At its onset, Ricky Martin is unlikely to have imagined a more eventful second full season as Academy Manager.
Facing the unprecedented challenge of leading an Academy programme during a global pandemic, Martin and his staff have worked tirelessly to develop the bright young talents entrusted to them at Chadwell Heath, whilst ensuring their safety and security has been at the forefront of priorities.
For Martin, it is safe to assert that 2020/21 proved a season like no other.
Ricky, what are your overall reflections on the 2020/21 season?
First of all, what a strange year – what a strange campaign it’s been!
Initially, I don’t think we could have envisaged it was going to be a whole season of what we’d have to deal with in the face of the global pandemic.
That’s brought a lot of challenges, but it’s also brought out a lot of benefits as well: togetherness, community spirit, and everyone at the Academy really stepping up and learning new skillsets to keep things going.
How much pride do you take in the way your staff have tackled those unpredictable challenges head on?
We always ask the players ‘can you step up to the next level?’ or ‘can you step up to senior football?’ – but this time, we asked the staff to step up and enable us to reopen.
That was the big challenge for us: to make it safe to operate, and to create an environment where we could restrict the infection and ensure that all our players, families and staff were safe and secure. The staff have been first class.
Right from the start of the season, we’ve seen consistent first-team staff and player presence at the Academy of Football…
That’s the way it is, so it’s great that we celebrate that – but it’s the norm now.
I don’t get surprised now to see the manager [David Moyes] sitting to my left at Academy matches. I don’t get surprised to find Stuart Pearce, Paul Nevin, Kevin Nolan or Alan Irvine giving me a call on a day-to-day basis to check in and see what’s going on in the Academy programme. That’s the way we work now – that’s the way we operate.
We can’t take that for granted. It takes a lot of hard work to get that environment and keep it, and it’s up to us as an Academy and the first team to continue to work together.
Despite the complications of the bubbling system, we also saw seven first-team debuts this season…
That’s what it’s all about: a pathway to the first team. That’s what our job is about, and that’s what we’re going to be judged on.
On every occasion, the team won, and that’s really important. It’s about young players getting into the team, but also the team being competitive. The players have got to make an impact, and they did so by contributing to the games and helping to get positive results.
Our first team have done unbelievably, and for any of our young Academy players who have had the opportunity to step into that environment, and to mix with those players in that kind of form and with that camaraderie, that’s really encouraging and fulfilling.
We’ve consistently fielded one of the youngest U23s and U18s teams in development leagues this season – what does that do for their long-term growth?
That’s the plan, and that’s the way we do it: having U16s playing in the U18s, and U18s in the U23s. That will continue going forward into next season and the season after that.
That’s the way we want to progress our young players. Between the Academy and the first team, you need a player pathway, but you also need to create an internal pathway between Academy teams so our young 14, 15 and 16-year-olds can see that progression.
It’s important that the players aren’t just stepping out of their own age group when they go from the Academy to the first team – there’s got to be a transition between age groups too.
The Club were recently awarded the Premier League’s Equality Standard Advanced level, recognising West Ham United’s ongoing dedication and commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – and that’s been reflected in the Academy, hasn't it?
I’m a champion of the EDI Group and a part of the Staff Equality Forum at the Club, and I’m really proud to be part of that. We’re working hard.
We’ve created a Culture Calendar to celebrate the different events that go on throughout the calendar year, and it’s been really insightful.
Nicole [Farley] has just started, the first female Academy coach, so it’s great to have her on board, and that’s part of the Premier League Coach Inclusion & Diversity Scheme, so we’re doing lots of great work there.
The diversity of our workforce is really reflected in our playing, our coaching and staffing, in the whole environment at Chadwell. We want everyone to feel included, we want everyone to feel safe and we want everyone to feel like it’s a really enjoyable place to work.
Which aspects of the season would you most like to build upon in 2021/22?
The community spirit and togetherness; the staff creating new skillsets, and thinking outside the box to work with COVID protocols, and the way we’ve been resilient - all those kinds of traits and behaviours, I’d like to take into next season.
I hope, next season, the world is in a better place, so that we can try to get to the ‘new normal’, which will enable us to interact with our players better and for our parents to have more access to the training ground to support their sons’ development.
Like the first team, we enjoy having crowds at our U23s games. Our recent games have seen some great results, so it would have been good for the parents and supporters of West Ham to have been there for the players. The U18s had a great FA Youth Cup run, and it would have been great for the supporters to see them as well.
There are lots of events we have where – when it is safe to do so – we would like our fans and families, but also the supporters of West Ham United, to get behind the Academy of Football.