Dylan Tombides

2012: Teenager Dylan Tombides Makes His West Ham Debut

Talented young striker Dylan Tombides’ made his senior debut for English Premier League club West Ham United ten years ago today. It was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication for the teenager who, sadly, less than two years later would lose his life to testicular cancer at the age of 20.

Dylan’s boyhood dream played out on 25 September 2012 under lights at Upton Park and with 25,944 boisterous fans in the stands. The Australian youth international was only 18 years and six months old when Hammers manager Sam Allardyce brought him off the bench to replace Gary O’Neil 84 minutes into a League Cup third round tie against Wigan Athletic.

Impressive as a standalone feat, extraordinary given he was in the midst of chemotherapy and had not played in 15 months due to a testicular cancer battle. But despite the physical and emotional trauma of dealing with such a cruel disease, Dylan was determined to continue playing football and striving for the top.

Dylan, born on 8 March 1994, played juniors with Stirling Lions and Perth SC before his family moved to Macau. Together with younger brother Taylor, he trained locally and on weekends traveled to Hong Kong to further his development and play competitively with the Brazilian Soccer School.

It was during this period that Dylan was invited to attend trials in Portugal. But Mike Leigh, a former coach of Dylan’s in Perth who just so happened to also be a West Ham academy scout, suggested he visit the London club. After a four-week trial with the Under-18s, Dylan signed with the Hammers.

Tony Carr, West Ham’s long-time academy coach, said the 14-year old trialist was the real deal. “You could see he was a special talent and could go all the way,” Carr said. “We’ve obviously had the likes of Stan Lazaridis, Lucas Neill and Robbie Slater over the years at West Ham, and they were all big players for Australia. Dylan was following in their footsteps.”

Dylan wasted no time making his mark. Academy Player of the Year honours came after netting nine goals in 32 games and a starring role in the FA Youth Cup fourth round loss to eventual winners Manchester United. In February 2011, he was named in an extended first team squad for an FA Cup clash with Burnley.

A brace in the reserves 3-2 defeat of Arsenal convinced first team boss Avraam Grant that Dylan was ready for senior football. Aged 17 years and 75 days, he was named amongst the substitutes for the final game of the 2010/11 English Premier League season, his already relegated club losing that afternoon to Sunderland.

Dylan’s appearances on the teamsheet was the ideal prelude to June’s Under-17 World Cup which kicked off in Mexico a month later. He scored the winner in Australia’s opening round win over Ivory Coast – which he celebrated with a birthday message for his mum – and featured prominently against Brazil, Denmark and Uzbekistan.

Joeys coach Jan Versleijen could see Dylan was a special footballer. “Tall, technically good, held the ball, left and right-footed, could make runs in behind the defence and came into midfield to setup attacks and make combinations,” Versleijen said. “He wasn’t only a scorer, he could link up, dribble.”

But a random drugs test conducted following Australia’s Round of 16 loss to Uzbekistan revealed Dylan had testicular cancer. A couple of months earlier he had experienced discomfort around his testicles, and while a visit to a London doctor at the time had detected a lump he was advised it was a benign cyst.

After twelve months out of the game and treatment which included the removal of his lymph nodes, Dylan was given the all clear to resume training. Newly appointed Hammer boss Allardyce was concerned about risking Dylan’s health and consulted extensively with the clubs’ medical staff before naming him in the squad to play Wigan in September 2012.

Allardyce later reflected on one of the youngest players he’s handed a debut to. “He was one of the bravest characters I have ever met. Football was his life and he didn’t miss a day’s training even when he wasn’t fit enough to train because of his treatment,” Allardyce said. “He put up such a great fight to try and live and continue to play football.”

Cancer had delayed his West Ham debut by at least a year, and tragically it would be his only competitive senior outing for the club. By December, he was back on chemotherapy and in the space of eight weeks had two stem cell transplants. Three months later it was found his cancer had metastasised to his liver.

Further treatment put him out of contention for the Under-20 World Cup in mid-2013. But by September, after doing his first pre-season in two years, Tombides was looking forward to getting his career back on track. “Going through what I have over the past two years – I’m only 19 now – I look at it thinking I’m still young and there’s plenty of time,” he said.

“It’s a massive mental statement in my head, to say there’s no rush. Your time will come – you get over this part now and the rest will fall in line for you.” His confidence continued to rise and a few months later he was contemplating a loan move away from West Ham to gain further first team experience.

But the cancer kept rearing its ugly head. Dylan endured intense chemotherapy before representing Australia at the Asian Football Confederation Under-22 Championships in January 2014. He played all four games – against Kuwait, Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia – as Australia reached the quarter-finals.

On returning to England, Dylan was told his condition had become incurable. He passed away on the morning of 18 April 2014, with his family by his side. The next day West Ham announced that his shirt number – 38 – would be retired from use, an honour previously bestowed by the club only to Bobby Moore.

Later that year West Ham named their annual academy player of the year in Dylan’s honour, and Football West did likewise for the local league’s young player of the year. Twelve months later a statue was unveiled at Perth Oval commemorating his life, while in February 2016 West Ham honoured him with a special plaque outside their new London Stadium home.

In late 2016 the Football Hall of Fame WA honoured Dylan with induction into the Hall of Recognition for Players. Football Federation Australia announced in August 2019 that the nations’ best international player at youth level annually would be awarded the Dylan Tombides Medal.

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