Mature beyond his years

Reece Oxford, an England under-17 international, who is already — and perhaps prematurely — being compared to another former West Ham trainee, Rio Ferdinand, can play in both central defence and midfield, writes Declan Warrington.

Reece Oxford was aged just 16 years and 236 days when West Ham manager Slaven Bilic selected him to anchor a midfield, on his Premier League debut — competing with Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla.

Playing with a maturity beyond his years, the promising midfielder largely nullified the classy triumvirate’s collective threat, minimising Arsenal’s goal-scoring chances and playing a significant role in a surprising, and impressive, 2-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium on the opening weekend of the season.

Oxford, under Bilic, became West Ham’s youngest ever player — and, given the club’s reputation for developing young English talents, that is perhaps noteworthy — earlier this season in a Europa League game against FC Lusitans.

Bilic’s predecessor, Sam Allardyce — less known for a policy of using young players — had already named him as a substitute, at the age of 15, against Sheffield United 12 months ago.

“I believe 100 per cent that his progression here would be far greater because he will be getting into our first team far, far quicker,” Allardyce once said.

Tottenham had rejected the chance to sign him between the ages of 12 and 13, and the fact Oxford is already a first-team player for the Hammers vindicates his words. Bilic praised his character in responding to the occasion, saying: “He has a presence, he’s mobile and quick, and he can turn and pass the ball, not just square balls. He’s not fazed about playing at the Emirates. I tried to help, I told him whatever he did wrong was my fault not his, but I’m lucky he didn’t do much wrong.

“He’s definitely going to be a big player. Let’s be fair, Ozil had his moments but it’s not easy to minimalise the game of these world-class players.

“We talked the night before but it wasn’t like, ‘let’s sit in a dark room, I have to tell you something Reece, you’re going to play’. It was more like chatting. That would make pressure. This was natural for him. He’s definitely going to do it (succeed), there’s no doubt.”

Graeme Souness, a European Cup winner and once a midfielder of the highest calibre, also endorsed Oxford’s potential.

“He was playing in a vital position to protect the back four and did it impeccably,” the Scot said. “For a 16-year-old, it borders on the ridiculous.”

Oxford, an England under-17 international, who is already — and perhaps prematurely — being compared to another former West Ham trainee, Rio Ferdinand, can play in both central defence and midfield. At 6ft 3ins and, given the modern-day demands for a defender to be as comfortable in possession as he at winning it, it is possible that central defence may prove his long-term position.

Should he remain in midfield, however, and given England manager Roy Hodgson’s limited defensive midfield options, it is not unthinkable that a strong season could lead to selection for Euro 2016. Ferdinand — before Oxford was even born — was selected in the England squad for France 1998 at the age of 19.

Perspective, however — as always, with young players — is key. The teenager — an Arsenal fan born in Edmonton — attended north London’s Alexandra Park School until recently. He will learn the results of his GCSEs soon.

© PA Sport