Mark Noble: ‘I was never going to abandon the club when we were relegated’

Mr West Ham lifts the lid on playing in the Championship and Europe to now being a sporting director

How must it feel to leave behind your dream career as a professional footballer after eighteen years at your boyhood club? That was the unknown territory that Mark Noble was stepping into when he finally hung up his boots at the end of the 21/22 season. So, ten months on, does he have any regrets? Don’t count on it!

Noble is finally finding the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. The best thing about retirement? A few beers with friends on a Friday evening, of course. This opportunity to reconnect with friends, to unwind without the pressure of a Saturday afternoon fixture weighing on his mind has been bliss for Noble.

Missing his children’s birthdays and spending time away over Christmas had begun to take its toll, and the time he has been able to spend with his family since retirement has been hugely important to him.  Of course, his friends aren’t quite so sympathetic – ‘I’d miss Christmas for your wages’ – they’d often tell Noble.

So, with the dust settled and having had a chance to reflect on his retirement, Noble offered up his thoughts on his final season with the club. ‘We had an incredible run and we stayed up and it was great, and we got into Europe and then we got to Europe again and that constant travelling,’ Mark said.

‘But we had such a good group of players, such a good core of players and we’d come back from European games on a Thursday night, land at Stansted and we’d be in a hotel in Stratford, and we’d order a Deliveroo to the hotel and all sit around having a laugh. You know, have a couple of drinks, and then we’d end up going to win on the Sunday in the Premier League. So, it’s like was just a great season to end on.’

Unsurprisingly, it has just been announced that Noble will be honoured with the Outstanding Contribution to London Football award, a brilliant tribute to a dedicated player who has worked hard to maintain close connections with the local community. He is, perhaps, the most devoted captain that the club had seen for generations, but the captaincy also came with its burdens, which Noble has opened up about for the first time.

‘There was a moment when we came back out of a lockdown, and for that three or four months, I was on Zooms and all that sort of stuff for like hours a day. And at times, I was thinking like you know what, I’ve had enough of this, I can’t do this anymore.’

The constant pressure of media appearances on behalf of the club began to avert his focus away from games. Being the go-to figure for the entire squad also had its difficulties at times, especially during the tough periods where it was largely on his shoulders to keep up team morale.

‘You’ve sort of got to be like a politician in a way, where you know how to deal with them and then you got to worry about your own game, and if you’re not playing well then somehow you need to still lace up your boots every morning and go out and give everything and lead by example.’

Transitioning from an experienced leader like Noble, who did so much on and off the pitch for the club, can take time – good leaders are difficult to find, after all. Noble’s comments highlight the difficult task that Declan Rice has had to take on since his retirement, and it is certainly a lot of pressure for a 24-year-old to shoulder, especially because of the disappointing position we currently find ourselves in and the constant media speculation surrounding his future.

Reflecting on his career, Noble spoke about the various highs and lows that arose over his 550 club appearances. One the lowest points that he experienced was West Ham’s relegation to the Championship at the end of the 2010/2011 season.

‘When we got relegated, I actually had a double hernia operation under Avram towards the end of the season. So, it was a killer for me because I couldn’t actually affect anything. I was sitting there watching and then obviously all things changed, we went down to the Championship, and I had a lot of questions asked of me, what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to stay, or whether I wanted to go somewhere else and play Premier League football.

‘And I was like, listen, I got my chance at West Ham, I’m not just going to abandon them the first time something goes wrong, so I stayed. Big Sam came in and brought in some real experienced Premier League players, and to be honest even though I wasn’t playing in the Premier League, that year was so much fun, because it must feel how Man City feel.’

Then there are the various players and managers that he has worked with over the years. When Gianfranco Zola was manager and the team were struggling for goals, Noble and Scott Parker genuinely asked him to come back out of retirement to help the team out for goals, he was still that good in training.

Then there was Big Sam, a proper ‘man’s man’, who would give you a proper hammering if things weren’t going well, but would reward the team with days off if they were on a good run. He has played with hundreds of players over his time at West Ham, but Noble continually comes back to Declan Rice, and it’s clear that he sees him not only as a close friend, but a protégé. 

‘From the moment he first trained with us in preseason one year, I just thought, he’s going to retire me.’

After eight months away from the club, Noble returned at the beginning of 2023 in the newly-established role of Sporting Director.

‘I think everywhere around the world or in the UK, people do it differently. I was at a conference the other day at the Premier League offices and you had all the technical and sporting directors from Premier League clubs there, and there’s only a couple of us really that have actually played.

‘You’ve got Edu obviously at Arsenal and you’ve got Francis at Bournemouth, but for me I wanted to do it my own way. Like today, we’re here because the first team are off today, so I want to come and train with the under-18s.’

For Noble, there’s no better way to track the progression of the club’s youth players than to lace up a pair of boots and get out on the training pitch with them. He’s done it with the under 13s, all the way up to the under 23s. It’s his job to know every player, to build up a five-year plan for the club, and build a route from the academy into the first team. He has made it his job to get as many youngsters through as possible. 

Despite this, he knows that only a select few will actually do it. This, in part, is one of the major reasons that some of our recent crop of academy graduates have been moved on, so that the club can make way for the younger talent coming through.

While he didn’t name names, players like Manny Longelo and Pierre Ekwah have recently secured permanent moves to Birmingham and Sunderland respectively, and Noble believes that holding them back from having a crack at first team football elsewhere is wrong if West Ham cannot offer them the minutes.

Now that he’s in a director’s role, Noble can use his influence at a management level to put forward his thoughts and opinions on club facilities. As the level of intensity and quality improves in the Premier League, so must the infrastructure that can nurture this, and Noble has identified some of the issues that the club face in this aspect, as well as the ways in which they try to make up for it.

‘What we lack at Rush Green in facilities, because we haven’t got facilities like Spurs or Leicester, we have to make up for in people. So, our chefs will come out after they’ve cooked for us, sit with us, have a cup of coffee, have a laugh and then Shirley who does all the plates will come out, and then Dan the press guy would come and sit with us and we’d hammer him over something that’s been in the press, it’s like a big family.’

While it raises questions over the training ground, it’s reassuring to hear that someone in Noble’s position is willing to raise the issue. If the club is taken over by a new owner in the next few years, having Noble around to recommend investments such as this will be invaluable.

More than anything though, it remains imperative that the club maintains the close-knit family culture that Noble spent years constructing as a player. Keeping him around the club is a no-brainer – not only is he a vital link between the academy and the first team, but he can also represent player opinion at the management level. And after all, who could be better to keep things ticking over at the club than Mr West Ham himself?

*Listen to the full chat of Mark Noble’s episode on The Fozcast with Ben Foster: The BEST Thing About Being Retired (Season 6 Episode 6)

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