Who do you think was the most crucial signing this summer for our long term ambitions: Mohammed Kudus, Edson Alvarez, or was it Andy Irving? It may have escaped your attention, but West Ham signed the 23 year old former Berwick Rangers man on deadline day from SK Austria Klagenfurt before loaning him straight back.
So why might a player with a solitary Scottish U21 cap signing for us be so important to our future? Well, because the deal was part of an agreement with Klagenfurt to become an affiliate club. Why, I may hear you ask, is this such an important thing? The general consensus of having a ‘feeder club’ is to have the first option on their star players.
But is there really anyone coming through at a mid table Austrian Bundesliga side? Probably not, but there’s far more to an affiliate club than that. Firstly, it’s somewhere where we can send youth players on loan. Nathan Trott is a recent example of a player who has gone overseas to gather experience.
Much like Manchester United used to with Royal Antwerp, loaning your youngsters to an affiliate club ensures you already know the environment, tactical approach, facilities, etc of the club to ensure the player gets the best possible chance of development. One of the main factors, however, may not just be to develop our current youth players, but also prospective ones. Since Brexit, signing youngsters from Europe has become quite difficult.
Along similar lines to the old fabled work permit for overseas players, anyone signing for a British club must now have a certain number of points known as Football’s Governing Body Endorsements, or GBE’s as they’re known. Players from EU countries who want to play in the Premier League will be required to gain a GBE, like all other overseas players without the right to work in the UK.
The GBE will operate a points-based system, where points are scored for senior and talented young players based on senior and youth international appearances, quality of the selling club, based on the league they are in, league position and progression in continental competition, and club appearances, based on domestic league and continental competition minutes. With West Ham appointing Tim Steidten seemingly to utilise his knowledge of European players, and in particular up-and-coming talents, this could be a masterstroke.
Identifying a young prospect in a European league with the ability for his development to continue at Klagenfurt could see us overcome the barriers we’d usually face in trying to sign someone without the required senior appearances or international appearances, meaning we can snap up talent ahead of the curve, and before other Premier League rivals become aware of the player. On the subject of Tim Steidten, we saw him spend the latter days of the transfer window in Brazil.
Sadly, he returned empty handed, but building on the good groundwork from Rob Newman, we have a plethora of young South American targets with bags of potential. Whilst that’s something we may have heard from David Sullivan in the past, the ability to loan such players immediately to the Belgians mean that they have a chance to settle into European football, culture and climate away from the glare and expectation of the first team, yet at a more competitive standard than the Academy can offer. Something that will enable the fate of Wellington Paulista to stay as a thing from the past.
As fantastic as these opportunities will be for us, if West Ham really are looking to grow in a number of other markets, we need to expand our horizons somewhat. Sure, Klagenfurt is a start, and a good start at that, but if we really want to tap into opportunities for both fresh talent and commercial expansion, we need to look further afield, albeit somewhat more tactically than our brief dalliance into Nigerian football with Ifeanyi Ubah.
A brief look at some of the more successful footballing affiliates shows a broad range of clubs within the portfolio. Manchester City’s imaginatively-named ‘City Group’ includes Girona, Melbourne City and New York City FC. With premier clubs in two markets with huge potential in both financial incentives and talent pool (Australia and USA) plus a club in an established league (La Liga), it has given them the opportunity for player development.
This has seen the highly-rated Brazilian right back Yan Couto help Girona to the top of La Liga, as well as having previously had the likes of Aliex Garcia, Douglas Luiz and Angelino loaned to them. There have even been lucrative friendlies between the clubs within the City Group. And it is perhaps with these friendlies in mind that West Ham may, long term, look to tap into a market that no other affiliate set up seems to have yet – that of the Asian market.
There are very few places with more passion for the Premier League than the Far East. When Tottenham embarked on a pre-season tour of Korea in 2022, they sold out not only all three 60k capacity games within hours, but also 6k strong open training sessions – and all because of one man. Son Hueng-min.
Imagine if an affiliate club in that region allowed direct access for West Ham via annual friendly matches, or top talent becoming part of the first team squad?
The revenue could help propel us to another level. Something for Sullivan et al to aim towards, but there’s no doubt that the short term links with Klagenfoot as a first dabble into this can only be a good thing. So, whilst it remains to be seen if Andy Irving will ever make a first team appearance for West Ham, his signing and the deal it has helped to set up, this could well be a watershed moment in the future of how our club operates.