West Ham United fans know all about wonderkids and world class players.
They were the side who provided the backbone for the 1966 England World Cup winning squad after all, but times have been hard since then at the club, with players coming and going, dire football, relegation fights and managerial sackings. After being knocked out of the Europa League, their fans might not have been too excited about their opening day trip to the Emirates Stadium, especially given the form of Arsenal and addition of Petr Cech.
While Arsenal fans will want to look away right now, the Hammers have plenty to shout about, but one of the things that will have seen them shouting loudest was the form of Reece Oxford. At 16 years and 337 days, he became West Ham’s youngest ever player – yet had the highest percentage of pass completion on the field at 95%, made three tackles, won three tackles and kept Mesut Ozil even quieter than usual – all in all, he was a colossus in the middle of the park.
The 16 year old almost broke Twitter when the team news was released and he made his Premier League debut, soon after making his Europa League bow for the east London club – but that was nothing compared to the response he garnered when he protected the back four like his life depended on it, and put established Premier League players to shame.
He is well spoken, managed his post match interview well, and claimed he only found out about his start the night before the game – and said that his fellow players like Mark Noble kept him going, even when Alexis Sanchez came on the field, and was called ‘bigger and better than me’ by centre back Winston Reid. High praise indeed, and deserved after a stunning start from the player.
One thing that Oxford will be all too aware of is that a good debut does not necessarily translate into a stellar career. For every Wayne Rooney, there is a Jose Baxter. For every flash of talent and wonderkid, there is a player who ends up in League One, after failing to make it in the Premier League. There are also those who look like being greats, and never quite managing it for one reason or another – think Joe Cole.
Even one decent season does not mean you will make it. So many players burst onto the scene and struggle for various reasons, and West Ham know all about that. Talent alone will not make a player a world beater. They have to have the right attitude. The right chances, the drive, the determination, the family support network. The ambition.
It is hard to make those assumptions and remarks about Oxford at only 16, but he certainly does not seem like a Ravel Morrison type character, and has been compared to Rio Ferdinand, who also came through the Hammers’ youth set up before joining Leeds United, and can play both as a defender and a shield in front of the back four.
Oxford is rated so highly by West Ham boss Slaven Bilic that he has found himself a first team player this term, only a season after being told by former manager Sam Allardyce that he needed to reject interest from Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool – not to mention ironically Arsenal, because he would progress far better, ‘getting into our team far, far quicker’. That was advice the six foot, three inch player took to heart, signing a new deal with the Hammers last January, and seeing Allardyce’s words come to fruition, even under a new manager.
Being at the right club and making moves at the right time is something that is of great importance when looking at how a young player’s career develops. Rooney made his big money move – which was a gamble – at the right time, and has become one of the best forwards in the country. Players like Scott Parker and Shaun Wright-Phillips however opted for the wrong club at the wrong time, and are just two of the players who saw their potentially great career peter out.
Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell are others who could not hack it at the bigger sides, yet if they had waited before a big money move, could well have developed into better players and one day, actually broken into the first team of a top four side. Oxford seems aware of this, for now at least, and his future is without question at West Ham – and with the England youth set up, having already featured for the Under-16s back in 2014, at only 14 years of age.
He is now an established regular for the Under-17s, having put on the Three Lions shirt 17 times since then, and has been hotly tipped as someone who could break into the senior side in years to come, and seems a player who will make the step up to the Under-21s soon should his Premier League appearances continue.
These days, to make it as a great player, you do have to burst onto the scene as a teenager – and show that you are good enough. Being loaned out over and over again, and struggling to make an impact in a game as an 18 year old does not bode well for a player who wants to be considered top four class, let alone Premier League class, so for Oxford to make such an impact on his debut certainly gives hope to the lad.
This season is one where all eyes will now be on him, with football fans everywhere watching his career closely to see if he ends up being a player who made an instant impact on their debut and failed to really back it up, or is someone like Rooney, and goes on to be one of the Premier League’s best.