The term ‘golden generation’ is often overused. Any time a batch of potentially promising youngsters emerges, there is a tendency to over-project and believe that just because they have done well at youth level, they are destined for greatness and will replicate that success when they step up a level. That is not to say that they don’t exist, but for every ‘Class of 92’ or ‘Cole, Carrick, and Defoe’, there is a much longer list of youth stars who failed to live up to the billing.
The Academy has had its fair share of false dawns. Around 2012 whispers began of an exciting crop blossoming under the tutelage of Tony Carr. Reece Burke, Dan Potts, George Moncur, Elliot Lee, Sebastian Lleget, and Blair Turgott were the standout names being tipped to break through into the first team and be the latest graduates off the production line.
Whether they ever had the quality required to succeed at the very top is a question we will never be able to answer. But they were unquestionably mismanaged by the then-gaffer Sam Allardyce and his use of them as sacrificial lambs in the FA Cup game versus Nottingham Forest in 2014 was akin to the massacre of the innocent.
However, having won the under-18 Premier League South – narrowly losing the North v South final 2-1 to Man City – and the FA Youth Cup last season, it is hard not to hang the heavily burdened moniker of ‘golden generation’ around the neck of our current cohort of youth players. The question is, how do we ensure we don’t squander this successful squad and safeguard their futures in the West Ham first team?
Thankfully the first crucial steps seem to be in place. The likes of Lewis Orford, Kalen Casey, and George Earthy have penned new deals in recent months, tying them to the club for the foreseeable. Mark Noble and Tim Steidten have sold them the project and shown that we value them and see them as a big part of our future.
The Sporting and Technical Directors are vital in making sure that these youngsters see that there is a plan in place for them and a pathway for them to follow, and securing the signatures of some of the key members of the squad sends the right signal to the rest that they can fulfill their ambitions at the club. It is also important that their development doesn’t stall and they continue to be challenged.
And this too seems to be a step we have already addressed. Rather than keeping them in the U18s to defend their titles, the whole squad has stepped up to the Premier League 2 – the new branding given to the U21 competition – and are now facing opposition that are bigger and stronger than they are, including a number of designated senior players who are allowed to participate in the development league.
And whilst it is tempting to say that they should be going out on loan, this might be a better solution. Out on loan we cannot guarantee they will play, regardless of what clauses are inserted in agreements between clubs. Six months of stop-start football could cause serious harm to their progress.
This is a happy middle ground. It also means they can continue to develop together and further build the relationships forged as they progressed through the ranks. It is encouraging to see that after a tricky start, they have found their feet and are holding their own.
At the time of writing, they have lost just once in six, defeated Valencia and Celtic in the International Cup, and overcome Bristol Rovers in the Football League Trophy. They are taking the step up in their stride. Callum Marshall has 10 goals in seven games and leads the PL2 scoring charts, George Earthy, Lewis Orford and Ollie Scarles have all registered goals and assists.
Even Divin Mubama has kept himself sharp, scoring twice in the International Cup, despite often being on the bench for Moyes’ men. And this brings us to the final and most contentious piece of the jigsaw; first team opportunities.
How and when to integrate the youngsters into the first team is the most important question when considering how to maximise their potential. Thus far a handful of first team appearances and match day squad inclusions has been enough.
It shows the manager has them in mind and gives them a taste of what they are striving for. But when do we need to go beyond that? Our issues in the striker department haven’t resulted in Mubama being trusted to deputise for Antonio; despite Ings being ill-equipped to fulfill the brief.
Emerson has been immense at left back, but Ollie Scarles seems unlikely to leapfrog Cresswell as the understudy – despite the veteran fullback’s on-going injury and off field issues. Perhaps further success in the Europa League will enable Moyes to give some of the youngsters more game time.
But how long will that prove enough for the ambitious and talented group? This is where loans become key, and perhaps Freddie Potts’ so far successful loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers is an indication that we are now better at identifying appropriate clubs to send our young hopefuls to. But it is a hit and miss system as mentioned earlier.
One suggested alternative is to follow Man City’s example – namely sell to clubs where they will get first team opportunities but insert buy-back and sell-on clauses into the deals so we can benefit should they blossom elsewhere. But whilst there is some logic to this, in that it ensures our investment in their development is repaid in a monetary sense, it doesn’t quite fulfill the ‘dream’ of seeing this ‘golden generation’ breaking into the first team and forming the backbone of a fresh faced youthful side full of homegrown talent.
Whether that dream is realised in many ways rests on the shoulders of Moyes, Noble and Steidten. So far the future seems in safe hands, and we can hope that with Noble championing the Academy products and Tim Steidten’s track record for trusting youth, we may well be on the verge of a new era.
It will be up to them, and the players, to prove to Moyes that this isn’t another false dawn and that this golden generation can bear the weight of our hopes and expectations.