This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Stoke City matchday programme – 18th September 2016.
Having been a part of the furniture at West Ham United, James Tomkins ultimately didn’t make the move to their new London Stadium over the summer. Deciding the time was right to try something else, he opted for a fresh start across the city and is already enjoying the new surroundings.
West Ham United had been virtually all that James Tomkins had known. A dyed-in-the-wool Hammer since being spotted playing locally as a seven-year-old, he graduated through what they call the Academy of Football over in east London to feature 243 times for the first-team over nine years.
So when the London Stadium high brass accepted a £10 million bid from Palace for his services back in July, Tomkins was faced with a huge, life-changing decision. Did he stick with an institution he had grown from a boy to a man at, rapidly transforming itself before his very eyes, or seek a new challenge away from the home comforts he had become accustomed to. Claret and blue, or red and blue?
With West Ham leaving their spiritual home of Upton Park for a shiny new arena in Stratford this summer, ultimately Tomkins opted to make a change too. After ending a 19-year association, Palace was always going to seem alien at first, but now his new surroundings feel a little more familiar he has no regrets about making his decision to ply his trade in a different corner of the capital.
“It was bordering on 20 years that I’d been at West Ham so wherever I went next was going to feel a bit different at first,” he admitted. “Going through the England youth ranks and spending a month on loan at Derby County was the only time I’d spent away from the club, but I’ve settled here quicker than I had thought and I’m enjoying it. It’s a new beginning and I’m looking forward to my time at Palace.
“The move to the Olympic Stadium didn’t really affect my decision but it showed that things are beginning to change there. I could have easily stayed there and been in and around the team but I wasn’t happy to settle for that, even though the club is going upwards. I wanted to try and play first-team football and I felt Palace was a great opportunity for me.
“It’s been a little bit weird going from one club to another having been somewhere for so long; that’s only natural. I’ll keep an interest in how they do as I still have a lot of friends there, but my concentration is now here. This is a massive club, the training facilities are good and the coaching staff are recognisable faces for me. As well as the manager I’ve known Kevin Keen and Andy Woodman previously and Keith [Millen] has been brilliant since I’ve been here, but everyone from the kit man to the media staff have made me feel welcome. There’s a nice feel around the club.”
Settling in is certainly easier when you know the manager personally, and that he has a high opinion of you. Tomkins was a highly-rated academy player, embarking on a progression of featuring for England at every youth level from the under-16s upwards, while Alan Pardew was the man in charge at Upton Park between 2003 and 2006. Assessing the teenage defender as one for the future, the now-Eagles boss offered him the opportunity to begin his integration into a squad that he would call home for the next decade.
Speaking about Pardew’s influence, Tomkins revealed: “When I was growing up I think he quite liked me as a player, because when I was 16 or 17-years-old he would get me training with the first-team and he was brilliant to me. At that age your confidence grows knowing that someone likes you as a player.
“He took me to the FA Cup final [in 2006] when West Ham lost to Liverpool. That also saw my first initiation as I had to sing in the hotel before the game, so that was a good experience! He didn’t have to do it but he took three or four youngsters along with the first-team to get that experience of being at a cup final which was massive for me. It was my first time being in and around the squad, and as a scholar at the time playing for the under-18s or the under-21s it was great that Alan always took an interest in the kids.”
Whilst still toying with the idea of moving to Selhurst Park, Tomkins sought the opinion of another person who had a major influence on his career on Green Street. Having helped a fledgling centre-back become a Premier League regular, his good friend Danny Gabbidon was only a phonecall away, ready to offer his verdict on what life in south London was like.
“I spent a lot of time with Gabbs, he’s a great man and I’m very fond of him,” Tomkins said. “We were good friends when he was there and what a player he was. He had a great career but unfortunately it ended after he got a few injuries, but he was a great player and person. We always keep in contact and he wished me luck and told me about the boys and said they were a good bunch so he helped persuade me to come here.”
His mind made up, Tomkins scrawled his signature on his fresh Palace contract and immediately began trying to assimilate himself into a new culture. The summer tour to the USA and Canada provided him with the perfect platform to become acquainted with his new teammates, but the trip proved to be bittersweet after he suffered an injury minutes into his first outing.
Assessing the trip, he said: “The tour helped me to have a bit of time away around the boys and see what they were all about, find out the personalities and get to know them. It’s important to settle in as fast as you can and I feel like I’ve done that as quickly as I could have.
“For me it was disappointing because I picked up the injury after about 10 minutes of my debut in Philadelphia. It was an unfortunate one but I got away with it because it looked to be a nasty one at the time, and wasn’t as serious as we first thought but still kept me out of the start of the season.”
A frustrated spectator for the rest of the tour and subsequent friendlies, Tomkins bided his time and slowly worked his way back into contention, and eventually made his full debut against Tottenham Hotspur as a late substitute. He followed that up with a good run out against Blackpool in the League Cup, and now fully fit again, he is hoping for an opportunity to stamp his claim on a defensive spot.
Four years ago though he sat out the first few games of the Premier League season for a different reason – a once in a lifetime opportunity. Tomkins was one of 18 players bestowed with the honour of representing Great Britain at the Olympic football tournament on home soil at London 2012 – the first such squad assembled for 52 years.
Bar his short experiences with Derby and England’s youth squads, his time as part of Team GB was his only other understanding of life away from West Ham United, providing him with the opportunity of gelling with new faces, and he believes that tournament, where he played in two matches, ultimately helped him with his transition into life at SE25.
Reflecting on that time, he said: “It was a good experience for me. It came on the back of West Ham getting promoted and Stuart Pearce had chosen me in a few under-21 squads before, and gave me the opportunity to go to the Olympics. I didn’t play as much as I wanted to and it affected the way I played when the tournament was over, but to know that you’ve played in the Olympics is a massive honour.
“We spent three or four days in the athletes’ village as we only had the one game in London but we got to experience it for a little bit. Sadly we didn’t have much of a chance to watch any events because of training and resting but we tried to take it all in.
“Having that time together at a competitive level where it’s not just the one country, it’s all of the home nations together and having everyone in Britain supporting you, was massive for me.”
Ironically, this summer Tomkins had the option of making the stadium that hosted so many of those glorious Olympic moments from four years ago his home, but instead decided to ply his trade this term at a completely different venue.
“I always enjoyed playing at Selhurst Park as an away player because it’s a lovely ground,” he said. “I like the tight little grounds so it’ll be great to experience that as a home player regularly. When I’ve played there I’ve had a mixed bag of results so hopefully we’ll have a lot more good experiences.”
Indeed, only hindsight will determine if Tomkins made the right choice or not, but the early signs are promising. He may not be at Palace for 19 years, but if he can make an impression on the Eagles faithful, then he’ll always be able to call Selhurst Park home.