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.