Shocks and surprises

West Ham’s Reece Oxford (left) captained England’s under-17 team in the European Championships in Bulgaria this summer, and showed true captains’ care and leadership.-GETTY IMAGES West Ham’s Reece Oxford (left) captained England’s under-17 team in the European Championships in Bulgaria this summer, and showed true captains’ care and leadership.

Reece Oxford excelled in his first Premier League appearance. However, established players like Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois have had a less than perfect start to the campaign. By Brian Glanville.

Football as we know is ever a thing of shocks and surprises though few English seasons can have begun with as many as we have recently seen. Heroes have turned out to have feet of clay or, in the case of at least one goalkeeper, hands of jelly. Cast Iron seeming certainties have transpired to have been turned upside down. But at least the abiding romance of the game has been splendidly confirmed for what in the last analysis is soccer without surprise, giants without giant killing? The unending domination of Spanish football by Real Madrid and Barcelona becomes tedious and dismally predictable. Bayern Munich in Germany desperately need the strong challenge which not long ago, but not now, came from Borussia Dortmund. But at least in Italy, Milan and Internazionale, the Milanese pair, are no loner challenging Juventus, in what seemed for so long an inevitable trio. Even if Juve, after that embarrassing demotion for corrupt practices, seem to be exerting their old dominance.

West Ham’s 2-0 win at the Emirates against an Arsenal team which seemed to be flying so high was the greatest shock of the opening Premiership programme. On the face of it, West Ham would simply be there to make up the number. Involved in that Platini abomination, the Europa League during the pre-season, for which they had qualified only on the daft basis of Fair Play victors (where they proceeded to have no fewer than three players red-carded) they had also lost star players such as Enner Valencia to serious injuries. There was already doubt expressed about the abilities of their new manager and former player, Slaven Billic, once long serving manager of the Croatian team for which he had played so long as centre half.

Billic shrugged off the disappointment of defeat and ejection by an obscure Romanian team in the second Europa round, a match for which he deliberately fielded a skeleton side, though West Ham lost only by a single goal margin. But when the team he sent out against the Gunners included a 16-year-old central midfielder, who had played just once in the Europa League, but never at all in the Premiership, a hammering was believed to be inevitable.

Reece Oxford stands six foot three, and came to West Ham after being let go by Tottenham Hotspur. And he performed as though he was an established veteran, much too good for his direct opponent, the GBP43 million German international Mesut Ozil, perfectly at home in his designated role, though it’s believed that he will settle down as a centre back, modest and charming in his post match interviews. When there was a chance to bring the ball forward he did so with cool aplomb. He has been well coached at West Ham, and given good advice by their most recent manager Sam Allardyce.

But then Hammers have for so many years been fabulous with their youth development. Bobby Moore, that supreme England captain, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters all of course excelled in the England team which won the 1966 World Cup. Later came the likes of Trevor Brooking, that gifted inside forward and tactician, who had so many fine games for England. Ron Greenwood of course was the manager who inspired the West Ham academy of arts and sciences.

If the precocious young Oxford, who captained England’s under-17 team in the Bulgarian tournament this summer, and showed a true captains’ care and leadership in the process, is a tribute to Hammers’ youth scheme, as well as his own abilities, what of Arsenal?

Thibaut Courtois' foul on Swansea's Bafetimbi Gomis earned the Chelsea player a red card.-REUTERS

Sad to say, their highly expensive youth programme, like Chelsea’s had long proved the mountain that parturates a mouse. At the Emirates on the opening day, there wasn’t a single Arsenal player who had come through the ranks of a youth programme, long overseen by one of their former stars, the gifted Irishman Liam Brady. True, the outstanding product of his regime, Jack Wilshire, alas wasn’t playing, injured yet again only months after his fine display for England, crowned with a vital couple of goals, had elicited such high hopes for his and England’s international future. Wilshire had been at Arsenal from the age of 11, though initially he had been found and trained at Luton Town. But one swallow doesn’t, as we know, make a summer.

And Chelsea? They have spent fortunes on their youth scheme, have sent no fewer than 20 players out on loan, but the solitary product of it remains John Terry, that indestructible veteran centre back, still so badly missed by an England team for which he refuses to play. It is reported that the billionaire owner of the club, Roman Abramovich, has recently made a habit of attending youth coaching sessions at the club’s resplendent training centre. But to what purpose? No kind of football expert, he is hardly likely to profit from anything he sees.

Season after season, Chelsea’s youth teams win their competitions in splendid style, but when it comes to taking the long step up to the senior team, they are either denied the chance at all or in rare cases given the opportunity but fail. Some years ago, the task of youth development fell to the former star Danish international Frank Arnesen. He failed notably; and indeed the club had to compensate Leeds United for purloining three of their juniors.

But if Oxford shone so brightly at the Emirates, what of the disastrous day of an ex-Chelsea man, Petr Cech, in goal? Hadn’t Terry himself declared when, at the generous behest of Abramovich himself, Cech was allowed to join the Gunners for GBP10 million, after being reduced to a bench life at Chelsea, that he could be worth 15 points a season to the Gunners? Against West Ham, alas, he had an untypical nightmare, culpable on both West Ham goals, rushing out of his goal in vain for the first one, wrong footed on the second.

Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge the previous day, the gifted young keeper who had kept him out, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, had been sent off for a goal-preventing foul against Swansea, who scored from the resulting penalty.

An abysmal beginning for Cech, the man who was meant to make all the difference for the Gunners this season. Shades of their opening game at home two years ago, when one saw them beaten against the odds by Aston Villa. Has Arsene Wenger really got a team capable of, at long last, regaining the Premiership?