Talking Point

The Striker Gap Part 2

In the second part of his blog Blind Hammer examines how the Academy Striker Gap over the last 50 years has distorted West Ham’s Transfer Policy and suggests some strategic re-evaluations of priorities.

It was hard In the euphoria of the glow following the superb win over Arsenal to return to this critique. How could any criticism, even constructive criticism be mounted in this week? Yet the news about Sacko’s arrest and the possibility of its impact on his availability reminded me of our historic lack of depth in striker quality.

In my first blog I suggested that in the 50 years since the Academy produced Geoff Hurst and Brian Dear, only Tony Cottee had emerged at a standard that equated to or exceeded Brian Dear, let alone Geoff Hurst. I argued that a return of one striker in 50 years was an unacceptable return. A Comment on that blog queried my refusal to allow full credit for the development of Jermaine Defoe. Defoe was with Charlton from 1997 before Joining West Ham in 1999. Soon after he famously spent 2000-1 at Bournemouth on loan before returning to become a important member of the first team . In the 4 years of Defoe’s development it seems likely that only in 1999 was the Academy influential. This is why I allow only partial credit.

In this part I will argue is that this Academy striker gap is producing a double transfer whammy. The failure to produce strikers means not only that the club has to buy in strikers but is also not receiving transfers fees for strikers produced. This striker gap has produced nearly 50 years of pressure on scarce transfer resources.

Strikers are notoriously expensive. Cup successes in the 1970s and 1980s enabled the purchase of proven goal scorers like Paul Goddard and Pop Robson who delivered the goods. More recently similar attempts to invest in quality forwards like Dean Ashton and Andy Carroll has unluckily seen both plagued by injury.

Whilst the bigger clubs can shake off an unlucky striker investment, Liverpool have responded to Sturridge’s injuries by investing £32 million in Benteke, West Ham cannot splash the cash so regularly. This has meant that West Ham have had to, over the last 50 years, resort to cheaper gambles to fill the striker void. Occasionally these gambles have been spectacularly successful. Di Canio, McAvennie, and lately Sackho have been good examples of this. Gould, Hartson, Bellamy, Kanoute and Demba Ba are other good investments.

However for every successful example there are plenty of duds that are too numerous to fully mention here. Some examples prove this point. From the 70s we have an un-honourable tradition of multiple dud striker imports. This rogue’s gallery includes Jimmy Greaves and John Radford, but it is since the mid-1990s that more and more duds arrive and depart with dizzying speed, draining resources out of the club. Consider the embarrassing Marco Boogers in 1995 who Redknapp apparently signed without seeing. Reflect on the wages paid out on Florin R?ducioiu and Daniel da Cruz in 1996, Paulo Alves in 1997 and Davor Šuker in 2000. Kaba Diawara was given a go in 2001. We tried Brian Deane in 2004; Titi Camara was given a go from 2000 to 2003 before Henri Camara was experimented with in 2007, as was the barely remembered Kepa Blanco. David Di Michele kept the flow of resources going out of the club in 2008. These undeniably undistinguished signings were outdone in 2009 by the signing of Savio Nsereko who apparently did not even have the psychological toughness to be away from home. After this the revolving door of failed strikers showed no sign of abating. The relatively anonymous Guillermo Franco arrived in 2010. However 2010 was best remembered for the recruitment of the ineffectual “roly poly” Benni McCarthy. Benni was in turn followed hard on his heels by the faded Robbie Keane and John Carew in 2011 , the outclassed Sam Baldock and so far Modibo Maïga in 2012 followed by Mladen Petri? in 2013 and Marco Borriello in 2014. I am sure others can nominate further misfit candidates but I will stop before I get depressed in what is after all a great week to be a Hammer.

The record over 50 years cannot lie. The constant resorting to cheap striker purchases and loans that turn out to be misfits is underpinned by The Academy’s failure to produce the goods in Striker output. When the Academy products trickle down to lower clubs there is rarely even any transfer income. Rob Hall is a possible low level exception.

A hardnosed approach may suggest abandoning the Academy and simply re-directing resources into buying in young talent. This would be anathema to many supporters including myself, for whom the concept of an Academy is hard wired into our view of the club. Southampton has proved that the Academy model can work. My view is that a reform to a striker based concentration in the Academy could save it. It would take the production of only one striker of class to justify the funding of the Academy for many years. Consider the sums being suggested for the signing of Tottenham’s Harry Cane as an example.

Mine is the view of a fan and of an evident Academy outsider. It is true that An Academy insider would be more qualified to comment but some questions are obvious. How are Academy coaching resources strategized? Do we spend equal time on developing goal keepers, defenders and midfielders as we do Strikers? If so this is, in my view a serious mistake. If we examine a team line-up from statistical format strikers are a minority forming at most 2 and often only one of the team slots. Calculated pro rata strikers would attract only perhaps 9 or 18% of development resources. However looking just from a financial standpoint it makes no sense at all to invest only 9 or 18% of Academy resources into striker development. Payet is apparently one of the best playmakers in Europe with Champions League experience but he has so far only cost us £10 million. Charlie Austin, an injury prone striker from a relegated club with no European experience or profile with only one year left on his contract will apparently cost £15 million with eye watering wages of £110,000 a week. Andy Carroll even before the latest TV deal was almost as expensive at apparently £17 million with wages of £85,000 a week. Clubs at the top end of the Premiership will now pay £30million, £40 million or even £50 million for proven goal scoring talent.

Given this in-balance from a financial standpoint it would seem to make sense for at least 50% or even more of Academy resources and effort be devoted to identifying and nurturing Striker talent. The next priority for development is attacking playmakers. This may well mean that Academy teams would become more unbalanced in development and not all that successful as rounded teams in youth leagues. Defensive players may receive proportionately less attention. However if the Academy could then produce a single gem such as a Harry Cane, or a modern day tony Cottee this would all become irrelevant. It is much easier and cheaper to buy in quality defenders and defensive deep laying midfielders.

The reality is that a successful Academy does not have to necessarily produce a Harry Cane or other world class player, though that would be nice. We simply have to provide an alternative strategy to the constant resorting to aged or injured mediocre stream of failed imports. The record of failure through reliance on cheap foreign imports or loans is too clear to deny. It is to resolve this historic striker deficiency in producing even journeymen Strikers of the standard of an Iain Dowie or Carlton Cole that the Academy should focus.

Part of this probably means that we have to emulate other clubs in scouting globally and not just locally or even nationally for young striking talent. Additionally a number of targets need to be set in place if they are not there already. We should, at least every 2 years, be loaning an Academy striker to a League 1 or preferably Championship Club who will provide significant playing time. Out of this program we should produce 1 Striker who can meaningfully participate in the first team squad every 6 years. These are not, to my mind, unrealistic targets, despite the competitiveness of the Premier League. Failure to meet this target should provoke an Academy Coaching review and an evaluation of investments. It is a tough world in the Premiership and we need our development set up to provide the returns we need.

David Griffith


Talking Point

The Striker Gap Part 1

Why have West Ham struggle to produce Strikers? In the first of a 2 part blog Blind Hammer examines a little acknowledged structural problem with youth development at West Ham

The current scramble, in the light of Valencia’s injury, to invest resources in a striker is but the latest example of what has become an annual event at West Ham. Every year we always seem to need to buy or loan in strikers in an effort to increase the team’s potency. Rarely has this need been met from within. I hope I am proved wrong, but sadly Elliot Lee appears to be the latest striker hopeful who will probably follow the likes of Freddie Sears and Gary Alexander to the lower divisions to continue their careers.

In the first match I ever saw at the Boleyn in November 1968, Geoff Hurst and Brian Dear were part of a fizzling team that demolished Leicester City. Hurst and Dear were both products of West Ham’s then famous youth development. Geoff Hurst actually went to my school in Chelmsford, whilst Brian Dear was an East Ender who joined the club as a 15 year old. He never reached the heights of Hurst but nevertheless scored 33 goals in 69 league appearances, a ratio of goal success that would be startling nowadays for a youth product and would probably invoke suggestions of international recognition. Dear never got anywhere near the England team and was really a footballing flash in the pan. Nevertheless he played in a victorious European Cup Winners Final team, and holds the record for the quickest ever five goals in an English game, 20 minutes either side of half time, in a 1965 FA Cup home tie against West Bromwich Albion. Dear though severely blotted his copybook with Greenwood in 1970 when he was found to be with Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves and Clyde Best in the infamous nightclub session, hours before West Ham crashed out 4-0 to Blackpool in the third round of the FA Cup. He was never really seen again.

The point is however is that it is now 50 years since 1965 and with one glorious exception the Academy has not produced any similar talent which equates to the achievements of Brian Dear, let alone Geoff Hurst. The exception is of course Tony Cottee who was able to delight in the service provided by another local product, Trevor Brooking during the 1980s.

We may be able to claim a little credit for the development of Jermaine Defoe, but it should be remembered that he was actually a product of the Charlton Academy that we were able to poach, much to their chagrin. Defoe spent little development time at West Ham in comparison to his time at Charlton, instead cutting his teeth in his famous year long loan spell at Bournemouth where he smashed goal scoring records.

Clearly the Academy has produced some good players over the last 50 years but rarely have these players been strikers. Defenders yes, Ferdinand and Tomkins immediately come to mind, and midfield players relatively frequently, from Geoff Pike to the more illustrious Joe Cole and Frank Lampard Junior, and more contemporaneously Mark Noble.

But when was the last time a West Ham development striker was even a regular part of the first team squad let alone the team itself?

According to David Sullivan the current overhauling of the Academy setup at West Ham is prompted by a general concern about the once famous Academy’s recent failure to bring through players of sufficient quality. Sullivan’s concern is well merited. He points out that the Academy invests £4 million a year in producing talent. Presumably then the club have invested something like £30 to £40 million over the last 10 years in essentially producing Noble and Tomkins, neither of which are necessarily guaranteed a starting place in Bilic’s assembling new team. There are some promising signs from Reeces Burke and Oxford but again these are defensive/midfield developments. Elliot Lee may still develop but he did not set Luton on fire in the same way that Defoe impacted Bournemouth in his spell there.

Of course it would only take the production of one successful striker every 5 years to completely revolutionise the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the Academy. However its current success rate is one striker every 50 years. To my mind this is unacceptable. In part 2 of my blog I will examine the disastrous consequences of this Gap in our Academy places on our Club transfer policy, and start to suggest some strategic improvements which may possibly finally start to resolve this historic deficiency.

David Griffith


My Upton Park Memories

On Being a Blind Hammer (Part 3)

In this third Part of Being a Blind Hammer David Griffith describes how West Ham enabled him to access being a supporter again.

After the emotion of the Play off Final celebrations in 2005 and especially after I retired in 2008 I had a hunger to return to the West Ham family. However the problems appeared daunting. I needed to somehow find my way to the ground, then find the correct entrance, then find the right access inside the stadium and last but not least somehow identify which row and seat was mine. This is not to include other essentials like finding the loo or getting a drink. Of course all this navigation had to be done in reverse after the game. I also needed to be reasonably secure that on any match I attended I would find a radio commentary somewhere so that I could have some idea of what was going on. The availability of a commentary proved difficult to establish in advance.

Eventually I took the belatedly obvious step of ringing West Ham to discuss these problems. I spoke to a lady called Julie who works on disability matters and all these apparently daunting problems melted away.

Now whatever the problems the Club experience on the pitch we can all be justifiably proud of the efforts the club makes off it. We are Champions League class in terms of disability access and put some other clubs to shame.

After speaking to Julie I simply had to email her proof of my blindness and the club promptly and without fuss provided the following.

  • Access to a specialist disability ticket ordering service. This is staffed by what are obvious West Ham supporters who are friendly and flexible. They will go the extra mile to help. If I want a group of friends to attend the match with me they will endeavour to arrange seats near me, even though they technically do not have the responsibility for organising tickets for non-disabled supporters.
  • For me personally as a blind supporter the club provided a ticket at a concessionary rate. This was especially welcome given my fall in income after I retired.
  • Most importantly the club provided an extra free “Carers” ticket for the seat next to me. Suddenly all difficulties in accessing the ground disappeared as I could take somebody to guide me everywhere I needed to go.
  • The club provide special disability stewards who provide friendly helpful support and who are incidentally also West Ham through and through.
  • Last but not least for every single game the club provided me with a head set which gave me and in-stadium commentary on the game.

So these superb ticket arrangements provide me with equal physical access to the ground but for me the in stadium commentary is just as important. At West Ham the commentator is James Datson who provides sterling support through illness and health, whether it rains or shine,

The importance of having a West Ham supporter commentating cannot be under-estimated. I remember being outraged when Colin McNamara on Five Live scathingly refers to our forward line of Cole and the heavy Benni McCarthy as being like Laurel and Hardy. He may have been objectively correct but to my mind only somebody who at heart loves the club ever has the right to slag either the club or its players off.

So when James expresses disappointment or even despair you know it is because we are all feeling the same pain. This is surprisingly important. It is easy to listen to a neutral commentator when we are playing well. However a West Ham Commentator is essential if we are not playing well.

The experience of listening at the ground is light years away from listening at home. At home listening to the radio I would probably turn it off if it is too painful or the tension is too high. In contrast at the ground I can shout to relieve any tension and also, unlike when I am at home, I can possibly make a difference. I can remember in the 2012 Wembley Playoff we were, in the second half, definitely second best to Blackpool but I am convinced it was the unflagging support of the fans that day which forced the team home to triumph. Individually my efforts at encouragement may have a minuscule impact but along with thousands of others it can change games. Football at the highest level is about small margins. If Carlton Cole has not reached that extra inch to toe poke the ball across Blackpool’s penalty area, Vaz Te would not have been able to rocket the ball home for glory and enable our return to the Premiership. The fans were crucial that day and probably gave Carlton that extra inch of lunge he needed despite the tiredness of playing in the final minutes.

You can pick up a surprising amount from commentary. You can, drawing on past images of games, hear patterns of play. Admittedly you do not often hear off the ball runs or covering but hopefully pundits on either in stadium or Radio commentary will provide this insight. You can, however, hear on the ball involvement, and whether the involvement of a player results in a successful attack or in the loss of possession. Certainly if you do not hear Nolan’s name in the commentary for 20 minutes it is a big clue that he is not influencing the game. If you hear constantly that Tomkins or Reid are the ones trying to set up and attack it is an indication that our midfield has been nullified. When you repeatedly hear Collins’ name after an opposition cross or attempt a through ball has been attempted you know he is likely to be having a good game. If you hear a buzz of rising anticipation when Sackho is driving towards goal it is a good sign that he is looking dangerous. Sometimes however patterns are sadly predictable. During one game I thought we had a new forward called Cole mis-controls.

My reading of the game though must be worth something as Tommy, the friend and fellow supporter who guides me, started to call me Mystic Dave and even started asking me for lottery numbers because I was so accurately predicting substitutions or upcoming goals. Certainly nobody seems to take my opinions as being of lesser worth than the sighted supporters around me.

Of course there are disappointments but that is football. For me the periods of disappointment mean that we should all savour and celebrate the joy of success more when it comes around. Of course with West Ham that can be an unpredictable event. I guess the prospect of joy and hope that this unpredictability brings is at the heart of being a Blind Hammer going to the Boleyn. Whoever could ever believe that the previously impotent Jonathan Spector could score a hat trick against Manchester United on a cold November evening? When Spector burst into the penalty area to steer his third goal home I stood up in the Upper Alpari and yelled my joy to the skies. Two friends sitting behind me instantly threw themselves onto my admittedly broad back to cling on in celebration. A jumping fan in front of me heard the commotion behind him and decided also to hurl himself up to hug my front . Basically we all fell into a delirious scrum. You certainly do not get that experience sitting at home in the armchair.

This is why I am still a Blind Hammer.

Come on you Irons!

David Griffith

If you missed Part 1 click HERE and Part 2 HERE

Note from Iain: David has kindly agreed continuing to write articles for us under the pseudonym of Blind Hammer. We look forward to hearing a lot more from him.


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