Written by : Joe Elflain
All football fans from all around the world hold the belief that the team they support is special, and different from all others. With all the apparent turmoil currently surrounding Manchester United, our TV screens and Twitter feeds are flooded with fans and former players talking about how this current incarnation just isn’t what Manchester United have always been about. Pundits will line up to tell you that Newcastle United fans are special and are some of the most passionate fans around. We’ll be told that this fan base is knowledgeable, that team play a certain way, these fans are passionate, that team has always trusted youth etc. And while it is great to have history that you can point to and say ‘look, this is what my team are about’, it can be one of those things that ebbs and flows as time passes, and managers and players come and go.
If we take West Ham, then the most obvious example of this is ‘the West Ham way’. I’m sure this means different things to different people, and probably depends on a number of factors including your age and what the club looked like as you were growing up. If you grew up watching the likes of Brooking, Bonds and Devonshire, then your idea of what West Ham are might be different to if you grew up watching Pantsil, Boa Morte and Konchesky. That isn’t meant to be disrespectful – but clearly there are differences in quality, style of football, and levels of success. The team I grew up with contained the likes of Ferdinand, Cole, Lampard, Carrick and Defoe so bringing through youth has always been a vital element. I think most West Ham fans, and all football fans for that matter, can agree that we love to see youth players coming through the system and making their way into the first team.
The latest player to make that step up into the West Ham team is Grady Diangana. The 20 year old replaced Yarmolenko before the break against Tottenham at the weekend, and I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that his introduction put a smile on most fans’ faces. At this point, it doesn’t really matter if he is any good or not, because at least we finally seem to be producing some players that merit a chance at first team football. The youth cupboards seem to have been bare for so long, that any sign of a player breaking through is a sight for sore eyes. But the introduction of Diangana seems to promise a lot more than just some token first team appearances. Here could be a player with some real potential to make a go of it, playing with the big boys.
Slight of build and under 6 feet tall, he isn’t the most imposing player at first glance. But what we all saw at the weekend is bundles of confidence, self belief, and the desire to impress. At this stage, you can’t really ask for any more. Having barely been on the pitch, Grady picked up the ball on the right hand side, and his first thought was to go past defenders. He showed pace and some finesse to knock it round the full back and pull away. He also showed grit and desire to dive into challenges to win the ball back once the imperious Alderweireld came across to cover and make a challenge.
Diangana clearly has a lot of pace and energy, working well to get up and down the right hand side to help out in attack and defence. He worked well in the second half, pulling out wide to offer options for a pass. His instincts were to pass and move, looking to get in behind the full back and create some havoc. That he didn’t do any real damage to Spurs is probably more down to how well Tottenham defend at this stage, rather than any deficiencies in his game. His work rate was impressive and certainly puts other higher paid, bigger name teammates to shame. When you come up against quality teams like Tottenham, it isn’t always going to go your way. Sometimes, no matter how well you play, you’re not going to get the result you want. But the very least you expect is 100% commitment and effort, and it is great to see a young player coming on and showing some of his teammates what commitment and effort look like.
Clearly it is too early to make too many concrete assumptions about where Diangana’s career will go. Too often down the years players have come through, impressed, and then disappeared off the face of the earth. However, the opposite can happen, too. Gareth Bale was thought to be some kind of walking, talking, voodoo curse at Tottenham before it finally clicked and he became the player that he is today.
With that in mind, there is no need to put any undue pressure on Grady or any of the other West Ham youngsters coming through – but equally, it is hard not to be excited. A quick, skilful, committed young winger coming through the youth ranks to play for the team that has helped nurture him since the age of 12? Yes, please!
But the most we should hope for at the moment is that Pellegrini continues to give these players a chance. It is difficult to say how good Grady and his fellow youth graduates can become, and lets be honest, it is unlikely that we’re looking at a ‘Class of 92’ type situation here. But if these players don’t get consistent chances in the first team, then whatever potential they do have will never be realised. If we could carry on one tradition associated with West Ham, then let that be the willingness to trust in our youth system and give players like Diangana the opportunity that they need.