Josh Payne has revealed how he was expecting to be on ball-boy duty for Sunday's game against Manchester City - only to end up on Gianfranco Zola's subs' bench.
The 18-year-old has made rapid progress this season, catching the manager's eye with his cultured displays for the Under-18s, the reserves and during a hugely productive three-month loan spell with Cheltenham Town. Although Payne has been training with the first team in recent weeks - as late as Friday he was still expecting to be joining others from the Academy in being sat pitch-side to return the ball into play.
Tony Carr had asked members of his U18 side to take on the responsibility because, given their own Sunday match commitments, the lunchtime fixture was too early for the junior Academy members who usually act as ball-boys. Payne said: "I got told I was going to be ball-boy on Friday and then ended up training with the first team at Upton Park on Saturday and then travelled with them [to the pre-match hotel].
"Then I got told on Sunday morning that I was on the bench," Payne continued. "I was over the moon. To go from youth team to reserves to the first team is great. I had no idea. They don't tell you anything. I've been training with the first team quite regularly and getting tastes of it and then I've gone straight in."
Payne said he was lost for words to explain how it felt to be warming up during a Premier League encounter - just yards in front of his U18 mates as they helped keep the play moving along. "I can't really explain what it was like to be out there with the crowd," he added. "I was nervous but then I get nervous before a youth team game. It was a fantastic experience."
Like his fellow weekend substitute, the 19-year-old Junior Stanislas, Basingstoke-born Payne is hoping to take the next step before the season is out. "I just need to stay on my toes and be ready. Hopefully I can get in the first team but we'll see what happens as I don't want to say too much now. I'll get a few more games under my belt for the reserves and then we'll see."
Academy director Carr said the experience was no more than the versatile Payne - who can play at centre-back or in midfield - deserved after his tremendous season. It was all summed up by a week that began with an Under-18 fixture against Arsenal, went on with a midweek reserve duel with Tottenham Hotspur and then took in the rarefied air of the Premier League on the following Sunday.
"We had to press the Under-18s into action as ball-boys this week," said Carr. "Josh was going to be one of them until he got the call to be with the first team. That is certainly a big jump. I didn't even know he was going to be on the bench. The manager only named his team just before kick-off.
"He has made a great stride forward. It is a great experience for him and hopefully it will spur him on to work harder and want more of it. It is great for all the young players to see. I said to the boys just this morning - 'one minute you are a ball boy the next you are on the bench. Don't feel you are far away from it because the route through is there. That is the way it is at West Ham.'"