Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Godfather Of Green Street

Ever since Ron Greenwood sent forth Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters from Upton Park to win the World Cup, few teams have done more than West Ham, as their most celebrated fan, Alf Garnett, might put it, "for Queen and bleedin' country". A grateful Buckingham Palace responded when they made them the first club with two former players elevated to the rank of knight, Sir Geoff and then Sir Trevor Brooking. Recognition, perhaps, that throughout the eras, West Ham United have always played as though their famous claret-and-blue shirts were edged in ermine.

They may never have won the championship, but the Hammers have acquired a reputation for doing things in a certain style while producing a constant supply of dazzling young players. According to Greenwood's philosophy: "The crowds at West Ham have never been rewarded by results but they keep turning up because of the good football they see. Other clubs will suffer from the old bugbear that results count more than anything. This has been the ruination of English soccer."

Greenwood's personal epiphany came on a dank November afternoon at Wembley in 1953 when Hungary's Magnificent Magyars trounced England 6-3 in a display of football the like of which the world had never seen. It changed Greenwood's philosophy of the game. Within a decade West Ham, the club he now managed, were imitating the best bits of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, sweeping the ball around in intricate patterns, and winning the FA Cup, European Cup-Winners' Cup and providing the backbone of England's successful World Cup-winning side.

That style has continued to evolve over the years, and the name of West Ham is synonymous with open, attacking football. It doesn't always show itself in results, but it is pretty to watch for those who prefer aesthetics. Greenwood died at the grand old age of 84 in 2006, but his life's work still breathes. One of the most adherent of disciples, Tony Carr, is still preaching the Greenwood philosophy six decades on.

Carr, 58, is now the godfather of Green Street, the man who has nurtured the talent emerging from West Ham’s youth academy over the past 35 years. Born in Bow and a lifelong fan he joined West Ham as a 15-year-old apprentice in 1966, polishing the boots of the three returning World Cup heroes. But competition was fierce and the young centre-forward found himself looking for a new club just four years later, ending up at then non-league Barnet. He admits that he did not have the ability to play at the highest level and a broken leg left him considering his future in the game.

"I just didn't have what it takes to be a West Ham player, it's as simple as that," muses Carr. "But I'd been a Hammers fan all my life – one of my earliest memories is gazing in wonderment at the glow of the floodlights from our council estate in Bow – so when John Lyall rang up to ask if I fancied doing a bit of coaching, it was lovely to be given the chance to come `home'. He said 'I heard you broke your leg, what are you doing?'. I said I wasn't doing anything at the moment and he asked me to come and do a little bit of coaching. There was an opportunity of a part-time job. I went for a chat and I took the job on a part-time basis, which was as assistant then to the youth coach, Ronnie Boyce. That was in 1973 and I've been here ever since."

It proved to be an inspired decision by Lyall. The job became full-time in 1980 and Carr's dedication has helped mould some of the greatest players ever to pull on the claret and blue. Of the recent players to have emerged from the self-styled Academy are Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick, England internationals all. They say that if West Ham had managed to keep them, they and not Manchester United or Chelsea would be Premier League champions, and at a fraction of the cost; that if you could bottle what Carr knows about football, you would make a fortune.

To a certain extent, Carr did bottle it by producing How To Coach A Soccer Team, subtitled 'Professional advice on building a winning team'. It is a veritable coaching bible; a distillation into 144 pages of more than 30 years' worth of practical knowledge gained on the playing fields of metropolitan Essex, a welter of drills and tips for coaches on how to get the best out of players at all levels. Diagrams, photographs and a simple narrative break the game down into bit-sized chunks that can be integrated into match play. There is even a diagnostic section where common failings are analysed and suggestions offered.

Among many common sense pieces of advice, Carr stresses the "importance of constant practice of the basic skills and techniques of the game by players, no matter how experienced they are - repetition becomes permanent". Rio Ferdinand endorses the approach: "Tony was always brilliant at reducing the game to its vital components - movement, control, passing - and designing drills and games that would hone each of them. It was always both demanding and fun."

Although he is far too modest to admit it, as a polisher of youthful diamonds Carr may be the most influential coach in the land. "No way is it all down to me," he claims. "It's very difficult to say why we've been so successful in youth terms; I suppose it's down to a number of factors but, most importantly, our recruitment area of east London and Essex is really fertile. Also, Upton Park was known as `the academy of football' right back to the days of Bobby Moore – and long before academies became commonplace – so youngsters know they'll be given an opportunity, no matter what age they are. The key is finding the talent – and we always had an outstanding recruitment officer in Jimmy Hampson – then, having found them, nurturing them and giving them the chance when the time is right."

Yet Carr is not resting on his laurels because he knows the work he and his staff do is of incalculable benefit to the club, especially in the economic climate. "You can get mugged with young players – some just don't develop for whatever reason – but you can usually tell when a lad has that something out of the ordinary. Tony Cottee and Jermain Defoe were scoring goals as 10-year-olds, while Rio Ferdinand was a fantastic athlete in the centre of midfield. We only converted him to centre-back when he became a full-time professional."

Freddie Sears, James Tomkins and Jack Collison are the latest academy graduates to make an impression on the first-team squad but Carr is determined to keep the conveyor-belt of talent turning. "We impose a target on ourselves to produce one player every year good enough to go into the first team squad," he says. "Not just signing as a pro but good enough for the squad. That’s a minimum requirement. You’re not going to produce players every year, but if you’ve got five, six, seven or more in the last five years then job done. You might have two years when no-one comes through, but in other years you have two or three. Last year we had three making their debuts – Jack, Freddie and James."

Carr, now 58, has nurtured the fledgling careers of a dizzying array of talent since those salad days of the early seventies, so does anyone really stand out? "There are many players for different reasons," he posits. "When we first spotted Joe Cole it was obvious he had unbelievable talent. But even at that age you can never say this player’s going to play for England or our first team. It’s a gradual process and you never really know if they’re good enough until you put them in the first team, that’s the bottom line. What we do year-on-year is make a judgment using our past experience, assess each individual and see if he’s got what it takes to be a top player – if he’s got the talent and impact in the game."

Glen Johnson is a good example, thinks Carr. "He came here as a centre-forward aged 10, played on the right wing, then centre-back and ended up at right-back in the first team where he made an immediate impact. Now he’s playing for England." Johnson was sold after the Irons’ relegation in 2003, along with Cole, Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick. Selling academy players swells the club’s coffers, but Carr admitted he would prefer them to stay. Like most West Ham supporters he is all too aware of how the stream of talent he has helped produce has moved on to pastures new and it is only natural to think 'what if...? "Yes. We've often sat around the dinner table with friends and family and said 'If those players were playing for you now, think about that. It's a nice dream over a glass of wine but it was never going to be a reality. I have to be a realist and accept market forces dictate, such as the fire sale we had to have when we got relegated," he reflects.

Carr understands there may come a point when a player has to move on. "If we’ve had good service from him and we end up getting a fair transfer fee for him the fans should accept it’s part and parcel of the game," he says. "It’s up to the youth academy to find the next one. It opens the door for someone else so you mustn’t get too sentimental. I’m a West Ham supporter and always have been, so I’m disappointed in that respect, but I have to put my director’s hat on and say that’s the name of the game. It is sad when you see them move on. You’re not going to get a Bobby Moore or a Trevor Brooking that sign at 16 and stay to 32. That’s not going to happen now or it’s going to be very rare. The ultimate success is they play 500 games for the first team and you sell them for £10million or you win the Champions League. But in terms of getting them in the team and getting a financial return the academy’s given good value."

One aspect Carr would like to see is the replacement of the reserve league with an under-21 league, giving clubs the chance to hang on to late developers. "There are too many people within football who want to discard people too quickly today," notes Carr. "We should keep them until they’re 21, because some people develop late. Not everyone is like Joe Cole, going straight into the team at 17. An under-21 league in place of the reserve league would be great because we may unearth a player later in the system we may have discarded at 18. It may never happen. If there’s a big enough ground-swell from the clubs it’ll happen, but if the clubs don’t want it it’ll not happen."

One player who did slip through the net was England skipper John Terry, who spent five years at the Hammers' academy before heading west to link up with Chelsea at the age of 14. His decision to move still baffles Carr. "You'll have to ask John [about] that," he smiles. "I've never really found out the reason why. I think Chelsea lured him and he felt perhaps a change is what he wanted. You'll have to ask him and his parents because I really don't know the exact reason. I still bump into John now and again and he's still John from east London. He's still the same guy. There's no animosity there. I'm pleased for him. He's done fantastic. He's a great player, a great servant for Chelsea and for England."

Terry is not alone, Kieran Richardson, Jloyd Samuel, Freddy Eastwood, Jimmy Bullard all fell through the Upton Park cracks for varying reasons. Yet Carr is determined to keep unearthing the best young talent for a few more years to come, whether they become international players or not. "I'm still enjoying it. From the day I walked in here I've loved it because every year is different. Every year I have a different squad and every year I have to develop different players. The strategy remains the same but it's just a matter of getting your next group of players to emulate the group who've gone before, so the challenge is always there."

And Carr is certain new manager Gianfranco Zola will be keen for the academy to continue producing top-quality players for the first team. "He's been quoted that he's a great believer in youth development and the academies so I'm sure the relationship with Gianfranco, like it's been with all the other managers I've worked under, will give me the same support at the Academy as all the others did," states Carr. "The club is steeped in that tradition and in my opinion it would be a fool that would try and change that. We have to tinker and change and we have to go with the way the game develops."

One of those developments is likely to be an increase in the number of overseas players finding their way to the Hammers academy. Hungarian teenager Balint Bajner and Holmar Orn Eyjolffson from Iceland are already starring for the youth team and more are likely to follow. It's something Carr accepts as part of the modern game, particularly considering the example of Arsenal, whose success is based on cherry-picking the best young talent in Europe. "There are more foreign young players in the game than there ever was," said Carr. "We won't ever say no to that, and we have brought in one or two young foreign players just to see how we can develop them. But there's nothing like bringing your own through from home. Bringing a kid in at nine or 10 and nurturing him right through like Freddie Sears last year. I remember him coming here as a nine-year-old, a little tiny tot, and to see him score that goal against Blackburn in the Premier League and now establish himself as a good squad member, that's a fantastic pleasure."

There's a strong case for saying Carr is a major influence on England's bid to make South Africa in 2010, although he naturally plays down his role. When the national side runs out to play their World Cup qualifiers he is one man who can perhaps feel prouder than most when he sees Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe all prominent in England colours, as well as variously Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick. "I wouldn't like to take the credit for it," he says. "West Ham's youth academy has in some respects produced half the England team, and we take great pleasure in that, especially as the previous youth academy produced the Moore, Hurst, Peters era. We've got a fantastic tradition and I'm just lucky enough to have been in it this long to carry on that tradition, which is what our club's all about.

"There's been some great individuals along the way, like Paul Ince and Tony Cottee, but that little crop that came through - Frank and Rio, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, then Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe - are the crux of the England team and you could say they are the best crop [we've had through] because they are that close together. Those six alone are enough to be proud of and I follow all their careers."

So Should England return from South Africa in possession of the World Cup next year, you can expect to hear Garnett's voice reminding the nation, in his own inimitable fashion, that Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, John Terry and Sol Campbell all began their careers as schoolboys in London's East End, as did fellow-England internationals who, for one reason or another, were left behind: Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick. Even David Beckham is recorded as having made a few appearances for the West Ham youth team before being snaffled away by Sir Alex Ferguson.

"For a club like ours, I think we can feel rightly proud that we've produced so many England players over the years," says Carr. "It's fantastic that such a large number of the squad have a West Ham connection but, to be honest, I can't remember Beckham ever being with us. I've heard the stories that he played once or twice but I was probably involved with another age group at the time. When I watched Rio, Frank, Joe and Michael all walk out of the ground to join their first England camps, I felt immensely proud for them as people. With Jermain and Glen it was slightly different because they'd moved on to Tottenham and Chelsea by the time they won their caps, so I had to congratulate them by phone. Everyone at the club knew they were all very special young players, but we were obviously biased so it's nice when the England coach shares your opinion."

Since 1973 six managers of the first team squad have come and gone, but Tony Carr remains at his post developing the players of tomorrow. He faithfully begins his work anew every July, when he casts his unerring expert eye over the latest intake in the hope of finding another Bobby Moore in his midst. "That's the really exciting thing about this job, that you start out every new season in the hope of uncovering a little nugget. There's another Frank Lampard out there somewhere and our task is to find him, teach him to take his first steps in football, then sit back and watch him run…" And with that, the lineage conceived at Wembley in 1953 is still alive and kicking.


Antony said...

Excellent piece.

scalyback said...

Really excellent article. Shame some of the sports hacks can't emulate this.

Randisco said...

great stuff, thank you

Claudette said...

I just became a little misty-eyed reading that! What a lovely piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

Great article about a true legend. Get this man a knighthood... that's Tony Carr not you Trilby! You're good but you're not there yet :)

Scott said...

Great article, the man deserves some recognition outside of WHU.

Old Rag Man Reg said...

Superb article, as ever!

As lifelong supporters we follow the club blindly, wearing our hearts on our sleeve through thick and thin. Sometimes it's hard to feel pride for the club (such as when players are booed for no real reason, which makes a mockery of the word 'support') But it is articles like this that stoke the burniing fire of pride we should all have for the claret & blue academy.

Woody said...

When you see people honoured for "Their services to Football" Surely Tony Carr has given more service to the English game than many others who have received either an OBE or an MBE. I think a campaign should be started to bring this about. Perhaps all those players mentioned in Trilby's excellent article might help to get the ball rolling as a mark of appreciation.

Woody said...

When you see people honoured for "Their services to Football" Surely Tony Carr has given more service to the English game than many others who have received either an OBE or an MBE. I think a campaign should be started to bring this about. Perhaps all those players mentioned in Trilby's excellent article might help to get the ball rolling as a mark of appreciation.

Anonymous said...

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