It’s long been mooted that the idea of a ‘development league’ for Premier League academies is a moribund one. Across the UK you’ll still find the cream of young English talent tormenting their peers on a weekly basis but even as high as under-21 or even under-23 level, there’s little to play for other than one’s own career.
Clearly, that should be enough for the vast majority to provide a sterling effort day in and day out, but with no other prestige up for grabs, it’s demotivating for many and one of the reasons why the vast majority become disillusioned with the beautiful game. An organised kick-about, which in simple terms is what academy football has become, albeit at the elite level, doesn’t quite carry the same cachet as competitive fare.
Pep Guardiola called it exactly right at a recent Manchester City press conference. When asked, he was forthright in his view that there is just too much of a gap between the academy sides in England and their first-teams.
West Ham co-chairman, David Gold, was the first to put his head above the parapet and suggest much the same, and he was castigated for it. Though it was a PR disaster on his part, there was more than a hint of truth to his words. That it came from someone at a club that pride themselves on their rich heritage of youth players is no doubt behind the reason for supporter ire. Modern football and all that.
Those who pay their hard-earned are certainly entitled to their opinion of course, and if they’re of a certain age, match-going punters recall with fondness how many youth teamers have made the grade at their clubs. No more; it’s become the exception rather than the rule.
In Spain, some reserve sides are often up against teams that are relegated from La Liga. Barcelona B, Sevilla Athletic, Real Madrid Castilla and others can all be assured that their players are getting the best possible exposure to the rigours of the top flight. The only proviso is that they’re unable to play in the same league as their senior team, so the Segunda División is always as good as it gets.
If you consider that the equivalent in England would be the Championship, it makes sense all round and it’s chiefly why Guardiola was able to plunder Barcelona’s B side when he took charge of their first team back in 2008. Sergio Busquets was the biggest name to emerge at that point but he has the system to thank as much as Pep. As in most aspects, England have so very much to learn.
Castilla have also brought through a good number of their ilk, both recently and in the past. Back in 1980, they even managed to enter the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup. Making it all the way to the Copa del Rey final, they would lose 6-1 against their own senior side. However, Real had also won La Liga thus meaning that as losing cup finalists, Castilla would get into European competition via the back door.
Their first challenge was to overcome a strong West Ham side who had become the last second division team to win the FA Cup, against Arsenal the previous May – a record that still stands today.
Read | Why is West Ham’s academy providing diminishing returns?
On 17 September 1980, the east Londoners travelled to the Santiago Bernabéu for the first leg. It was as much a treat for the Castilla players, who were used to playing in less salubrious surroundings, as it was for their English counterparts.
At a time of rampant hooliganism, it had been made abundantly clear in the lead-up to the game that the good name of West Ham had to be upheld. Expectations were that the loyal supporting brethren would be on their best behaviour. Even manager John Lyall, a gentleman in the truest sense, had sent out pleas in the local papers. The thrust of his argument was for everyone to enjoy the trip because, for the Hammers, they didn’t come around too often. Sadly, and all too predictably, his words weren’t heeded.
As it happened, for the first hour or so of the game, things couldn’t have gone any better for the visitors, on or off the pitch. Fans had mingled well with the Spaniards during the final hours leading up to the evening’s entertainment, but the steady stream of sangria and cheap foreign lager was always going to have repercussions.
David ‘Psyhco’ Cross, so called because of his warrior-like centre-forward play, headed the away side into the lead on 18 minutes after super work by Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire – coincidentally the same trio (along with Stuart Pearson) that were involved in the build-up to the goal that won them the FA Cup.
Having not conceded in their previous six games and with just over an hour gone in the Spanish capital, no one was prepared for what came next from Real’s ‘feeder club’ as they were incorrectly termed by the UK press. Inside 12 minutes – from the 64th to the 76th – Paco, Balin and Cidon gave the hosts an unassailable lead, and at that stage a passage into the next round.
The shock of such a collapse no doubt led to what happened next with large scale crowd disturbances emanating from the away end. At least 50 West Ham fans were thrown out, and in an after-match melée, one was killed when a bus ran over him just outside the ground. Total and utter chaos reigned, and there was little wonder that UEFA promised they would come down hard.
There was, for a time, the very real possibility that West Ham would be banned from Europe indefinitely, but for reasons unknown, UEFA showed leniency. On 22 September, the club were fined a hefty £7,750 with an order to play their next two home European ties at least 187 miles away from Upton Park. Sunderland came forward the very next day and West Ham gratefully accepted their offer to play the second leg against Castilla at Roker Park, whilst simultaneously lodging an appeal against the sanctions.
By the end of the week, on Friday 26 September, the appeal had been upheld with the ban and fine lifted. However, the second leg, due to be played the following week, would have to be played behind closed doors. It was a first. Aside from training games where clubs would want to take a look at a trialist or two against decent opposition – normally played at their training ground and away from public view – there was no other European top flight or continental competitive game that had been subject to such a harsh ruling.
Given that West Ham could easily have expected to sell out the game, loss of gate receipts from a capacity 36,000 crowd exceeded the fine that was handed down to them almost 10 times over.
Read | When Real Madrid Castilla reached the Copa del Rey final and played in Europe
It had been suggested that in areas surrounding the ground – Plaistow, East Ham, Manor Park and the like – that the game could be beamed live into local cinemas, or at other local grounds – Leyton Orient for example – so as many supporters would be able to watch the match as possible.
UEFA overruled the proposal, citing that the behind-closed-doors policy meant exactly that, and no one would be able to see the game live. The official attendance of 262 on the night – Wednesday 1 October – is still far and away the Hammers’ lowest.
This figure included the players and officials, club staff, ball boys, photographers and media. The game quickly became known as the ‘ghost match’ and with good reason. The stands had never seemed so eerie, every word reverberating around a deserted ground. To give perspective, Hammers goalkeeper Phil Parkes was even able to hear the second-half commentary of the game from one of the ball boy’s transistor radios behind his goal.
With no crowd to gee them up and get the adrenaline pumping, it would’ve been no surprise to see the east Londoners meekly surrender their European adventure after just two games. It had been four years since their last, though, and with that in mind each player set about righting the wrongs in Madrid.
As with the first leg, it was all West Ham from the first whistle. At roughly the same time as their goal had been scored in Madrid, Geoff Pike rattled one in from 25 yards. No overt celebrating saw the game restart promptly and Cross doubled their lead with his 10th of the season on the half hour, heading home a Trevor Brooking cross. With the scores now level on aggregate and Lyall’s battlers ahead on the away goals rule, Paul Goddard’s smartly taken third before half-time had them in dreamland.
Bernal, Castilla’s captain, came up with arguably the goal of that season’s entire competition just before the hour with a screamer of a free-kick from fully 35 yards. With the Spaniards in the ascendancy, as they had been at the same stage a fortnight earlier, Lyall might’ve got edgy and decided to change things, but to his credit he didn’t.
With the scores and away goals level, extra-time followed, adding to the allure and tension on the night. Cross’ incredible mid-air backwards header just before half-time in extra time settled any nerves that were still jangling and he completed his hat-trick, still West Ham’s only individual European treble, with a minute left. As Castilla pushed forward looking for the goal that would send them through, a typically mazy run by Alan Devonshire left Cross with a tap-in.
After a triumphant performance, their own adventure would quickly come to an end. Politehnica Timisoara were comprehensively dispatched 4-1 on aggregate in the next round but then West Ham had the misfortune to be drawn against eventual winners, Dinamo Tbilisi, in the quarter-finals. Those that were there, including this author, will tell you that it remains the best ever performance by an away side against the Hammers – utterly breathtaking.
And yet, from that 1980/81 campaign, nothing will ever quite match the haunting mystique surrounding the match from five months and two rounds earlier
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove