It’s 10th June, 2020. Angelo Ogbonna’s contract with West Ham United is up. Winston Reid is starting the final season of a three-year extension. The club has just finished another mediocre season in the middle of the table: 9th place. This is the fourth year in a row this has happened, and frustration at the club is palpable. Not just from supporters, Slaven Bilic, or the board: no, this frustration is from the players themselves. They know what they’re capable of, but they’re getting older, and football is a young man’s game. Michail Antonio and Cheikhou Kouyate are 30. Andy Carroll is 31; Mark Noble, 33. Center-backs Ogbonna and Reid, 32 and 31 respectively. Jose Fonte is now 36 and has decided to hang up his boots. Goalies Adrián and Darren Randolph are 33 and aren’t getting any younger.
All of these staples of modern West Ham lore are getting old. They’re not what they once were physically. Some are getting ready to quit the game they’ve played their entire lives. Some know they’re preparing to fall into footballing obscurity: going to a club that will pay to have a talented, but now aging, player.
But there is hope. Slaven has been slowly bleeding youth players into his gameplans for the last three seasons, and now it’s really on. The youth movement is no longer the youth movement. The youth, for the most part, have become the first team.
Two Months Later
It’s 15th August, 2020: opening day. Reece Oxford and Reece Burke both had time off the bench last season and looked outstanding. Sam Byram, 26, has fully come into his own at right-back. Josh Pask is playing as a squad player, but the 22-year-old has put in some important minutes behind 26-year-old Arthur Masuaku who took over as number one left-back when Aaron Cresswell was sold after the 2018 season. It was a tough decision, but Cresswell just couldn’t produce anymore. Masuaku has been tearing it up ever since, and Pask has been a good sub for the Frenchman.
Between the sticks is Nathan Trott. The 21-year-old is ready to be the main keeper at West Ham. The England international had a solid Championship loan spell in 2018/19 that landed him a Premier League loan in 2019/20 with Southampton, who ended up finishing 8th. Trott is ready to see that success with his own club, and he knows Oxford and Burke especially will hold down the defense to help see that to fruition.
Edimilson Fernandes, Pedro Obiang, and Manuel Lanzini have been an incredible midfield, and they’re all still relatively young at ages 24, 28, and 27. Martin Samuelsen and Fernandes will begin to split time at right midfield to see what the 23-year-old Norwegian is truly made of. Domingos Quina, 20, is living up to his promise, but has gone out on loan for the season as there’s just not enough room in the midfield for him yet.
Most importantly this year, it’s time for Josh Cullen, 24, to usurp Mark Noble’s starting role, instead of fulfilling the super-sub role he’s played in the last three seasons. Cullen has been playing with the Irish squad for the last couple of years, helping Ireland to qualify for the 2018 World Cup—Ireland’s first qualification in 16 years. There’s a refreshing candor about Cullen’s play: the undying passion; the heart; the Irishman leaves it all on the pitch. A legend in the making, and he’s all ours. Cullen is more than ready to be the man in midfield.
At the front of the field is desolate, ugly ground. It seems everyone that’s played there has had injury issues or just can’t produce. That’s a thing of the past now, as it’s time for Ashley Fletcher, 24, and Toni Martinez, 23, to take their rightful positions. They’ve waited long enough. Slaven Bilic and the board have finally decided to trust their youth, and soon enough they’ll see that it was worth it.
Six Months Later
It’s 14th February, 2021. West Ham are entering the final quarter of the season, where clean sheets are no longer a rarity—in fact, they’re standard. The Thames Twins, Reeces Burke and Oxford, have played together since their academy days; their bond is strong in the middle of the backfield and it shows. The young 20-somethings are leading an ironclad defense, championed by an exceptionally proud Slaven Bilic.
The midfield diamond shifts up and down the pitch in remarkable fashion: flowing together on attack, and tracking back as one on defense. Lanzini, Fernandes, Obiang, and Cullen are setting the pitch alight in the center. Not only is their passing game reminiscent of a certain 2010/11 Barcelona squad, but they’re feeding the ball up to two prolific strikers, who are having no qualms finishing shots.
Fans have been waiting years to hear the word “prolific” when it’s being used to describe a West Ham striker, and it’s finally come to be. Scoring goals is no longer a chore for the club, as the two superb young strikers are working well together at the top of the pitch. Fletcher has overtaken Andy Carroll’s former role, knocking any air ball that comes toward him straight into the nylon. With his impressive stature at 6’2”, it’s no surprise that he’s the enforcer of the two strikers. Meanwhile, Martinez gets in behind defenses and lights them up from 10-20 yards out. The best of both worlds from the striking duo. Even better yet, twenty-eight matches into the season, and the striker pair has scored 38 goals combined.
The Hammers are sat at 5th place with just ten regular season games to go. The board, the fans, and most importantly the players are happy. This is the first time in a long time that anyone has felt as if the club could compete with the “big clubs.”
Three Months Later
It’s 15th May, 2021. The final game of the season and the Hammers have held onto their spot in the table, sitting at 5th. There’s not even any drama. Whether the Hammers win or lose today, they’ll finish in 5th place, and it’s all because the board and Slaven trusted in their youth players to perform up to their promise.
A Final Word
Is any of this realistic? Well, sort of. In my humble opinion, all of this is quite possible, maybe with the exception of Slaven Bilic still being with the club in three years. I personally love Slaven, but can’t see the board sticking with him much longer, especially if he continues to deliver mediocre results. The board will continue to use him as a scapegoat until they sack him, get the same results, and realize it’s their own fault West Ham aren’t doing well... because they won’t shell out the money necessary to become a top tier club.
The lesson in all of the mumbo jumbo above is that the board need to let the pressure off Bilic and allow him to trust his youth to learn and grow as they play in the Premier League. If they were to do this, the mediocrity that us supporters have come to know and somehow love in a sort of Stockholm syndrome-y way would eventually turn into success in the coming years. Everyone wants to “win now,” but how can anyone expect the youth to be Premier League ready without ever having played any minutes in the Premier League? We need to start looking toward winning big later instead of trying to win now and wasting valuable time and money on panic buys and cheap South American loan players.
The upcoming 2017/18 season is an important one for the club. Of course we want to buy talent to keep our current talent competitive and happy, but it has got to stop coming at the cost of our youth players. When youth get no Premier League playing time, they become more unhappy with each passing season that they’re loaned to a Championship or League One club. This is especially true when it’s clear that their talent exceeds their competition. Do you know what happens when youth feel unsettled at their clubs? They find a new one that will trust them to at least get some playing time in the big leagues. West Ham have an incredibly promising set of youth players, as well as a surprisingly large amount of them. It’s time to start handing over the reins, little by little.
Instead of saying hindsight 20/20 in 2020, let’s say foresight 2020 right now, and start giving the youth some first team chances.