This interview first appeared in issue 337 of FourFourTwo Magazine. You can subscribe to the mag here. (opens in new tab)
Jarrod Bowen can’t even get a trim these days without hearing the same two words. His friends in Leominster, the Herefordshire town in which he grew up, bombard him with messages about it every weekend as well. In fact, well over 2.5 million people around the world have come to depend on him. Fantasy football is kind of a big deal.
You see, the forward doesn’t only play for West Ham – he belongs to almost a third of the nine million teams in the official Premier League fantasy game. Bowen is a cult hero. A phenomenon. A literal fantasy footballer. And he doesn’t really play it.
“Even my barber was at it. He messaged me saying he’d triple captained me, and sent a screenshot after the Norwich game. I scored two and think I got 63 points for him that week. It’s actually a lot of pressure when you have all these messages saying, ‘We need you to score’. Funny thing is, I’m not into it. I’ve obviously made a team and bought myself, but I don’t ever go on it...”
Leaving FPL to one side, Bowen’s real-life displays have only become more thrilling since he joined the Hammers in January 2020. The 25-year-old has rapidly become a household name, yet had things worked out just a little differently, he’d have given up on football before the journey even began...
The Bulls' special prize
Aged 16, Bowen was told by Hereford United, the Conference Premier team he’d grown up supporting and representing at youth level, that they were canning their academy. The club’s debts had spiralled out of control and the Bulls were facing liquidation. Kids’ teams were the first to go.
Heartbroken, the promising teenager was offered a trial at Championship side Cardiff in 2013. But things didn’t work out. “The Cardiff rejection hit me hard,” Bowen recalls. “I was about 16. I went there for six weeks, played a few games and thought I’d done well. But they said no. I was ready to call it a day – Cardiff didn’t want me and Hereford were going under. I started to think maybe football wasn’t going to happen.”
Thankfully, Hereford U-turned, relaunching their academy and welcoming Bowen back. Then, when the youngster’s old youth team coach, Peter Beadle, became first-team manager, he promoted his former charge immediately. A 17-year-old Bowen started Hereford’s final eight games of the 2013-14 season, with the Bulls mired in a relegation battle and facing their creditors. They won only one of those first six matches, but in their penultimate game, Bowen bagged the decider in a dramatic 3-2 win over Alfreton. A final-day victory secured two minutes from time against Aldershot ensured survival on goal difference and sparked wild scenes – but Hereford’s revelry would be short-lived.
“About two weeks after those celebrations, we got told the club was being expelled from the Conference,” says Bowen. “It was tough to take, as a local player who’d been going to games as a 10-year-old fan in the stands, to watch the club disappearing. I’d just felt the high of playing and helping the team.”
Coach Beadle came to his rescue again. The man who’d masterminded Hereford’s survival had contacts at Hull, then a Premier League side, and recommended they take a look at his young superstar. With Hereford sinking, the Tigers offered Bowen a life raft. Sadly for the Bulls, en route to oblivion, they were unable to get any money for a player they hadn’t been able to pay properly.
“I didn’t really want to leave home, but also knew I didn’t have a team to play for in Hereford,” Bowen recalls. “It was a different world. Even at youth level, the facilities Hull had were a massive difference. I’d watch the first team train, players I’d grown up watching like Tom Huddlestone and Michael Dawson. That was really strange.”
Bowen spent two years with Hull’s youth teams before earning a first-team call-up
in August 2016 – playing alongside Harry Maguire and Andy Robertson – for an EFL Cup tie at Exeter. In October, manager Mike Phelan gave Bowen his Premier League debut off the bench at Watford, with a further four cameos arriving soon after.
“The crowds shocked me most,” Bowen says. “At Hereford, you might get 4,000, if that. I remember playing at West Ham that season in front of nearly 60,000 people. I’d never experienced anything like it.”
Phelan was sacked in January 2017, with Hull in the bottom three. Incoming gaffer Marco Silva used Bowen more sparingly, but the Portuguese did hand him his grandest day out to date – a start against Manchester United in the League Cup semi-finals.
“That was amazing for a young player,” he recalls. “I was up against Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the biggest stars in football. My mum put some pictures from that match in a frame on the wall. She was always doing stuff like that.”
With relegation confirmed in mid-May, Silva handed Bowen two final appearances, including a 7-1 shellacking at Spurs. For the young wideman, relegation merely offered the perfect platform for his career to take off.
Under the tutelage of Nigel Adkins, Bowen became a ruthless predator. In 2017-18, he scored 14 Championship goals despite Hull finishing 18th, then upped his total to 22 in following season. By January 2020, Bowen had already struck 16 times. Premier League clubs were on high alert, and Bowen knew it.
“I had to tell myself that things would take care of themselves if I could focus and get the football right,” he remembers. “In the back of your mind, you always want to play at the top level and I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t thought about the Premier League.”
Jarrod for England
And so, West Ham made an £18m deadline day offer Hull couldn’t refuse. Bowen was reluctant to leave the club that had given him his shot, but knew that a move could be life-changing. Without him (and the West Brom-bound Kamil Grosicki), Hull won only one more game all year and finished bottom.
“I felt sad to leave then, but you can’t put a timer on these things – transfers happen
in football,” says Bowen. “I think I earned it with the way I’d been playing, but I’ll always be grateful to Hull for my development there. That’s what got me where I am now.”
Excitement at his top-flight opportunity was soon mixed with trepidation, however. Big moves to clubs like West Ham come with their own pressures, but reports suggested that even his new employers had doubts.
Ex-Hammers manager Manuel Pellegrini is said to have dismissed Bowen as a target, doubting his technical ability. The Chilean’s replacement, David Moyes – then in the job for little more than a month at the time of Bowen’s arrival – only gave the green light after Crystal Palace had seen a bid accepted. The Scot also needed convincing.
“I knew there would be some doubts, as going from the Championship to the Premier League is a different ball game,” Bowen says. “But all I could do was trust my own ability and be confident in what I could bring to the table. I try not to get caught up in whatever people are saying. You just have to prove your doubters wrong.”
Either way, it wasn’t like Bowen needed any reminders that this would be very different to three years previously. “With Hull, I’d been coming off the bench for the last 10 or 15 minutes,” he recalls. “Now, I’d be starting games for West Ham. It was nerve-racking – I arrived at the club with a big price tag.”
Yet the welcome he received put him at immediate ease. Collected at King’s Cross by club officials in the final throes of deadline day, Bowen was personally welcomed to the training ground by Moyes late that night. The players also did their bit.
“It’s a really good group,” says Bowen. “I remember going to the Brighton game when I first signed – I arrived in the dressing room and most of the players had no clue who I was, but they made me feel right at home. Nobes [captain Mark Noble] was especially good. He took me under his wing.”
Only goal difference was keeping West Ham out of the relegation zone when Bowen arrived. Many Hammers questioned Moyes’s return, and a bleak start had done little to quell the discontent. Then came lockdown, a West Ham revival – and optimism at last. Now, in 2022, no one is uninspired by the manager leading a thrilling revolution.
“He’s got this mindset where he knows what he wants and he knows what he wants from his players,” Bowen says of Moyes. “He wants hard work; he wants players who will run for him and play for the badge. All of the players have bought into his demands.”
Last season was a breakthrough for West Ham, and Bowen in particular. As to why, the winger puts his uptick down to an unusual summer training plan at his uncle’s farm.
“One of his potato fields is pretty uneven,” Bowen smiles. “My old man said that running on a difficult surface would strengthen my ankles and I’d feel so quick when I was back to running on grass. So, I practised for a one kilometre time trial that we had coming up in pre-season on the potato field and then
‘Oh God this is awful’. Back at West Ham a week later, I breezed it. So it worked!” Strengthened by arable pasture training, Bowen appeared in every league game and registered eight goals and five assists as the Irons finished sixth on 65 points – a Premier League club record. They secured a Europa League group stage spot for the first time, but there was also disappointment after the Hammers missed out on Champions League football by just two points.
“You’ve got to look back on last season’s achievements with pride,” says Bowen. “It just goes to show how far this club has come in recent seasons – from talking about trying to stay in the division, to being gutted that we missed out on the Champions League is a massive step for anyone. We still got European football. This season is all about building on what we achieved last term.”
The 25-year-old has enjoyed juggling Europa League assignments with domestic competition this season – “you’d never normally visit some of those countries and see those stadiums,” he reasons – but wants to go one better. West Ham are pushing hard for the Champions League again, with Bowen even more instrumental this time – by early February, he’d scored or assisted 19 goals in all competitions, more than any other English player at a Premier League club.
In private, though, Moyes has shown his star forward tough love. “It can be frustrating when you’ve played well, as sometimes you want to be told how well you’ve done, but he knows there’s more value in telling me how to do better next time,” says Bowen.
Publicly, the Scot has been much more effusive; indeed, he’s backed the winger to give Gareth Southgate a headache for this winter’s World Cup. “When you look at the competition for England; Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho – it’s a decision for Gareth,” Moyes said with pom-poms in January. “But Jarrod’s getting closer to people saying, ‘We should have a look at him and see what he can do’.”
Bowen still finds those comparisons a bit strange. “I’ve come from non-league, so to even be mentioned in the same breath as some of these players is amazing,” he says. “I’ve not played for England at any age level, so just to get a call-up would be fantastic. It’s everyone’s dream to play for their country and I’m no different.”
Naturally, Bowen’s performances have also attracted interest from richer clubs – Liverpool have been frequently rumoured as a possible destination. But, as with the England noise, he knows that the best way to deal with any attention is by controlling the controllables.
“If you read too much into it, then it plays on your mind, which affects your game,” he says. “It’s like the England stuff – I don’t worry about it. I just do what I can on the pitch, do the best that I can and then trust everything will take care of itself.”
Besides, before he starts worrying about Southgate, he’s got a barber to keep happy. “I just need to keep showing what I can do,” Bowen concludes. “And keep earning those fantasy points!"
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Ed is a staff writer at FourFourTwo, working across the magazine and website. A German speaker, he’s been working as a football reporter in Berlin since 2015, predominantly covering the Bundesliga and Germany's national team. Key FFT features include an exclusive interview with Jude Bellingham following the youngster’s move to Borussia Dortmund in 2020, a history of the Berlin Derby since the fall of the Wall and a celebration of Kevin Keegan’s playing career.
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