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West Ham's Youngsters

John Simkin

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Report in today's Guardian:


As exhaustion set in, West Ham's reserves of energy - indeed, their reserves with energy - prevailed. And it was the men from mid-table, their weekly injury bulletin notwithstanding, who boasted options, the most intriguing of them lending a futuristic look to their side.

While Everton's focus on the short term is undiluted, West Ham can take a broader view. "I've got to have one hand on trying to win Premier League matches and another on the future of the club," said the manager, Alan Curbishley.

That entailed the introduction of the 18-year-old James Tomkins for his debut. The central defender soon struck the bar and then erred for Everton's goal - "Yakubu rolled him," said Curbishley - before the Nigerian finished forcefully. Yet after an eventful but chastening opening, Tomkins recovered admirably.

He forms part of a youthful collective in an East End union that finds favour with its customers. "I came down to breakfast and three of them were sitting round the table, [Jack] Collison, Freddie Sears and James Tomkins," Curbishley said. "Then [Mark] Noble came down and he was like the shop steward because he's a year older than them; I thought he was taking their subs."

The apprentices are being schooled in the way of things at Upton Park and one has already shown a propensity to strike. Sears, their match-winner against Blackburn nine days ago, rolled a shot against a post during a sparkling cameo.

There is an endearingly old-fashioned element to West Ham's faith in youth, mirrored in their support. "Mark Noble's is the biggest-selling shirt in the club shop because he's home-grown," said Curbishley. "It's as simple as that."

Given Noble's intelligent repertoire of an inside-forward's skills, sheer locality should not be the sole reason for the midfielder's popularity with the fans.

In the company of such ingenus, Dean Ashton approaches veteran status. The 24-year-old's equaliser, headed in emphatically from Lucas Neill's cross, was almost overshadowed as Sears displayed pace and promise in equal measure. Noble, seemingly inspired, whistled a late long-range shot over the bar. Adventurousness can be infectious but, as Everton know, anxiety is equally contagious.

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Insomnia is not something Basildon-based West Ham defender James Tomkins suffered from before last weekend.

But then it is not every weekend you make your Premier League debut at the age of 18 in front of nearly 40,000 screaming fans.

That is exactly what the former Chalvedon School pupil did on Saturday, when he ran out for the Hammers at Everton.

The prospect of playing for the club he supports for the first time left Tomkins lying awake at night - but the teenager was more than happy to suffer from a lack of sleep if it meant fulfilling his footballing dreams.

"I hardly had any sleep over the weekend. I couldn't sleep the night before the game and I couldn't sleep at all the night after," he admitted.

"I was thinking before that I could be playing and I had prepared as if I was, which is what I always do.

"But when the manager named the team I was absolutely buzzing.

"I was thinking This is what I have been playing for for so many years. This is what I live for'."

With Matthew Upson injured and Jonathan Spector jet lagged after a midweek trip to the United States, Tomkins became the second Academy of Football graduate to make his debut in the space of a week.

Seven days earlier, striker Freddie Sears hit the headlines by scoring against Blackburn Rovers at Upton Park.

At Goodison Park, Tomkins almost repeated the trick, hitting the Everton crossbar with a fine header after just four minutes.

"Mark Noble put in a great ball and I managed to get my head on it," he explained.

"Obviously it all happened really quickly but I was just praying it would go in.

"When it hit the bar I just felt really frustrated because, after Freddie scored last week, I could just imagine what it would have been like if I'd scored on my debut."

Four minutes later, Tomkins learned just how cruel a game football can be as Nigerian striker Yakubu held off the youngster before firing the home side ahead.

But, like all good professionals, the defender - who will play for England Under-19s in a friendly against Russia in Milton Keynes tonight - learned from his mistake to produce a performance that grew in stature.

"I learned a lot more about what he was going to do as the game went on," he said.

"He was stronger than me so after the goal, when he rolled me, I didn't want to get too tight to him.

"I have high expectations of myself. I just play to 110 per cent and play every game as if it's going to be my last."

And it is Tomkins' temperament, as well as his tenacious tackling and composure in possession, that have the club's management raving about the young defender.

The West Ham fan has spent the last decade with the club he supports, working his way up through the ranks at Upton Park.

But Tomkins, who turns 19 on Saturday, admitted that the real hard work starts now.

"I'm hoping to get another chance before the end of the season," added the centre back, who was cheered on by his father and two brothers at Goodison Park.

"I will just have to wait and see. I've got to keep working and improving and be patient.

"Playing in the Premier League was amazing.

"Nothing could beat that feeling and now I've have a taste of it I want to experience it again and again."


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