West Ham United’s English defender Reece Oxford runs with the ball during the EPL match against Arsenal.
By Jacob Steinberg, The Guardian/London
The last time a West Ham United youngster caused such a stir in north London, Ravel Morrison was waltzing through the Tottenham Hotspur defence and dinking the ball over Hugo Lloris to seal an unlikely 3-0 win at White Hart Lane in October 2013, sparking predictions that the midfielder would go to the 2014 World Cup with England the following summer.
Yet it was not long before things deteriorated and Morrison ended the season on loan at Queens Park Rangers in the Championship, with Sam Allardyce denying that he had put pressure on him to sign with the manager’s agent, Mark Curtis. Morrison played two games for West Ham last season and his time in east London came to an unsatisfactory end when he signed a deal with Lazio in January.
The move officially went through at the start of July and soon Morrison was showcasing his undoubted skill, scoring two goals in his first appearance for Lazio in a 14-0 friendly victory over lowly Auronzo. He made his competitive debut as a late substitute in Lazio’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus in the Italian Super Cup last weekend and the hope remains that Morrison, who still has time on his side at the age of 22, will make something of the twinkle-toed ability that saw him hailed as the best youngster to emerge at Manchester United since Paul Scholes. United ran out of patience with him in the end.
Of course Morrison’s problems off the pitch mean that he is an extreme example of unfulfilled potential and there is no suggestion that Reece Oxford is about to follow in his footsteps. They are very different people. Whereas West Ham kept Morrison away from the limelight, Oxford was wearing a smile as wide as a Diana Ross penalty as he spoke in front of the television cameras and to newspaper reporters in the aftermath of his astonishing performance in the 2-0 win at Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.
The hype machine has cranked into full gear and inevitably there have already been comparisons with Rio Ferdinand. At 16 years and 237 days, Oxford became the second youngest player to play in the Premier League and his maturity in defensive midfield was staggering. Arsenal’s Mesut Özil was barely allowed a kick and to put that into context, Oxford will get his GCSE results next week having sat them towards the end of last season at Alexandra Park school in north London.
Slaven Bilic called him “a cool guy”. West Ham’s manager has also given opportunities to Reece Burke, Josh Cullen, Elliot Lee and Lewis Page and he told Oxford, who was rejected by Tottenham before joining West Ham at under-13 level, that he would be starting during a training session on Saturday. There were no nerves against one of the best sides in Europe.
People who had seen Oxford make his West Ham debut during their unsuccessful Europa League qualifying campaign were not surprised by his composure. There is a chance that he will drop back into defence as he develops and grows, but he impressed in midfield against FC Lusitans, Birkirkara and Astra Giurgiu. This has been coming, given that he was 15 when Allardyce first put him on the bench for a Capital One Cup tie against Sheffield United last August. He was also an unused substitute against Liverpool in January.
Yet as Bilic pointed out, there will be ups and downs for Oxford in the coming years. The Morrison example bears relevance simply because it shows that there are no guarantees in football. Oxford has a good mentality and looked like a natural against Arsenal, but plenty of rising stars have faded away after dazzling starts. There is a tendency to build English youngsters up, only to knock them down at the first sign of vulnerability. We prize English talent highly, so Raheem Sterling goes to Manchester City for £49m. If he fails, the schadenfreude will be unbearable.
Forget about the travails of Morrison. Josh McEachran, once the future of Chelsea’s midfield, has joined Brentford for the sixth loan of his short and mysterious career. Jack Wilshere is the messiah one week, a naughty boy the next. Jack Grealish starred for Aston Villa at the end of last season and then he had a heavy night in Tenerife. Luke Shaw is overrated after one difficult season at Old Trafford. This time last year, we were in the grip of Calum Chambers fever after his impressive debut at centre-back for Arsenal. He was an unused substitute against West Ham. The praise that has flown Oxford’s way will be criticism one day.
It is the nature of the beast and it happened to Ferdinand. When he was at West Ham, he was accused of complacency whenever his focus wavered. Ferdinand was part of the famous Tony Carr generation – Carr, the former director of youth development at West Ham, worked with young talent at the club for over 40 years – breaking through along with Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Frank Lampard. They all had to endure moments when the crowd or the media or even their managers were on their backs. They went on to bigger and better things, West Ham went down.
The dream scenario for West Ham is that Oxford will spend the bulk of his career leading them out at the Olympic Stadium. There is no desire to lose the family silver again.
One day, Oxford’s emergence may be seen as the moment when West Ham heralded a new era. But before anyone starts talking about him as a future England captain, just remember that he is still too young to drive or vote.
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