Island youngsters inspired by Hammers experience
Rubbing shoulders with Premier League stars, training in sub-zero temperatures and getting to grips with London's world famous underground transport system.
For Bermuda's national academy duo, Paul Douglas and Amar Lewis, their ten days spent in England's bustling capital was a trip of a lifetime both on and off the pitch.
Invited to train with West Ham's youth academy a prolific breeding ground of top-flight talent Douglas and Lewis made their first tentative steps along a challenging pathway into the professional game last month.
When not trying to catch the eye of the Hammers coaches while training at the club's Chadwell Heath facility, the talented pair attended several Premier League matches, meeting legends of the game, past and present, and shopped until dropped at Lilywhites a huge sports shop in Piccadilly Circus.
Accompanying the youngsters on their journey was Bermuda Football Association's (BFA) technical director, Derek Broadley, who praised both midfield schemers for making strong impressions on the West Ham coaches.
“Both boys were slow to adapt initially because of the weather, which was freezing, but by the time they got to train they had acclimatised,” said Broadley.
“They started by training with a slightly older group but they did very well and I'm not just saying that. All of the West Ham coaches said if the boys were in England they may not necessarily go straight into the academy but they would certainly go into their developmental squad.
“At first I think the West Ham boys didn't want to pass to Paul and Amar but once they realised they were both good players they started to trust them with the ball.”
Although Broadley, an ex-Crystal Palace academy director, is a Scotsman by birth, his London roots are betrayed in his accent and so he was more than qualified to give the Bermuda boys a taste of the real 'Big Smoke'.
While the pair initially appeared slightly overawed by London's fast-paced lifestyle a little different from laid back Bermuda Broadley said they soon adjusted.
“The fact I was able to travel with them meant they got a better insight into London and they actually got to visit other clubs like Fulham and Charlton,” he said.
“I tried to give them an experience of the real London so we took the underground, the red buses and taxis. I think they were surprised that it took 45 minutes to travel eight miles from the West Ham hotel, where we were staying, to the club's training ground. In Bermuda you can get anywhere you want in about 20 minutes!
“It was a fantastic trip and I think they learned a lot both on and off the pitch. All of the West Ham staff were great to them. I think people considered them as little Clyde Bests coming over and wherever they went people knew who they were.”
Both players sufficiently impressed to get invited back to West Ham and Broadley, who is due to leave the Island in March, hopes the BFA take the Hammers up on that offer.
“They're welcome back (to West Ham) at any time,” said Broadley. “The gap between Bermuda's players and English academy players is so much closer at 12 and 13 than it is at 16, but will that gap widen the longer they're here?
“That's why I think it's so important to keep the national programme as a year-long programme. From a coaches point of view it was pleasing that all of the work they did (at West Ham) we had done here, maybe not to that level, but in terms of the structure and set-up of the sessions they were the same.”
During their never-to-forget trip, Douglas and Lewis were introduced to West Ham players Scott Parker, Kieran Dyer and Danny Gabbidon, first team coach Avram Grant and enjoyed a pre-match meal with the Fulham first team.
Lewis said meeting the Hammers midfield enforcer, Parker, had inspired him to add some extra bite to his game.
“We met a lot of top players like Parker, Dyer and Gabbidon,” said the Dandy Town youngster. “Parker plays in my position and meeting him inspired me as I try and play like him. The trip was a good learning experience and I now believe I must improve my fitness and take better care when in possession.”
The 12-year-old admitted London has been an eye opener but was itching to return.
“I liked London, it was very different to Bermuda. Broadley helped us learn about the subways so we will know how to get about if we go back there one day.”
Mount Saint Agnes pupil, Douglas, has vowed to learn to play the 'West Ham Way' having been surprised at the high tempo football exhibited by the team's youth academy players.
“The sessions weren't too different to what we do down here. They play one and two touch football at a fast pace whereas in Bermuda we tend to take more touches than we actually need. That was the big thing that I learned,” said the 13-year-old.
Away from the pitch, Douglas said he was mesmerised by Lilywhites, one of the oldest and most famous shops in the city.
“They certainly have some big stores out there. We went to Lilywhites where there's load of football gear and I brought lots of things.”
The BFA forged links with the Hammers as part of a football development agreement at the start of the year. The partnership gives the Hammers first pick of the national academy's best youngsters with Bermuda's players and coaches going in the opposite direction to gain experience.
Douglas was granted $4,400 from the (former) Ministry of Sport to cover the costs of his trip, while Lewis was invited for try-outs after impressing West Ham's coaches at the team's training camp at BFA Field last summer.