The first thing you notice about Reece Oxford, the 6ft 3in 16-year-old, whose debut for West Ham was in that season-opening win over Arsenal, is the extraordinary length of his legs, which look like they could cover the length of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford in a few bounds. The second thing is that while he might have played like Patrick Vieira at the Emirates, Oxford is still just a kid.
He says that he still has not watched his interview on Match of the Day back yet because he does not want to see himself on television. He sat his GCSEs while he was in Bulgaria playing for England Under-17s at the European Championship and while he is happy to say that he passed, a further enquiry about his grades elicits nothing more than a nervous chuckle.
When it comes to football, Oxford is getting the kind of elite education that money cannot buy. He was made captain of West Ham Under-21s at the age of 15 and while he is shy at times and plays with his phone as much as most teenagers, this is a boy with a driving ambition. At each step of his journey he has pushed Terry Westley, the West Ham academy director, to promote him up the age-groups.
In his first national newspaper interview, alongside team-mates Martin Samuelsen and Josh Cullen, Oxford says that the main change in his life since the Emirates game is that he is now training permanently with the first team. “I still feel the same, though,” he says. “If the Under-21s or the Under-18s need me I still come down and play without making a fuss. I don’t mind playing for whatever age group. I am with the first team now but if they want me to play, I will play.
“Last year I was a schoolboy so I only trained twice or maybe three times a week. Now I am training five or six times a week. It is different because my legs can’t take it sometimes and I can pull up with little niggles. But there is time to take it easy and get in the gym and make me stronger.
“After the Arsenal game I got recognised more but I try to stay low-key, and keep it on the low and not go out too much.” Was he saying that because Westley was in the room? “No! I just try not to be at the centre of everything.
“Every year there is a lot of hype around players from England saying they are going to be the next this or that. Sometimes they fade away, sometimes they move on. Now in the Under-21s there are a lot of good players like Joe Gomez. Hopefully the England team in a few years will be good. I hope I will be involved.”
The difference now for West Ham’s academy players is that there is a chance of first-team football under Slaven Bilic. Samuelsen, 18, left Manchester City this year and chose West Ham for those reasons. He left his native Norway at 14, having previously rejected a contract at Real Madrid. A tricky winger who made his first-team debut in the Europa League this season, he sat his A-levels this year and attained B-grades in maths, physics and chemistry.
“West Ham have shown in the past that they have given young players a chance,” Samuelsen says. “If you are good enough you are old enough. You saw with Reece against Arsenal. Looking back I don’t regret [coming to England]. I could have gone through Norway but I made a good decision. I had a good time at City but it was also very difficult. There has maybe been a revolution in the last few years in youth development in England. Looking at West Ham they are doing a great job at that.”
Cullen, 19, is a Southend boy who has supported West Ham all his life and made his first-team debut at Anfield, where he has sat in the away end before. An elegant midfielder, he knows the history of the club well and says the “Academy of Football” tradition is not a burden on his generation.
“That’s what you aspire to as a young player. You have to aim for the top. The key is the opportunity and Reece playing at Arsenal and being involved from the first game of the season, it’s a massive step. You wouldn’t have thought at the back end of last season we would have a young lad from the academy starting the first game at Arsenal. If someone has said that you would have been surprised.”
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