Written by Rhys Paul
There is something satisfying about a successful team that includes several homegrown players. The stories of Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’, Barcelona’s fabled La Masia and the never-ending cycle of youth products from Ajax are well-documented and justifiably so. In more recent years Southampton and Feyenoord have been responsible for bringing through numerous top talents between them. Other clubs such as Sporting Lisbon, Partizan Belgrade, and even Crewe Alexandra deserve an honourable mention too. However few clubs in England (and the world for that matter) can claim to have an academy as rooted in history as that of West Ham. A lot of this success is owed to Ron Greenwood for having faith in the club’s homegrown players (notably the World Cup winning trio), but none of it would have lasted had it not been for the irreplaceable, Tony Carr. Although Carr – who had been the heartbeat of the academy since 1973 – has since taken on ambassadorial role, the academy seems to be on course for its most successful period since the late 1990’s when the likes of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole came through the ranks.
It is fair to say that, since the turn of the century, this has since stagnated with Mark Noble, James Tomkins and Jack Collison the only players to have made the step-up. There have been numerous players who appeared on the verge of being the next ‘big thing’, yet each of these players have followed the same trend with a promising start ultimately ending with a quiet departure. Junior Stanislas and Freddie Sears were two players I personally had high hopes for and the downward spiral of Zavon Hines’ career has also been sad to see given the potential he appeared to have before injury struck. In a way, the decision to release Elliot Lee (21) and Leo Chambers (20) reflects a new chapter. Both had to deal with high expectations, – the latter has captained England at U16, U17 and U18 level – but neither managed to break into the first team; or disappointed when they were given the chance. They were the two most promising players on the academy’s books until recently. U21 Premier League Cup success this season will hopefully replicate the 1999 FA Youth Cup winning team which saw individuals like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick break into the Starting XI only a few years after. I’ve selected four players who I believe are the brightest prospects to have recently graduated from the academy and a further three who have done a ‘Jermain Defoe’ in that they have left another academy to continue their development at the ‘Academy of Football’.
Reece Oxford (17) – CB/CDM
The man currently carrying the torch for the academy, Oxford displays a maturity and ability far beyond his 17 years. Like Chambers, he has captained England at U17 level and he is the preferred U21 (for West Ham) choice to wear the armband. Composed on the ball, he is able to play in midfield as well as defence and he has already shown he is capable of playing at the top level in England, it is just a case of consistency at this point – but this is something that will come with experience. Any player who is able to keep Mesut Ozil in their back pocket at only 16 years old (at the time of last season’s opening game) is certainly a special talent.
Reece Burke (19) – CB
The 2014/15 Young Hammer of the Year is – along with Oxford – the closest in regards to first team football. Any Bradford fan will tell you just how good Burke is following an impressive season-long loan at the Bantams which saw him win seven end-of-season awards. He has a naturally calming presence in defence – a trait which has made him the ideal captain for the development squad – and I would say he is the best centre-back to come through the ranks since Rio Ferdinand. I worry that Burke is the likeliest on this list to leave the club with Southampton, Manchester City and Leicester all rumoured to be keeping tabs. It would be a shame if he is to leave, not least because his development so far has been perfectly suited to the player and this has undoubtedly contributed to a rise which has finally seen the player gain admiration from outside of West Ham.
Josh Cullen (20) – CM
A personal favourite of mine, Cullen is an engine. He thrives as a box-to-box midfielder, but he has also shown he is more than just a runner by showing he has the quality to operate as an effective play maker. This was most evident when he struck a last-minute belter against Chelsea’s U21s last season. His style of play makes him a natural leader on the pitch and he also enjoyed a successful loan spell with Burke at Bradford. He was brought on as a substitute during the 3-0 win at Anfield last season and he was a frequent name on the bench before his switch to Valley Parade. He will either follow in the footsteps of Noble or George Moncur – two of our most promising centre-midfielders since 2000 whose careers have gone in completely different directions.
Kyle Knoyle (19) – RB
Knoyle is your typical modern day full-back. His pace and control make him very dangerous when he is bombing forward. The defensive side of his game could use some work, but this is really a criticism of the majority of full-backs today. A loan spell at Dundee United in the second-half of last season saw the player eventually break into the starting XI and like the majority of players on this list, he was relied on during the early stages of West Ham’s Europa League campaign. Like another full-back on this list, he could struggle to breakthrough as faces competition at right-back from another young player, Sam Byram who was himself was brought to the club with the future in mind.
Stephen Hendrie (21) – LB
Joining the club last summer, Hendrie chose to continue his development at West Ham. Before leaving Hamilton Academical, Hendrie had broken into the first team making 110 appearances and played a part in their promotion to the Scottish Premier League. Another great attacking full-back, he can act as both provider and goalscorer. In between a brief loan spell at Southend, he played a vital part in the club’s Premier League Cup success netting a superb extra-time winner against Liverpool to reach the final. His season-long loan move to Blackburn for the upcoming season provides him with a chance to show his worth in a highly competitive league and this should give us a good indication how far he can go – although he is another player who will find it hard to displace the current first choice in his preferred position.
George Dobson (18) – CB/CDM
Although identified as a midfielder on the club website, Dobson made name for himself as a defender. Having joined the club from Arsenal last summer, he was their U18s captain and touted as one of the most exciting prospects in their academy. He is yet to feature for West Ham’s first team, but he is good on the ball and a committed player whose self-confessed love for the club will ensure the fans take a liking to him. Like many on this list, he was part of the U21 team which won the Premier League Cup.
Martin Samuelsen (19) – Winger
Signed from Manchester City last summer, Samuelsen instantly went about making himself known to his new fans. Tall yet lightweight, Samuelsen has a unique look that helps him stand out from other wingers. He is quick and skillful and his displays have recently earned him his first Norwegian cap (the only player on this list to possess an international cap). At Peterborough he scored an incredible solo effort against Sheffield United and a man-of-the-match display in the FA Cup against West Brom showed he can take it to Premier League opposition. In scoring the winning penalty in the U21 Premier League Cup final, Samuelsen will forever be remembered for his part in the U21s success last season.
Can you see any of these players in the first team within the next couple of years? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by joshjdss