It’s hard to believe that it was just over a year ago that Jamal Baptiste was making his West Ham United Under-23s debut.
Then a 15-year-old, Baptiste – considered a promising prospect ever since joining the Academy of Football as an eight-year-old – became the second youngest player ever to play for the Irons’ development squad, behind only fellow scholar, Jayden Fevrier.
The centre-back is not the kind of player, however, to let an occasion get the better of him; grounded, diligent and humble, 16-year-old Baptiste knows he has a long road of hard work ahead of him to reach the top level in the game.
It is the kind of attitude which has seen him train and travel with the first-team squad in recent months, first to Scotland for a pre-season training camp, before subsequently playing the full 90 minutes of the pre-season warm-up win over Wycombe Wanderers.
It’s a lot easier with top players in front of you and around you, guiding you through. You just get the ball to them and let them do what they have to do!
He has continued his development this season as a regular in the U23s’ ranks, where he and his teammates are playing their first season back in Premier League 2’s top-flight.
“I feel like everything’s come on so quickly,” Baptiste reflected on his last year.
“Just last season I had my first-ever game against senior opposition in the EFL Trophy [against Exeter City], and since then I’ve just been around men’s football with the first team, made my debut in pre-season against Wycombe – another men’s team – and I think I’ve just gradually adapted to it. It’s been good.
“This season, in the EFL Trophy again, I’ve had some really good experiences against men’s teams, playing up against experienced strikers, and I’ve tried to challenge them and deal with what I have to deal with.
“It’s a lot easier with top players in front of you and around you, guiding you through. You just get the ball to them and let them do what they have to do!”
After his recent first-team squad involvement, Baptiste has become used to holding his own with senior professionals but – as his star continues to rise – is keen to retain the enjoyment of the game which has seen him through thus far.
He explained: “I signed for West Ham at just eight-years-old. They gave me a six-month trial at first, but ended up signing me after just one week. I had no idea what I was getting in to, but I was buzzing. I’m a first year scholar now.
“It’s been a great experience so far. I’m such a young player still, and I know I still have a lot to learn, but I also have to just enjoy playing the game, which I do, to be fair.
“I’m used to pressure. I’ve sent a lot of time playing with older age groups and with that there is a lot of pressure and attention on you. If you want to go to the top in football you have to be able to deal with it.
“I deal with pressure before a game in a few ways. I listen to music, visualise what I am good at and call my mum before a game. I do everything in my own time.
“My advice to other young players is to keep on enjoying the game. Even when pressure does come, just think about where you’ve come from and how hard you’ve worked.”
Now a dependable, regular fixture in the U23s’ line-up, Baptiste could be in line to make his sixth appearance of the season when the young Irons host Blackburn Rovers at Rush Green Stadium on Friday afternoon.
The defender will be hoping to help the development squad record their first win of the Premier League 2 season, as well as build on the impressive performances which saw them score two wins from two games in the EFL Trophy so far.
“We definitely want to improve in Premier League 2 and get further in the EFL Trophy and do our best to win it,” Baptiste confirmed.
“Then, if I keep working hard, I’d love to try and get around the first team and maybe even get my debut by the end of the season.”
West Ham United Under-23s take on Blackburn Rovers Under-23s on Friday 23 October in a behind-closed-doors fixture. Kick-off is at 2pm; you can follow all the action with our live blog on whufc.com from 1.30pm.
Please note that all Academy fixtures will be played behind closed doors until further notice. Only key personnel will be admitted on site and matches will be played without supporters present, in line with safety guidelines and social distancing measures still in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.