Written by Rhys Paul
Having recently completed his move to Crystal Palace, now seems like good opportunity to look back on the West Ham career of one of our own: James Tomkins.
As a player who has been with the club since he was 7 years old and one who was born in Essex, it is fair to say Tomkins will always be a Hammer. As an 18 year old, his debut in 2008 in a 1-1 draw with Everton marked the beginning of what would become one of the more successful career’s of an ‘Academy of Football’ graduate this side of relegation in 2003. It would not be until the 2009/10 season that Tomkins would establish himself as a regular in the heart of defence – something that I still attribute largely to untimely injuries – during which he enjoyed a competitive rivalry with Manuel da Costa for the starting place alongside Matthew Upson. His first few years as a professional weren’t exactly headlining and it is fair to say his youthful inexperience was sometimes glaringly obvious. Even so, I was personally somebody who wanted to see him start every game (not least because I never really warmed to Upson) and in hindsight, the development of Tomkins was one of the few exciting things to have emerged from an otherwise dark period for the club.
It was the 2011/12 campaign where Tomkins really began to show his worth. Relegation is always hard to stomach, but seeing how Tomkins and Reid (another player who initially struggled to adapt to the standards of the Premier League) developed that season in the Championship was genuinely something that made it all seem alright. Still at the very young age of 23 by the time the season came to an end, he had matured significantly and received plaudits from his opponents as he was deservedly named in the Championship Team of the Season. There are very few things I like about Sam Allardyce, but the faith and impact he had on Tomkins’ career is something I believe he deserves credit for. So soon after Scott Parker had left, Tomkins restored faith in loyalty when he signed a new contract and in the process confirmed his love for the club was greater than any amount of money. It was a season which had the potential to confine him to the same fate as many other young players who came through the ranks around the same time, but it was a season in which Tomkins proved he was the club’s best homegrown defender since Rio Ferdinand and many had high hopes for both the club’s and the player’s return to the Premier League.
Unfortunately, the momentum the defender was carrying hit an unexpected speed bump which temporarily derailed his form. That speed bump came in the form of Team Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics. His inclusion in the squad was great recognition for his performances over the 2011/12 season and it was great for the club to be represented at the games – with Tomkins being the ideal candidate to carry the torch for the club. What should have been a chance for Tomkins to show his worth against some of the world’s most promising youngsters ultimately turned out to be a huge disappointment from everybody’s perspective. The lack of game time was the biggest problem – he made only two appearances – and it meant an already long Championship season, in which he had featured 44 times in the league, had been unnecessarily extended for a bit-part role in the Team GB squad. Allardyce opted for the returning and more experienced James Collins ahead of Tomkins as he looked to consolidate the club’s Premier League status. From a fan’s perspective, it appeared Tomkins’ confidence had taken a huge knock and it showed in some performances, but his return to the side as a substitute for the injured Winston Reid against Queens Park Rangers showed he would eventually overcome a difficult Summer and he once again established himself as a regular following a good run of games. The following 2013/14 campaign would see him continue his run in the Starting XI, making a total 31 league appearances.
The last two seasons must have been as frustrating for the player as it was for the fans. Never making more than 23 league appearances in either of the 2014/15 or 2015/16 season, every time Tomkins re-established himself in the first team he would pick up a fresh injury to rule him out. In January 2015, Tomkins clashed with close friend, Mark Noble – a player with whom he’s played with for the best part of 16 years – during the heated FA Cup tie with Everton (easily the team Tomkins has had the most eventful history against), it was a sign of the passion both players have for the club and showed how they transcend the feelings of the supporters onto the pitch with their performances. A lengthy injury lay-off saw Tomkins miss the back end of the 2014/15 season before returning for the last game of the season. He was a stand-out performer in West Ham’s short-lived Europa League exploits last season. 2 goals in 4 appearances in the competition still remains his best goal-to-game ratio of an impressive 0.5. Alright, so he has never been a goalscorer, but in those few games (admittedly against weak opposition) his quality and class shined through. He was forced to play right-back for periods at the beginning of the 2015/16 campaign and, for a natural centre-back, he did a stellar job of covering – putting the shockingly bad Carl Jenkinson to shame with a defensive masterclass in games against Arsenal and Liverpool. He was shuffled between the right and centre of defence before another injury cost him his place in the team again.
I honestly don’t believe there is much between the four senior centre-backs (Tomkins, Collins, Ogbonna & Reid) in the squad at the moment and each enjoyed a decent amount of game time (albeit a result of them all suffering injury at some stage of the season). Unfortunately for Tomkins, the timing of his injuries have been more cruel than those experienced by his fellow centre-backs. With Ogbonna and Reid rumoured to be Slaven Bilic’s preferred partnership, it is understandable that Tomkins feels like he needs to leave the club for the sake of his career. At 27 years old and after twenty years at the club, it is clear why he feels he should be a starter. As a homegrown, English defender, I would have liked him to be one of the first names on the team sheet when fit, especially since he is our best defender on the ball. I had hopes that Tomkins and Noble would lead the team into the Olympic Stadium. As it stands, however, Tomkins final game in front of the home supporters looks increasingly like it was that final game at Upton Park. It was a game in which Tomkins fittingly returned to the Starting XI and one that even more fittingly heralded the end of an era; an era in which Tomkins will also become a part of when he does depart. I am sure his decision to leave came with a heavy heart and it is one that I hope he knows will be met with just as much of a heavy heart – not least from a significant portion of our female fan base – from supporters.
Thank you, James Tomkins.
Have the club made the right decision to let Tomkins leave? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by joshjdss