Mark Noble: ‘If a top club wants Declan Rice they’re just going to pay for him, full stop’ | West Ham United

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As Mark Noble considers the enormous task he will face in his new role as West Ham’s sporting director, he shares his belief that, “in the next 10 to 15 years probably half of the Premier League’s teams will be owned by countries”. Noble played more than 500 games for West Ham, from 2004 to May this year, and the consistency and loyalty of that commitment stand in sharp contrast with the outlandish riches which will transform the Premier League much further.

“People love football, globally,” Noble says as he prepares to begin his challenging position in January. “Other sports are fantastic but they don’t [generate] that affection, yes obsession, we have with football. I’m talking about countries that people don’t even know exist which love football.”

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The 35-year-old might not sound worldly in that last sentence but the way in which Manchester City and Newcastle United have already been taken over by consortiums led by members of the royal families in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia has set a clear precedent. Manchester United and Liverpool may be sold next year and different nations could enter the bidding.

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David Sullivan and David Gold, West Ham’s owners since January 2010, enjoy their reputation as local wheelers-and-dealers, but how does the prospect of half the Premier League being owned by countries make Noble feel? “Well, it depends,” he says, as he starts to laugh. “It depends if we are [owned by a nation]. The great thing about the Premier League is, because there is a lot of financial power, the games ain’t as easy as they would be in other leagues. But if you want the best players it’s different.

“I saw an interview with Erling Haaland’s agent [Rafaela Pimenta] the other day and she was saying: ‘Well, why ain’t Haaland worth a billion because of his image rights, contracts and everything else that goes with him? You laugh but then you think about it and, when you actually break it down, future global superstars probably will be worth [a billion pounds].”

Mark Noble leaps on Declan Rice after West Ham’s Europa League win over Sevilla in March
Mark Noble leaps on Declan Rice after West Ham’s Europa League last-16 victory over Sevilla in March. Photograph: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

How will Noble react when part of his remit as sporting director will be to help West Ham cope with the astronomical wealth accumulated by rivals such as Manchester City? “You’ve got the top six, maybe even seven in the Premier League. You’ve got two or three in the German league and the same in the Spanish league. In the French league, obviously you’ve got PSG [owned by Qatar] and one or two others. So we’re not in that market because the Champions League is a massive draw for players.

“We need to be in the market of probably 25 teams across Europe. Maybe from fourth to eighth in the Spanish league, the same in the German league. Those are our rivals when we are recruiting players because we can’t afford to buy who we want. It’s not going to happen. So we’ve got to be clever and find ways of recruiting young players and developing them, bringing them from the academy to the first team because that’s a massive plus. We’ve seen that with Declan Rice [who succeeded Noble as club captain], Ben Johnson [the West Ham defender], myself and others. A good young English player is worth 40 million quid. It’s incredible. So if we can produce three or four of them, we’re doing something right.”

It is debatable whether West Ham can hold on to Rice much longer – especially when, at the World Cup, the England midfielder said how much he wants to play Champions League football and that “you only get one career”. Noble sounds pragmatic when discussing a player he has mentored for years and as the Premier League resumes on Boxing Day with West Ham, two places above the relegation zone, away to the leaders Arsenal.

“Whether you think things will get dicey at West Ham – and I don’t believe they will – we just can’t cope financially with the top teams. We can try our hardest to recruit the best players that the top five or six don’t buy – and we might get lucky with a few that slip through the net – but you can’t compete with these teams. They’re financially too powerful. If a top club wants Declan Rice they’re just going to pay for him, full stop. You’ve seen it with Jack Grealish, with the best players. If the top boys want them, we ain’t got a chance.”

There is more romance in Noble’s personal story as Mr West Ham and, as his new book captures, he thrived as a one-club player whose career is unlikely to be emulated in such a volatile and money-driven future for Premier League football. There are parallels with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool but Noble lived so close to West Ham, whose academy he joined at 13, that he could walk home after he made his first-team debut at Upton Park four years later. He was with his girlfriend, Carly, who is now his wife.

Mark Noble (right) making his West Ham debut in 2004 against Southend United
Mark Noble (right) making his West Ham debut in 2004 against Southend United. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

“I wasn’t prepared for two middle-aged men to spot me in the street,” Noble recalls in his book. “‘Well done, Marky boy,’ one shouted. ‘Oh my God, Mark,’ Carly said as we walked on. ‘He knew who you were.’”

That affection for Noble, who had been waiting outside the Boleyn ground to ask West Ham players for their autographs six months earlier, grew into a profound love affair between the supporters and their eventual captain. It helped that he grew up in nearby Beckton but Noble also showed a dedication to help West Ham in any way he could. However, he reveals how that close bond came at a cost. Noble put football above everything else and the strain often felt consuming.

He and Carly “got chicken and chips” on their walk home after his debut but it did not take long for him to change. He became single-minded and prioritised football – at the expense of Carly, his family and friends. “I’m open about that,” he says. “There were times that everything got on top of me. You’ve got to be the Premier League footballer and West Ham academy graduate – but also a best mate, a husband, father, a son, a brother. We had our two kids really young and I thought: ‘I’ve got no choice now. I have to become successful. I have to be able to provide for Carly and the kids.’ But I became incredibly selfish.”

Mark Noble waves to West Ham’s fans after his last home game as a player, against Manchester City in May
Mark Noble waves to West Ham’s fans after his last home game as a player, against Manchester City in May. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Noble comes across as a lovely man but he suggests that, when he was younger, he acted like “a pig” towards Carly. “I use that word because I was so obsessed with getting better. I was also representing my own people [fellow West Ham fans] and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I concentrated so much on that side there were times I let Carly down. If she was sat here now, she’d tell me to shut up and say that was my job. But when you get older you get less selfish.”

The demands were draining and Noble admits there were times where “I had broken relationships with other family members”. It became difficult for him to enjoy even the good times. “You almost become immune to the good times. They just bring relief because points are so sacred in the Premier League that if you win it’s relief more than joy. Joy is when you’re 17 and you break into the first team and everyone thinks you’re a hero. But I became a senior pro at 21 and you’re expected to win, you’re expected to play well.”

Noble also felt, at a very young age, that he could never show any weakness. “It’s so different now, mate. Back then the senior pros didn’t allow it. I agree with the new system but, in a lot of ways I don’t, because football is a ruthless industry where it feels like there is no place for weakness. Everyone’s job’s on the line and if you go into training with a grade two hamstring tear, you know you can’t train. But if you go in and say: ‘I’m not mentally stable or in the right frame of mind to train today,’ people would say: ‘What are you fucking on about?’

“You’d be surprised how many players are struggling. They’re going through issues but don’t say anything. But it is getting so much better now because some players are talking about [mental health] … and when I speak to academy players now I say: ‘Forget what you see in the public eye. Forget the nice cars, the big houses and the nice watches. That’s 2% of what it means to be a footballer.’”

Noble will be heavily involved in recruitment, development of the academy and the wellbeing of players. “I love the game but I also love the business side of football,” Noble says. “My relationship with [West Ham’s manager] David Moyes over the past two and a half years is probably one of the reasons that West Ham asked me to do this job.”

David Moyes prepares to embrace Mark Noble after West Ham’s Europa League win over Sevilla in March
David Moyes prepares to embrace Mark Noble, who believes his relationship with the manager helped him to get his job as sporting director. Photograph: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Yet West Ham’s fans seem disillusioned with the season so far. “Probably a group of fans, yes. But there’s always going to be that at every club now. You hear people saying the fans are not happy with [Jürgen] Klopp at Liverpool. That’s the industry we work in now and, because of social media, it has become a lot louder.”

Describing this season as “a transition” for West Ham, Noble is at his most animated when talking about Lionel Messi. “What it must be like to be Messi,” he says with wonder as his words mingle with laughter. “He’s on another planet. I watched his documentary [before the World Cup] and you look at the experience he had losing three [Copa América] finals in a row and losing the World Cup final and then always being compared to [Diego] Maradona. He was fucking distraught and he is the greatest that’s ever walked the earth.

“I remember when Chelsea played against him and JT [John Terry] came flying across and he was on the touchline ready to try and body him into the stands and Messi stood there, took it and bounced JT. I also remember Manu Lanzini [his former West Ham teammate] coming back from Argentina duty and I was like: ‘Oh mate, what was Messi like?’ Manu’s a genius with the ball but he said: ‘I swear to you, when he passed me the ball, I was so nervous because he was on my team.’ Manu said Messi would be floating about in training and then he would think: ‘Oh, do you know what? I want to win this game.’ And he’d score six goals.”

The simple joy of football shines in Noble – as it will when he embraces the breaks from recruitment and monitoring mental health to step out on the academy pitch with teenage hopefuls to whom he can give a few pointers. All the headaches of being the Boleyn boy trying to keep up with clubs owned by countries will be forgotten for a while. And maybe, I suggest, the academy kids will look up to him as their local version of Messi.

“I’m not sure about that,” Noble says amid his laughter. “But I love football. I love all parts of football.”

Boleyn Boy by Mark Noble is published by HarperCollins. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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