'I wanted to be away from everything'- Ex-West Ham NXGN star Oxford aiming to catch Southgate's eye with impressive Bundesliga displays

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Reece Oxford NXGNGoal

For most academy graduates, being promoted to first team training at 17 or 18 is a great sign of progress.

So for Reece Oxford to be training with a Premier League team at the age of 14 marked him out as being something of prodigy.

Only now, nearly 10 years later, after several false starts, questionable loans and a life-changing move into German football, is Oxford now set to realise his incredible potential.

He made the West Ham bench for a League Cup match in 2014, aged only 15. A year later, he broke a near-century old record.

Oxford became West Ham's youngest-ever player, making his debut aged 16 years and 198 days in July 2015, during a Europa League match against Andorran club Lusitanos, surpassing a record set by Billy WIlliams in 1922.

All of this put extraordinary pressure on Oxford from an unusually young age for a professional footballer - and it was something he admits he found tough to deal with.

Speaking to GOAL, Oxford says: "It was difficult - I was 14 when I trained with the first team, at 15 I was with them permanently but still playing games for the second team and international football.

"It was up and down, at that age you're supposed to be working on the little stuff, but I wasn't doing any of that because I was on a first-team schedule, so it was difficult to keep up with everything. I learned from it, it taught me what is right and wrong at a young age."

So why was Oxford sent rocketing through the West Ham ranks so young?

An experienced manager and coach across more than 30 years in football, Terry Westley knows a young talent when he sees one - and he saw one in Oxford.

Westley served as West Ham academy director for five years from July 2014, with England youth international defender Oxford in the Under-16s when he arrived.

Within weeks, Oxford was pushed into the first-team picture, with Westley tapping into the youngster's potential to be a figurehead for the club.

Speaking exclusively to GOAL, Westley says: "My decision to go back to club football after I was head of coaching for the Premier League, working across all 20 clubs, was because the West Ham academy had been massively successful, but they were going through a period where they had not had an outstanding player since Mark Noble, and there was quite a big gap.

"I went into West Ham looking to regenerate, and get the academy back to what it was known for - creating players like Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe and more.

"The correct way to go for me was thinking, 'Who is it going to be? Which player is going to spark this revival?' It's not going to be a team, no-one is going to remember the whole U18s team, someone has to be the catalyst.

"Very quickly, within a month, I realised Reece Oxford was going to be the player who could go into the first team at a very young age and get people talking about the academy again.

"His athleticism, ability with the ball, and leadership - people looked to him, he captained England at youth level."

Having been rejected by Tottenham, Oxford joined West Ham at U13s level in 2011, and was steadily rising through the youth ranks until Westley instructed the club to turbocharge his career.

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"At the time, West Ham were not playing people up age groups significantly," Westley says. "I said, 'He's going from U16s and bypassing U18s, he's going straight in the U23s.' This wasn't great pressure for him, this is where he thought he should be, he had that characteristic.

"He's like someone who is a singer, who doesn't want to be doing some small gig in a pub, he wanted to be on stage in a stadium, filling the house, and he thrived on that.

"He was no different to many 16-year-olds - you may try to put him into a man's world very quickly, but he's still at school doing his GCSEs. We're getting him across London for training, to matches with the U23s, while trying to make sure he still does his schoolwork, and has a chance to rest.

"He was very similar to any kid in his final year at school, but then he was being elevated much quicker than anybody else, and he had to cope with all of that.

"He never really got a chance to lark about, because he was never in the U16s environment. I don't think he ever played in the FA Youth Cup, for instance. He missed a lot of chances to be with his own mates. Just being in the dressing room with 'your people' can make a difference.

"I preferred it when he was with the senior team in the morning, then in the afternoon bringing him back just so he could be around the staff and the people in the academy. We'd give him lifts as it was before he could drive, and get him back with us for lunch just so we could have some general conversation with the boy."

If there was buzz around Oxford after his club debut, it was nothing compared to a couple of months later, on the opening day of the 2015-16 Premier League season.

Manager Slaven Bilic chose to start 16-year-old Oxford as his holding midfielder against Arsenal - and it worked, as the teen put in an accomplished performance, playing 79 minutes of a 2-0 victory. For the player, it was just another game.

He said at a media event this week when asked about his top-flight league debut: "At the time, I'm not really looking at it. My friends are like, 'Wow, he's playing Premier League at 16', but I'm just like a normal boy playing football. It all felt normal for me."

"He was playing that well, any other senior player you would not have looked at his age, so you couldn't make that a part of the reason not to do it," says Westley of the decision to throw Oxford into the Premier League deep end.

"I can remember being across with the first team, going out to watch training as a few other academy players were there, and Slaven walked with me and said, 'Terry, I'm going to play him, I'm going to start him. Don't tell anyone, and certainly not the boy.'

"I wasn't over-surprised, in pre-season he had done very well. And knowing the boy, he felt that was where he belonged. He had no stress about going up against Mesut Ozil, he thought this is it, and I want to go and show everybody.

"Of course he was under pressure and the spotlight was on him, but that was more off the pitch - the social media attention, that was the biggest difference. The pressure on the pitch didn't really affect him."

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The pressure on Oxford was certainly immense, with the expectation of a run into the England senior squad in time for the 2018 World Cup touted, while he was also linked with a move to Manchester United.

Oxford does not confirm or deny that United were in for him, but admits he was given the option of moving to a major club as a teenager, but ultimately decided to stay close to his roots, both football and personal.

"There were a few teams I spoke to, and it was very close," he says. "In a couple of days, I had to decide if I was staying with West Ham or going away, and I thought the best thing for me was staying with West Ham. I didn't want to shoot too high, too early. And I'm a London boy!"

Oxford's ability and calmness on the ball in defence drew inevitable comparisons with another former West Ham academy product and English defender - Rio Ferdinand.

Those comparisions led to Oxford placing 17th on the NXGN 2017 list of the world's best teenage footballers - his second appearance after ranking 27th in 2016 - but by then, things were starting to unravel.

West Ham were entering a period of turmoil between the side which qualified for Europe in 2016 under Bilic, and the top-four chasing team of the past two seasons.

Managers came and went - David Moyes, Manuel Pellegrini, Moyes again - and big money was splashed on players without much thought to the academy products coming through.

As a result, Oxford was sent out on loan to gain first-team experience - but as Westley says, the loan market is a minefield for young players, with no guarantee of success.

He says: "With loans, you have to pick the right one. A manager might want to take you as a third centre-back, for example, while they are battling for the play-offs. If they have an injury, what a great option to have Reece Oxford at the club.

"You could also go to a lesser club, fighting for their lives against relegation, but you're going to play every week.

"Look at Harry Kane's record, and how many loans he had - they weren't all successful. It's nothing we haven't seen before."

Oxford endured an unsuccessful spell in the Championship with Reading before deciding to try something a little different - joining Bundesliga outfit Borussia Monchengladbach.

"I chose to come out here because I wanted to be away from everything," he says of his initial move to Germany. "The media in England is a bit crazy sometimes, so I came abroad to try and focus for a few years and kick on. I thought, if it works, it works, if not then at least I tried."

His heart set on a switch to Germany, Oxford then had the unenviable task of telling his then-Hammers manager, Bilic, that he wanted to leave - not the first coach one would pick to break bad news to.

Oxford tells GOAL: "I spoke to Slaven and said, 'Gladbach want me and I'm gonna go'. He was a bit angry with me, saying, 'I want you to stay here'. But at the time, Gladbach were in the Champions League, so I was going on loan to at that time a better side.

"He told me to stay and fight for my position, but I was like, 'I don't want to be fourth option, I want to get some minutes.' I took the step, and it was a good period, but then I got brought back in January, which messed up the flow."

Oxford made seven first-team appearances for Gladbach in 2017-18, before, as Westley explains, the turbulence at West Ham sucked him back in.

"His first stint in Germany, with Gladbach, he did very well, they really liked him," Westley explains. "But we had an unfortunate situation - in January, we lost our manager and appointed David Moyes. Rightly, David wanted to see him, so we brought him back - it's not the player's decision. We might need him, we were in a relegation battle.

"So we brought him back, and he got injured in the first week. David then had some experienced players he could rely on, and the market is such that we couldn't just send Reece back to Gladbach.

"Things transpired against him in a two-year period. We can look back and think we could have done things different, done them better, but with loans, it happens."

Oxford was not deterred from German football, however, returning for a more productive spell with Augsburg, that loan eventually turning into a permanent deal.

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The decision to swap his home city of London and his academy homestead to try his luck abroad was a big one for Oxford, but one he does not regret.

"It was about playing every game, and getting consistency," he says. "Now I have got that, I'm able to show my qualities. It was difficult before, I was in and out of the squad, playing in different positions, but now I've cemented my spot at centre-back, I'm kicking on."

Oxford was following the footsteps of Jadon Sancho and other young talents in swapping England for Germany - and Westley had no doubts he could similarly make it work.

"He looked at Sancho, and there was a trend around that time," he says. "There was the opportunity to play first-team football - at 17 and 18, he didn't want to play U23s, he wanted to push himself and play as high as he possibly could.

"Moving to Augsburg, it wasn't my call, the decision was made to let him go on a full-time basis. The only conversations we had [him and Oxford], he said, 'I want to play'. When players get a taste of what it's like - playing with senior players in front of big crowds - it's hunger, a desire, whether it's Germany or wherever. He made a very brave decision, in my opinion."

Even as Augsburg battle against relegation, Oxford has been impressing - as of March 2022, the 23-year-old has recorded the most interceptions in the Bundesliga in 2021-22, and the second-highest number of clearances.

A naturally relaxed character, he has taken adapting to a new country and culture in his stride - even if the language barrier remains an issue.

"In England, I lived with my family, so I was never really alone, but when I went to Gladbach I lived alone, and same here," he says. "It's alright, I'm a very chill person so I don't really leave my house unless I need to eat anyway.

"I can understand everything in German, I just don't speak it - I can't pronounce the words!"

Westley says: "I follow him very closely, looking if he's in the starting line-up, how many minutes he plays, what the reports are about him.

"It's important to remember, he's 23 and playing every week, people tend to forget that. He's a regular, one of the stand out players as Augsburg have picked up a bit. Different people I've spoken to have said he is doing really well.

"I've spoken to clubs in England - if you're searching for a young player with his best years ahead of him, playing regularly in one of the top leagues in Europe, his name comes up, with all the stats."

So what next for Oxford? Talk of Russia 2018 was premature and Oatar 2022 is very unlikely - but what about the 2026 World Cup in North America, when Oxford will be 27 and should be in his prime?

Certainly, international recognition is on Oxford's mind - and he has plenty of examples to prove that neither being uncapped nor playing abroad should be an impediment.

"I'd like to hope so," he says of whether his displays will catch the eye of Gareth Southgate. "The stats are proving I could be on the radar, but I've spoken to no-one, no-one has spoken to me. Kyle [Walker-Peters] has just been called up and he's a good friend, I'm happy for him, he's playing well and got the recognition for it. Hopefully one day I will, that's the end goal for me.

"I think you have more of an advantage if you're in the Premier League, it's easier to be seen. But you can see Jude [Bellingham] doing good out here, Tammy [Abraham] is doing good abroad, so it's not impossible."

But in order to get his best shot at playing for England, should he return to the Premier League - and if so, when?

These are questions Westley ponders for some seconds during our chat, before giving his answer: "If he has aspirations, and wants to play for England, then a return to the Premier League would give him that opportunity. If he wants to play in the World Cup in 2026, is that in his thinking? There are teams in the Premier League who are looking for a young centre back, and I think he would be on their radar.

"What would I advise? Pick the right club. It's not an easy decision. It looks like he is very happy and settled, in a really good environment, so would have to make sure with a move that all those things are in place."