Tony Carr did not hesitate when he was asked about his favourite Upton Park memory. His mind went straight back to the May evening in 1999 when his young team of academy products gave Coventry City the thrashing of a lifetime, beating them 6-0 to wrap up a 9-0 aggregate victory in the FA Youth Cup final. “We won the game in real style, a full house,” Carr said. “It was rocking. We won the game quite early and you could sit there and just admire the football.”
Seventeen years down the line, few names from that team roll off the tongue. Adam Newton, a promising right-back, made two substitute appearances for the first team before spending the rest of his career in the lower leagues.
Stephen Bywater is a reserve goalkeeper at Burton Albion. Bertie Brayley, a hotshot striker who scored twice against Coventry, ended up floating around non-league football. All of which goes to show that producing a player who will not only rise to the top but stay there is one of the hardest jobs in football.
Yet while the majority drifted away from West Ham, there were two players who were undoubtedly destined for the big time. It was not long before Joe Cole and Michael Carrick joined Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand in Harry Redknapp’s first team, with Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson also making their breakthroughs after the turn of the century.
To cut a long story short, relegation, poor management and an ambition-free board meant that those six players would all go on to enjoy bigger and better things away from West Ham United, representing England and winning several major honours in domestic and European competitions, but their success is worth celebrating again now that it has emerged that Carr is leaving the club after 43 years of service.
They were his pride and joy and it still hurts him to think that their greatest feats were achieved away from West Ham; the money raised from their sales was a meagre consolation. “The generation that was sold, the crown jewels, was so disappointing,” Carr said.
Carr polished plenty of diamonds down the years and he is part of the fabric of the club. He was West Ham’s academy director until he stepped aside for Terry Westley and took on an ambassadorial role in 2014 and his influence is still strong: Mark Noble, a lifelong supporter, wears the captain’s armband, while the reason that James Tomkins, another academy product, has been sold to Crystal Palace for £10m is that Reece Burke and Reece Oxford are expected to challenge for places in Slaven Bilic’s defence this season.
That is why the news of Carr’s departure and £14,000 redundancy payoff has not gone down well with supporters, though it has been pointed out that he had been looked after in his less demanding new role, had a lucrative testimonial in 2009 and that Westley led the development squad to victory in the Under-21 Premier League Cup last season.
However, Carr is said to be unhappy that his departure has been dealt with by the human resources department instead of senior club officials and an ongoing process could certainly have been handled with greater delicacy.
Carr’s standing with supporters is easy to understand. Having grown up in Bow and attended games as a fan when he was a boy, he joined the club as an associate schoolboy when he was 14 and signed on apprentice terms after leaving school a year later.
England had just the won the World Cup and Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters were greeted as heroes at the training ground in Chadwell Heath.
Carr, though, did not make it as a player at West Ham. As a striker, Hurst was in his way, while Roger Byrne and Clyde Best were above him in the pecking order.
He moved to Barnet in 1971 but his impact was minimal before he suffered the broken leg that changed his life. “I’d got a call completely out of the blue from John Lyall who said: ‘I’ve got a little part-time number going, John Dick’s leaving,’” he said. “That was a part-time job in July 1973. It’s just fate.”
He would train the junior players on a part-time basis on Tuesday and Thursday nights, outside on the forecourts, on concrete, around a parked car if necessary. “Street football,” Carr said.
He was Ronnie Boyce’s assistant before becoming the boss in 1980. Paul Allen was his first claim to fame – “the anomaly with Paul was that he won an FA Cup medal in 1980 and an FA Youth Cup medal in 1981” – and the one who got away was John Terry, whose head was turned by Chelsea one summer.
“The bedrock of any club is to produce local players,” Carr said. “The fans can identify with them. Most of the successes were local lads other than Michael Carrick, who was different, coming from the north-east. You look at Rio – Peckham. Jermain Defoe – East End. Tony Cottee – Romford. Paul Ince – Barking.”
As West Ham prepare for the move into the futuristic stadium that is supposed to lift them to the next level, they have said goodbye to a lauded link with their past.