West Ham United’s Under-18s Lead Coach Kevin Keen is delighted to see his side back out on the training pitch once more.
With the Academy of Football operating in accordance with government protocols and Premier League guidance to prioritise the health and wellbeing of everybody involved, both the U18s' and the U23s’ pre-season preparations are in full flow, as they look to build on a superb 2019/20 campaign.
After an impressive run of late form, Keen's U18s sat second in the U18 Premier League South table, just three points behind league leaders Fulham - albeit with third-placed Chelsea having a game in hand.
Such a promising title challenge was cut short in March, however, by the suspension of professional football and the subsequent curtailment of the Academy Games Programme.
For Keen, therefore, the Academy scholars' pre-season training marks the first step in building on the achievements attained by last year's group.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to be back,” he told West Ham TV. “I’m probably speaking for all the lads – it’s been four-and-a-half months without football, without being together, and it’s really good to get back out on the pitch.
“I think all the Academy should take credit, especially [Academy Manager] Ricky [Martin] at the top there, for getting us organised and for getting us back in at this time. It’s been a massive effort, and all credit to the Club for getting us back to that.
“Obviously there’s a lot of fitness work to be done in pre-season whatever, so the Sports Science people are very happy that they can get their testing, their running, done! At the same time, a lot of individual technique work can be done with the ball.
“It’s been a while since a lot of them probably kicked a ball – I’d like to think they were doing it at home, but it’s not the same without people to play with! They can do lots of technical work, making sure their techniques are up to scratch.”
Plenty of fresh faces were on show in the U18s’ first pre-season training sessions, including a number who signed Scholarship deals at the Academy of Football over the summer.
A career in football is what’s on the line for everyone coming into the Club, and I’ve got to say I’m really, really excited about the group that’s coming in
In the eyes of former Academy graduate Keen, every one of the U18s therefore has it all to play for.
“It’s an opportunity without limits,” Keen said. “In this day and age, you see the rewards that are on offer for people playing in the Premier League, or the Championship, even for people playing in League One or League Two.
“A career in football is what’s on the line for everyone coming into the Club, and I’ve got to say I’m really, really excited about the group that’s coming in.
“I think we’ve got some outstanding young footballers, but more than that, we’ve got some outstanding young men who’ll give everything for this Club and everything for themselves to try and make it as footballers.”
Returning as part of a staggered approach, the U18s have been training at Little Heath Sports Ground with a view to returning to the Academy’s facilities at Chadwell Heath in the future.
There, they will work alongside West Ham United’s women’s side, and Keen is looking forward to fostering that collaboration.
“I think it’s really important that, as a club, we’re all together,” Keen noted. “Whether that’s the youth team, the first team, the Women’s team, the Under-23s or the Under-9s, I think West Ham has always had that reputation for being a family club and certainly, from what I’ve seen over the last year I’ve been back, it’s really reproducing that.”
As for the 2020/21 campaign, Keen believes that last year’s high-placing finish should serve as inspiration for his young charges this time around.
“The season finished on a bit of a low because we had a big game, a top-of-the-table clash, the day after it all stopped,” Keen recalled.
“That was disappointing because the U18s last year worked so hard to achieve that place in the league, to get themselves up the league, and to give themselves a shot at possibly winning the league – certainly a great achievement for that group of boys.
“I think for this year’s group, that’s the challenge: to try and at least replicate that, to not concede as many goals, to score more goals, to get more points.
“I think last year’s U18s set a benchmark, certainly in the league, that this year’s group can try and target. In the cups, there’s certain things we can improve on, but last year was an amazing effort by the players and staff around me to achieve what we did.”