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When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This part of this series takes a look at the ‘Academy of Football’, West Ham United.
When it comes to youth academies in England, West Ham rank among the top. Even though Southampton have gained much acclaim in recent years for their prolific youth development, West Ham were probably the best in the 2000s and continue to remain among the best. Dubbed as the “Academy of Football”, West Ham have always been able to attract the best youth players from London due to them being more likely to earn a chance than their more illustrious London neighbours Arsenal and Chelsea.
The Academy is not only devoted to the education of young English players, but also inculcates a modern approach to the game. Even if West Ham are now more of a “feeder club” after having been overtaken by richer clubs, they continue to play enterprising football. Their youth academy will be at the forefront of this.
Note that these are players who have played professional football in and after 2000.
A highly under-rated central defensive midfielder, Carrick embodies the midfielder who relies on brain rather than brawn. Despite his physical attributes not being the best, Carrick is an excellent reader of the game while his range of passing put him among the top midfielders in Europe. His partnership with Scholes at Man Utd, where he remains to this date, was highly effective. He spent 7 years at West Ham, and he remained loyal to them even when they were relegated in 2003, only leaving the following season. After a stint at Tottenham, he will complete 10 years at Man Utd at the end of this current season, where he has established himself as a crucial cog of the squad even till today. One of the best defensive midfielders of his generation, even if he won’t be truly recognised as one.
Injuries hampered the ability of Joe Cole to live up to the potential he was hyped up to fulfil. Able to play in various attacking positions, Cole was well known for his dribbling skills. While at West Ham, Cole was highly-rated and tipped to be a world-class player. He made the step up to Chelsea where he spent 7 years amidst numerous injuries. Cole is the story of a striker who has achieved a fair bit in his career but someone who could have still done way more in his career. He has also played for Liverpool, Lille and Aston Villa without much success. Still, Cole’s career only went downhill towards the latter end of his Chelsea stint and he remains one of the top academy graduates West Ham has seen.
Despite graduating from West Ham, Defoe is most popular for his 3 stints at Tottenham, where he racked up a number of goals. He has however never starred for a big club, shuffling between the Hammers, Tottenham and Portsmouth, including a stint at MLS side Toronto FC. Defoe has always been a prolific goalscorer and a finisher. He scored a rare 5 goals in a single game against Wigan as well. Defoe spent 5 years at West Ham before moving to Spurs when the Hammers were relegated. He’s also earned over 50 caps for the England national team. The Mr. Reliable of Tottenham for so many years.
Regarded as one of England’s greatest ever players, Rio Ferdinand made his name at Manchester United where he formed part of the rock-solid defense in the Ferguson years. His pairing with Vidic is one of the best centre-back pairings of the 21st century. Rio did start his career at the Hammers before moving to Leeds United at the turn of the century in a record deal. Two seasons later, he broke the records again, becoming the most expensive defender for the second time. His positioning, technical and physical ability and leadership qualities made him a club stalwart at United. He’ll be remembered for a long time, as an example of how to defend.
A midfielder who has played for three of the history-laden clubs in the world, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Liverpool, Ince in fact started off at West Ham, spending 7 years there before making a highly controversial move to Man United. He was crucial to their success, splitting defences with his passes. Even though he wasn’t a prolific goalscorer, Ince was a strong midfielder in his time. His decision to later on play for Liverpool while spurred by his young son’s education needs, was met with widespread surprise given the bitter rivalry between Liverpool and Man United. Ince moved into management after he retired, while his son Thomas now plies his trade for Derby County.
Now at Stoke, Johnson in started off at West Ham, where he spent three years of his development before moving over to city rivals Chelsea as West Ham were relegated to the Championship. A solid right-back, Johnson has provided relative defensive solidity while playing for Chelsea, Portsmouth and Liverpool, while having been part of the England squad for the last three international tournaments. Johnson may not be spectacular and has never been a must-have in his career, but he can do a job and has the experience for it too, which is what counts in the end.
Regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation, Lampard has left behind a legacy at Chelsea, one that will serve as inspiration to all aspiring players. Capable of playing anywhere in midfield, Lampard perfected the art of being there in the box at the right time, scoring many crucial goals throughout his storied career. With a powerful shot from distance and high stamina, he has run the Chelsea midfield for 13 years and truly symbolises Chelsea. A true club legend. He’s also earned over a 100 caps for England, and has played a sole season at Manchester City before moving over to New York City. Having developed at West Ham for around 6 years, it is astounding how he has had such a long and successful career. He chose to move to Chelsea in 2001 due to club pressure. 648 caps and 211 goals later, the rest is history.
A central midfielder, he is the captain of the team and has played his entire career for West Ham barring two short loan spells to Ipswich and Hull. He is also the longest serving Hammer in the squad now, having been part of the first team since 2004, and part of the club since 2000. Internationally, Noble has turned out for every English age level side barring the main team. He is the team’s first choice penalty taker and has a high scoring percentage rate too. Despite being only 28, Noble brings with him a wealth of experience to the club and is now a figurehead for the academy hopefuls, dreaming of making it big with the Hammers.
It just goes to show the quality of the West Ham Academy that two of the greatest Chelsea players in the last few decades once have come from West Ham: Lampard and Terry. While Lampard was the marauding midfielder, Terry was the rock at the heart of the defence. His strength, confidence, aerial ability, tackling and physicality, among other attributes made him one of the best central defenders of his generation. He has made over 500 appearances and has been the face of Chelsea over the last few years. Terry though started off at West Ham for four years before moving over to Chelsea. While Terry is not entirely liked by football fans for his numerous antics, and has had his fair share of controversies, it doesn’t detract from his footballing ability on pitch. He has also been captain of the England national team, as he captains Chelsea. He has created a legacy tough to re-create.
Apart from Noble, Tomkins is also a rare Hammer who has chosen to stay at the club rather than move elsewhere. Having been at the club for almost 20 years now, Tomkins is a towering centre-back who can also play at defensive midfield and at right-back. Barring a loan spell to Derby County in 2008, Tomkins has been West Ham through and through and along with Noble he represents a loyal group of footballers. Tomkins has also played for every England age level as well at representing Great Britain at the 2010 Olympics.
At a club like West Ham, with limited financial ability in relation to bigger clubs, the success of their youth academy will always remain a key to whatever they achieve on field. Despite signing some top-quality signings in recent times, such as Dimitri Payet, they haven’t been afraid to give their academy graduates a chance as well. An example of this is Reece Oxford, the 16-year old who became West Ham’s youngest ever player when he made his Premier League debut against Arsenal. In a 2-0 win, he was one of the stars of the game, putting in a matured performance at the back which belied his age. He neutralised the attacking threat of Mesut Ozil. He only lost possession once in the game as well.
Apart from Oxford, a symbol of the club’s desire to give youngsters a chance, there are a few other youth players as well who could make it at the big leagues. Players like Diego Poyet, Martin Samuelsen, Elliot Lee and Reece Burke are examples of growing youngsters who with time and patience could develop into top players, whether at West Ham or elsewhere. The future looks as bright for West Ham as the present and the past when it comes to youth players.
It is evident that the Academy of Football continues to churn out the youngsters, and have carved out a niche for themselves in the process as a top-drawer youth academy in Europe. Along with experienced squad members like Payet, the youth players have a role to play. If West Ham continue to make it big in the footballing world, it will make it easier for them to attract the high-potential youngsters. It doesn’t matter if the players leave West Ham or not when they make it big, as West Ham’s position in the footballing chain is not one of dominance. However their role in developing some of the stars of the yesteryears should not be underestimated, as they have provided the bedrock for many big club. West Ham will continue to make waves in the world if they keep this up.
Written by Rahul Warrier
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