Monday, 22nd July 2019
The Engineer, The Academy and the usual
Filed: Wednesday, 6th February 2019
Author: Robert Barlow

The 2018/19 season so far has been something of a rollercoaster for those of a claret and blue persuasion.

A messy four game start, double defeat to Spurs, exit from the cups and a blight of injuries. It all points to a negative and wholly uninspiring season.

But instead we find ourselves in and around the top half, playing attractive football at times and having beaten Manchester United and Arsenal to go alongside a four-game December winning streak.

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And further still, in true West Ham fashion, no necessary business is carried out in the January window, the atmosphere at the club is hindered by players wanting out and our embarrassing exit from the FA Cup means we miss a big opportunity to make this year more memorable.

Mixed emotions are certain. Our inconsistency remains an issue unsolved, one that I felt of all people Manuel Pellegrini would be able to nail down.

However one thing is for certain - there is room to look ahead with a keen eye. Not only because the boss appears to be attempting to instil an infectious winning mentality, but his willingness to delve into the Academy of Football has been a refreshing and positive method of management. One that we havenít been treated to for nearly over a decade.

Since our return to the Premier League in 2012, looking back at the way our famous Academy has been largely neglected is sour nostalgia. In our first season back in the big time only three appearances were gathered by players under 21. Two for Dan Potts (now at Luton Town) and another for Rob Hall, a once highly rated striker, who years on spent plying most of his trade at Oxford United.

This same season our Academy featured names that I remember fondly. Blair Turgott and Matias Fanimo are both entering the latter stages of their careers in the lower divisions. Centre back Leo Chambers I recall performing well for the club in the League Cup. Sadly none of these young men were given the opportunity by Sam Allardyce to compete in the big time.

Allardyce had form for mismanaging our Academy. Criticised by fans regarding his lack of involvement with the younger prospects at the club, and his depreciative mentality towards awarding U23 players Premier League minutes, in 2013/14 Allardyce fielded five academy players in our FA Cup third round fixture at Nottingham Forest.

Our entire substitutes bench consisted of Academy players. All to prove a point. It sticks in the memory that on this day we were humbled 5-0 by the Championship outfit.

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ďWest Ham have gone out of this competition with a whimper, never at any stage looking like they were going to give Forest a problem on the day. Big Sam is now under big pressure." (BBC SPORT)

So out of the FA Cup we went.

The Academy of Football looked a thing of the past following that afternoon. We were well and truly embarrassed. But around five years on we have every right to claim it is on the rise again.

Pellegrini has signed a number of players since his arrival. A mixture of the components needed to build a squad of his own. First team signings like Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko. Younger talent in Issa Diop and Xande Silva. Squad players like Carlos Sanchez and Ryan Fredericks.

While ravaged with injuries, weíve still seen his shrewd business pay off. Lukasz Fabianski for example has been a huge success at just £7million.

Yet even with all the new arrivals, something Manuel has been able to instigate that as a younger fan I havenít been exposed to much of is to bring back the Academy of Football, trust in our prospects and restore some identity to the club.

Released from Chelsea FC at the age of 14, Declan Rice now sits in a defensive midfield spot for West Ham United and is the first name on the team sheet, week in week out.

Declan, who has just turned 20, fits the mould of a future captain of the club, wears his heart on his sleeve and has been one of the best young players in the Premier League this season. Certainly one of the most consistent.

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Having just signed a five-year deal with West Ham, on a wage that is undermined by what his other squad mates are earning, there is no question as to what this club means to him. Similarly he means everything to us. Particularly in these trying times where we canít seem to get a lot right.

The example he sets as a graduate of our Academy, a professional and a mature young man is exemplary.

Manuel Pellegrini has described Rice as ďthe best young player Iíve ever worked withĒ. These are the words of a man who worked alongside Spanish midfielder and now Champions League winner Isco in his younger years at Malaga. Amongst others at Real Madrid and Manchester City.

Grady Diangana is another prospect who has provided us with spark. He shows great confidence in his Premier League starts, adding pace and trickery on the flanks and looking to attack the opposition box constantly.

His small stature means he is prone to being bullied by rival defenders, but he isnít one to stay down during a game. Bulking up and keeping the faith is his best chance at becoming a real talent in the top flight, there is definite potential there.

Some credit to the Board is due too.

They have kept out of the media, handled contract dealings professionally, maintained a sustainable wage hierarchy and invested in our new boss. Tying Rice and Grady down for five and six more years respectively is the kind of positive energy the club and the Academy has required for a long time.

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With the likes of Nathan Holland, Connor Coventry, Nathan Trott and January arrival Mesaque Dju waiting in the wings, the Academy is well and truly starting to function again. This group, amongst others will look to Declan and see what the club can offer a young talent. Hopefully that includes the hunger and winning mentality that big clubs need to sustain.

While the all-too-familiar doom and gloom mood billows around West Ham, there are reasons to be cheerful. The London Stadium is growing in capacity and we have a manager who has a project and a plan to back it up.

The Academy of Football is back and our West Ham United isnít far off a return either.

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