In the month where teenagers up and down the country are collecting their A-level and GCSE results, a certain Reece Oxford, at sixteen years of age, is starting and starring in the first team at West Ham United.
It was a big call from Slaven Bilic on his Premier League managerial debut to call upon the youngster against the Arsenal at the Emirates. 80 minutes later though, and with the Hammers’ 2-0 up, his decision was fully justified as the England under-17 captain strolled off the pitch to a standing ovation.
What makes his achievement all the more remarkable is the fact he is still four months away from legally being able to drive a car and still a week away from finding out his GCSE results. Coming up against the likes of Ozil, Cazorla and co is tough for even the most experienced Premier League pro, but this didn’t faze the young man as he shone on his Premier League bow.
There is no better feeling in the world for a football fan than to see one of their own plying their trade at the top-level and starring. As the Hammers step out at the Boleyn they walk over a sign saying ‘The Academy of Football”. It has been a while since the Irons have produced someone of real quality. The nearest is James Tomkins and Mark Noble, so to see Oxford, Josh Cullen and Lewis Page all bursting through at the same time is great to see.
Over the years, under the likes of John Lyall, Ron Greenwood and Harry Redknapp, the Irons have produced a production line of England stars. In the 60s, the Hammers had World Cup winners Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters all break through the youth system. In the 90s, the latest batch of stars were going through their paces under Tony Carr. Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick – all Premier League winners – were all baby faces making their Premier League bows as teenagers.
Sam Allardyce alienated the Hammers faithful further by failing to give youth a chance. He gave Reece Burke a chance, but arguably only as a last resort. He would sooner sign players like Emanuel Pogatetz and Abdoulaye Faye than give upcoming players a chance. Under Bilic though, there seems to be a real expectation that the motto within the club will be ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.
His decision to play Oxford on Sunday over the safer option of skipper Nolan justifies that thought. It is a decision that is sure to make him even more popular with the fans that already sing his name in the stands.
At the crux of the argument is his experience in other leagues where homegrown players are crucial as budgets aren’t as expansive as those in the Premier League. In Turkey and Russia you have to start a certain number of home-based players in your starting XI.
It will be interesting to see if Bilic sticks to his guns over this topic – in a recent press conference he mentioned the Academy at West Ham and the importance of giving youth a chance.
He said: “For me, it is very important to use as many homegrown or young players as possible, without detracting from team performances.
“West Ham is always well known for producing young players, perhaps the best Academy over the last 15, 20 years.”
It seems that Slaven talks a good game, here is hoping he walks the walk rather that just talking the talk. Oxford’s performance shows a young player can make an impact, and by doing this it is also helping the future of the English national team.
Of course, it is still early days in his young career and despite his fine start, he must build on this and keep his feet firmly on the ground. There have been countless young players who have impressed on their debut and fallen by the wayside. Oxford will look to buck that trend, and from what I have seen from him, he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, but his performance on Sunday will surely only give young players around the country belief that it can be done.
You can not underestimate the importance the role clubs like West Ham United, Southampton, Everton and co have for the footballing future of this nation. So here is hoping Bilic sticks to his guns and not only does it benefit the Hammers but also our faltering national team.
Come on you Irons!