The global village people down at Upton Park

Norman Fox assesses one club's attempts to stay ahead in a game of changing rules
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The Independent Online
UPTON PARK used to be called the Academy, producing generation after generation of home-grown talent. Indeed, when West Ham United won the FA Cup in 1964 and 1975, it was with that rarity, a successful English team composed entirely of Englishmen.

Things have changed, even at this community-minded club. "I can't remember the last time any club relied extensively on home-produced players," the manager, Harry Redknapp, says. Nowadays a degree in comparative linguistics is recommended for any player wishing to make his way at Upton Park, and the club is becoming known as West Ham United Nations. The Bosman ruling on the number of overseas players permitted on the field - a change that would probably have happened eventually, even without Bosman - combined with the huge disparity between domestic and foreign transfer fees, has encouraged English clubs to explore far horizons in the search for inexpensive talent.

West Ham's managing director, Peter Storrie, says that the club's policy is still to develop their own talent from local resources, but had Redknapp succeeded in securing a work permit for Ilie Dumitrescu, the Romanian would have been the only the latest in a string of imports.

The phenomenon is not restricted to east London. There are now more than 170 foreign players from 45 countries in England, twice as many as last season. Around 20 were given trials in January alone.

Redknapp was busy, agreeing terms with Dumitrescu before the deal was undone by bureaucracy, signing Dani on loan from Sporting Lisbon, and bringing over the Australians Chris Coyne and Steve Mauntone, the Toulouse player Philippe Chanlot, and Barcelona's Russian winger Igor Korneyev.

There was already a substantial foreign contingent: Ludek Miklosko has been at the club since 1990, and last season Marc Rieper joined from Brondby. This season, Marco Boogers came from Sparta Rotterdam for pounds 800,000, though he left last week for Groningen on loan; another Aussie, Stan Lazarides, broke his leg in the first FA Cup game against Grimsby; Robbie Slater, yet another from Down Under, came from Blackburn; John Harkes was signed on loan from the US; and this month Slaven Bilic, the Croat international, came from Karlsruhe.

"The problem at the moment is that everything is in the air," Storrie said. "We've had many more approaches from agents, but our policy is to look for top- quality players from within the EC and step up our youth policy."

Such an aim is hardly consistent with the recent closure of the club's Centre of Excellence - though there is still a higher proportion of locals than at any other English club - or with the apparent dissatisfaction among the juniors over the manner in which the club is facing the future. Just as Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, has been firm in supporting the bureaucrats over the Dumitrescu affair, one of the club's youngsters asked: "Where is the next Bobby Moore or Geoff Hurst going to come from?"

One solution to the problem of developing a pool of talent is to hold on to what you have. "There's going to be so much going on in the next couple of years, no one knows what's going to happen," Storrie said. "All we are doing at the moment is planning on extending contracts for the young players, but we can't do that indefinitely. It's got to depend on their potential. As a norm, I think contracts are going to be longer."

More than anything, clubs are concerned that the Bosman judgment will seriously damage the game's cash-flow. If transfer fees disappear, clubs like the Hammers, with modest gates and limited marketing potential, could be in serious trouble. If matters reach that stage, no amount of European journeymen midfielders will save them.