Grady Diangana is weighing up the issue of discipline in walking football. Specifically, and this happens quite often, when players break out into a run. “It’s because you’ve got that temptation in you,” he says. “Even sometimes when the ball is ahead of you, you want to have a run. It’s really hard not to.” But still, it’s against the spirit of the game, so should runners be sent off? “Er … no! I think they should be given a caution.”
Diangana has witnessed a lot of infractions in walking football. He will likely be exposed to many more. The West Ham United youngster, who has won the affection of the London Stadium support since breaking into the first team this season, has taken on a role as ambassador for the club’s participation programme, which includes walking football, a sport played largely by the over-50s.
“For me, you get a lot of people who are lonely,” he says, in explaining what led him to get involved in the project. “For them to come out and, even if they’re not playing, just to be around other people, it gives them confidence. It’s nice to be around people.”
Diangana says that such a scheme – be it walking football or the legalised running version – would have been very welcome when he was growing up. Now aged 20, he was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but moved to the UK aged four. He grew up in the south London neighbourhood of Woolwich and spent much of his spare time by himself, chasing a ball around.
“There’s a park literally 30 seconds’ walk from my house,” he says. “I would kick the ball, do around-the-worlds and just play by myself because I enjoyed it that much. That was always a big part for me when I was younger, how much I enjoyed it. I used to watch the players who entertained me the most, like Ronaldinho. I always used to love having the ball at my feet.”
A kid who cultivated his love for the game on his own terms, Diangana has a response to the oft-touted idea that the age of the street footballer is over. “There’s plenty …” he laughs. “There’s so many, honestly.”
After nurturing his talent in the park, Diangana joined the West Ham academy at the age of nine and played for the under-18s when he was 14. His breakthrough for the first team came only in late September, against Macclesfield in the third round of the Carabao Cup.
The Hammers won 8-0 and Diangana scored twice, two cool finishes after cutting in from the right. His performance earned him a spot on the bench in the Premier League and when Andriy Yarmolenko went down after tearing an achilles tendon against Spurs, it was Diangana who took his place.
He has started every game since and has quickly risen in the crowd’s affections, alongside Declan Rice an emblem of a potential new start for the club under Manuel Pellegrini. At the start of this month against Burnley, Diangana shone, a no-look through ball for Felipe Anderson’s first goal the pass everyone was talking about afterwards.
Asked what emotions he has been feeling since becoming a Premier League player, Diangana gives a typically measured response. “It’s a difficult one because I feel like I’ve been at the right state of mind for this opportunity,” he says. “So when it has come I’ve felt chilled. I haven’t felt any pressure. I feel like I can go out there and express myself. Even if I make a mistake I don’t beat myself up. I feel like the team are behind me and they told me: ‘If you lose it, keep trying, keep trying.’ So it’s been amazing for me.”
With the launch of West Ham’s Players’ Project, in which players of the men’s and women’s teams will take on ambassador roles, West Ham are committing £10m over the next three years to community initiatives. The club point out that this continues investment over recent years and that part of the money will go towards schemes in all parts of the London borough of Newham, not just in their new home of Stratford.
There is no doubt that this is a timely gesture, too, politically speaking. Discord over the club’s direction since the move to the London Stadium erupted into full mutiny last March. Now, however, West Ham are presenting a united front once more and this, says Diangana, applies to the squad too.
“We’re a close unit,” he says. “You’ve got different languages, but everyone still gets along very well. It’s a very good group. They’ve been nice to me. Sometimes in the changing room they take the mickey, maybe. But to be in and around them is amazing. They do special things with the ball and you’re like: ‘Wow, I’d like to do that.’ I’m always learning every day, so it’s good.”
Diangana started for England Under-20s on Monday in a 2-0 win against Germany and may yet face a dilemma over which national team to represent. But for now his biggest concern is to keep on learning in the sport that he says “has given me everything”.
“I’ve only realised lately how much of the game is in the mind,” he says. “It’s 90% a mental thing. This opportunity that’s been given to me, I’ve grasped the first stage because my mind has been clear. I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do and how I was able to do it. Now I want to try and play as many Premier League matches as possible.”