West Ham United still proclaim – loud and proud – that they’re the ‘Academy of Football’, but the production line has been running a bit dry in recent years.
The Hammers still take credit for England’s World Cup success in 1966, where final scorers Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, as well as captain Bobby Moore were all West Ham products.
In more recent years, academy graduates include Paul Ince, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Glen Johnson, while James Tomkins and Junior Stanislas are current Premier League regulars who came through the club.
Hammers captain Mark Noble is a one-club man who was formed at West Ham, while there’s hope at the club that Declan Rice will be the next world-class talent to move onto bigger and better things.
However, Rice represents something of an isolated talent to have made the step up to the senior side in recent years, with Reece Oxford – who’s still at the club – yet to build on the promise he showed during the 2015-16 season.
This season, however, there’s hope that Anglo-Congolese wonderkid Grady Diangana can emerge – despite the club’s recent significant investment – to make a name for himself at the London Stadium.
The 20-year-old, who moved to London as a child, has been with the Hammers academy since he was 12, and is blossoming into a talented attacking midfielder after beginning his career as a striker.
He was made to wait over two years for his first-team debut after signing his first professional contract in May 2016, finally making his bow with a two-goal showing against Macclesfield Town in the EFL Cup two months ago.
His double may have come against limited opponents, but the confident Diangana clearly did enough to impress Manuel Pellegrini, and three days later, he made his Premier League debut as a late substitute against Manchester United.
Since then, Hammers fans have unexpectedly got to see a lot more of the wideman.
When Andriy Yarmolenko was replaced with an achilles injury in the 40th minute against Tottenham Hotspur on October 20, Pellegrini turned to Diangana – notably introducing the youngster ahead of Michael Antonio – and he made a series of eye-catching touches as the Irons fell to a 1-0 defeat.
“It showed that the staff and the manager believe in me, so I want to grasp every opportunity he gives me and continue to be able to get more opportunities,” Diangana told West Ham’s official website after his debut.
“When you’re on the pitch, you try to be the best player you can be, and want to be the best player on the pitch, so I’m just trying to get better and hopefully I’ll get that start soon.”
With the Ukrainian new boy, for whom injuries have been a constant nemesis over the years, ruled out for the rest of the season, Diangana has an opportunity to demonstrate that he can belong in the top flight at this ambitious – if troubled – Hammers side.
He started last weekend against Leicester City, playing 75 minutes in a 1-1 draw where the Hammers were reduced to 10 men early following Noble’s 38th-minute sending off.
Ahead of that match, Pellegrini compared the youngster to one of the players he worked with earlier in his career, ex-Arsenal and Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla.
“I have worked with so many young players, but when I arrived at Villarreal I was very impressed with Santi Cazorla,” Pellegrini said, as per the Mirror. “He was 19 years old and was not in the first squad.
“He was with the Under-21s and in that moment he maybe wasn’t considered a top player,” the Chilean added, “but when I saw him play I think that he was, maybe not exactly the same as Diangana, but a technical player with a good view of the pitch and with a good solution when they receive the ball.”
Diangana subsequently featured for 90 minutes in midweek during the 3-1 EFL Cup defeat by Spurs, and his baptism of fire looks set to continue against Burnley on Saturday.
“I trust in him because, for me, one of the most important thing for me as a player is that when you have the ball, you give the ball to a player in the same colour shirt,” Pellegrini continued.
“That is the basic thing for a player, and Diangana always starts with that, he loses very few balls during the game.
“Every player, when you receive the ball has different solutions, bad or good, he always has the best solution.
“I think that in this season he will be a player in the first squad playing a lot of games.”
Technically, Diangana still has some way to go before he reaches Cazorla’s level, but Hammers fans will certainly be encouraged by what they’ve seen from the starlet so far.
In midweek, against Spurs, he was bright and inventive, and ran fearlessly at Serge Aurier and Davinson Sanchez as he sought – in vain – to pull the East Londoners back into the tie.
Of course, he must still demonstrate that he can contribute in the final third, and that he can find the consistency required to become a mainstay in the Premier League.
“I’m learning every day,” he told the club’s website. “I’m learning how to make connections with the players, learning how they play, and how it can better my game.
“I’m literally just trying to be the best I can be on and off the pitch.
“I feel part of it. I feel like they’ve taken to me well and I can talk to anyone and ask for any advice and they always reply to me, so that’s good.”
Yet despite the Hammers’ summer investment, and their early-season toil, Yarmolenko’s injury has opened the door for Diangana to follow in the footsteps of some of the great names of the English game and build a stellar career on the lessons learned at the Academy of Football.