From WrestleMania to the Premier League, developing young talent into world class entertainers and champions is an incredibly important foundation of success for WWE and every elite soccer team.
Ahead of WrestleMania 37 on April 10 and 11, we bring together two titans of Talent Development from WWE and Premier League club, West Ham, to discuss how they identify and develop raw skill into household names loved by fans around the world.
WILLIAM REGAL has played a key role in WWE’s Talent Development system for more than a decade. A stunning 95% of WWE’s active roster of Superstars originated from the Talent Development system, with Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, Bianca Belair and Kevin Owens just a few of those who are set to appear at WrestleMania 37.
TONY CARR was Academy director at West Ham, playing a key leadership role in developing young talent at the Premier League club for more than 43 years. West Ham’s Academy was regarded as one of the most successful talent development systems in world, creating multiple players who succeeded at the highest level including: Frank Lampard (won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League with Chelsea); Rio Ferdinand (was the world’s most expensive defender, and won six Premier League title, the Champions League and two League Cups at Manchester United) and Joe Cole (at Chelsea, won three Premier League titles and two FA Cups).
QUESTION: How much is instinct versus looking for obvious signs of skill when you’re trying to identify new potential talent?
WILLIAM REGAL: As far as my job goes, it’s not just about skill. You can have it. But you don’t have to be the most skilled. Connecting with an audience or connecting with people is what’s important. Sometimes I’ll see somebody from a thousand yards away, they can be walking through an airport, and I can think ‘they’ve got it.’
I get to meet a lot people who want to try and do what we do, like athletes, for example. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got 10 gold medals around the neck, if they’ve got the personality of a cabbage then they’ve got no chance with WWE. But sometimes they have this extra something. They’re going to be a star and it, but it might take five years to help them get there.
TONY CARR: It is an instinct. It’s something that you have a feeling about. I’ll think: ‘I believe in this kid’ or ‘he’s got something.’ It doesn’t always work, but that’s where you start.
From a football point of view, the first thing we look for is: what they do naturally without being told or coached? And the next thing is you then try to look into the future and think ‘how could I develop him? Where would he fit in the team? Is he a defender or an attacking player? Is he more of a thinker about the game? And is he a leader?’ It’s about his character, his personality. All those things into intertwine to eventually make the player.
But it’s a slow process. We have them very young in the English Premier League, we’re scouting children now seven or eight years of age to look at future potential. And they’re signed aged eight and nine on yearly contracts to stay with your club.
Then it’s about developing them over the years and it’s that old adage: ‘is it nature or is it nurture?’ But there’s no magic formula.
QUESTION: How early in the development of a young talent, have you been confident that they are future Premier League winners or WWE champions?
TONY CARR: I think every individual is different. For instance, Joe Cole. A scout brought him in and we had a trial game at the training ground. Harry Redknapp was the first team manager at the time and came to watch. So we’ve got this young kid at 12 years of age who we’ve heard big things about him.
Literally, the first thing we thought was: ‘Christ, how are you so far advanced?’ He wasn’t just a one trick pony. He grafted, he worked, he lost the ball, ran back, tackled people got up on his feet. Got it again, and took it to the opposition.
I remember Harry saying: “make sure someone shuts the gates, his parents aren’t leaving until I’ve spoken to him and signed him.”
We felt ‘if this kid doesn’t make it with the talent he’s got, we’re doing something wrong.’ Five years later, he’s playing the first team and the rest is history.
You’ve got other players, like the one who’s the talk of the moment, Declan Rice. When he first came to us at 14, Chelsea had released him.
I said to the scouts: “well, let’s bring him in, let’s have a good look at him.” And the first couple of times that I saw him I thought ‘this kid can play’. But he wasn’t outstanding. It wasn’t a Joe Cole moment.
And now they’re saying that he’s worth 70 million pounds because he’s an England international, he’s playing regularly for West Ham and is their best player.
But you wouldn’t have said that 14, he had the basic ingredients and those are the things you’ve got to recognize and think ‘can I develop that? Can I fast track and challenge him? Can I really test him and find out what he’s really about?’ Obviously we tried to do that and then he surprised everybody how quickly he accelerated.
WILLIAM REGAL: As I was listening to Tony, Daniel Bryan was popping up in my head. Daniel Bryan is one of the few people I’ve ever put my card on. I went to the company and said ‘look, I can’t promise you he’s going to be world champion, I can’t promise you he is going to make a ton of money, but he’s 100% professional and he will be an incredible asset to this company.’
He came from a great background because he started with Shawn Michaels at his school, and he was interested in me showing him some stuff. I knew he had a lot of obstacles to overcome because in our job, at the time, everybody needed to be over six foot tall and super-hero-looking kind of people.
As far as being a professional wrestler, he was let go from WWE because it was like ‘well, he’s young and he is too small.’ So I sent him to England because he took an interest in the old British style of wrestling, and I knew there were people that he could learn from.
He was going backwards and forwards from America to Britain and working shows at places like Butlins [vacation resort in the UK]. I also set him up with some of my Japanese contacts and so he was training with them and going over there to learn.
But I just knew from his work ethic he’d be the ultimate professional. I didn’t know if he’d make it to WWE World Champion.
Sasha Banks is another one. I backed her up 100% because I knew that she had everything that I look for in somebody to become something.
QUESTION: What would you say is the most important aspect of your job when developing good, promising footballers or wrestling talent?
TONY CARR: It’s making sure you believe in each individual and that you are constantly challenging them and not accepting that they’ve reached a level where they think it’s all they can achieve.
You’re constantly challenging them to get better. We would play them against more advanced players in older age groups. You ask them to do extra stuff, challenging them to come back and do extra training to see what their reaction is, and keeping their feet on the ground to a certain degree.
Because there are always people that are prepared to say ‘what a great talent this is’ and talk up the best young players and sometimes that’s over-hype. It can filter through to the player who believes that they’ve already arrived and they’ve already got it all. So it’s our job to make sure we keep them challenged, keep them grounded and keep them hungry.
A young Frank Lampard, he’s done unbelievable things in the game. His hunger was unbelievable. He always wanted to do more. But he was never satisfied with his performance. So it was the opposite with him, we had to keep telling him he was a good, doing the opposite to what we did with a lot of players.
WILLIAM REGAL: Everything else that Tony just said applies to what I do. But I would add that being open-minded to begin with is also important in WWE talent development. Because as far as wrestlers go, they might not look what I would call ‘great’. But if I see them connecting with an audience, no matter what I think, I’ve got to take interest in that and I’ve got to figure out why.
And that comes with just years and years of having to figure it out and seeing so many different talent in different cultures and different countries. I’ve got to have a worldwide perspective. Sometimes I see people and think they’re not probably going to connect with an American audience, but they’ll connect in Latin America or they’ll connect in Japan or in the UK.
And then we’re just waiting for the right moment to give them a chance and put them in the right spot when they can go out and give everything they’ve got.
And all of a sudden they weren’t even on the company’s radar, and everyone says “who’s that?” And I can say, “yeah, they worked really hard and put in the work and now they’re here.”
QUESTION: William has raised how charisma is a critical element in WWE talent development, is charisma a factor in developing football talent?
TONY CARR: I believe charisma and character are important. To fans, they’re the players they call mavericks in the game because they don’t always conform to what one would consider the norm. A character like Paolo Di Canio, the maverick category definitely applies to him, especially when he came to West Ham
The manager is pulling his hair out because the player is doing all sorts of things off-the-cuff and not in the game plan, but the crowd love him. The crowd love these players because they see something really different.
The mavericks do the things that gets the crowd off their seats sometimes, maybe a dribble or a shot or something really audacious. Those players really have a big part to play in the game.
Jack Grealish is one of those in the modern game at Aston Villa. He doesn’t really conform to the norm, he’s a bit like young Joe Cole. People say ‘oh, he’s not good at this, or he’s not good at that’ but the crowd love him. Certainly there’s always room for those players in the game, because what you don’t want to see is everybody the same. You want players with a little bit of charisma and a little bit of character that can do that little bit different and, uh, and get TV audiences enjoying it and fans off their seats.
QUESTION: How does it feel to see someone that you have to trained and developed from a young talent to become world class and appear at WrestleMania or win the Premier League?
TONY CARR: I think of Glenn Johnson. He wasn’t an obvious, outstanding talent at a young age, but he did all the basics very well and was a good athlete. Glenn Roeder was manager of West Ham at the time, and the team was struggling, some of the senior players were a little bit inhibited and there was a little bit of hiding going on.
Glenn said to me: “do you think Glen Johnson is good enough to play on the team, Tony?” So I just said: “play him. You’ll never know until you put him in”, and he did and was a revelation because he played without fear.
The crowd’s reaction to him bursting forward and breaking down the line with a ball, I remember sitting there feeling immense pride about that. I was really so pleased.
Whenever you see a young player that you’ve developed make an impact in a team, there’s immense pride, not only for myself because there are a lot of people and staff that have done their bit with him as well. It’s not just down to me. I’m just part of the program. It’s not ever down at one person. You’ve got to have a belief and you’ve got staff that can understand the philosophy and try and get across the habits you’re trying to develop in young players and
WILLIAM REGAL: I can be straight up and say the first thing that usually happens with me is I think thank goodness that my instincts kicked in that day!
I’m always very proud of them and I’m very proud of them as people. Just to make it in any kind of sport or entertainment field, there are so many factors and people that can mess with a talent’s head.
Sometimes you’ve been through a lot with these people and you’ve seen the ups and downs. A reason I got the talent development job at WWE is because I’ve just been around a long time and I’ve made a lot of mistakes myself. And so I’ve shared by experience to help talent avoid doing something that might take them two or three years to get back on track again. It makes me very happy when they do well.
QUESTION: What is your personal favorite achievement or highlight in your talent development career?
WILLIAM REGAL: Just being a part of the WWE Talent Development team the last 10 years is a highlight.
It’s been the proudest thing to watch the people that you you’ve found or have come your way to see them do well, like Daniel Bryan being the world champion.
Or Kevin Owens. I knew he could connect with an audience but he doesn’t look anything like the company or an audience expects from a talent. When he came along for the tryout, he was struggling and no one expected him to do well, but I knew if we could get him in the door, he would shine.
So I said to him “just cut a promo but not only English, do it in French as well.” I just gave him that a little bit of advice.
And boom! When it came time to do a promo in front of all the trainers, I watched them all sitting there with their mouths open and their eyes wide. They were all going ‘oh, he’s going to be great.’
When I see people like him who normally would have not had a chance, that’s great. That’s it.
I’m very grateful to have had that period of my life doing something that I really loved. I can’t pick a favorite player because every player was unique in their own right. Sometimes these kids came from tough backgrounds and trying to change those old habits – sometimes very bad habits – was a highlight.
I am just grateful that I was there during what some consider a real golden period for talent development at West Ham. That gave me enough pleasure. I didn’t need any more than that.