Dan Kemp is an up-and-coming attacking talent currently plying his trade at the highly regarded West Ham Academy under the guidance of Terry Westley and Liam Manning. Starting his journey at the Chelsea Academy as an U9 before moving to East London as a scholar, Kemp, now 18, now represents the West Ham U23s in Premier League 2 and has already trained with the first team. PDP Editor, Dave Wright spoke to Dan about his journey, what kind of coaches he responds to and the challenges of moving through the often-difficult professional development phase.
Dan Kemp was born in Sidcup, Kent and spent his childhood playing football, a “little bit of tennis” and playing big brother to Abby (18 months his junior) in Bexley. He cites his parents (Steve and Hillary) as a “massive influence” on his development. Having grown up attending Portsmouth games with his Dad, Kemp started out in the Chelsea Academy and has been developing his game ever since.
When asked about his footballing memories as a child, Kemp speaks fondly about playing in the park and attending matches with his Dad, Steve. He explains, “My first memories would be when I was around three years old. I used to go to Portsmouth games with my Dad, sit on his knee and watch them play in the Premier League – I absolutely loved it. Aside from that I just remember always having a football around, playing in the park, going to watch local games and playing on the side-lines.”
He continues, “My parents have had a massive influence on my football journey. They have never pressured me into football, I always just loved going to games with my Dad and they have given me so much support. They used to drive me to Cobham [Chelsea’s training ground] four times a week. It’s a 45-minute drive from my house and doing that four times a week since I was eight years old means they have been a huge support over the years.”
As a Chelsea Academy player, Kemp was exposed to “a lot of great coaches” but fondly recalls one who had a big impact. “One who stood out was my U10 coach, Michael Beale,” says Kemp. “He was someone that I loved working under as a kid. The sessions were always a lot of fun and really competitive, and I always felt he loved working with attacking and wide players like myself. He always gave us a real freedom to express ourselves and be creative but his technical detail was always very good.”
An amazing memory for a player so young and clearly Beale (former Liverpool U23 coach and now first-team assistant at Sao Paolo FC) had a big impact. Kemp also suggests his current coaches, Terry Westley and Liam Manning, have had a “massive” impact on his development, helping him take his game to the next level.
Player Development Project has often discussed the non-linear journey that players undertake in their development, so what parts of his 15 years playing have been the toughest? Kemp explains, “The hardest part has probably been the most recent challenges as a young pro.” He continues, “As you get older you have to deal with competition. I am generally quite self-confident and back myself to do well, but as you move through the ages that level of competition goes up and you have to learn to deal with not getting picked or being on the bench. The change from being a U16 at Chelsea where you play every week to being a first year scholar at West Ham, it can be hard to take when you don’t play. I am now 18 and learning how to deal with that competition and feel it brings out the best in me.”
Without a doubt, young players need mentors whether it’s coaches or peers. Kemp believes he has several mentors who influence his day-to-day development at West Ham. He explains, “Greg De Carnys (Head of Peformance) is my mentor and he oversees my individual development program (IDP). I also really look up to Terry and Liam as mentors. They always give me honest feedback as to how I can improve, whether that’s looking through clips or offering advice. They’ve improved my game significantly.”
Dan seems to have a sense of confidence and calm beyond his years and I ask him what attributes he thinks are required to stay the journey and make it in professional football. He focusses in on some of the mental strengths required to compliment technical ability, saying, “For me, to become a top-level football player you have to be resilient, have genuine ability and be mentally strong. Self-evaluation is really important in constantly improving and you have to have self-belief that you can and will make it.” He continues, “The key thing is to be able to take on information and understand the game so you can constantly improve.”
Without doubt the art of self-reflection is crucial in improving as a player or coach and Kemp clearly practices this idea. He also knows the type of coach with whom he works best.
He explains, “I work best with coaches that constantly interact with me throughout the session. Obviously I want a coach who makes sessions enjoyable and makes it clear what I am working on at training. I go into every session trying to get something out of it. For example, my objective today was to score five goals and work on my finishing.” Clearly a fan of working to individual targets and setting himself challenges, Kemp explains the benefits of this idea. “For younger players it’s important that they have something to focus on within the session, but in saying that, you need to be afforded freedom by the coach to go and express yourself and try new things.”
“Most importantly, I want my coaches to be honest. I can handle criticism and appreciate honesty if there are areas I can improve so I can go away and work on it.”
West Ham have obviously seen genuine ability in the former Chelsea Academy player, so how does he remember the environment at Cobham and how does he reflect on his new home at West Ham in comparison?
He explains, “The environment was a brilliant place to develop. The coaching and standard of players really improved my game. The was a real focus on having a winning mentality.”
He continues, “The benefit of now being at West Ham is that I can see a clear pathway. I don’t necessarily feel that pathway existed at Chelsea. There isn’t a huge difference between the two clubs. The sessions I get to be a part of with the U23s every day are enjoyable and I have even had opportunity to train with the first team. There is a real family feel to the club at West Ham; everyone wants to help you improve and gives you their time to help you.”
Given Kemp has been immersed in the often intense, diverse and competitive world of academy football in London, I ask him how he feels about the influence of a player’s cultural background in terms of their style of play. He considers his reply and says, “I do believe that does have an impact. If you look at Brazilian players who might pay a lot of futsal, this helps them technically. English players may not have as much access to futsal but perhaps play a lot more in the park with lots of players and fewer touches. I think the game is changing in London given we have so many players who come from different cultures. This does have an impact on English players, and having players integrating from different countries really does benefit us.”
So was it a big challenge moving across London to a new club and if so, what was the most difficult part of the transition? “The biggest challenge is initially showing everyone what a good player you are when you first arrive. I knew a couple of the players when I came in and the club was very welcoming and supportive. Terry and Dave Hunt [Head of Academy Recruitment] brought me in and were really helpful, they give me their time and when I perform they give me opportunities. I love going into work every day and constantly trying to improve. The club is supporting me, so it’s up to me to keep working hard to develop and become a top player.”
It’s evident when speaking to Kemp that he is very much in tune with his own development, what he’s strong at and what he’s working on. So I challenged him to lay it on the line and explain what his ambitions were. True to form he didn’t hold back in giving an honest answer, saying, “I am very determined. I want to play for my country, to represent England and become a regular Premier League and Champions League player. I want to be known on the European stage. Every day I go to work with my IDP in mind and am working on my game. I’m driven by a fear of failure and determined to do everything I can to achieve my goals and get to the highest level.”
Dan Kemp is a player to watch who is highly regarded and clearly has attributes on and off the pitch. The young Hammer concedes he “still has a long way to go” but his could be a name to watch in the future and, who knows, it may not be long before he is playing in a London derby against his old club Chelsea wearing the famous claret and blue of West Ham United.