Is West Ham’s ‘Academy of Football’ back in business once again?

 At 16 years and 198 days old, Reece Oxford was making history as he became the youngest player to don a West Ham shirt in a competitive fixture on Thursday. But does his emergence signal something altogether more significant for the east London side?

Making his debut against Andorran side FC Lusitans Oxford stepped onto the pitch in front of a sold-out crowd at the Boleyn Ground to make his first-team bow.

For so long the side who landed the ‘Academy of Football’ tag back in the late 90s-early 2000s had been searching for another star, or stars, to fly the flag for the youth ranks in E13.

And now, not just with their Europa League number 35, but with many other youngsters coming through, there could be light at the end of the tunnel for Slaven Bilic’s new charges.

Oxford himself looked as assured as you will have seen someone who has just left school in a European competition, winning headers, spraying passes, but also finding the simple balls when necessary to set off nods of approval from the watching Irons fans.

Starting off in central midfield, the 6ft 3in youngster who has been likened to Rio Ferdinand, showed his versatility when dropping back into defence late on.

Not content with his youngest player accolade, the Edmonton-born player became the youngest West Ham man to be booked half-way through the second half.

He could even have made the hat-trick of gongs had his fizzing shot not rasped past the Andorran’s goal in the latter stages.

It was easy to see why the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal had reportedly been keeping tabs on him, the promise is certainly there for a very good footballer to develop.

Elsewhere on the pitch, fellow academy graduate Reece Burke showed that his final five games of the season in the Hammers backline are unlikely to be a mere cameo in the claret and blue.

Partnering captain-for-the-night James Tomkins in front of Darren Randolph in goal, Burke mopped up everything that came his way, and looked assured with the ball at his feet.

Lewis Page at left-back, as well as substitutes Josh Cullen, Elliot Lee and Djair Parfitt-Williams showed glimpses that there are some real technicians coming through at Upton Park, and exciting times are surely ahead.

Of course, we must take note of the opposition they faced in their first foray in Europe.

FC Lusitans were time-wasting from 20 minutes in, and spent countless minutes feigning injury or haranguing the referee, making the game far from free-flowing.

Nevertheless, with rustiness sure to have been a factor, Terry Westley oversaw a solid performance from the Hammers, resulting in a 3-0 victory that undoubtedly had more positives than negatives come out of it.

However, Irons fans may be wary about getting carried away with the current crop after recent years.

The likes of Junior Stanislas, Freddie Sears and Jack Collison, while still forging solid careers,  may have failed to truly build on their early promise as youngsters, but an altogether more optimistic approach hangs around the concourses of the Boleyn Ground this year.

The breakthrough of the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick may be long in the memory, but there is something about Oxford, Burke and co that suggests a revival could be on the cards for the West Ham youth programme.

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Ben Stones

Ladbrokes News’ equine expert, Ben likes nothing more than studying the form to pick out a winner or two for our readers. A Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Winchester, Ben has previously written for a number of football and racing blogs and websites, as well as contributing to the sports pages of his home-town newspaper.