WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Number 6 - 26 October 2008
Much is rightly made of the Academy these days at West Ham United but it is definitely not a new phenomenon. In the late 1950s, a young wing-half emerged alongside the likes of Bobby Moore and Jack Burkett to help the club reach the final of the 1958 FA Youth Cup. Eddie Bovington would not have to wait long for his first-team bow and it was to be another prestigious occasion.
On Easter Monday in 1960, the starry-eyed teenager was part of a travelling West Ham side that threatened to stun Manchester United. "It was a wonderful debut," Bovington recalled. "Old Trafford was a special place to go, even then. We were leading 3-1 at one stage but got beat 5-3. To play against players like Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, you just couldn't believe you were on the same pitch as them really."
While Bovington performed well, he did not establish himself for another three years - "playing a few games here and there" - before ultimately going on to play a part in the club's 1964 FA Cup final success. It is a reminder to the modern football world that patience can be profitable - and Bovington sees similarities with the demands playced on present-day talents like James Tomkins and Freddie Sears.
"The crowd always take to a homegrown player if he has got something about him," Bovington said. "They are willing them to do well but they need time. Eventually, the only way to find out is to give them a run in the first team. If they do come in and do well, it will build the confidence. If they don't then it is still good experience that will help their development. Enthusiasm counts for a lot as well."
Recalling his formative years on the ground staff, and the life for a young player in the days of Ted Fenton and then Ron Greenwood, Bovington said it helped to have more than one youngster emerging at the same time. "It does help to have a few coming through together. You know each other inside out, not only football-wise but in your private life as well. It helps in the way you play the game and how you get on, on and off the pitch."
The role of senior players was also significant, he remembered. "As a club, we were ahead of the gaem on the coaching side of things. They were all players that were starting to think about the way the game was played. I was only a kid then but you were looking up to players that were very professional."
Bovington's playing days ended at a relatively early age - 28 - but today he is as busy as ever and enjoying life working in a clothing factory in east London. He gets to the Boleyn Ground fairly regularly and will not be too far away as he watches today's contest with Arsenal on television. Derby days still hold the same fascination as always.
"They are always huge games," he said. "I don't think some players appreciate today what they are all about and it is more about the fans upholding the traditions these days than the players. But there is still that spark when you play a team like Arsenal. There is a bit more tension in the air and you don't want to lose. I used to love those games."
The setting for today's contest has "changed out of all recognition" but you will not find Bovington complaining too much. "It is not the West Ham I knew but it can't be. Things have to evolve and change. The pitch is superb. You look at that and think 'I'd love to play on that'. After Christmas, the only grass we saw was in the four corners. If you can't play on that pitch, you never will."
Reflecting further on the advances at the "beautiful" Boleyn, he added: "That's the way the game is, things can't stay the same and it is a great place to watch football." Doubtless those watching in Bovington's day would have said the same, together with a kind word for a certain homegrown youngster giving his all.