Much of the weekend’s focus has centred on the floundering Premier League champions Chelsea after they suffered their 5th league defeat in 10. Jose Mourinho’s meltdown is certainly intriguing, but the team that turned over his faltering Blues on Saturday are providing a compelling story of their own.
West Ham have now taken the scalps of Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal inside the first quarter of the season and sit just 2 points from the league’s summit. Only free scoring City (Derby aside) have score more goals.
To the untrained eye, their team seems to be littered with players who have been plucked from obscurity, but West Ham are enjoying the fruits of their labour since revamping their recruitment policy at the end of the 2013/14 season.
West Ham chairman David Sullivan wasn’t satisfied with how the club went about their business:
“I just looked at what we’d bought and my view was that we hadn’t spent very wisely.” he said. “So I thought: ‘I’d like some input from somebody else. Another pair of eyes. Another opinion.”
That extra pair of eyes was attached to the head of one Tony Henry, the ex-Everton chief scout who became available after Roberto Martinez brought his own staff with him to Goodison Park.
Henry was held in the highest regard by David Moyes and was central to Everton’s impressive recruitment campaigns which saw them bring the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas, Seamus Coleman and John Stones to the Premier League.
Sullivan was impressed with Henry’s track record for identifying talent:
“I chose Tony to help with player recruitment because I thought Everton had a good track record of buying players. They bought the right-back Seamus Coleman for £60,000.
“They bought John Stones for £3m two years ago. This summer they were talking about £35-38m for him.”
“I also went for Tony because he offered me Ronaldo for £6m at Birmingham about 12 years ago. Just before he went to Man United.”
Henry’s inside track on Ronaldo was helped by his close ties to super agent Jorge Mendes, who he helped to establish links in England around the time of the Portuguese invasion of West London when the ‘Special One’ arrived for his first spell, bringing with him a host of Jorge Mendes clients.
Henry also worked as an agent with Wayne Rooney’s controversial agent Paul Stretford’s Formation Group. David Sullivan knew he was appointing someone who was well connected and plugged into the most fruitful and extensive scouting networks in world football.
West Ham’s squad and recruitment overhaul started in the summer of 2014 with the arrival of Senegal striker Sakho – who was the very definition of a player plucked from obscurity, arriving from Metz for just £3.5million, having been crowned the French Ligue 2 Player of the Year. Aaron Cresswell cost about the same when he was signed from Championship side Ipswich Town – his impressive performances winning him West Ham Fan’s Player of the Year award in his first season at the club.
Enner Valencia, so impressive for Ecuador at the summer World Cup was convinced to move to East London for £12m despite interest from some of Europe’s bigger clubs, while midfield enforcer Cheikhou Kouyate, was snatched from Anderlecht, for a bargain £7million. The 25 year old Senegalese international has already been linked with moves away from West Ham thanks to his energetic and domineering play.
This summer, West Ham managed to trim away some of the dead wood at the club with Joe Cole, Jack Collison, George McCartney, Matt Taylor and Ricardo Vaz Te among others being allowed to leave. The removal of those contracts from the club’s wage bill allowed them to continue the rebuilding of their squad under new manager Slavan Bilic. Once again Tony Henry has been instrumental in identifying and acquiring the right targets.
The signing of French international Dimitri Payet was seen as a huge coup for the club with the schemer arriving from Marseille for a little over £10million. Payet is an incredibly gifted footballer – it’s a joy to watch him tease passes through imperceptible gaps for his team mates. He is an assist machine.
23 year old Spanish holding midfielder Pedro Obiang was signed from Seria A’s Sampdoria, while Champions League finalist , 27 year old centre half Angelo Obgonna, was also secured from Italy, this time from Juventus.
West Ham have also been prolific users of the loan system, renewing year long deals for Carl Jenkinson and Alex Song and drafting in Victor Moses and Manuel Lanzini to bolster their attacking options.
Generally Premier League club’s transfer records are very hit and miss. Some players work out and some don’t. It’s the nature of the business, but West Ham’s revamped recruitment process under Tony Henry has been virtually flawless thus far. And while the potential re-sale value of signing younger players is important, it isn’t a priority for David Sullivan:
“We are not buying youth for youth’s sake. If you look at Payet who is 28, he is a classic example. He is at the peak of his form.
“He has been a fabulous signing. Maybe now people believe me when I say that if he were five years younger he would be a £30million player. He is the leading assist-maker in the Premier League. He wouldn’t look out of place in any of the top teams.
“We have a mixture. We are not just looking at young ones. But we are not buying end of career players any more.
“We’ve changed the culture here. Yes there is always the chance that we would take someone older. But we have moved the club on. Exciting players now see West Ham as a London club with ambition that they would want to play for.”
Clubs like Newcastle, Aston Villa and Sunderland must be looking on with envious and covetous eyes at the results West Ham’s structure is producing, both on and off the pitch. To emulate and recreate the Hammer’s success is easier said than done though. They have become the Premier League’s recruitment specialists.