Kevin Keen & Mark Phillips: The Academy of Football has pushed West Ham United U18s on well
Progression this year has been ubiquitous throughout the Academy of Football.
While at the very top of that pathway, seven Academy graduates have made their first-team debuts, that same willingness to push on bright young talents has seen a large number of U18s play regularly for the U23s – with schoolboys then promoted from the U16s.
U18 lead coach Kevin Keen and assistant Mark Phillips reflected on a tenth-placed finish in U18 Premier League South and the achievement of reaching the Club’s first FA Youth Cup fifth round since 2011/12…
What’s been your overall assessment of the season?
Keen: I think in terms of results it’s been quite a challenging season, especially after last year, when we were reasonably successful in finishing second in the league.
Having said that, that challenge has also promoted a lot of the younger players into the youth team, and they’ve responded really well. I don’t think there’ll be too many youth teams with an U16s player [Divin Mubama] as their top scorer.
Divin’s come in and done fantastically, as have George Earthy and Regan Clayton. As a result, all the U16s who are coming into the U18s next season have played for the youth team, which is fantastic and a great experience for them.
In terms of the league, there are games we drew that we should have won, but the performances have been mixed. With the young team that we’ve had, we can say that it’s been a reasonable season.
Phillips: I think we’ve pushed the U16s on very well and, in line with that, our players have been pushed on to go and play for the U23s, which is the main part of our job really.
While obviously we don’t want to lose football matches, we want to put players into the U23s. If you look at that aspect of our job, I think we’ve done well.
What were your individual season highlights?
Keen: There are a couple of U18 Premier League South games that stand out for me: Brighton, away [on 24 October], when we had an extremely young team, went down there and won 3-2 with a fantastic performance.
On 13 March, Aston Villa away, we ended up drawing 2-2 with probably the youngest team that West Ham’s youth team have ever put out, I would say, and to go to Aston Villa at their new training ground and do so well was good.
The Norwich game in the Youth Cup fourth round [a 5-0 win] was a fantastic performance. Everything on that day went right. Norwich are a good team, and to go to Carrow Road and perform so well in the Youth Cup was a big thing.
Phillips: That was probably my most enjoyable day in football and with West Ham. Everything we worked on for the Norwich game came out in the match.
We tend to play on training grounds on a Saturday morning – some very nice training grounds, I might add – but there’s nothing like playing at a stadium.
We scored some fantastic goals, defended well, and it was a near-enough perfect performance on the day at Carrow Road.
That experience has gone all the way through to the U16s and hopefully next season we can go one step further in the Youth Cup.
At the start of the season, you both laid down the challenge to our players to embody our Club's values – how have the group fared in that respect?
Keen: I think they’ve done really well. There’s certainly no lack of hunger and fight to do well for the badge.
I’m hopeful that next season can be a little bit more successful in terms of league position. We’d like to go a little bit further in the Youth Cup, and those are the challenges we’re going to lay down to them for next season.
This year, the boys have had a real go. We keep talking about the fact that it’s been a young team, but they’ve represented the Club really well.
They’ve really typified playing for West Ham in the way that we played our football, fought for the team and were a team all together. They’ve done really well – they’ve done the Club proud.
With respect to a pathway of progression, the manager and his coaching staff have worked very closely with the Academy this season – what does that demonstrate to the players on the pitch?
Phillips: Last month, when we played Southampton at Rush Green where the first team were training in the morning, during the team talk I made a point about first impressions.
I went through the players I thought would come and watch... but there were so many more players and staff than that. That’s great for the players to see – there’s a connection there.
If you’re an U18s footballer, you’re not all that far away from being a first-team footballer one day, and you’ve got to realise that pretty quickly. I get a buzz from seeing the first-team staff watching them, so the U18s definitely must.
Keen: That’s something that’s very historical at this Club.
Steve Potts and I played out on the grass at Chadwell Heath, and John Lyall would be here every home game. It’s something that over the years very much typifies the Club.
Stuart Pearce was incredibly supportive during our Youth Cup run and was there for every minute of every game.
It’s something that the Club have historically been really good at, and the first-team staff have been fantastic with us.
And we’ve seen youth team players Mipo Odubeko and Jamal Baptiste make their first-team debuts this year, among seven Academy players. Having worked with them both closely last year, that must have been an incredibly proud moment?
Keen: It’s brilliant. Jamal played nearly every game for us last season, and Mipo played from when he signed. It’s brilliant when you see them going on and making their debuts – it makes you feel really proud that you’ve been part of their journey.
I do feel that over the next couple of seasons, there’s going to be quite a few more joining them. We’ve got some fantastic talent coming through this Club, working really hard, and that’s what West Ham’s Academy is all about.
Yes, we can talk about the league and Youth Cup, and things like that, but we’ve got a very proud record of getting players through to the first team. That’s something that Mark and I are very passionate about, and want to continue over the next few years.
Phillips: We have got the advantage this year that four or five U16s are going to come in and already know what’s expected to do well for the U18s.