Hayden Foxe: ‘Paolo was fantastic; Eccentric, typically Italian and flamboyant’

His time at Upton Park was short-lived but Hayden Foxe still looks back fondly at his time in claret and blue

Every player’s path to the top of the professional game is different, but few have taken quite as roundabout a route as former West Ham defender Hayden Foxe. Born in New South Wales, trained in Amsterdam and established as a pro in Hiroshima, the 45-year-old is now back home in Australia coaching Western United after a globetrotting career that saw him spend two seasons at Upton Park on his travels, at the start of the millennium.

Growing up in rugby league country in the 1980s, before football had achieved its current level of prominence in Australia, it may not have been the obvious game of choice — but his father was quite keen for his sons to get into the roundball sport. ‘Everyone around us was involved in rugby league, including my dad, but he was quite slim and light, so he suffered a bit with injuries after he’d finished playing, and as a result he wanted to put his boys into soccer instead,’ he told Blowing Bubbles.

‘Apart from the Australian National League, the only football on television in those days was the old   Division 1, and we’d always wake up at silly o’clock to watch the FA Cup final, so even though we were so far away, you grew to love the English game.’

Distance was still a big factor, though, so for even the most talented youngster to make a blip on the radar of one of the most football-loving countries was still something of a challenge. ‘Every kid dreams of being a pro in whatever game they play and I was no different, I really wanted to be in Europe and once my career path was heading in that direction, England was definitely a place where I wanted to go,’ he said.

Fortunately for Foxe, he received a helping hand on that journey.  ‘I went to the Australian Institute for Sport, which had all the top athletes in every sport from all across the country in development programmes, and when I was 17, a couple of us got the opportunity to go to Ajax and train for a couple of months,’ he said.

‘There was no internet in those days and the only leagues you really heard about were England, Spain and Italy, so to be honest I had no idea who they were, but after a month they offered me a chance to stay and be part of their set up and I ended up staying for two years. This was the first time I’d been outside Australia on my own, so it was a real stroke of luck but also a massive challenge. I was really out of my comfort zone, but those two years ended up doing me a huge favour and teaching me all about how to deal with being a professional.  

‘I learnt a lot about how to prepare myself, how to deal with disappointment, and also the challenges that come with living away from home. I left home at the age of 17 and didn’t end up going back to play in Australia until I was 31.’

Although Foxe did not make a first team appearance for Ajax, his development was followed sufficiently closely back home for him to be included in the 1996 Australian Olympic football team, and it was his coach there, Eddie Thomson, who offered him his next step up. ‘After the Olympics, he got a job in Japan, coaching Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and I was trying to get fit after a lengthy lay-off, so he asked me there for six months to get myself in shape, and again it turned into two years, and I loved every minute of it,’ said Foxe.

As a tall red-headed Australian playing in Japan, Foxe would certainly have stood out from the crowd, but he is not entirely sure how he caught the eye of West Ham, but once he was spotted, the club was keen to sign him up, even though it was not a simple matter. ‘I think I was on national team duty – there’s always scouts there,’ he said. ‘I think they followed my progress for about six months and then the opportunity to join came up.’

With his lifetime goal finally within reach, however, that is when things got complicated. ‘It wasn’t straightforward to get into the UK in those days, even though Australia is in the Commonwealth,’ he said. ‘We struggled to get work permits — you had to have played a certain number of games for your country, and your country had to be of a certain international ranking, to have a chance of being allowed in to play.

‘It’s a complicated process, and every time you apply for a permit, the goalposts moved, so there could be new regulations coming in to help or hinder your chances. It ended up being six to eight months for it to all get sorted, but I was in London training with the team the whole time. I’d have one expert say you’ll get the permit next week, then it was another month, then I got injured, and so the cycle went back to the beginning. I had opportunities to go elsewhere on the continent but I was really enjoying my time at West Ham, so I decided we’d sit it out until the time came along that I could actually join.’

The life skills picked up as a youngster in Amsterdam helped Foxe in this challenging time. ‘When I was in Holland, I went through some difficult times with homesickness and injuries but that gives you the mentality to deal with things that are out of your control — you keep working and hope they sort themselves out,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, after all that waiting, in the long term it didn’t work out too well for me at West Ham, and I didn’t play all that much, but I enjoyed my time there, and the people, so apart from not playing more and not fulfilling potential there, I had a great time.’

One of the reasons Foxe was restricted to just 12 appearances in his two seasons at the club was the quality of the people he was competing with for places in the Irons defence. ‘Rio Ferdinand was still there when I signed, and my rivals for a place in the team were Igor Stimac, Stuart Peace, who was extremely tough, and the likes of Ian Pearce, Rigobert Song, Christian Dailly and Tomas Repka,’ he said. ‘They were a very colourful bunch, a lot of outspoken characters, with egos, but it was a period I wouldn’t change at all, and memories that last for a lifetime.’

In March 2001, Foxe finally signed on a three-year deal and made his debut, in a 2-0 home defeat by Everton. But before the end of that campaign, where West Ham finished 15th, Harry Redknapp, who put in so much effort to sign him, was gone, replaced by Glenn Roeder.  The flirtation with relegation made Foxe realise what the expectations of playing for a big team at the wrong end of the Premier League were like.    

‘You don’t know until you’ve been involved in a club like West Ham about the pressures and anxiety, particularly when you’re involved in a relegation battle,’ he said.  ‘There’s always something to play for, and the most stressful thing is a relegation fight, which is hard to imagine until you experience it. You see it on television, but when you realise that people’s jobs and livelihoods depend on how you perform, it teaches you a lot about yourself and those around you.’

Of all the people around him, the one who taught Foxe the most was Paolo di Canio. ‘Paolo was fantastic — he was very eccentric, typically Italian and flamboyant,’ he said.  ‘The food in the canteen was never good enough for him, “what is this? These English don’t know how to eat,” so he had his own nutritional advice and brought in his own conditioning trainer but he was an incredibly hard worker.

‘His preparation was second to none. He caused a lot of arguments but he was very passionate and wanted to do as well as he could, and looking back, he was 100 percent right.  He was ahead of his time and raised the standard – look at where attitudes are now in terms of things like preparation and recovery. In those days, those ideas were all thought of as continental, and the English players — and I include myself in that group –   didn’t think about how things like food and sleep made a difference.  

‘When you’re young, you don’t believe in that so much, but as you get older, you realise he knew exactly what he was talking about, so it’s no surprise he was the player he was for such a long time.’

Redknapp had a distinctive way of handling players, as Foxe recalls. ‘Whenever we played on a Saturday, Harry would give the older players Sunday and Monday off, and I remember Igor Stimac would be first in and out of the shower to get on a flight back to Croatia just for 48 hours, as often as he could,’ he said. ‘You’ve never seen someone move so fast at the end of the game.’

Redknapp fought long and hard to get Foxe signed, despite all the issues around work permits, so it was something of a shock when he departed, to be replaced by Roeder, a very different character altogether, and one whose plans did not include the Australian as much as his predecessor’s had. ‘I had no problem with Glenn – he had his players who he wanted to play, and that’s his decision,’ he continued. ‘The first year he was there, I wasn’t in his plans and as I wasn’t playing, I could have hung around for the rest of my contract.

‘But I didn’t want to, I was desperate to play, so when Harry wanted to take me to Portsmouth, I was happy to go. I enjoyed my time at West Ham, my only disappointment was that after such a long tortuous journey to get there, I didn’t play more, but there’s no animosity towards anyone at the club.’

Over the years, West Ham’s Christmas parties have produced some incidents that people would rather forget, and in 2001 it was Foxe’s turn to cross the disciplinary line, although he insists this was nothing to do with the length of his West Ham career.   ‘Things got out of hand and everyone knows what happened,’ he said. ‘Of course I regret it, and I sat down with Glenn and he made it clear how my behaviour wasn’t acceptable.  

‘I knew it, I apologised and we moved on. I think his decision not to pick me was entirely based on his view of me as a player — I didn’t fit his style of play, so having played my last game in February 2002, in May I moved on, to sign for Harry again.’ 

The rest of Foxe’s career saw him play at Portsmouth and Leeds before his long-delayed return to Australia, where he is now on the coaching staff of Melbourne-based Western United, and the West Ham influence has continued with him onto the training ground. ‘West Ham have a great style that really appeals to me, and so does the work ethic that ran through the club,’ he said. ‘They were always down to earth people who wanted to work and enjoyed their football, that’s what I stand by – work hard but enjoy your work, and try to keep your values at all times. That’s a big part of how I want to coach.’

Foxe’s road to West Ham was a long and colourful one, even if his stay was not long — playing in just 12 games – but a bond still clearly exists. ‘I did some coaching work for the West Ham academy programme in Australia, looking for young talent, and a bit in Hawaii as well,’ he said. ‘The last time I was back at the club was about five or six years ago when I was doing my coaching licences, which was really enjoyable, and I’m always open to doing things with fans.’

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