New manager. Fresh start. Fans are getting excited by David Moyes’ talk in the press of giving youth a chance. Everyone at the club is hungry for a new academy hero, with the quality and volume of home-grown talent having declined dramatically since the Class of ’99.
Our U23s are enjoying a successful season, with the goalscoring record of Toni Martinez particularly catching the eye - so much so that fans are starting to clamber for his elevation to the senior side. Meanwhile Declan Rice has demonstrated his potential in some impressive appearances for the first team.
We need to be a bit careful before getting either too excited about their and others’ inclusion or too frustrated if they don’t get instant opportunities, the latter being a common feature of the tenure of our previous two managers. Allardyce and Bilic tended to get the blame when our youth prospects weren’t making it in the first team.
This doesn’t really work. First team affairs and elevation of youth players are down to the manager. But responsibility for growing and developing young does not take place at that level.
This is a subtle difference that is so often lost on fans. It resulted in managers getting criticised for not elevating players who weren’t good enough in the first place. OK, we all remember Allardyce’s horrendous error of judgment when he sent lambs to the slaughter in the FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest in 2014. Maybe he could have been a lot more tactful in his management of their development, but the question remains: who did Sam not give a chance to who has proven him wrong since?
Then there was a renewed optimism under Slaven Bilic that our youth would get a chance. We all remember Reece Oxford’s impressive debut against Arsenal in Slaven’s first game in charge. Oxford continued to play a part into the autumn but it was quickly clear that his lack of consistency meant he was too great a risk to play consistently at the top level.
This is not a problem at all, and a reasonable solution was settled that the youngster practise and hone his skills at a less pressurised level. Fans are now frustrated at a perceived lack of development and many blame the coach for not giving him a chance. But he was hardly excelling at Reading on loan last season and Borussia Mönchengladbach don’t deem him first choice this season either. Again, this is not a problem in itself. Oxford needs more time and we need more patience. The point is here, as before, that it is not principally up to the manager to prepare a young prospect.
We need to keep this in mind today, with David Moyes saying all the right things so far. “The U23s have come up to Rush Green to train with us and I hope that’s the way it stays”, he commented in midweek. “I’ve been told about one or two and a couple of others have caught my eye”. From his previous clubs it’s clear he believes in youth elevation too. And he was in attendance of the home game against Derby U23 on Friday night, giving the likes of Martinez, Haksabanovic, Samuelsen and Quina a chance to impress. Derby won the game 5-1. But I am hugely in favour of this approach and hope Moyes continues to keep an eye on all levels of the club.
It’s also worth noting that West Ham’s social media are all over this, circulating Moyes’ quotes that the U23s are training with the first team and hashtag intense training videos as ubiquitously as a Rise of the Krays plug. It’s perfectly reasonable for the club to want to generate excitement and interest in the new manager and positive marketing on social media is a common way of doing this. In addition, hype of youth prospects is always popular with the fans.
But on the point of youth there seems to have been an agenda above managerial level for a while. In addition, social media has increased pressure on the incumbent boss in interfering with team affairs and managerial decisions, backhandedly criticising a lack of youth opportunity (not to mention the little digs at Bilic on training posts: “there’s no substitute for hard work”). It happened under Allardyce with the Sullivan boys peddling agendas for certain players to be selected on Twitter.
With regards to young talent, the classic “it’s the manager’s decision but...” rears its head over and over. Jack Sullivan said it about Sam in 2014 – “The manager picks the team but I believe in youth development.” Even recently David Gold yet again exposed the club’s naivety on social media by replying to a fan’s query about youth development with “we have our opinions but do not influence team selection”.
Leaving the amateurishness of lack of professionalism of the board to one side for now, it’s completely simplistic to blame lack of youth development on the manager. For one, Bilic did hand three academy graduates their debuts last season.
But mostly I worry that the club’s clear agenda on youth may work counter-productively. Immediate elevation may not be what’s best for the youth players themselves just yet and Moyes should be a little careful before bowing to the populist view. Hopefully he will do the right thing and scrutinise them thoroughly in training before taking any decisions.
Then there’s the hypocrisy from the club: on the one hand complaining that youth aren’t getting a chance, while on the other not committing enough resources, planning, coaching and development of young prospects. For too long now the manager has been an easy scapegoat for the club’s poor delivery at youth level.
Our record on youth development has been poor for years. After our academy’s last golden generation at the turn of the century, we’ve tried to blood several prospects, ranging from one-time player of the month Dan Potts to instant hero Freddie Sears. Since Mark Noble broke through, Jack Collison and James Tomkins are the only two of 35 former academy players in league football to have appeared consistently for the first team. Of those 35 graduates, Junior Stanislas is the only other player to have played in the Premier League for another club.
Countless others have come and gone. Rob Hall is at Oxford now, the Lee brothers at Luton, Zavon Hines at Maidstone and Sebastian Lletget in the MLS to name a few. Is it really the fault of Bilic or Allardyce they didn’t make it?
Toni Martinez is the latest prospects fans have decided want a chance. Yet this time the talk on social media has been more forceful than ever. “What more does he have to do?” is the common call, with the Spaniard scoring a hatful of goals on a regular basis for the U23 side.
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Developing at that level and ‘being ready’ isn’t just about scoring goals, and you can’t use a scoring record at a lower level as a reason to elevate or dismiss a prospect in and of itself.
The reality is always much more subtle. Harry Kane, already one of England’s most successful academy products in many years, had a modest record during loan spells. His Spurs teammate Harry Winks has never even been loaned out. Meanwhile Ashley Fletcher had an excellent record at youth level and did well on loan at Barnsley.
The point is that raw data like this is so inconclusive, especially at developmental ages. So how do you know if and when a player is ready? It’s the manager and the coaching staff. It’s what you see in the player in training each day. You know if they’re ready because of how they perform, how they grow, how they carry themselves.
It may be difficult for fans to hear, because this is something they have no insight into or involvement in. But if the manager and coaches say someone is ready or not ready, we have to trust that judgment.
We look at a team like Tottenham who are successfully blooding youth prospects into the first team. We need to remember that this hasn’t happened overnight, or even in the couple of years Pochettino has been at the helm, but rather over several years of youth investment and development at all levels.
You can’t just pick your academy players and expect it to work like it does at Tottenham and Southampton. If the youth system isn’t as good (which it isn’t), the players probably won’t be as good. It’s as simple as that.
Now today we have a handful of players who do look like they’ve got potential. There’s Oxford and Rice whom the club have brought up, then there’s Martinez, Quina and Samuelsen who have been successfully scouted and poached from other clubs. I hope as much as anyone else that they’re able to reach the first team and fulfil their clear potential.
But there are some things we need to remember. Picking a player just to give youth a chance is not reason enough; it’s impossible to judge a prospect using just raw data; and you can’t pin academy representation in the first team on the manager. Hopefully this article has done enough to explain why.
What more does Martinez have to do? He has to commit every day in training, learning and growing each week. It’s not just about the U23 goals.