West Ham United have a major problem they need to address.
As co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan continue to plot the club’s summer business – Aleksandar Mitrovic at Fulham is a target, while Salomon Rondon has been touted as a potential acquisition – there is a very real question to be asked about the club’s academy. Quite simply: where is the next star coming from?
Now, it is at this point that Hammers fans, as one, shout the name Declan Rice. And, yes, he did technically progress through the club’s youth ranks but the salient point is that he started at Chelsea. He only joined the Irons after his release from the Blues – that, clearly, was a mistake on the Blues’ part but it was simply a triumph of transfer strategy from West Ham instead of a major landmark in the club’s youth system.
In the first-team, only Grady Diangana, the 21-year-old who was in the starting XI just six times in 2018-19, has come through the academy. Mark Noble, the player who seems to have claret and blue blood running through his veins, started at Arsenal.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the Hammers squad wasn’t ageing as it is.
But there does not appear to be many players on the verge of a breakthrough; West Ham’s Under-23 team, amazingly, were relegated from the Premier League 2 this term. They ended the season with 26 points and lost 12 of their 22 games.
Now, of course, a number of Under-23 players are often sent out on loan – nine of the players listed on the official website in the development squad were shipped out this season – but even they have not had the best impact.
One such example, striker Toni Martinez, once hailed as the next great hope in east London, spent the season with CD Lugo in the Spanish second-tier. He scored just three goals in 27 La Liga 2 appearances.
Now, again, it bears repeating that this isn’t a big issue for most clubs in England; Manchester City, the best team in the land, have had one academy graduate, Phil Foden, come through in the last five years.
But West Ham pride themselves on being the “Academy of Football”. They have nurtured the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, England internationals and Premier League winners all.
This time around, it’s different. Perhaps the game has moved on. West Ham’s catchment area, after all, is remarkably close to that of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea; all three are probably better bets if a young player wants to grow and develop.
It might not matter to Gold and Sullivan; they splash the cash every summer and there appears little desire to bring through the next Ferdinand or Lampard.
But there should be.
It is what West Ham was founded on. They are a club who prides themselves on making stars instead of buying them and, let’s face it, they simply can’t afford to buy them, not in this inflated market.
They may well sign Rondon, a 29-year-old striker, this summer. And that’s fine, as he’ll probably be great.
But Gold and Sullivan need to take care of the youth academy too; they need to funnel cash into it and to attract the best young talent from across the country. It is a win-win.
If the next Lampard emerges, there is instantly a massive profit. If not, at least the Under-23s team will have some players who can save them from another embarrassing relegation.