It’s not the first time an inspiring youngster has left my beloved Charlton Athletic for bigger and better things and it will unlikely be the last. The latest case of Addicks escapism being Diego Poyet, son of Sunderland boss Gus, deciding against renewing his Valley contract and instead agreeing terms with Premier League side West Ham.
The move – in no small part due to Charlton receiving nothing more than a compensation package, most likely around the £500k mark, for the seven years’ worth of investment of time and resources into the midfielder – has prized open sore wounds in South East London. Echoing the same controversial switch Jermain Defoe made back in 1999, many have labelled Poyet as the Addicks’ latest Judas.
I however hold a more realistic and rounded opinion. Before I beat you with a series of superlatives detailing the 19 year-old’s abilities, I will say this; it took just a matter of moments on the pitch for the Valley faithful to realise they were witnessing a special player.
Dubbing youngsters as future stars is done only too willingly nowadays, especially in the lower tiers of English football. Yet there is something so telling about Poyet’s manner, his tranquillity and confidence, his ability to play with his head up at all times, his manipulation of the ball, that suggests the Spanish-born playmaker isn’t your typical overhyped Championship hotshot.
Despite only making his league debut in February, the teenager was voted the Player of the Year at the Valley. And the kind of orchestrating influence that can only truly excel with quality surrounding him, in my opinion, a move to the top flight this summer was inevitable.
But one lingering concern still persists; is West Ham, a club drenched in an attritional philosophy masterminded by footballing revolutionary Sam Allardici, the right home for the Charlton prodigy? Especially considering he’s reportedly rejected offers from Chelsea and Arsenal to name a few to secure a switch to Upton Park.
If you haven’t seen Diego Poyet in action before – of which I cannot blame you, as the Valley has hardly been a vanguard of tica-taca over the last twelve months – the best fitting, instantaneous description that I can give is a comparison with Premier League cult favourite Tugay, of Blackburn Rovers fame. Or failing that, a Pirlo-esque, quarterback playmaker, albeit still rather raw around the edges.
In other words, the 19 year-old’s footballing path, in my opinion, is already set in stone. Whilst Poyet senior was a ferociously energetic, free-scoring midfielder, Poyet junior’s influence is better felt over the course of 90 minutes. His average of 49 passes per match and completion rate of 83% last season were the highest of any Charlton regular, typifying his greatest assets of quality in possession and the ability to conduct play.
Not that technical mastery is all that West Ham’s latest signing has to offer. His 4.2 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per match were also the best returns of any player on the Addicks roster last term; as well as his quality on the ball, Poyet is aggressive, physical and determined off it.
But you can probably already see where my scepticism is heading – ‘possession football’ is not a term included in the Allardyce vocabulary. Players are capable of change – just look at the sensational transformation at Everton last season – but attempting to turn Poyet into a different kind of footballer would be an enormous disservice to the player himself, and the beautiful game as a whole.
Although the likes of Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, Matt Jarvis, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing are all proven Premier League talents, it’s hard to envisage any particularly benefitting from Poyet’s majestic, foreign-influenced style. It’s equally tough to imagine the West Ham manager particularly emphasising it over a brand of direct football that has not only secured him two safe Premier League finishes with the Hammers, but furthermore at former clubs Blackburn, Newcastle and Bolton.
Furthermore, for a club that has such a prestigious history of investing faith in young players, Allardyce has disturbingly bucked the trend in recent years. Last season, barring 21 year-old Ravel Morrison, who was eventually sent packing on loan to QPR in January and a two minute substitute appearance from Elliot Lee, aged 19, the youngest player to feature for the Hammers in the Premier League was Jack Collison at 25 years of age. Even Allardyce’s own youthful acquisition Danny Whitehead, sourced from Stockport last summer, is yet to make his league debut for the East Londoners.
Rather, the current Irons gaffer’s approach to promoting youth is throwing them in at the deep end – I’m sure we all remember West Ham’s 5-0 drubbing to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, a match which featured eight members of the Hammers’ development squad.
Perhaps my doubts are unwarranted. After all, Allardyce appears keen to readdress the age balance of his squad this summer, having already signed Ipswich’s Aaron Cresswell and Anderlecht’s Cheikou Kouyate, both aged 24. Likewise, after falling afoul of the Upton Park faithful last season, club Chairman David Gold has charged big Sam with the task of evolving the Hammers’ attritional style into something more commendable next season. Poyet, the Pirlo of Greenwich, could become a major part of that process.
But it would be a tremendous shame – and from my biased point of view, an unforgivable sin – if a youngster so naturally talented as Poyet went to waste, engulfed by a 19th century brand of football and Allardyce’s insistence upon results over performance.
Should the Hammers embrace the 19 year-old and his aesthetic style, they will have an incredible player on their hands. Should they shy away, should they turn Poyet into an unimaginative midfield bruiser or failing that, leave him to rot in the reserves, they will have committed a footballing atrocity.