Better Late Than Never

Academy director Tony Carr hopes that 'one that got away' finally comes to Upton Park - even if it is over a decade or so late.

Lee Bowyer was brought up in the heart of West Ham territory, Poplar, but went to Charlton as a youngster - and they were able to reap the rewards of selling him to Leeds over six years ago, thus breaking Britain's record fee involving a teenager - £2.7m in July 1996.

"You do know about these youngsters as schoolboys and it is a quirk of fate that our Jimmy Hampson was working at Charlton at the time and took him there," recalls Tony, denying a report that claimed West Ham rejected Lee as a youngster.

"It was touch and go whether he would go to West Ham or Charlton and for whatever reason he chose them.

"Who is to say that it was the wrong choice? He did ever so well, broke into the team early, and progressed rapidly into a fiery young player."

Lee played for the famous Senrab, a Sunday team that has helped several professionals on their way, including Jermain Defoe.

"We did know all about Lee Bowyer but he chose Charlton and we can't win them all; we had Jermain that chose West Ham instead of Charlton and it is swings and roundabouts, I suppose."

Tony feels the deal to sign Lee for an undisclosed fee, if it comes off, would be a good one for West Ham and adds:

"Let's hope it happens; he would be a great asset to us, I think, as a good goal scoring midfield player, and it can only benefit the squad.

"Any new face, especially one of his quality, will give the place a lift."

Lee has a family connection with West Ham; his cousin Ian Tucker is on the books, and Tony says:

"He has been playing regularly in the U17s; he is a little bit like Lee when he was a young lad, very slight, and we may not see the best of him until next season.

"He is finding it hard at the moment to break into the U19s, which is understandable, because they can't all get into the team above them.

"He has progressed steadily rather than spectacularly, I would say, and we would hope he will push on more next season when he gets a little bit more physical strength.

"At the moment, although he is technically a good footballer, he is a bit lightweight.

"We just hope that when he is another year older, and he matures, it will give him the strength to go with his undoubted ability."

Tony hopes Ian can follow in Lee's footsteps but warns against too close comparisons.

"I think Lee was 18 or 19 before he made great strides; I can't remember exactly because I wasn't involved in it, but I knew of his progress because he was a local boy.

"It is difficult to judge these boys against their brothers, sisters, or cousins - the older, more established player, sets the benchmark.

"It is sometimes very difficult for the younger one to reach that same standard, but if Ian's attitude is anything like Lee's I am sure he will have a very good chance of doing well."

The fact that Lee went to Charlton, rather than the club he supported, is symptomatic, says Tony, of the difficulties in getting young talent nowadays.

"I think it is probably harder now than it ever was," he says, "simply because with the academy system you are actively signing players only on a yearly basis from the age of only eight.

"You might say 'how would you know at that age if a player is going to be a footballer?' and you don't.

"All you can tell is that he has got natural talent and an aptitude for the game to do well in his own age group, then it is an annual thing to see if they progress.

"We say if we haven't got a local boy by 12 he may be lost to us, so our massive efforts at recruitment are for boys between eight and 12.

"If there is a talented boy in the area and he is not spotted by 12 he is probably not going to be good enough - though there will be an exception to the rule - and if he is not with us he is undoubtedly going to be at an academy other than ours.

"We can't get them all but we like to get our fair share - or more than our fair share.

"Some years we do and some years we don't - it is not an exact science, and sometimes it is a little bit of luck if you see the boy first.

"You might spot a boy, say, in the Hackney area who supports Arsenal or Tottenham, so it is a real persuading job that this is the right club to come to.

"There are a lot of quirks at that level, and a lot of efforts go towards attracting young talent - and it is more competitive than it ever was.

"And with the compensation factor that clicks in at each age group it becomes costly if you don't get a reasonable number of players."

* The away fixture at Charlton, postponed from New Year's Day, will now be played on Wednesday, January 22nd.