It’s a Saturday, and the usual claret-and-blue throngs are lining the streets of Newham Greenway, treading their familiar weekend route to West Ham’s London Stadium. But instead of bubbles in the air there is anger, and the names of David Sullivan, David Gold and Karen Brady. The singing is venomous; the fan’s anger with GSB’s handling of the club is long and storied, and this protest, coming before a Premier League home tie against Southampton, is just the latest in a recent series.
That afternoon, the London Stadium is a cacophony of confused energy. The home fans need a release. They get it after just fifteen minutes, when their debutant striker latches onto a Pablo Fornals pass and lifts a clever finish past Alex McCarthy.
The debutant in question, a 23-year-old signed by the maligned board three weeks prior, had been waiting for his opportunity, frustrated by a string of introductory appearances from the bench. And now, when it had finally arrived, he found himself facing a home crowd seething with anger. But, rain or shine, scoring goals is what Jarrod Bowen does. And so he did.
Difficult working environments are hardly new for Bowen. In fact, his signing for tumultuous West Ham seemed a fitting match for a career often troubled by constant external complications.
Cardiff City passed on him after a lengthy trial as a teen. He was not discovered until he returned home to Leominster, Herefordshire, spotted by the youth coaches of the club he adored as a kid. When his mentor, Peter Beadle, was made caretaker coach, Bowen was thrown into a senior debut for Hereford United at just 16. He scored his first goal in April of 2014, at 17 – two months later, it was revealed the Conference club had accumulated debts exceeding £1 million. As at West Ham, the fans were apoplectic. Worse, none of the team were paid as they battled relegation. They stayed up. But by the end of that year Bowen was gone and so was the club he loved, forced to liquidate after being booted from the Conference.
“He acquitted himself extremely well,” Beadle told Guardian Sport in January. “Every game he got stronger. Jarrod has a lot of qualities but the one I really like is that he understands what he needs to do to play in a certain environment […] He had a hand in keeping the club up, which was an amazing achievement when you think those players were not being paid. He took to it like a duck to water.”
He will need those qualities now. His debut goal against Southampton spurred an empha
tic 3-1 victory, but West Ham are still mired deep in trouble, caught in the fourth relegation battle of Bowen’s career. Unlike the preceding two, this time he will surely have a say in the outcome.
“To watch the team that he had a soft spot for as a kid crumble around him and fall away must have been desperately hard for him at 16 and 17,” Beadle says. “To then be brave enough and say: ‘I’m going to move away from home’, and probably about as far away as he could, to earn a career in football says a lot.”
Following Hereford United’s demise (they’ve since been rebirthed as Hereford FC), Bowen was snapped up by Hull City – a team, as Beadle says, about as far away from Herefordshire as the youngster could have got without moving to Scotland.
The then-Premier League outfit were relegated swiftly after his arrival with Bowen powerless, caught in the oft-bureaucratic trappings of academy football. It wasn’t until Hull had re-joined the top division, and been relegated again under Marco Silva’s brief reign, that Bowen was finally handed a first-team opportunity. He scored his first goal in August 2017. For the other 23 clubs competing in the Championship, it was an ill omen.
The following two years marked the most explosive goal-scoring period by a young Championship player in recent memory: no player of any age scored more second-tier goals than Bowen during his two-and-a-half season stint as Hull’s primary outlet. Only Neal Maupay, the diminutive French forward now at Brighton and Hove Albion, came anywhere close. Bowen was bullish, quick, relentlessly dogged: the perfect candidate for a Championship breakout. And break out he did.
52 goals across those two-ish years for Hull City sent a beacon to the Premier League. It was only a matter of time before somebody won the race, though West Ham faced significant competition from Crystal Palace. The final fee reached £18 million, with an additional £7 million promised in add-ons. If Bowen, just as he did as a 17-year-old in his hometown under equally oppressive circumstances, helps keep West Ham up, that price tag will be considered a bargain in relative terms.
Bowen’s goal-scoring record in the Championship was notable not just for his age, but because of the 117 appearances he made in the division, just six came as a centre-forward. The vast majority of the rest came as a right-sided wide man, with a handful from the left or tucked behind a true number nine. Such prolific numbers from a ‘winger’ – although that term is a slight misnomer here – prompted lazy comparisons to Arjen Robben, especially since Bowen’s left foot is his primary weapon of choice. But in truth, he falls into the somewhat historic category of inside forward, a relic of the Herbert Chapman era that has enjoyed a recent revival.
A strong dribbler who rarely hits the by-line, when picking up from deep or from outside the half-space Bowen will cut inside onto his left foot to shoot – hence the comparisons to Robben. However, he scores true centre-forward goals more regularly, with many coming from within the six-yard box, or from rebounds and deflections. He is a wide player who is a goalscorer primarily, finisher rather than creator.
How much of Bowen’s signing was part of a David Moyes master plan remains to be seen. But the youngster’s arrival, and indeed West Ham’s performance against Southampton, seem antithetical to the earlier blueprint set by Manuel Pellegrini and perhaps signal Moyes’ tactical intentions for the rest of the season. The London side surrendered the ball to Southampton, preferring instead to hit them on the break, where Bowen’s appreciation of space and hard running carved out chance after chance. He almost scored within ten minutes; his goal came from his second opportunity, and more followed. If West Ham are to escape the drop, perhaps their best bet is to go back to basics, to shut up shop and trust Pablo Fornals to find the clever movement of Bowen and Michail Antonio. One thing’s for certain: if the Spaniard can provide, the kid from Hereford will rarely miss.
Jarrod Bowen knows just how bad football can get. He watched his boyhood club collapse around him as he was fulfilling his lifelong dream. He watched the fans go to war with the board, and then the board with the taxman. He went without pay for months.
At West Ham United, a club so wrought with internal strife, so divided, who seem perpetually on the edge of full-scale fan revolt, Bowen will feel right at home. To begin his Premier League adventure under such conditions is a fittingly poetic bookmark in a career that began with a similar baptism of fire.
With his back against the wall, Bowen has a history of standing up, ready and eager to be counted. West Ham fans should stay reassured that whatever the final months of the season throw their way, whatever hijinks the board pulls behind the scenes, on the pitch they now have an immensely talented forward willing and able to take to it. Like a duck to water.
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