Football: East Enders opt for the old script

Steve Tongue looks at West Ham and the revision of their foreign policy
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The Independent Online
The East End philosopher and football fan Mr Alfred Garnett may for once have found a range of support beyond readers of the Sun when he told the newspaper last month: "Bleedin' foreigners! There's too many at West Ham... they're coming from countries you've never even heard of. Instead of a Football Academy we got a bloody language school!"

The good news for Alf is that the club now agree with him, and that West Ham's once famed youth system is up and running again; what he and the few remaining bigots and racists among the Upton Park following may find less palatable is that the new generation of players it produces are as likely to be called Rio and Raj as Bobby, Martin and Geoff.

Rio Ferdinand, the highly regarded distant cousin of Newcastle's Les, was chosen to train with the senior England squad preparing for the match against Italy. He is likely to be involved in tomorrow night's derby at home to Tottenham as the Hammers seek to find a way out of the Premiership's bottom three. So is Frank Lampard, whose appearance on the team-sheet earlier in the season caused understandable confusion to a local radio reporter: "And remarkable news that among the West Ham subs today is Frank Lampard... who must be getting on a bit now."

Like Ferdinand, Frank Jnr is 18, his presence reflecting the continuity and roots in the local community that have been as traditional as the insistence of successive managers that West Ham players should pass the ball to each other rather than kicking it up in the air and chasing it. Lampard Snr, born in East Ham, played 663 games for West Ham and is now assistant to his former team-mate Harry Redknapp (born Poplar, 175 appearances).

Uniquely, half the managers in the club's history have been local men. All the more unexpected then that Redknapp and the club's chief executive Peter Storrie (born 800 yards from the ground), should have implemented such a dramatic change of policy in transforming East End United into the United Nations.

As recently as the start of the 1994-95 season, Ludek Miklosko was the only non-Englishman in the team, reflecting previous eras when West Ham's idea of a foreigner was an occasional Scottish goalkeeper. Then the boat came in - carrying Marc Rieper, Marco Boogers, Stan Lazaridis, Dani, Slaven Bilic, Ilie Dumitrescu, Florin Raducioiu, Paulo Futre and Hugo Porfirio.

Redknapp points to the continuing, undeniable success of Miklosko, Bilic and Rieper. He pleads bad luck with the injury-prone Futre, still has hopes for Porfirio, but admits to "making a ricket" with others like Raducioiu, who will be remembered most for fighting through the queues at Harvey Nichols when he should have been battling through the mud at Stockport.

Now, Paul Kitson and John Hartson have been recruited - for less than the reported pounds 7.3m - to score the goals required to prevent a third relegation in nine years. Ideally, the heirs to Tony Cottee would, like him, be local products, but there is general agreement that a generation seems to have gone missing.

Dave Agass, secretary of Newham Schools FA and a West Ham season-ticket holder says: "I've heard Harry himself say that in the Eighties, the schoolboy recruitment system went a little bit to pot. They missed out on lots and lots of local youngsters - from Newham alone, there was Sol Campbell, Kevin Hitchcock, Mussy Izzet, Gary Charles of Villa, Mark Robson and Gary Poole, who are at Charlton, and Leo Fortune-West." Of the present England squad, Campbell, Tony Adams, David Beckham, Robert Lee, Teddy Sheringham and Ian Wright all come from within West Ham's catchment area.

Tony Carr, the youth team manager, is quick to point out that so does Paul Ince, one who didn't get away until much later. "Just because they're east London boys or Essex boys, it doesn't follow now that they'll just sign for their local club," he says.

West Ham's future as a community club is also being challenged by the changing nature of that community. The immediate area around Upton Park is now predominantly Asian and there is a clear need to attract local youngsters as spectators and players. Agass says: "The kids are really into football, but their parents generally aren't, so they don't push them. But there are some very good players. West Ham have just signed an Asian boy from Islington [Koya Abul]. Within a few years, there will be a reservoir of Asian talent."

It may be Redknapp's successor who reaps the benefit. But Mr Garnett will surely have to eat his heart out.