“I have never totted it up, that’s the god’s honest truth,” Tony Carr tells Sky Sports. “Some fees are not published so I never bothered. If I had been on commission I might have done!”
Now 71, Carr is reflecting on his 43 years at West Ham and the talent he helped to develop while in charge of the club’s famed academy. The first was Paul Allen, sold to Tottenham for £400,000 in 1985. “A big fee at the time for a young player.”
The next might be Declan Rice, although David Moyes is quoting £150m for that particular transfer. “I think what David is saying, and I don’t want to speak for him, is hands off!” In between, there was Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole.
The total might have been even higher. “That one with Michael sticks in my throat even now,” says Carr, referring to the £3m fee received from Tottenham. They later sold him to Manchester United for £18m. “We were held to ransom a bit. We were mugged.”
Others did not attract such attention but still rankle, such as Chris Cohen, the midfielder sold to Yeovil while still a teenager before going on to play more than 300 games for Nottingham Forest. “I just thought we sold him too early, but you have no say in it.”
Now Carr is having his say, telling his story in a well-received autobiography. It addresses his exit from West Ham at the outset, having been made redundant in 2016. “My only criticism is how it was done. It is water under the bridge now. I have no ill-feeling.”
One of the reasons given was the owners were concerned about the production line. But James Tomkins was sold for £11m on the day he left. The sale of England midfielder Rice would break the British transfer record – 34 years after Tony Cottee’s departure did the same.
Carr’s record speaks for itself, which is why the book is more of a love letter to the club than a retort. “My sister started reading it and her daughter messaged me saying, ‘I wish you hadn’t written that, my mum hasn’t stopped crying.’ They were proud.
“I was quite proud of myself that I knew the name of every boy in the academy from nine or 10 upwards. I loved every day of it. There was never a day I didn’t want to go into work.
“West Ham is my club.”
It still is.
“I sit up behind one of the goals with all the punters, I get angry, I get excited. I am just a football fan when I am in the stand. The Sevilla game (Europa League last-16 second leg) was a fantastic night. There was noise, there was passion. It brought back many happy memories of nights at Upton Park.”
He has enjoyed this European run as much as anyone. “That night brought home that if we can get a successful team on a regular basis, we can have more nights like that.” That the evening finished with Rice alongside Mark Noble in midfield made it extra special.
Images circulated of Noble sweeping up the dressing room after the quarter-final win over Lyon. “Typical Mark, that. It is not just about making them a good player, it is about making them a good person too. I take immense pleasure in watching the two of them.”
Rice, of course, was released by Chelsea at the age of 14. He joined West Ham in 2014 and signed his first professional contract in December 2015, during Carr’s final season with the club. The decision is one Chelsea regret, although Carr has some empathy.
“There is so much depth of talent in that academy through all the age groups,” he explains. “Sometimes you can become blinded by the talent you have got. You start to look at players and think, he hasn’t quite got this or he hasn’t quite got that.
“Obviously, in Declan’s case, he has risen to that challenge of being rejected, been given another opportunity, and has grabbed it with both hands. This year is a big year for Dec with the World Cup too. He is a great lad, a great player. He is going to get better and better.”
For Carr, Rice’s rise is a reminder that “it is not always the one who catches the eye” who goes on to succeed. “That is the dilemma we all have as youth developers, we cannot see the future, we can only estimate it based on past experiences,” he adds.
“Glen Johnson springs to mind. Good player, don’t get me wrong. He got into our first-team due to injuries, we sold him to Chelsea and he went on to play for Liverpool and England. I knew he would do well, but I could never have predicted how far he would go.
“Frank Lampard openly admits he was nowhere near the best player in the team at 15. There were players with more skill, more potential. He was a middling player. But look what he achieved thanks to his work ethic. He constantly wanted to improve.”
Others were easier to spot.
“Joe Cole is the obvious one because of the talent he showed at a very young age. He was putting in star performances. The publicity that came Joe’s way brought testing times. People expected too much too quickly, but Joe rode that storm and had a great career.”
Cole was the eye-catching figure at the heart of West Ham’s 9-0 aggregate win over Coventry City in the 1999 FA Youth Cup final. The second leg at Upton Park is one of the most famous nights of Carr’s career. “It was an electric night for everyone involved,” he recalls.
“My team-talk was just telling them to score the first goal. Our tactics were sound, it was just about making sure we scored first. In effect, the game would then be won. Then, they could show all these fans there how good they were. They did. We won 6-0.”
It was Carr’s second FA Youth Cup success, his first coming in his first season as a full-time coach in 1981. But while these were special nights for the club, he knows this was not his main role at West Ham. “My job was to produce players, not teams.”
It is why his favourite memories relate to individuals. He remembers Paul Ince’s breakthrough against Liverpool. “He scored two goals and was a revelation.” He speaks fondly of Cottee’s debut at 17. “Scoring against Tottenham on New Year’s Day.”
Tony Carr on receiving an MBE
“It came completely out of the blue. The envelope dropped on the floor and I thought, ‘Christ, what’s all this about?’ You have to reply and are sworn to secrecy until six weeks later. That was a humbling moment to meet Her Majesty The Queen.
“It was fantastic for the family, my wife was there. It was just a shame my mum and dad weren’t alive to see it. That is the real teardrop moment, if you like, for myself. It would have been great if they had been alive but sadly not.”
Is the next West Ham star out there? Carr is convinced.
“The club has that tradition of providing opportunities,” he says.
“There are good people there, Steve Potts and Kevin Keen, ex-youth team players of mine, working under Ricky Martin, who knits it all together. There are one or two bubbling under, lads who were there when I was there. Dan Chesters had a run-out the other night.
“I still go to the odd youth game and watch various teams, not every week but I do watch West Ham. I go down on a Saturday morning and stand on the touchline with the parents, have a cup of tea with the staff, see Kevin. It is in good hands.
“More players will come through, I am sure.”
Maybe one day Tony Carr will tot them all up.
CARR’S LESSONS OF YOUTH DEVELOPMENT
Beware the early developer
“Don’t get too carried away by a 12-year-old who is scoring loads of goals and is a so-called star or the player who is running through teams because of his physicality. Be aware of that and be aware of the ones bubbling under because people catch up.
“Relying on physicality won’t be enough later on, so work on things early that he is not so good at. Turn the strengths into super-strengths, but don’t think because he is running through teams at 12, he is going to do that at 18 and beyond because he is not.”
Passion is key to success
“Are they passionate about the game? Do they show that during training? Do they love to train? Do they come in every day wanting to get the balls out and practise? Look at Mark Noble and Declan Rice, two great characters, two great guys to emulate.
“Beware those players who you have to drag out of the dressing room and encourage them to get their boots on for training. If it already feels a drag to them at youth level, they are never going to succeed. Passion is one of the keys to success.”
Do they have humility?
“Whether it’s Joe Cole still talking about the game with passion now or Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard who have gone into coaching, these guys are all grounded.
“Mark Noble has his feet on the ground, he knows where he came from, working-class roots in Canning Town. These guys show great humility.”
Do they have a work ethic?
“Work ethic is key. Do they want to get better? Do they want to work at getting better or do they just want to be told what to do? Take ownership of your own development. Work at the things you feel you need to improve on. Don’t wait for the coach to tell you.
“Do some extras after training, don’t wait to be told. Frank Lampard springs to mind. You must have that work ethic.”
Mental resilience is vital
“Can they handle the downs as well as the ups? Climbing the ladder of success is not one way. Sometimes you fall off the ladder. You get dropped. You are out of form. You miss a chance. You get down about it.
“When you fall off the ladder, can you get up and start climbing again or does it get you down so much that you start blaming other people?”
Talent is not everything
“It’s not only about how talented you are. Talent will only take you so far. It’s about all those other character-related traits. Humility, mental strength, passion.
“Those are the things that make a difference in the end.”