I wanted to speak to you personally and directly, from the heart, to share my thoughts now that my departure from West Ham United has been confirmed.
The last few days and weeks have been an absolute whirlwind of emotions, but it is important for me to have the opportunity to say goodbye and reflect on what has been such a special and memorable part of my life.
Where do I start? I guess at the beginning, in the spring of 2013, when I traveled from my home in South West London to Essex for a trial with West Ham at the age of 14, not really knowing what to expect, or if it was a good idea to consider the possibility of playing for a club miles away from my family and where I had grown up.
However, I knew from the first moment I walked into Chadwell Heath that I had found another place to call home. It’s hard to explain the feeling, I can only describe it as a feeling of comfort and familiarity, almost as if it had been waiting for me. I fit in right away and realized what a special club I had joined.
My days in the Academy clubhouse in Romford bring back some of the happiest memories of my life. Sharing excavations with boys on the same trip at that age was a very positive influence on my development. I found my voice, my confidence, my sense of humor and built friendships that will last forever.
The ladies who oversaw the house, Caroline and Jackie, looked after us like second mothers, and then we had the likes of Tony Falco and the late Dennis Lepine, who not only took us to the training ground in the minibus every day, but also happily pick us up any time of the night or day if ever needed.
The atmosphere at Chadwell Heath is something really special. Even after becoming a first-team player, I still loved coming back, just to have a cup of tea and a chat with the staff or lads passing by. As many have said, the West Ham Academy not only makes good players, but also good people.
Looking back now, I realize how crucial my time at Chadwell Heath was in shaping me, as a footballer and as a man. As someone who had a few setbacks early in my football career, it could have easily gone another way, but I found the perfect place to build my confidence, allowing my focus, determination and ambition to flourish.
It seems crazy to think that it’s been over six years since I made my first-team debut, coming on as a late substitute in the last game of the season, at Burnley’s home. I arrived home on the train with my mum and dad that day, excited to have played in the Premier League for the first time, but I never could have imagined how things would go from there.
So many great memories and highlights: my first goal for the Club two days before my 20th birthday, finishing in the top six in the Premier League, winning Hammer of the Year three times, magical European nights under the lights at the London stadium. – and all topped off by the way last season ended.
Although our Premier League campaign did not turn out as we had hoped, the team showed great character and determination to emerge from a difficult position and finish strong. The Under-18s then gave everyone at the Club a huge boost by winning the FA Youth Cup and League double, setting the tone for what was to come next…
The celebrations in the dressing room after Pablo’s last-minute goal away in Alkmaar were unforgettable, especially after the disappointment in Frankfurt a year earlier. I wasn’t sure that anything could improve the scenes in Alkmaar, but we managed to take it to another level in Prague.
Having followed Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds, becoming the third captain in the Club’s history to lift an important trophy, is something that means a lot to me. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment, not just from the players, but from everyone associated with the club. I was really speechless when the final whistle blew. It was such an emotional release, having built up over so many years.
There are so many people I have to thank for being involved in my development and journey at West Ham – board members, coaches, staff, colleagues and friends who have always been there for me. Too many to list here, but they all know who they are and I will never forget any of them.
The coaches, managers and key figures who have directly influenced my evolution as a player and have helped me get to where I am today deserve special mention. Dave Hunt, the scout who brought me to West Ham. Tony Carr, Paul Heffer, Terry Westley, Steve Potts, Liam Manning, Mark Phillips who, along with the staff at Chadwell Heath, helped guide my way through the Academy, Slaven Bilić who gave me my senior debut. Manuel Pellegrini, who kept his faith in me when I thought I might need to go on loan to further my career, and David Moyes, who trusted me to be his captain and taught me the value of never, never dropping standards.
The fantastic teammates and players I have had the privilege to play with. They have all been great friends and some have been like brothers to me. So many good memories, laughs and brilliant stories. I can honestly say that the group we’ve had here the last two or three seasons is one of the best guys I’ve ever met, and such a big factor in the success we’ve enjoyed this year.
And, of course, West Ham himself, Nobes. What a man. I couldn’t have asked for a better captain to play with when I started, nor a better person to learn from in the years that followed. He has taught me a lot: about the game, about leadership, about life. He is the heart and soul of West Ham United and I consider myself very lucky to call him a great friend.
Finally, my last thanks must go to you, the fans. The loyal, passionate, devoted, sometimes hilarious and always honest Hammers who are huge wherever you go…!
They have taken me into their hearts as one of their own since day one. Even when I was just a handful of fans at Under-18 or Under-23 games, I felt that love, and it has grown stronger as the years have gone by. Playing in front of you has been an honor, we have had a great time together and you all mean a lot to me.
I want you to know how difficult the decision to leave an environment that I have loved and appreciated so much has been for me. Ultimately though, it’s just been about my ambition to play at the highest level of the game.
Playing opposite West Ham for the first time will be an unusual experience. I am still not sure exactly how I will feel, but I also know that everyone will understand and respect that my professional loyalty must now lie with my new Club. I will always give 100% every time I put the shirt on, because that’s how I was raised at West Ham, and I’m sure you wouldn’t expect anything else.
However, that does not mean that my love and respect for all of you has diminished in any way. This Club and its supporters will always be in my heart, and will forever be a part of who I am. What we shared together in Prague last month, and in the celebrations that followed in Upton Park and Stratford the next day, will never be forgotten. The first big trophy of my career is something that means a lot to me.
If I’ve learned anything in my career so far, it’s that there are no guarantees in football. All you can do is work as hard as possible, try to be the best person you can be, and try to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. If you’re lucky, you make some great memories along the way… and I’ve made many at West Ham United.
Thank you to everyone here who has contributed to my journey along the way.