What comes after academy life? The hopes, highs and heartbreaks of West Ham’s youngsters

Our new writer turned back the clock to 1999 to investigate for a new book

My life is closely entwined with Joe Cole’s. By which I mean, we were born at about the same time. While he was putting in an A* performance and picking up an FA Youth Cup winners medal, I was picking up my A-Levels.

As he was becoming a fixture in the West Ham first team, I was a fixture at the bar of the student union. My friends bought me an England shirt adorned with his name for my 21st birthday. We both suffered the pain of relegation the following year.

And as he regrettably departed for bigger and better things with Chelsea, I was beginning to earn a wage in the west End of London. Later, as he was leaving the north west for Lille before returning to the east end, I was heading in the opposite direction by departing Canning Town for a new life in Chester via a weekend break in Monaco.

These days we have similar hair lines and waist lines. To all intents and purposes, it’s like looking in a mirror. What I never had, however, even in my wildest dreams, was the same prodigious talent. My career peaked at the age of 11, when my all-conquering primary school team were two games away from reaching a national six-a-side tournament at Wembley.

Then I went to a pretentious comprehensive that favoured rugby over football. A small fish in a bigger pond, I probably wouldn’t have got in the high-school XI even if they had one, and any forlorn hopes of being scouted quickly receded into more prosaic teenage fantasies. Unbelievably, Cole only began playing organised football at the age of 10. Less than six years later, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United went on the charm offensive to lure him north.

But thankfully, with Cole Snr having minimal interest in football but a strong moral compass, the boy wonder was advised to stick with the club that gave him his initial break, at least until Glenn Roeder and Roman Abramovich intervened. With 56 senior England caps, three Premier Leagues and two FA Cups to his name, the outline of a professional footballer’s life is obviously much better known than a frustrated writer’s.

That said, media-trained footballers can be quite guarded. Unlike his boyhood teammate Michael Carrick, who did join Manchester United and whose autobiography Between the Lines is largely a eulogy to what he learnt from playing with champions, Cole has yet to write his life story. And unlike Declan Rice, he has been reticent about his childhood allegiance, with reports stating his heart was always in west London rather than east.

There are snippets to be gleaned from various interviews. In 2022, Cole confided to The Independent: ‘What I want to say to the fans is, they tug on to ‘loyalty’. I’ve watched my apprentices [Cole was coaching at Chelsea’s academy] line up outside an office to be told they’re not wanted. Lads that have been at a club for years, from under-10s. Just that, “thank you, but no thank you, your road’s run”. It’s a ruthless business, football. So loyalty, unfortunately, is reserved for the fans.

‘You know what fans don’t understand as well? When I watch football, I have an affinity with West Ham and I have an affinity with Chelsea. The West Ham fans will have seen me jumping around when Chelsea won the Champions League, but if that had been West Ham in the Europa League, I would have equally loved being in that moment. Fans can’t comprehend that – it’s alien to them, they can’t get their head around it. When you’ve played the game and have an affection for both clubs, and you’ve got friends on the pitch, that emotional connection, that will never leave me.’

The first major silverware of Cole’s career was the 1999 FA Youth Cup, closely followed by the Intertoto Cup. With a similar academy/European double looming in the spring of 2023, I spoke to Bertie Brayley, who played alongside Cole and Carrick in that celebrated youth team, about his own experiences and his thoughts on the next generation.

Bertie was the chief architect of a 20th anniversary reunion match between West Ham and Coventry, who avenged their 9-0 aggregate demolition with a 2-2 draw before prevailing on penalties, and remains a die-hard fan, so he seemed the perfect person to speak to about the nuts and bolts of academy life. After leaving West Ham aged 19, Bertie went on to have a stellar non-league career, if such an oxymoron can exist, and was a gregarious interviewee, though his departure from the Hammers ranks clearly still rankled many years on.

Around the same time, The Sun Online ran a redundant article titled ‘COLE’S GOALS Where is Joe Cole now and what happened to him after retiring from football?’ which could have been answered by a basic Google search or turning on BT Sport. And all of this got me wondering, what happened to the rest of the impressive Class of ’99 and the various hot prospects who’ve come and gone since then?

Millions dream of a Premier League career but very few make the grade. Most of us amateurs would settle for making a living from the game we love, but for Category One academy cast-offs it can become something of a nightmare battling to forge a career further down the pyramid as they’re forced to adjust the hopes and expectations they once held. Preliminary research showed that there were stories to be told. But was there a willingness to tell them?

As I began contacting multiple former Hammers – care of social media, agents, current clubs and post-career interests – it seemed not. Over a couple of months I learnt that some players use LinkedIn to promote their services in the same way that office workers might use it to take the next career step, but not a lot else. The only enthusiastic feedback came from Callum McNaughton.

Recall that name? What should have been a red-letter day for McNaughton, when he made his competitive debut on 24 August 2011, turned sour when he saw red after 47 minutes. West Ham suffered an ignominious exit from the League Cup thanks to a last-minute winner for Aldershot and the teenager never played for West Ham again.

Ever wondered how loan spells are arranged? In McNaughton’s case, assistant manager Ian Hendon ambushed him in the ice bath and a snap decision led to a move to AFC Wimbledon, which eventually became permanent. Now a well-adjusted thirtysomething living and working in the United States, coaching the youth of America and with aspirations of becoming a sports psychologist, McNaughton was ready to rake over his turbulent past.

With Callum on board as co-author, offering an insight and empathy far beyond my Sunday League skills and knowledge, more people were willing to share their formative experiences, including Stevland Angus and Sam Taylor from the Class of ’99. Dylan Tombides’ younger brother Taylor, who has spent the past six years back at the academy as a coach, and Will Greenidge, 2020 winner of the Dylan Tombides Award for outstanding academy prospect, now with Colchester also shared their experiences.

The stories gathered in Inside the Academy: The Hopes, Highs and Heartbreaks of West Ham United’s Youth include death, drugs, reality TV and Mr Whippy, and that’s just Joe Sealey (son of Les). There are vicarious pleasures to be had as fans with little idea of what really goes on behind closed doors, but the overall objective was to shine a light on the multitude of reasons why things rarely go to plan for fresh-faced wannabes with dreams of footballing stardom.

And in doing so, we’ve hopefully humanised the average footballer. As explained in its introduction, the book makes no pretence at being an authoritative take on what’s right or wrong with West Ham’s academy processes because it spans a quarter-century, in which much has changed. And seeing footballers as human, it follows that each has a unique story to tell. In more than one case, we’re lucky that they’re still here to tell their stories, with mental health crises and suicide attempts becoming a worryingly prominent theme.

All of which put the pressure of writing in perspective. At the end of 2023, we had a six-a-side team of contributors and zero words written. Then the publishers told us they wanted it in time for the 25th anniversary of Cole, Carrick and Brayley’s heroics, which meant that by the end of February we needed a full team quota, plus substitutes, and 65,000 words!

We tried to get a foreword from Cole to tie it all together but, as it turns out, he’s still quite a busy man. Who knew?! So I’ll leave you with the book’s final words, from rugged centre-back Darren Blewitt, who bleeds claret and blue: ‘If I could go back to being 11 years old, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have signed for West Ham. And that’s weird to say, because I would have missed out on such good times. But I took everything to heart. I took everything to heart because it was West Ham. If I was at another club, it’s all maybes…’

Inside the Academy: The Hopes, Highs and Heartbreaks of West Ham United’s Youth is released on 13 May by Pitch Publishing

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