FIFTY years ago, West Ham’s famed ‘Academy of Football’ took its big leap.
In 1973, at the age of just 22, Tony Carr was appointed director of youth development having been forced to end his playing days with the Hammers because of injury.
It was an inspired decision, one that led to the unearthing of a string of future England internationals — even though they already had a reputation for producing top talent like Bobby Moore.
The names roll off the tongue . . . Tony Cottee, Paul Ince, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson.
Carr, who remained in his role for 43 years, told SunSport: “When I was working, I never looked backwards. I always looked forwards to the next player, to the next group, to the next team to work with.
“But when I do look back now, I am immensely proud to have been a part of it.”
West Ham’s Golden Generations are still spoken about now — but the major concern is where and when the next lot will come along.
Since Johnson made his senior debut aged 18 in January 2003 under the late Glenn Roeder, the only other graduate to represent the Three Lions has been Declan Rice.
There has been the odd success story but none matching the likes of Ferdinand, Cole and Lampard — a group Carr believes were on a par with Manchester United’s Class of 92.
To make matters worse, West Ham have recently been losing their most talented young grads to rival clubs offering better opportunities and bigger financial packages.
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In 2020, full-back Jeremy Ngakia refused a new contract and left for Watford despite having just established himself in the first team, while Grady Diangana, to the dismay of ex-skipper Mark Noble, was sold to West Brom for £18million.
Last year, Sonny Perkins, a prolific goalscorer for England’s youth teams, turned down a contract to join Leeds — sparking tension between the club and his representatives.
And in January, Scotland Under-21 international Harrison Ashby, 21, left for Newcastle in a £3m deal that once again had fans questioning the club’s ability to develop their own talent.
Not for the first time, the ‘Academy of Football’ tagline is being questioned.
But Carr said: “If a player does not want to sign a contract, there is only so much you can do.
“There is an impatience with young players and their agents now. If they aren’t in the first team by 18 or 19 they want to move.
“But they don’t realise how tough it is. It is not a bed of roses moving on.
“It is always frustrating. I don’t like to use this phrase but in some instances it is a good opportunity to cash in. That is good business.
“But the philosophy of the academy is to produce players for the first team. No one lets these sorts of players go lightly.
“I wouldn’t blame anybody at West Ham for young players wanting to go. I would be disappointed and sad but sometimes you just have to hold your hands up.
“Money rules unfortunately and it starts to filter down into youth programmes.
“What players think they’re worth and what they are offered is sometimes miles apart, even if they haven’t played in the senior team.”
One of Carr’s first success stories was Cottee, who signed aged 15 in 1981, the year West Ham won the second of their three FA Youth Cups — in between 1963 and 1999.
West Ham’s current Under-18s are in the FA Youth Cup semi- finals for the first time in 24 years, back when Cole and Carrick inspired a 9-0 aggregate win over Coventry in the 1999 final.
Since January 2020, boss David Moyes has handed out 15 senior debuts from within the system and could give more a chance in tonight’s Europa Conference League last-16 first-leg clash at AEK Larnaca.
Cottee remains hopeful for the future. He said: “Football goes in cycles, whether it is winning trophies or producing players.
“We would all love a 60s team consisting of all local graduates. But you don’t get a chance or the time to bed those young players in.
“I don’t agree that they won’t develop another Declan Rice but it is very, very rare that you bring through a big batch of talented young players who all go on to play for England.”
Boyhood West Ham fan Cottee was inspired by the 1966 heroes Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters before breaking into the first team.
Soon, the current development crop will likely lose an idol in Rice, with his departure edging closer.
So will young players still grow up wanting to play for West Ham?
Carr said: “They should do. No one is more passionate about having young, homegrown players in the team than West Ham fans. They sing it from the stands every week.”