West Ham dugout in club history, Carr worked with 12, before in 2016, he was released in a clumsy and high-profile way, bringing an undignified end to a remarkable period of club service.

But Carr shows no signs of bitterness towards West Ham, and is clearly hugely touched by the appreciation shown both by the fans, and the players he helped nurture.

‘…that made me feel great’

‘When I made my requests to the players I wanted to speak to for the book, the respect I got back from them really shone through, and that made me feel great,’ he said.

‘With everything I did, I always had the club’s and the players’ best interests at heart, and I managed to make a mark on those players who respect what I did, so I look back on my time at West Ham with immense pride.

‘The ending wasn’t great, but it’s water under the bridge now. I loved getting up in the morning to go to work, there was never a day I didn’t want to be there and never a day when I didn’t want to be out on the pitch. There was never a day when I didn’t want to be involved with West Ham.’

Tony Carr, A lifetime in football at West Ham United, is published by Icon Books.

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