Augsburg defender on leaving West Ham and why he’s prepared to spend a decade in the Bundesliga

Reece Oxford vies for the ball against Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus (Getty Images)

In the eyes of many West Ham fans, Reece Oxford is – and will always be – inextricably linked to their club.

As the youngest player to have ever stepped out for the Hammers, Oxford was destined to return from one of his loan spells in Germany and fulfil his potential in east London, in claret and blue.

Or so it seemed to West Ham supporters. But theirWunderkind is not coming home.

To Oxford, his history-making performance at Arsenal as a 16-year-old is, well, history.

“I’m happy for West Ham,” says Oxford, now at Augsburg on a permanent deal. “I keep in touch with a few of the players, I have seen a few games – they usually play at the same time as us and we haven’t got Match of the Day or anything, like I used to watch all the time. They’re having an unbelievable season.

“I felt there was just not a pathway for me anymore.”On the opening day of the 2015/16 season, Oxford was deployed by Slaven Bilic in the West Ham midfield, where he pocketed Mesut Ozil in a 2-0 win in north London.

Oxford would make six more Premier League appearances that term and two in the FA Cup, but a shockingly barren 2016/17 campaign gave way to loan spells in the Championship with Reading and Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach over the course of the next two seasons.

After half a season in West Ham’s reserve team, Oxford returned to Germany in January 2019, this time on loan at Augsburg. That summer, the move was made permanent.

“A player knows when he is not going to progress anymore within a team,” says Oxford, now 22. “I wasn’t going to force my way through or cause problems. I felt the best option for me was to go somewhere else and look at what’s best from my career.

“I’m not taking anything away from the club. Slaven Bilic and his staff, other managers pushed me, they helped me a lot.”

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Even before his first-team debut captivated football fans around England – and perhaps some figures in Germany – the expectations on Oxford were immense, with comparisons to former West Ham defender Rio Ferdinand sticking to the youngster due to his favoured position in central defence.

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“It was pressure with everyone saying it to me,” Oxford admits, “but people believed in me to be the next Rio Ferdinand [so] it did push me a bit. It is how you deal with it. I feel that maybe [there was] a year I didn’t deal with everything so good, so that is why I chose to come to Germany, to get my head in a straight line.

“It is difficult in England. There is so much money in English football that if you aren’t playing up to the standards they will just buy someone new.

“I just thought it wasn’t going how I planned it; I didn’t feel comfortable in England. I felt like I needed to go abroad. In Germany, they like to push young players a lot – they believe in them. A few years out here, whether that’s three or 10, it will do me good.”

Oxford’s destiny might have deviated from his design, but he does not regret the detour.

“I wouldn’t say [my West Ham debut] came too soon. I was doing everything right at the younger ages. I was captain of the second team at West Ham at 15, and all older first-team players who weren’t involved dropped into it. I felt I earned the start [against Arsenal] and I earned the right to be the youngest player.

“To deal with it, there’s little things people forget. You are missing out on all the things that players of your age are doing. For example, the first team aren’t doing the same gym programmes that you are. I was picking up little injuries here and there, because I was training every day with men. My muscles weren’t prepared for everything, there were a few setbacks.”

There have been a few setbacks at Augsburg recently, too, with a run of three straight losses leaving Oxford’s side just three points off the relegation play-off place with two matches remaining this season.

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Oxford’s aspirations for Augsburg are greater than the club’s current position. The same applies to the former England youth international on a personal level.

“If you asked any player, they probably would say they aren’t where they want to be,” Oxford admits, “but I feel like I’m making progress.

“I feel like as a person I have developed a lot, everyone says they have felt like I have grown up more. Living by myself I have had to learn other stuff, especially now with corona, which has been difficult. I have had to learn to cook, learn to do everything by myself, but I feel like that has worked.

“At the beginning with the football side it was a bit slow, but this season I have kicked on a bit and have got a few games. I would want more games, I want to be a fixed player – that comes with hard work and the manager trusting you.”

Learning to cook has not proven as difficult as learning German, Oxford says, though his language skills are ever improving – along with his football, across 21 league appearances. The distance from his family and its duration amid the pandemic has provided perhaps the greatest challenge for the centre-back, however.

“I haven’t been home and I haven’t seen my mum or brother in about eight months,” Oxford says. “I haven’t seen anyone from England since… I can’t even remember. I just speak to my mum every day on the phone, my brother, my friends. It is difficult, but you just have to know they are there for you. They phone me after every game and I know I am going to see them soon.”

Oxford signed with Augsburg in 2019 after a loan spell at the Bundesliga clubGetty Images

In an age in which players are often dehumanised with relative desensitisation, it is easy to overlook the inherent emotional challenges in a 20-year-old establishing a new life in a different country, as Oxford did two years ago.

The defender was grateful for the support of his mother amid the move to Germany on a permanent deal. “She was behind me whatever”, Oxford says. “She knows a lot about all the decisions I make. She said: ‘If you want to go, it’s your decision and I’ve got your back. I will be behind you and will come out there whenever you need me to come out there.’

“Now it is hard, because I am her mummy’s boy, so she is missing her son. She hasn’t seen me in a long time, so it is difficult, but I will see her soon and we’ll be together.”

Oxford is, of course, not the only English youngster to have departed for Germany in recent years. Jadon Sancho, 21, has excelled at Borussia Dortmund since leaving Manchester City’s academy, while 17-year-old Jude Bellingham has begun to find similar success in the same team.

Both have established themselves as England internationals, an accolade still on Oxford’s agenda.

“I think players like Sancho, Ryan [Sessegnon] and Jude, if you are playing then you get the recognition and people will come looking and seeing that you are playing in another league and starting in your team. So, I feel it is the best chance for me to push into the senior [England] squad if I am playing here,” Oxford says.

If Oxford is to earn an England call-up, West Ham fans will no doubt celebrate his success as if he were still one of their own.

In their eyes, he likely always will be.

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