Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

In Retro - Trevor Sinclair

If the early Nineties was a test of faith for West Ham fans, then the second half of the decade was as near as we ever got to the promised land.

As I wrote here, Ian Bishop was the heartbeat of that earlier team, and while they undeniably afforded us many great moments it was the later squad who would actually climb back to the rarefied heights of the top echelons of the Premier League, and allow us the small satisfaction of being on the first page of the table when Match of the Day eventually bothered to sling it up on screen after 50 minutes of punditry on Manchester United and Liverpool.

For me, as a young teenager gradually becoming a young twenty-something, the nature of my football viewing was also changing. I still went to home games with my dad, but away games often involved friends and overnight stays in far off towns and cities. By 1998 I had left school, had my first job in the city, had disposable income and my first serious girlfriend. It was the best of times, and, really all I needed was for West Ham to finally give me something to repay my faith in them.

***

It is an oft overlooked point, but on the watch of despised chairman Terry Brown the club improved gradually from the wreckage of relegation in 1993 to being an established Premier League side. This was marked by incremental improvement everywhere we looked. Billy Bonds was replaced by Harry Redknapp, the North and South Banks were replaced by the odd looking but much needed Moore and Brooking stands, and on the pitch there was a noticeable upturn in the quality of players arriving.

The improvement had been gradual, and far more to do with Harry Redknapp and the riches of the new Premier League than the work of Terry Brown, but it was undeniable and particularly gratifying to this youngster who had spent the better part of my childhood being whisked off to the Goldstone Ground and Vale Park while staring wistfully at Highbury and wondering if we might ever one day compete there on a more equal footing. A look at our league finishes in this time tells a tale:

1990/91 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1991/92 - 22nd (Relegated to Div 2)
1992/93 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1993/94 - 13th
1994/95 - 14th
1995/96 - 10th
1996/97 - 14th

The club had begun the process of solidifying themselves as a fixture in the Premier League without ever truly suggesting that our existence would ever be anything other than a struggle. The Grim Reaper of relegation (he looks like Neil Warnock if you're interested) was a constant visitor, and was so comfortable at Upton Park that he had his own seat in the corner, next to Mr Moon.

For West Ham to progress there needed to be an upgrade to better players. With money flowing into the game through the new league and Sky riches, we had to shift our self image to a more upwardly mobile vision of ourselves. For me that moment came in January of 1998 when we signed Trevor Sinclair from QPR.


The Cockney Feghouli

As far as I was concerned, he was the one who changed everything.

***

The process of improvement began before this point, to be sure. Harry Redknapp might resent the "wheeler-dealer" tag but he was an astute enough manager to realise that he needed to change the type of player he had at the club. And so it was that Trevor Morley became an ageing Tony Cottee and then John Hartson. Colin Foster begat Marc Rieper who in turn gave way to Rio Ferdinand while Martin Allen morphed eventually into Frank Lampard. These were the early indications that we were taking steps beyond our stride.


The Nineties - when the Academy produced footballers

If the authorities couldn't convict Harry Redknapp for having a bank account in the name of his dog, they should have at least been able to get something on him for the Sinclair deal. The winger arrived in a swap for the genuine but limited Northern Irish duo of Iain Dowie and Keith Rowland and a couple of million. It was a stunning signing and a blatant robbery of QPR, indicative of the increased ambition at the club under Redknapp and a textbook example of how to improve your side and clear up squad space in one swoop.

Sinclair had achieved national fame with an incredible overhead kick for QPR a few years earlier, but had stalled somewhat as their star had waned. By the time he arrived at Upton Park he was 24 and desperate to restart a career of much early promise. His debut was at home to Everton and couldn't have gone much better if he'd found the Templar Treasure in the Chicken Run. He started up front - the beginning of a long career with us spent moving around the pitch to cover up holes in the squad - and scored twice. The first was a springing header from a corner, and the second a nicely composed finish after a powerful burst into the box. We didn't win, naturally, but a new West Ham star had joined the firmament.


The highlights of that game are here and feature a couple of notable elements. Firstly, Slaven Bilic is playing for Everton which seems like a rarity, and the Everton equaliser is scored by an extra from Game of Thrones.

The most noticeable immediate thing about Sinclair was his sheer physicality. Short, but stocky and powerful, he moved like a middleweight boxer. The Boleyn Beluga reckoned he had the biggest arse he'd ever seen on a professional footballer, but I think that ignored the explosive power of the man. At a time when better pitches and improved fitness were making inroads to the game, Sinclair was the first of a new type of player at West Ham. He was a pure, highly skilled athlete.

***

Sinclair exploded into the consciousness of West Ham fans by scoring 5 goals in his first 6 games. By now I was giddy with excitement. I had loved the team of Bishop, Dicks and Slater and believed fervently in the Hartson, Kitson and Potts group but to my mind Sinclair was in the vanguard of a giant leap forward.

A couple of years prior, our Academy had finally sprung into life after a decade long slumber and suddenly we had Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand to supplement our outside purchases. To my mind, however, Sinclair was a symbol - a message to other players, agents and clubs. We're not messing about anymore, this is the type of player we sign now.

Those first few games of his were instructive - Everton (H) 2-2, Newcastle (A) 1-0, Bolton (A) 1-1, Arsenal (H) 0-0, Man Utd (H) 1-1, Chelsea (H) 2-1, Leeds (H) 3-0. To West Ham fans of that era, this was a remarkable run. I'm not sure I'd have fancied us to win a single one of those games and yet we went undefeated. It was a moment of era defining change. That little run was a slaying of historic dragons and a public exorcism of old ghosts. Yep, to the 19 year old me, this was the call to arms I'd waited years to hear.

There was a metaphoric passing of a baton too, as Bishop played his last West Ham game in that 2-1 win over Chelsea. This was the only game I can find a record of the two playing together for West Ham, but I rather like the idea that there is even the most tenuous link between them and me.

From there, we surged forward to a fifth placed finish in 1998/99 as Ian Wright and Neil Ruddock joined the party to bring experience and, I don't know, a better class of goal celebration to the club. That team was bonkers, finishing that high up the table despite having a negative goal difference. This came about largely because we took some absolute hidings that season courtesy of a wide open playing style that would produce a 4-2 defeat at Charlton one week and a 3-0 victory at Newcastle the next.

That high finish would gain us entry into the Intertoto Cup and an amazing cup run the following season, that culminated in the legendary 3-1 victory at Metz. Sinclair would play his customary full part, scoring in that game and generally being a key cog in the wheel. His finest moment of our finest season since 1985/86 came during the home game with Spurs.


This should have been the start of something.

***

Unfortunately that something was a decline. We would never again crest those heights as that 5th placed finish became the crowning achievement of Redknapp's time rather than the start of his legend. Paolo di Canio arrived at the end of that 1998/99 season and rather than relying on the team first approach that had served us so well up to that point, Redknapp instead began to focus the team around the mad Italian. This worked fine on the days when he was in the mood, and was a millstone on any day we had to go north of Milton Keynes.

Sinclair continued to be instrumental, however, and was displaying a flair for the spectacular. He scored a number of brilliant goals with us, none better than this effort against Derby which has somehow only survived in this 22 pixel Super 8 video recording made by a drunk Match of the Day cameraman on his day off.


The fact that this goal is so unheralded says a lot about the struggle Sinclair had to get noticed at West Ham. None of his rivals for an England place had the athleticism or technical ability to score this goal, and yet to this day few fans outside of the West Ham faithful will have ever seen it. In the meantime, Sven Goran Eriksson was trying anyone from his milkman to Emile Heskey to fill his troublesome left sided position, with the milkman at least having the benefit of being left footed.

Sinclair by this stage had agreed with new manager Glenn Roeder that he would play there in an attempt to force his way into the 2002 World Cup squad. He managed this at the very last minute when Danny Murphy dropped out of the squad, and incredibly was then called upon as an early substitute during the game with Argentina when Owen Hargeaves was injured. I can still recall the groan in the pub as his number was held up, and my own angry response to that. "Fuck you - you'll see" I thought, and see they did. Sinclair was outstanding in a tremendous England 1-0 win - the last good performance by an England side at a World Cup. His England career lasted 686 minutes and included World Cup games against Argentina and Brazil. Not bad, Trev.

***

It's possible that Sinclair should have left after this, his international aims achieved and with West Ham in turmoil. Redknapp had gone and so too had Ferdinand and Lampard, replaced with average, cheaper players in the true West Ham way.

But I like to think that Sinclair was loyal, and that he loved the club too much to abandon us. He certainly played as though he did and I particularly enjoyed his titanic performance at West Brom in that ill fated relegation season of 2002/03 when he scored twice in a seemingly crucial 2-1 win. In writing this series of articles I realise now that my heroes have always been brave players, who never shirked their responsibilities and never gave up the ghost. Sinclair's last game for us was the apocalyptic 2-2 draw at Birmingham on the last day of that 2002/03 season and Sinclair had to be led off the pitch after the game, as despondent as those in the stands. He would join Manchester City soon after, as Bishop had done. I quite liked that as I always had a strange feeling that they were our spiritual cousins in those pre-Dubai days.

When I look back on his time with us I find much to admire about Sinclair. His qualities as a footballer were always self evident, but his qualities as a man were frequently on display too. I think he was the most unselfish player I've ever seen at West Ham, prepared to play anywhere and to uncomplainingly do the work which others would actively seek to avoid. He never backed away from the challenge and never left anything in the tank. Look back at goals from that era and notice how often Sinclair is there celebrating the efforts of others. He was, in a team of egotists, the ultimate team man.



He played all over the pitch too, primarily as a wing back but also during one otherwise unremarkable home game against Everton in 2002 as a makeshift central midfielder. Other wingers would have moaned - Sinclair scored the winner in a 1-0 win.

But perhaps most importantly of all, he was also a man possessed of great joy. I think one thing that drew me to him was his evident delight at playing the game and playing for West Ham. Here was someone living my dream and doing me the credit of giving that dream every ounce of his energy. No football fan can ask anything more than that from their hero. I love that he still seems to cherish his bond with the club, and like Bishop before him, always realised the great privilege he had and played accordingly.

***

It never occurred to me in writing this article that I would end up mentioning the colour of Trevor Sinclair's skin or talking about race. This is primarily because as a then 19 and now 38 year old white guy, I have never had to face any discrimination in my life. I am so privileged that it never even occurred to me that Sinclair's skin colour was of any importance to anyone. 


And now you know where they got the idea for The Adjustment Bureau

And yet, as a kid growing up in multi-cultural Goodmayes, one thing I did notice was how few of my friends of colour followed West Ham. My black mates all seemed to follow Arsenal and my Asian friends all seemed to support Manchester United or Liverpool. This is an observation so unscientific and useless that it might as well have come from a climate change denier, but it speaks to my own personal experience. Until we moved to the new stadium I hardly ever saw West Ham fans of colour at our games, despite our catchment area being among the least white in the country.

I always assumed that this was because when I was a kid fans of colour were only just feeling able to attend games and choose teams to support and that West Ham weren't particularly good. Similarly, due to me having a season ticket in the same place for years I guessed that I'd just fallen into a routine of seeing the same faces all the time and that there were fans of colour all over the rest of the ground. But perhaps there was something else. 

In researching this article I noticed that while West Ham have a rich tradition of black players, and were the first English club to have three black players in their team (not the more heralded West Brom team of ten years later), not many of those players stuck around that long. Sinclair was the 27th black player to turn out for West Ham per this out of date link from Ex magazine, and of those players only four - John Charles, Clyde Best, George Parris and Rio Ferdinand - would make more than 100 appearances for the club. Compare that the outstanding Arsenal team of the time and their core of black players like Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and David Rocastle.

Young people want to look at their icons and feel a connection. It's why my three girls love the new Star Wars movies with their kick ass female leads more than they love Iron Man. I can't blame my teenage black mates from Ilford who identified more with Ian Wright than they did with Frank McAvennie.


This is not Frank McAvennie

Why is this important? Well, it seems to me that Trevor Sinclair, as well as being amongst West Ham's finest ever players, probably has a claim to being our greatest ever black player. Certainly John Charles and Clyde Best blazed a trail that was both terrifying and socially important, and Parris, Bobby Barnes and Leroy Rosenior played at a time of great significance and against a barrage of racist abuse.

By the late Nineties, racism was nowhere near as prevalent as it was then, but it would be foolish to think it didn't and still doesn't exist. Look at the paucity of black managers, coaches and officials. Remember that the England team were racially abused as recently as 2004 in Spain and that UEFA thought a fine of £45,000 was sufficient as punishment. Google Malky Mackay, Luis Aragones and Ron Atkinson. Ask yourself this - who do you think of when you think of players the media routinely describe as not having a football brain? Off the top of my head it conjures up images of Theo Walcott, Emile Heskey, Marlon Harewood and latterly Michail Antonio. Notice anything similar about them?

At the same time, think of the players who you've heard described as having a high footballing intelligence. Wayne Rooney, Lee Bowyer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne all jump out to me. That's right folks, we're living in a world where an erudite, well educated kid like Theo Walcott doesn't have a brain and yet Rooney and Gazza are bright. 


This is what footballing intelligence looks like

I never even noticed this insidious brand of racism until a friend of mine, a father of two mixed race boys, pointed it out to me. I was, in my own clueless way, complicit in it becoming an accepted part of footballing analysis. White players are smart and savvy. Black players are big, strong, fast and dumb.

So what does all of this have to do with Trevor Sinclair? Well, nothing and everything. 

There are obviously arguments that Rio Ferdinand, Ian Wright and David James could have been better West Ham players than him, but I think all enjoyed their peaks away from Upton Park. Sinclair was here for his best years and was outstanding. He was both athletic and intelligent, technical and pacey, smart and savvy. He put the lie to that bullshit all on his own. 

As iconic figures in the black struggle to break into professional football I wish the club would do more to commemorate Best, Ade Coker and John and Clive Charles, but I'm not sure any of them were Sinclair's equal as a player. 

I'm not a black West Ham supporter so I can't say for certain what his impact was on that community, but it in retrospect it looks to me like that team with him, Ferdinand, Hislop, Wright, Foe and others was the first truly multi-cultural team we had. Sinclair played most frequently, had the longest peak and was the longest serving of that team. I also think he was the best. 

I'm aware that I'm writing about something I doubt I fully understand but that's never stopped me in the past, and indeed I hope people see this for what it is intended to be - a celebration of a great player. I would love to hear from those who have any better informed thoughts on the topic, or indeed who saw any of those older players in their primes. Maybe I'm doing them a huge disservice. 

***

Either way, thank you Trevor, for your dedication, your brilliance, your joy and your love for West Ham. For joining at a pivotal time in our history and pushing us forward. For never stopping running, even when the reality of being 7-1 down at Blackburn hit you squarely between the eyes. For those spectacular goals that caused an entire generation of young Hammers to smash their kitchen windows in attempting to emulate them. And lastly, thank you for taking the legacy of those heroic black West Ham players who came before you and driving that forward too, by representing West Ham at the World Cup, taking us to fifth and a European title (of sorts) and making over 200 appearances and still smiling even when they made you play with Lee Bowyer. 

I'm not sure we ever realised how good we had it with you out there, and you probably never realised quite how important you were. Cheers, Trev.

Trevor Sinclair - Appearances 203 (3) Goals 38

I'm going to write a few of these sporadically. I have already got a few suggestions for old match reports but if there are any other players to consider, then please let me know on Twitter (@TheHList). Please bear in mind the age range, mind you...

Monday, August 14, 2017

Manchester United 4 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Yesterday I drove for the best part of twelve hours from Essex to Southern France, which is roughly enough time to get me halfway to Manchester based on some reports I read today, and I'm completely knackered. In fact my back hurts more than Joe Hart's currently does after he spent the afternoon examining the back of the Old Trafford goals.

So this is an abbreviated holiday H List, available only because while I was channelling my inner F. Scott Fitzgerald today, I stumbled across a Dutch satellite feed of this game and decided to waste an hour and a half of my family holiday watching it.

Which was a mistake.


This is what happens when you look directly at a downward spiral

You see, to my mind there is a tacit, unspoken agreement between football fans and players that the opening game of any season is different. It just is. Over the course of the next ten months there are going to be days when the team won't play well, fans will lose faith and players will lose form but the one thing we can agree on is that opening day is non negotiable. No matter who you play, the sunshine will be glorious, the tans haven't yet faded and the team will champing at the bit after pre-season training and will give everything in pursuit of victory. 

The positive line of thinking is that new signings will be desperate to impress, existing players will be playing for their places and new contracts and in that golden, sunlit moment the entire world is pregnant with possibility. And yet watching us play this game I was instead reduced to wondering whether Pedro Obiang was actually pregnant, so immobile and off the pace was he. 

The team didn't uphold their end of the bargain today. 

***

I don't really object to us losing to Manchester United. The question with them is never "Why did we lose to them?", but rather "How can it be that we've ever beaten them?". At £24m Marko Arnautovic is our largest ever signing, and yet he would be 23rd in the equivalent list of transfers for the Red Devils. They spent more on Anderson than we've ever spent on a player, and they bought him a decade ago. 

Their financial superiority is such that we always travel to these games more in hope than expectation. It's how the Premier League is drawn up. Teams like West Ham are supposed to turn up, put up a bit of a fight and then have the good grace to concede a late winner right in front of the advertising hoarding hawking such wares as the official Manchester United tractor, as happened today. 

What was so crushing about this performance was therefore not the content but the style. It was as if the team had been set a ninety minute test by the Oxford English Dictionary to redefine the word "insipid". 


This is literally the best combination produced by two West Ham players today

Looking around the Premier League this weekend was to see hungry teams battling for points everywhere. By all reports ours was the worst, most spineless performance of the lot. No ambition, no organisation, no fight and most alarmingly of all - no change from last year. Here are our results against the current best six teams in the division since the start of last season:

Man Utd 4 - 0 West Ham
West Ham 0 - 4 Liverpool
West Ham 1 - 0 Spurs
Arsenal 3 - 0 West Ham
West Ham 1 - 2 Chelsea
West Ham 0 - 4 Man City
West Ham 0 - 2 Man Utd
Liverpool 2 - 2 West Ham 
West Ham 1 - 5 Arsenal
Man Utd 1 - 1 West Ham 
Spurs 3 - 2 West Ham
Man City 3 - 1 West Ham
Chelsea 2 - 1 West Ham

This also ignores a 5-0 home defeat to Man City in the FA Cup and a 4-1 loss at Old Trafford in the EFL Cup. 

It's easy to brush off games such as this, and consign them to memory. They are kind of like the sequels to The Matrix in that respect: I accept they happened and that I paid money to see them but I refuse to acknowledge their existence in my decision making. 


So, Joe, can you describe how it felt making your West Ham debut?

So we continue to make excuses and continue to look forward. These are the default responses for football fans because it's just how we are wired - there is always something on the horizon that is cause for optimism. There is always another game and always someone coming back from injury to make things right, especially at West Ham. Indeed, we are fans so desperate for something to wish on that we all decided Gary Lewin was our signing of the summer back in July. And then everyone was still injured for the first game.

But these are not the results of a good team. They are not the results of a resolute, well drilled, organised team. They are the results of a group of players who face a gaping gulf in class every time they face this opposition, and have no idea how to traverse it. Sure, an away defeat at Manchester United isn't anything to get too concerned about, given they'll beat most teams at home this year, but I think we're allowed to raise an eyebrow at the manner of it all. If Bilic is able to introduce anything before next Saturday, I would hope it would be some semblance of a backbone. I find it exasperating how rarely these days we can even compete in these fixtures, let alone win them.

So, yes, I understand those who will say that this is just one game. But isn't it the same one game we've seen this team play over and over again for a year?

***

At the end of the calamitous 16/17 season Slaven Bilic identified pace as the single biggest feature lacking from his team. Our summer transfer policy not only ignored this, but somehow appears to have made things worse. I've seen tides come back quicker than our midfield today when we were hit on the counter. This is just one of the many problems when the Chairman buys the players for a manager in the last year of his contract, and with little apparent ability to convince the former of his suitability for an extension. The distance between Bilic's desired type of player and his real ones seems quite hefty.

As such, we today fielded quite possibly the slowest West Ham team I can remember seeing in my lifetime, and I was there when we had Andy Melville at centre back. We were without Lanzini and Antonio, which always made it unlikely we would play well, but the pedestrian nature of it all was a shock. Chicharito looked so isolated he may soon have his nickname changed to "Siberia" and Arnautovic did enough to suggest that he will mix moments of magic and moaning with all the adroitness of the departed Payet. 

But we cannot play at this walking pace in the Premier League and survive. With Feghouli and Snodgrass AWOL, Fernandes was pressed into a number ten role and did a passable impression of a square peg. What brief moments of attacking intent we did have seemed to spring from Noble and yet he was surprisingly replaced instead of the possibly expectant Obiang. The centre of the team is a huge hole that the summer signings don't address, and if the rumours linking us to William Carvalho are true then he can't arrive soon enough. 

But where is the joie de vivre of that 15/16 season? Certainly the league was weaker then, but we never played so shapelessly or with such little belief even once that season. Now it is de rigeur for us to get a hiding, blame it on injuries or new stadiums or disruptive Frenchmen or bad horoscopes or the Boogie and just muddle on with no apparent improvement. My upper lip doesn't seem to be stiff enough for this line of thinking.

***

If one wants to look for positives, I thought Zabaleta battled well, especially as he was up against the quicksilver Rashford and being 54 years old means he usually spends Sundays at his allotment. I also thought Joe Hart did alright considering the relentless barrage he faced. He should perhaps have stopped Pogba's effort - down low to that troublesome left side again - but that wasn't the reason we lost today. If he wants an opportunity to show Gareth Southgate he is still England's best shot stopper then the logic of his move becomes clear very quickly. He's going to get plenty of chance to do it with us. 

Declan Rice made a surprising cameo from the bench and looked pretty decent. Perhaps the logic of that perplexing decision to loan out Reece Oxford is simply that they think Rice is better? I have no idea - divining a strategy in any of our moves these days is like watching toddlers play chess. 

Elsewhere, I don't really have very much to cling on to. It perhaps speaks volumes that having watched the game in its entirety I still have no idea what our gameplan was today. We seem tactically bereft, like one of those early 20th century British army units marching with great gusto toward certain defeat, led by a general with no military ideas beyond a belief that everything will be alright in the end.

We're away next week again, of course, courtesy of the gift that keeps on taking - the athletics stadium with a football pitch on it. This makes it difficult to regroup and difficult to roar back. Maybe we'll win 3-1 again at Southampton, and all of this will just be yet more of that negative whinging so many of you criticise me for, but for now the pessimists are winning, I'm afraid. 

It's early of course, and nothing is won or lost on opening day, but I'm waiting on a sign. I want to see something to tell me that this year will be different to last. Something to encourage me that we are going to be more competitive, more organised, more steely when the going gets tough. Even for those who believe these articles to be too negative must concede that performances like today are a disgrace, just as I will concede that there were some mitigating factors. 


Tomorrowland - are we nearly there yet?

My main overarching issue with the current leadership of the club is the failure to develop and adhere to a cogent overarching strategy to develop the team over time. Instead everything is done reactively, expensively and on such a short term basis that it all has to be ripped down and rebuilt again every couple of years. 

I would happily accept performances like today if I felt it was the necessary cost of progression. But it's not. It's just the result of having an old, slow team, a terrible injury record and the opposition being as rich as Croesus. And Lukaku. Always fucking Lukaku.

If we have to think in such a short term way, then it doesn't seem unreasonable to want some returns on a fairly short term basis. Our next three games are Southampton, Newcastle and Huddersfield - each tricky in their own way but there are points to be taken there. And they'd better be taken. This is Sullivan's borrowed time and therefore it's Bilic's too. We can't keep waiting for tomorrow because at some point we have to win today.

So I've had enough with the injuries and the good young players a couple of years away and the settling into the new stadium and all the other stuff that stops the team playing well. When your Director of Football admits he is implementing a strategy that is "not good for the long term" then you lose the right to bring those things up. It's tough shit. 

We're all about the here and now, so I want some fucking results here and now. I want my back four to look like they've met before. I want my left back to actually leave the ground when he jumps. I want my defence well enough organised that we don't have the smallest member marking Lukaku at free kicks and corners. I want my captain to be so influential he can last ninety minutes. I want an attacking strategy that can actually cause trouble to defenders as average as Phil Jones. I want a net spend bigger than Watford. I want a manager who can find ways to make us competitive against better teams and not one who has us conceding four every time we play anyone half decent.

And most of all I want it today. Not tomorrow. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Retro - Ian Bishop

I'm looking backwards - I can't face the future just yet.

I recently watched the Oasis documentary Supersonic and was struck by how totally and immersively it returned me to my teenage years. I was lucky enough to attend the bands seminal gigs at both Earl's Court and Knebworth, and their music was unquestionably the soundtrack to my journey from youth to young manhood, mostly accompanied by some questionable haircuts and a overly expensive collection of Adidas trainers. My Dad had Neil Young and Bob Dylan, my cousins had acid house and the Stone Roses but I had Oasis. They belonged definitively to me and my generation.


I'm mostly including this for Boneheads hair

As with most good documentaries - Hoop Dreams, Paradise Lost, Southpaw and Inside Job spring to mind - the subject stuck with me for days after until I began to think some more about the other cultural touchpoints of my life. As with any such reminiscing, my thoughts soon turned to West Ham and although my first Upton Park experience was with the famous 1985/86 team, they didn't really belong to me, or at least not in the same way as they belonged to those poor souls who had been following their predecessors around for years.

No, my West Ham experience began properly in 1990 when my Dad began to take me regularly to the North Bank as the club begin to rebuild after the John Lyall era. Lou Macari was in charge at the time and although he didn't last long, he oversaw the arrival of several new players, including Trevor Morley and Ian Bishop from Man City in exchange for Mark Ward. 

Morley was a big, old fashioned, physical centre forward with a surprisingly deft touch in front of goal. Bishop, by contrast, was a more modern kind of midfielder. Adept with both feet, mobile without being quick, trademark long flowing hair and a range of passing that we wouldn't see again from a Scouser until his namesake John Bishop decided to go on Celebrity Mastermind.

***

They arrived in 1989, three years and a million miles removed from the memory of that era defining third placed 85/86 team. By this point, we had again been relegated and were bobbing around in the familiar seas of the middle of Division 2. Old, familiar names were still around - Gale, Martin, McAvennie, Devonshire, Parkes and Parris were still there - but the newer, younger generation of Dicks, Slater, Miklosko, Allen and Keen were slowly materialising to take the club forward.


The Messiah played centre mid

My first experience of that team came on 17th March 1990, when my dad decided to take me to an away game at the league leaders, Leeds. We got there about four hours early, as was his wont, and decided to take a stroll into town because what else would you do in the midst of the hooligan era when you have a child and you're in Leeds. I kept my West Ham top steadfastly hidden beneath my Rucanor shell suit and somehow we ended up on a free bus back from the city centre to Elland Road with a hundred home fans bellowing out "Marching On Together" as we went. At one point I thought the ceiling was going to cave in.

It was all mildly terrifying, but thrilling too, as was the experience of being in a three thousand strong travelling band penned into the corner of the ground. We were surrounded on all sides by rabid Leeds fans, and despite us bringing on Liam Brady we weren't a match for the Gordon Strachan led home team, who did indeed march on to a 3-2 victory.

Amid the general challenge for a 12 year old of trying to see anything in the days of terracing, I came away breathlessly impressed by my new heroes. Stuart Slater seemed like a star in the making, Jimmy Quinn was a tall, natural goalscorer and Ludo seemed the business, yet it was Bishop who drew my attention. I suspect that it was the hair at first, but I think it was also the fact he was up against an impressive Leeds midfield of Strachan, Gary Speed, Vinnie Jones and John Hendrie and he emerged with his head held high and his legs still attached.

In retrospect, I think Bishop seemed almost impossibly otherworldly to me. Had he been named Gianni from Genoa I wonder if we would have viewed him differently. Instead, he was Ian from Liverpool and I always felt that far too many fans focused on what he couldn't do rather than what he could.

He was, however, my new hero.

***

By the 1990-91 season Bishop was central to the new look team being fashioned by Billy Bonds. The relentless grind of the second tier didn't seem to weary him as he played 40 games and drove the team to automatic promotion and an FA Cup Semi Final. His famous passing was in evidence as he combined frequently with wide men Slater and Keen to stretch opposition defences and his work in the centre of the park was enough to drive us to the top of the division for most of the season.

Consider the state of the pitches, the tackling and the refereeing in 1991 and then wonder how any central midfielder could have played that many games. Seemingly, because of his long hair, many Hammers fans dismissed Bishop as lightweight but his record puts the lie to that version of events. Frustrating as he may have sometimes been, Bishop never shirked his duties and as captain he should have lifted the league trophy on the final day of the season. Instead we West Hammed the fuck out of it, losing 2-1 at home to Notts County and somehow lost the trophy to Oldham. Indeed, all of this happened so late in the day that the engraver had allegedly already put our name on the trophy.

My most vivid recollection of that season, in which my Dad and I travelled the length of the country, was of a late Bishop winner at Port Vale. He picked up a pass from the right, cut inside and unleashed a 30 yard left footed swerving, dipping exocet that nestled in the top corner to give us a tense 1-0 win and put us top of the league. At that moment I felt my faith in Bish was being justified.

***
That 1991 season was the culmination of a weirdly semi-successful period for the club. In 1989 we reached the semi finals of the League Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to Luton, after somehow hammering Liverpool 4-1 in the previous round. The following year saw us do the same thing again, this time losing the first leg 6-0 to Oldham before salvaging some pride with a 3-0 win in the return affair. 

In 1991, there was the famous FA Cup run that culminated in a 4-0 semi final defeat to Nottingham Forest and those of a certain vintage will understand the relevance of Tony Gale's red card, Keith Hackett and a half an hour rendition of "Billy Bonds' Claret and Blue Army". Bishop was in the middle of that latter cup run, and my main recollection of that Villa Park defeat to Forest was his manful struggle against the nascent power of Roy Keane.


If you're of a certain age - you know

Indeed, it was in this season that I decided Bishop was the perfect West Ham player. Maddeningly inconsistent at times, but underpinned by a belief in the beauty of the game. He always wanted to play passing football, a blessing and a curse for sure, but still entirely in keeping with our own self image.

 As an impressionable youngster I had yet to take on any of the world weary cynicism that I lug around with me today like a holiday suitcase. Back then I believed fervently in things like the Academy of Football, and the knowledge that at it's very core West Ham was simply the most special club in existence. 

And Bish embodied all of that for me. He wanted to play the game the right way. He wasn't a great goalscorer, but he was a scorer of great goals. Just look at this clip below of his West Ham goals, and I guarantee you will be surprised at the consistent quality you see. Left foot, right foot, header - he could score them all. Just not very often. If Slater was lightning, and Dicks was steel, then Bishop was something else entirely. He was flair



That Port Vale goal is at 1:49, by the way

When Bishop was in form, the world was illuminated for me. His passing was inch perfect and perfectly designed to spring the flat back fours that dominated English football at the time. With his long hair and languid style he seemed almost exotic, and his ability to take a corner from either side encouraged me to spend hours in my back garden, determined to become two footed like him and his batshit crazy new midfield partner, John Moncur. 

It was at the end of that 1991 season that he was on the fringes of England selection too, earning a call up to play for England 'B' along with the likes of Keith Curle, Carlton Palmer and Graeme Le Saux. Looking back, it seems slightly odd to talk of Bishop in those terms but it was then that Graham Taylor was trying to take the national team forward from the Bobby Robson era and plenty of players were given the chance to play at the time. Was he really any less deserving of a chance than Palmer, Andy Gray, Geoff Thomas, Barry Venison or Kevin Richardson?

To address that point, one then has to acknowledge the other elephant in the room when one talks about Ian Bishop - his sexuality.

***
Back in the 1990's, English football had yet to come to terms with the idea of homosexuality and LGBT rights. Indeed, consider that it is 2017 and there is still no openly gay professional footballer in the top flight of the English game and it's probably fair to say we still haven't. 

The backdrop to this is that in March 1991 Trevor Morley was stabbed by his then wife in a near fatal domestic incident. As shocking as that incident was in itself, it soon took on a life of its own as supporters from other clubs were soon gleefully spreading rumours that the reason was due to her finding Bishop and Morley in bed together. 

The pair talk eloquently about it in this clip below, and Bishop also spoke in more detail to the KUMB podcast in 2014. The genesis of the rumour seems to have been that the pair were friends and had long hair and little else. It mattered not that they denied it, as they were hounded up and down the country by opposition fans only too delighted to shower them with abuse, and a salacious media who refused to let the story lie.

The FA seemingly got in on the act too, telling Billy Bonds that Bishop couldn't be considered for England selection due to the rumours, which sounds ludicrous until you remember that they wouldn't pick Julian Dicks due to his haircut and then twenty years later made John Terry their captain. I have no trouble believing the FA made that call. 




What struck me as I read all of the background to this is how little courage it takes to stand in a crowd of thousands and yell homophobic abuse, and how much more courage it takes to be on the receiving end of that and carry on. Consider how two straight men were wildly abused for the crime of being the subject of a rumour, and it's little wonder that gay players still don't feel comfortable in coming out.

As for Bishop, he admitted later that it did affect him but I can't say I ever noticed at the time. I had the team poster (which he refers to in the clip above) where he is holding hands with Julian Dicks and it made me laugh for years. Here was a man being hounded about his sexuality and instead of cowering away, he made light of it and laughed at the barbs and just kept passing them to death. There is great courage in that, and there was a great lesson in there for me as a teenager only just discovering girls and secondary school and books and puberty and all the other shit you go through when you're growing up. None of those things can compare to what Bishop went through, of course, but teenagers aren't very good with perspective.

I hope that when the times comes, my own children find some equally worthy heroes of their own as they enter their teenage years.

***
Bravery is something that defines Bishop's time with us. You need steel to get on the ball and try and pass it when you're playing at Upton Park and are 2-0 down to Norwich on a pitch resembling Ypres, or as Harry Redknapp once memorably put it "You misplace a pass and thirty thousand people go fackin' WERRRRRRR". Bishop never stopped playing, never stopped probing and never said no. I always loved that about him. 

There is physical courage too, in breaking your ribs and carrying on playing because you've already made all your substitutes, as Bishop once did at Luton in 1992. It strikes me that anyone who can do that is probably tougher than any supporter stood on a terrace yelling "poof" behind a wall of other faces.



And it takes greater courage still to be true to yourself in the face of abuse of the sort Ian Bishop received. To keep your hair long, to keep smiling, to keep playing the way you believe and to hold hands with a mate in a team photograph because it's funny and you don't give a shit. When Bishop eventually left West Ham in 1998, he left it far stronger than he found it, and left because of the emergence of another young central midfielder with strength and courage - Frank Lampard - who would go on to become one of the best we've ever produced in this country.

***

So Ian, I salute you. If Oasis became the soundtrack to my youth then you were a huge part of the video that accompanied it. I'll remember your grace on the pitch, your long range goals, your silken passing and your unfair struggle off the pitch. I'll also remember this game at Spurs, the famous 4-1 win in 1994. Every Hammer who is old enough remembers this game, and yet it was only in watching it again this evening that I realised the hand you had in three of the goals. 




It is my hope that when one day West Ham do have a genuine and openly gay player, that we will look back to the abuse suffered by you and Trevor Morley, and further still to Clyde Best and remember what all of that meant. And I believe my club and fellow fans will stand up to be counted when we are needed most. 

As you said, it wasn't your story to tell and yet you were forced to live it anyway. But that's not how I remember you. I remember a central midfielder of grace and elegance who could pass like a dream in the rain or the sun, in London or in Manchester and I'll especially always remember that last minute winner at Birmingham. Cheers, Bish.

Ian Bishop - Appearances 287 (17) Goals 17

I'm gong to write a few of these sporadically. I have already got a few suggestions for old match reports but if there are any other players to consider, then please let me know on Twitter (@TheHList). Please bear in mind the age range, mind you...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

West Ham - Kingdom Of The Not Quite

Full Of Life (Happy Now)

There was a Twitter thread this week where people were asked to post the most recent text message in their phone. Mine was "Always the same cycle" which could very easily have been my long suffering wife once more sending me instructions on how to use our washing machine, but was in fact my comment to a friend on our transfer policy.


This is not my wife, but finding weird stock photos is fun

The cycle I refer to is the long standing one of buying players as emergency surgery and then constantly needing to rebuild on the fly when these temporary sticking plasters come off. To continue mixing metaphors like cocktails, the adage is that teams need to be moving forward just to tread water in the fast moving Premier League. For West Ham it feels like we need to flail away frantically just to stop from drowning.

It is not, however, the de-rigeur thing to be negative about West Ham transfers at present. Such a thing would render you a "moaner" which is a rather widespread British phenomenon these days. See a half arsed plan and comment that maybe it could be improved with some actual, er, planning and one is sure to be rendered a whinger. You need to be a bit more patriotic, mate.

A Wish Away

But the thing is, I get it. It's summer and those abject home defeats seem like a distant memory. Now we're in the golden uplit sunlands of the close season where the players are all tanned, we're unbeaten and if you aren't optimistic now then you never will be. The beauty of summer belief is that it remains unscathed by the sharp blade of reality, which for now remains safely sheathed on Romelu Lukaku's hip.

And the names arriving are recognisable so there isn't a need to query if they will hit the ground running, or take any time to adjust. Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez and Joe Hart - how can they be bad signings? I've had them all in my Fantasy League team! In the short term I accept that it would be churlish to say that these signings won't make us better. Indeed, Jose Mourinho says we're trying to win the league, although he also thinks Ashley Young is a wing back so you can't have too much faith in his judgements.

And I agree with the general optimism for the short term. Zabaleta is possibly the best Premier League full back of the last 5 years and is an upgrade over Michail Antonio who started the season for us there last time around, before moving to a striking role because that's the level of planning we were running with last year.

Marko Arnautovic, meanwhile, is so far above any of our other wingers he might as well be on Peter Crouch's shoulders and as far as creative players from mid table teams go, he is about the best there is since the departure of our very own Dimitri Payet. He's also got rid of his man bun which is good because Loughton ain't big enough for two of them, says Andy Carroll.

Joe Hart is the incumbent England goalkeeper and therefore must be pretty good because Michael Ricketts is proof that nobody crap ever plays for the national team, and it's also World Cup year so he'll be motivated to keep his place. What comes after that isn't relevant, apparently.

And the last, and possibly best of the lot, is Javier Hernandez. The former Manchester United man is famed for scoring wherever he goes, and having run the gamut from Mido to Zaza with detours to Petric and Chamakh on the way, West Ham fans are not wasting any time in going mental over this signing. I can't blame any of them and in fact, I am delighted. I think this is a great signing, in isolation. After all, I still have a hole in my garden fence courtesy of the Modibo Maiga era.

So, what's the problem?

Circlesquare

At least part of my issue is the seeming incoherence of the summer transfer policy. Although the club have done a far better job of keeping a lid on rumours this time around - someone presumably changed the WiFi password in the Sullivan house - much of their activity has still been documented in one way or another. First it was Kelechi Iheanacho, then Olivier Giroud and Andre Gray before Hernandez finally fit the mould. But, what shape of mould is he fitting exactly? How on earth do you pivot from Giroud to Hernandez without fundamentally changing the way you are planning to play? These strikers aren't particularly like each other, and would all require a different type of service. I'm not saying that professional footballers aren't adaptable but was this ever considered? Given the huge difference in players, I am struggling to see how they were ever identified in the first place.

If rumours are to be believed, we got 95% of the way through the process of signing Iheanacho before Bilic pulled the plug. How is this possible, I wonder. Was he not consulted before the negotiations? If he was, why did he change his mind? I would have been far happier if the deal had been vetoed on the grounds that the club weren't prepared to agree to a buy back clause for the player which in effect would have made it a loan signing anyway. But no, we had apparently agreed to that and it was Bilic who got cold feet.


Shape up dickhead, or I'll send you to West Ham

This brings us back to the thorny issue of who exactly makes the decisions at West Ham. Tony Henry gave a pretty interesting interview to the official website, wherein he laid out a nice sounding process for identifying and recruiting players. He talks about needing "two or three players, maximum" which always seemed a bit optimistic given the gaping holes in the squad and David Sullivan's predilection for buying in bulk, but there is lots of good sense in what he says. 

Quite how that translates to the Iheanacho situation is another matter entirely. That's the difference between theory and practice, I suppose. As a former soldier said to me recently, "no plan ever survives contact with the enemy". 

But that seeming disconnect between planning and reality, or between the manager and the recruitment team sums up neatly how I feel about West Ham these days. 

We are the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, the Empire of the Nearly, the Commonwealth of the Confused. 

There is a plan if you dig deep enough, but it's never quite the right one. The players are often nearly the right fit, but not quite, or they are signed at just the wrong the stage of their career, and all playing in a stadium that could have been brilliant but isn't quite. So close. Nearly.

We're like a Tim Burton film wrapped up as a football team. I sort of get it, but Christ it's all a bit off kilter. 

Don't Let Me Down, Gently

Take Joe Hart, a man who has yet to meet a tunnel he hasn't yelled at. David Preece wrote a fascinating piece on Hart and his technical problems which I would urge you to read. So much of the optimism about his signing is couched in the terms of "If he can just get back his form from a few years ago", which is a typical position for a supporter to take but also flies in the face of reality.

Hart has been in decline for while and simply because he is 30 and at a goalkeepers usual peak age doesn't actually mean that's the case for him. I rather admire him for going to Torino and attempting to restart his career in an environment where his "pashun" was somehow even less useful than it is here. But the reality of his move is that he will be taking a spot where we were already slightly above average. To the extent there is any upgrade at all, it is minimal at best and when I asked Preece this very question his response was "I don't think there is, to be honest. I quite like Adrian and on the few occasions I have watched him, I have been impressed".



OK

That said, if the club feel he's an upgrade then so be it. But now we hit upon another touchy topic. He is signed for only one year on loan, with no follow on agreed price as far as I'm aware. This means if he plays well he will make the England squad and re-establish his transfer value. That's good for Joe Hart, good for England and good for Man City. It's good for West Ham too, but only if you assume that Adrian couldn't have done the same thing.

With Darren Randolph having been sold now, Adrian is formally installed as the understudy. If Hart leaves at the end of this season we then have a pissed off Adrian with one year left on his contract and no experienced back up. So, then we will have to sign a new keeper next summer to get back to...where we were at the start of this one.

I know most fans don't care about this - be more patriotic, that's next level whinging mate given it's two years away - but this seems like an issue to me.

To exacerbate all this, David Sullivan upset Adrian with a typically stupid comment upon signing Hart that he was "...the best keeper I have ever worked with". That our Chairman thinks he has worked with a player at all highlights a big slug of the problem at West Ham. Chairmen pay players, Directors of Football sign them and coaches and managers work with them. Given that Sullivan occupies the first two of those roles it's safe to say he doesn't understand either of them, but rather wishes he was the latter.

So to recap; we've signed a keeper who might not be any better than the guy we have already, who is himself now pissed off about a comment made by a Chairman that nobody wanted to hear from in the first place, with no guarantee that we get to keep the new guy beyond next May anyway. Triffic' as 'Arry would say.

This is not so much a problem kicked down the road, as a problem created from nothing and sent on the first plane to Austria for Slaven Bilic to deal with. It's nearly a good deal, but there is too much wrong with it to be right. Welcome to the Kingdom of the Not-Quite, Joe.

In case you've missed it - I see this as a vanity signing for Sullivan and nothing else. It's the footballing equivalent of a hair transplant for middle aged men. Which is pretty ironic for the Head and Shoulders guy.

It's Yer Money I'm After Baby

And what of Pablo Zabaleta? 32 year old Pablo Zabaleta. He played in a World Cup final in 2014, Pablo Zabaleta. That guy.

Well, he's experienced, expensive and old, I will grant you. He's also a pretty good player. Even at his age he is an upgrade on the inconsistent Sam Byram and may even help the former Leeds youngster develop, although I heard much the same thing about Arvelo Arbeloa last season.

As with all these signings, I have no real objection in isolation. Except they aren't being signed in isolation because that's not how it works. So Zabaleta may very well line up on that opening Sunday at Old Trafford alongside James Collins and Jose Fonte and we might be fielding the slowest defence since George's turn as a lawyer in Blackadder Goes Forth.




You take Lukaku, I'll take Rashford

So as the rest of the league gets younger, we get older. As everyone else gets faster, we get slower. As the world gets smarter, we get dumber.

To an extent, I feel David Sullivan's pain. He can't address the new, organic problems of last season, because he first has to fix the mess of the previous term. The lack of a right back has been an issue for ages, and he'll rightly say this is a solution. But, and there is always a but, it's about as temporary as it gets.

During the 2018/19 season we will now be paying Zabaleta (34), Fonte (35), Snodgrass (31), Noble (32), Carroll (30), Reid (31), Ogbonna (31) and now apparently Hernandez (31) and Arnautovic (30). That's a lot of your team who are suddenly too old to go on an Club 18-30 holiday, and one shouldn't ignore that Cresswell, Kouyate and Antonio will turn 29 that season too.

I can't help but feel that every single one of these signings makes perfect sense on their own and no sense at all when placed together. It's really quite remarkable.

I know that Premier League income is such that nobody really cares about it any more - teams are spending £50m on Kyle Walker and nobody even had to be kidnapped - but that's still a huge chunk of the wage bill taken up by players who are on the wrong end of the ageing curve. These are players who will be in or approaching decline and they are contracted to us, meaning their wages will have to be paid irrespective of their performance. If you're wondering why Mourinho is so impressed with our transfer policy, it's because it's the same as his own. Buy for the now, spend without regard for the future, and let someone else sweep up the pieces in a season or two.

Additionally, if you wonder why we seem to get such poor fees for players when we sell them, you have your answer right here. When you put people on long, expensive contracts they aren't generally keen to move. As such we will get less than £15m combined for Nordtveit, Feghouli and Valencia - all experienced internationals, and the former two having played in the Champions League - while Swansea turn down £45m for set piece specialist Gylfi Sigurdsson. Not that any of those three can compare with him, but more to say that we seem to sell into a different market than we buy from because we are constantly desperate to clear players from the wage bill.

So there it is. Our squad will increase in age next season. You say they will be more experienced and full of leaders - I say they will be slower, more expensive and unable to cover a pitch that was too big for a younger team last season.

And by the end of the next campaign, our team will be pushing an average age of 30.

The current average age of a Premier League squad is 27.

Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More

Well what would you do? A familiar refrain whenever I get out my soapbox and start off down this particular track.

I always find this a slightly odd question. If a Formula One driver crashes into a wall I'm pretty sure I'd be allowed to say "Oooh, that was a mistake" without someone promptly asking what I would have done differently. Well, I wouldn't have done anything differently because I'm a bit crap at hill starts, I'm terrible with directions and I wouldn't be allowed within a mile of a Formula One car.

But that's the thing with questioning West Ham's transfer policy before the season. It's all very no way, pal. You just love to have a moan. Stop talking us down mate, they wouldn't have come this far without a master plan.

Well, for what little it's worth, my plan would be to change completely the profile of players we buy. Players should only come when they will still have a resale value at the end of their contract, which means anyone turning 30 during their time with us would be out of the picture. The only market for these players currently is to sell them to us.

This could be costly, of course, because young players and especially English ones, are valued like diamonds. But there are plenty of examples of young players being bought in the last few years for affordable fees and immediately making their teams stronger. Dele Alli, N'Golo Kante, Cedric Soares, Idrissa Gueye and Joel Matip would all have walked into our side and all were affordable and obtainable at the time of their moves. Manuel Lanzini and Pedro Obiang are proof perfect that we can do it ourselves. All the more frustrating that we therefore seem to have forgotten that you don't need to spend £25m on Premier League ready youngsters if you have a sufficiently wide scouting and analytics net.

The problems start when you restrict yourself to players represented by certain agents, and only wish to buy players with Premier League experience. These seem like two of the most foolhardy things a smaller club could do and yet that is West Ham's policy. It's fucking batshit crazy, but it's actually the policy.

And this is the result of scouting via agents. An ageing side, with a constant and expensive churn of players, with each transaction being very profitable for the men in the middle. If you allow yourself to be led in a reactionary way by agents and a Chairman living out his dream of playing at being Alex Ferguson, then you ending up buying Robert Snodgrass in January for £10m and replacing him in July with Marko Arnautovic for £28m. All hail the Commonwealth of the Confused.

So, yes, I'm going to feel the same frisson of excitement as you when we first see Hernandez lining up with Arnautovic, Lanzini and Antonio just behind him while Hart and Zabaleta organise our defence properly. I worry about that soft looking central midfield but for now, for the shortest of short terms, that looks a decent side.

But this is a footballing sandcastle, not designed to last for long and susceptible to the ravages of nature, and when the injuries come in the winter I suspect we will all wish this squad was a bit younger.

Hot Love Now!

When fans say we need to invest in older players "now" in order to attract better younger types in future, I confess to being perplexed. There has never been a better time to take a chance on a different type of player than now. The top six are impenetrable and Everton are spending literally hundreds of millions to finish seventh. We remain adrift in that mid table pack with nowhere really to go. Relegation seems a stretch - although we needed some luck to avoid it last year, our odds never got much above 5% - and as promising as these new arrivals might be even the most one eyed loon doesn't think we're making the Champions League.

So why not model ourselves on the only team who have broached the top four permanently in recent times? Swallow your bile - we need to copy Spurs. Buy young players only, all in the mid to low range of the market and hire a coach to develop them as a team. It's no coincidence that Spurs are the youngest team in the league, and regularly run the furthest during their games. This is modern football. It requires youth, athleticism and tactical fluidity. Yet we appear to building for 2011 when everyone else is focused on 2017.



I will not mock Richie Benaud

Why are we are modelling ourselves on Manchester United and Chelsea in buying expensive players at the height of their value with no mind to what the cost will be to have them on the wage bill in a few years time?

The great Australian polymath Richie Benaud once said of cricket captaincy that it was "90% luck and 10% skill, but for goodness sake don't try it without the 10%". It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that a cogent football transfer policy for a club like Chelsea is 90% money and 10% scouting,  and yet we seem to be trying to do it without either the 90% or the 10%. It's nearly a good plan, I suppose. But not quite.

Welcome To The Cheap Seats

But, I hear you say, this squad is young. What of Quina, Martinez, Oxford, Burke and Cullen? Start being more positive, you moaner - the kids will save us.


17 and our saviour

Yeah well, those kids play in an Academy that hasn't developed a first team player in a decade, and as incomprehensible as it may seem that none of them will make it, we also felt the same about Freddie Sears, Jordan Spence, Sam Howes, Seb Lletget and Blair Turgott once upon a time. George Dobson was highly thought of a season or two ago and he joined Sparta Rotterdam this week. Nearly, but not quite.

Young players are great for dreaming on but it's a hard old game to break into and we aren't very good at helping them do it. In fact, joining West Ham seems to be so harmful for kids development that we're probably nicknamed Thalidomide amongst parents up and down the land.

I thoroughly approve of the investment in younger players like this, however, as it's cheap and a couple might pay off. But let's not kid ourselves that these youngsters are breaking through anytime soon.

Thus we truck slowly toward Old Trafford and already Kouyate and Antonio will miss the start of the season because someone is always injured. But there is cause for optimism with the new signings in place and the horrors of last year behind us. I understand the excitement among the fans, but I can't help writing this article. I can't help saying that I think we're not quite there. Nearly, but not quite.

And if you're wondering why it is that I'm concerning myself with what our wage bill will look like in two years, or how exactly these new signings are going to cope with the high press, or who is going to be in goal for us next season or the average age of this years squad, well....it's because I'm not sure anyone else at West Ham is.

I want to believe in this new dream, and maybe they will sign some youngsters to shut me up before the window closes (although Keita Balde came and went pretty quickly, didn't he?). But I can't help but look further down the road and see trouble.

It's all decent, but it's temporary.

Nearly. Not quite.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The H List: Themes For A Season

I doubt anyone cares, but if you do - here are the themes used for each H List this season:

Watford (h) - The Stone Roses
West Brom (a) - True Detective
West Ham and the Lost Art of Defending - Indiana Jones
Chelsea (h) EFL Cup - Bob Dylan
Everton (a) - William Shakespeare
Stoke (h) - Robert De Niro
West Ham and the Art of the Deal - Neil Young
Spurs (a) - De La Soul
Man Utd (a) - John Steinbeck
Man Utd (a) EFL Cup - Game of Thrones
Arsenal (h) - Fleet Foxes
Liverpool (a) - Tennyson
Burnley (h) - Oasis
Hull (h) - Bruce Springsteen
Swansea (a) - The Pogues
Leicester (a) - Star Wars
Man Utd (h) - William Boyd
Man City (h) FA Cup - Arcade Fire
West Ham and the Fallen Hero - Philip Pullman
Crystal Palace (h) - The Libertines
Middlesbrough (a) - Elbow
Man City (h) - The Wire
Southampton (a) - Michael Connelly
West Brom (h) - The West Wing
Watford (a) - Embrace
Chelsea (h) - Breaking Bad
Bournemouth (a) - The Smiths
Leicester (h) - Billy Bragg
Hull (a) - Hell or High Water
Arsenal (a) - Arctic Monkeys
Swansea (h) - Simon and Garfunkel
Everton (h) - Thomas Hardy 
Stoke (a) - Gram Parsons
Spurs (h) - Richard Hawley
Liverpool (h) - Alt-J
Burnley (a) - Vampire Weekend

Monday, May 22, 2017

Burnley 1 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Holiday

So here we are. And there we were.

Stamford Bridge, August 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. On that balmy night under a crimson London sky, we still had the fresh faced innocence of youth. Back then we could destroy Death Stars and rescue princesses. We were Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. At Chelsea we came striding on to the stage, bursting with the confidence of a season spent bloodying the noses of the elite and with the strut that comes from having Dimitri Payet in your ranks. We lost, naturally, but with the ill fortune that seems to have been our constant companion during Slaven Bilic's tenure.


West Ham fan - August 2016

But ultimately we ended somewhat as we started, with injuries everywhere, no fit strikers and a seemingly terminal lack of direction to our play. By now we were limping forlornly to the finish of a dismal season. Now we were Luke Skywalker at the denouement of The Empire Strikes Back.


West Ham fan - May 2017. I hope none of you kissed your sister. 

In that vein, this wasn't a terrible game. It had the important feature of being unimportant, allowing us to watch it in the slightly catatonic, vacation like state that end of season games have when you're a bang average, mid table, vanilla scoop of a team in the giant Ben and Jerry's stand that is the Premier League. But that same lack of tension betrays something in itself. None of us watch our teams for safety. We watch to be entertained and for the pursuit of victory, however vain that might often be. To watch, perchance to dream, if I might misquote the Bard. 

However much it might knot the stomach, I think I prefer my football with something riding on it. 

2. Giving Up The Gun

I have seen some comments that paint this season as a triumph of sorts for Bilic. Amid the rubble left behind by Payet, he has fashioned a team that finished just two points - or a last minute Darren Randolph error at Sunderland - from 8th place. The stadium move, injuries like Platoon and a disrupted dressing room were among the trials he faced, and in the end he came through it all to lead us to 11th place.

There is no doubt some truth to all of that, but it's also true that the gap between ourselves and Everton (16 points) is enormous, and that's before we even consider the distant top six. We are firmly embedded in that glut of mediocrity that covers the bottom two thirds of the league.

I also find it hard to look past the self inflicted nature of some of our problems. The constant lack of a right back and the ludicrous and damagingly long exclusion of Adrian were both issues Bilic brought upon himself. Likewise, he must have some say in our transfers and therefore deserves a slice of the opprobrium for them, for if he really has no involvement then he should be moved on for a manager with a bit more spine who won't let his bosses suggest he does.

Sadly, as much as I find Bilic to be personally engaging and a seemingly very decent guy, I also can't look past those repeated shellackings at home. Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Man City again, Southampton, Leicester and fucking Watford all scored at least three times at our ground, whilst it would be remiss to ignore that we also somehow managed to go 4-0 down to West Brom without even the hint of a match fixing scandal. 

At some point it feels like we need to stop fixating on the rumour that Payet was being disruptive and focus a little more on the fact that the former Croatia centre half and manager couldn't organise his defence to stand in a straight line and stop Salomon Rondon from scoring. 

Arguing for Bilic's dismissal is pointless as he isn't going to be fired and also because I'm a blogger and nobody listens to me. But it feels reasonable to point out that Bilic surely won't survive another season of shambolic defending like this again. Sure, David Sullivan is happy to use the Club to promote his straight to DVD story about little known East End gangsters the Krays, but letting in four at West Brom is a bit embarrassing all round. 

3. I Stand Corrected

I wonder if I owe Andre Ayew an apology.

Probably not as he's never read a word of anything I've ever written and therefore doesn't give a shit about anything I think. But, if you can just exclude the memory of him having an epileptic fit last week and hitting the post from two yards out, he's actually been playing pretty well of late.


Deadly from 3 yards. If you forget last week. 

He started this game up front on his own because Bilic lost a game of pre match swingball to Sean Dyche or something, but made a very decent fist of it anyway. He's absolutely not a front man, but as a support striker you can see his merits easily enough. If nothing else he has the happy knack of finding himself in goalscoring positions more often than any of his team mates. 

The early pickings were slim as Burnley exploited the gaps in behind our wing backs very effectively, and opened the scoring after a glacial Andre Gray cross went through the legs of all three of our centre halves, two barstools, a giraffe and a snooker table before Sam Vokes tapped it past Adrian for the opening goal. 

We were level within minutes however, as Sofiane Feghouli ran on to a lovely Ayew flick to smash home a very well worked equaliser. That chance arose after Burnley midfielder Ashley Westwood fouled Ayew and was rightly booked. It seemed inevitable then, that the home midfielder would see red when shortly after he landed a knee high tackle on James Collins. 

Weirdly, referee Bobby Madley decided that knee high tackles are fine so long as you do them on the last day of the season and it's sunny and all the fans are in fancy dress. As such, Westwood got a mild telling off, while Lanzini then got a yellow card for a fairly inconsequential trip a few minutes later.

Premier League refereeing continues to distress me. 

As it was, Sean Dyche would later announce that his team should have been "out of sight" at half time, which confused me as his team managed one shot on goal all day, so perhaps he really meant he literally didn't want to see them as they were a bit crap. No matter, as we came out firing after the break and dominated much of the play. This included winning our first corner after an hour which we then executed so brilliantly that after taking it short on the left we somehow managed to engineer a situation where the ball made it's way out to the right for Jose Fonte to cross towards Feghouli. This actually happened. 

The winner eventually came when a Fernandes shot was parried straight up into the air by Tom Heaton, only to bounce off the bar to a waiting Ayew while Burnley defenders flung themselves into the net like parachutists exiting a glider. Aye meanwhile, buried it, as he is absolutely, unequivocally deadly from three yards except when he isn't. 

Thereafter we had several chances to get a third on the break, but managed to butcher them all like we were drafting policy for the Tory manifesto. Thus we were left to cling to a 2-1 win that propels us to the giddy heights of two places below Bournemouth, with one victory more than 17th placed Watford.

All in all we've generally looked a better team away from home this season, where the uncertain atmosphere and general malaise of the London Stadium has been but a memory. More importantly, on the road we've been able to sit back and seek to hit teams on the counter and we did that very well here in the second half, frequently disrupting play high up the pitch and then leveraging that into opportunities for our wide players to run behind and then spectacularly fail to play the correct final ball. 

No one disputes that there will need to be some major personnel changes this summer, but there does seem to be a method to how Bilic plays away from home that is working at least some of the time. We've still been too passive at places like Arsenal and Everton, but it's not hard to see the blueprint. The trick for next year is to find a more effective way to play at home. 

4. White Sky

Anyway, I feel like Ayew needs a song and the chorus of this is perfect. 

Skip to 1:06 if you can't stand the preppy magnificence of Vampire Weekend but either way I'm sure you'll agree it's perfect and not at all out of our vocal range. 




I feel like maybe I'm padding the article a bit this week. 

5. The Kids Don't Stand A Chance

On a scale of "1" to "Oh Christ, What Now?", how much did you enjoy this tweet by David Gold?
The thing is, I actually have some sympathy for Gold here. He was responding to a graphic showing West Ham had zero minutes from teenagers in the league this year, albeit this was prior to Declan Rice's four minute cameo today that may well have been Bilic's way of trying to shut up his chairman.

I think what Gold was clumsily trying to say is that most youngsters don't make it at Premier League level. This isn't news to anyone who watches the game, but the problem is that he said it at a time when fans are particularly desperate for help from the youth team because the senior squad looks so sparse.

So, fresh on the back of the u23 team winning promotion to Division 1 of what is effectively the old reserves league, fans were clamouring for some kids to be blooded. Nowhere was there much questioning of the fact that they were in Division 2 for a reason and didn't even win it but needed a play off. Instead, there was the usual lust for "something else". Football fans at heart are romantic and we are suckers for the story of the local kid coming through the ranks while skilfully ignoring the reality that when it goes wrong - Ince, Lampard, Defoe - it does so spectacularly.

But the thing that Gold really didn't appreciate is the value that players acquire in the eyes of fans when they can't see them playing. Diafra Sakho has had a brilliant season from this perspective as he is more highly rated now than ever, simply by virtue of being absent from the fray for much of the year. Likewise, young players like Martinez, Rice and Oxford simply must be better than what we have because there is no evidence to the contrary. One might point to the fact that our Academy hasn't produced a worthwhile first team player since Junior Stanislas, but that will never land with those fans who demand youth as the answer to all, and the elixir for our dying first team.

Gold's angle, I hope, was that young players who are good enough will always force their way into the side through their performance in training or out on loan. As prime examples Martinez didn't do much at Oxford, whilst Oxford didn't do much at Reading, which is a sentence you may have to read a couple of times to make sense of. However, Martinez scored a couple of goals in said play offs, getting lots of fans excited, although many seemed to ignore the fact that Newcastle u23 seem to defend in homage to Kevin Keegan and therefore didn't actually bother doing any.

Look, I'd love for our young players to emerge soon and be brilliant, but I also trust our Academy coaches to properly evaluate them to determine those who are ready. They have the advantage over 99% of West Ham fans because they have at least, you know, seen them play.

I'd also add that calling on them too young can be devastating for young players if it simply highlights their lack of readiness. I'm not entirely sure that Stephen Bywater ever recovered from his traumatic Bradford experience, as an example.

I'd like to think this is what Gold was trying to convey but, yet again, we find that tweets are rarely useful for addressing points with any nuance to them. What's perhaps most disturbing about this whole episode is that Gold somehow thought tackling it in 140 characters was a good idea. Yet again one of our chairmen is now a media story, as happens with depressing regularity, when a simple question to a media officer about whether this was a good idea for a tweet would presumably have elicited a "What? Jesus Christ, no! Give me that phone" response that I feel could preface about 50% of all public pronouncements made by our current Board.

There is no doubt in my mind that our Academy has underperformed for years, but look at Chelsea for a salutary lesson on youth production. They regularly have the best youth set up around, but are yet to graduate anyone properly to the first team due to the fact that none have been good enough to displace the incumbent. One might call that harsh, or simply the nature of professional football, but the point is that if even the best Academy in England can't progress many youngsters to help the first team then perhaps we should readjust our sights accordingly.

However, in some ways that issue at Chelsea should be our biggest selling point. We should be advertising ourselves to young British footballers as a place to come and play because at least there is a pathway to the first team here. "Come and play for us - we're not Chelsea!" - that sort of thing.

Which brings us back to where we started. Instead of that positive message, this ill judged tweet, however Gold meant it, gave the impression of the exact opposite and punctured any good feeling that had built up after the u23 play off win. I like David Gold and think his willingness to interact with fans on social media is both stupid and slightly endearing, but getting dragged into topics like this is just ridiculous. A good rule of thumb, David - if it requires to you to send anything more than three tweets to clarify your position, then it's too nuanced a subject for Twitter. Go write a long ranting post on Facebook like everyone else.

6. Run

I can't be bothered to write anything further about a season ending game at Burnley, especially given that it had all the dramatic tension of a North Korean election, albeit with less accurate shooting. So instead let me give you some H List end of season awards:

Player of the Season

1. Manuel Lanzini
2. Michail Antonio
3. Pedro Obiang

Apologies to: Winston Reid

No apologies to: Darren Randolph, Simone Zaza, Gokhan Tore

In the week that he gets a call up to the full Argentinian squad, Lanzini picks up this prestigious award as well. There's a new series of Game of Thrones on the way too - Christ, what a time to be alive, Manu.


I won! I beat Tore!

Picking up the mantle of being our only creative player after Payet disappeared, the diminutive midfielder was wonderful for the second half of the season. He scored crucial goals (helloooooo Spurs) and generally showed his team mates how to hold on to the ball for longer than the life span of a Tory policy on social care.

Behind him was Michail Antonio who started the season brilliantly, when played in his correct position which is Not Right Back. However, he tailed off a little towards the end and got injured before the run in. His fearsome physicality and unorthodox style made him one of our few leading lights this season, and the thought of him playing a full season with a proper striker in front is actually quite exciting. He also made the England squad but didn't get a game as Sam Allardyce opted for Theo Walcott instead and was fired shortly thereafter. Possibly as a result.

Third place goes to Pedro Obiang, who inexplicably started the season behind Havard Nordtveit but was soon making that position his own. As is customary, his season was cut short due to surgery, otherwise he probably would have won this award. He is, by now, the prime candidate to start in our central midfield with Kouyate next year.

7. Unbelievers

Goal of the Season

1. Dimitri Payet vs Middlesbrough (h)
2. Andy Carroll vs Crystal Palace (h)
3. Winston Reid vs Sunderland (h)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Crystal Palace (a), Manuel Lanzini vs Leicester (h), Michail Antonio vs Watford (h)

I know, I know. It's not fashionable to speak positively of Payet, but to watch him slalom through the Middlesbrough defence was to watch a master at work. Carroll's spectacular bicycle kick at home to Palace was itself majestic, but it really only required one thing to be done well. By contrast Payet needed to do multiple things, moving at speed and ended up beating four players before slotting past the keeper.

Put another way, I think Payet could have scored Carroll's goal but the reverse isn't true. The mixture of skills required was sublime, and the fact that he later revealed himself to be an utter Sheffield United of a man doesn't erase that.

Elsewhere, I have a particular soft spot for Winston Reid's last minute winner against Sunderland as this was a last gasp throw of the dice where we eschewed giving it to any of our forward players and instead asked our centre half to do a Cruyff turn on the edge of the box and smash it home with his weaker foot. As one does.

8. Young Lion

Best Individual Performance

1. Cheikhou Kouyate vs Spurs (h)
2. Winston Reid vs Spurs (h)
3. Aaron Cresswell vs Crystal Palace (a)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Spurs (a), Andy Carroll vs Middlesbrough (a), Michail Antonio vs Liverpool (a)

No apologies to: Darren Randolph vs Sunderland (a), Havard Nordtveit vs Liverpool (h), Gokhan Tore vs Literally Anyone

Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier - meet Cheikhou Kouyate, destroyer of seasons.


I'm just going to pick you up and put you out of the way. Big boys stuff, yeah?

It says much that all of the performances from the Spurs home game could have made their way in here, and none of it really dispels the myth that this is our Cup Final. Kouyate was immense, however, and gave us all a chance to nod and smile knowingly whenever our Spurs brethren start going on about the fearsome Wanyama.

Behind him Winston Reid was sublime, snuffling out Harry Kane - an achievement that would take on even greater merit when Kane would subsequently score eight times in his next three games.

It says an awful lot that the next best I could think of was a game in which the player in question was actually sent off. Cresswell made his return from serious injury at Palace and was superb up until referee Martin Atkinson went the full Hackett and dismissed him for having an offensive taste in music.

Elsewhere Lanzini turned in loads of brilliant games and could have easily filled all three spots himself, but I am nothing if not mercurial.

9. Step

Best Team Performance

1. Spurs (h)
2. Southampton (a)
3. Liverpool (a)

I doubt this can really have been a surprise to anyone. Our only decent home performance of the season against a good team and it came when we most wanted it. Half of the team were injured but we swarmed all over a neutered Spurs and Lanzini's second half winner was the least we all deserved for a season of rare travails.

Elsewhere we were much better away from home, and the come from behind win at Southampton was a doozy, as was the point earned at Anfield which is so rare that we welcomed it like a decent Ed Sheeran song. Or I imagine we would have done if such a thing existed.


10. Ya Hey

And with that, rather half hearted, effort we come to the end of the season. I would like to thank all of you who have persevered with The H List, and I want to say now how much I greatly appreciate every comment, like, share, retweet, link, upvote, subscription to the mailing list or just general nice feedback. It's been a laborious season in many ways, with the games often being shrouded in negativity and many of our faults going unaddressed for long periods, making the blog often feel repetitive.

I am therefore indebted to those of you who have kept reading and kept sharing my work. I can assure you that without that kindness I wouldn't bother carrying on.

In particular I would like to thank Graeme and Gordon at KUMB for carrying the H List on their site and to Phil and Jim from the Stop! Hammertime podcast who have been kind enough to have me on the show a few times this year. Michael Casagrande and Rob Coker were especially generous in helping me out with tickets and Andy Ellis single handedly ended the Lukaku streak by putting me in the Executive Boxes against Everton. I am indebted to you all.

Jacob Steinberg, Terry Land, Emily Pulham and Dan Silver were kind enough to participate in a roundtable with me and have foolishly agreed to do so again. Be prepared for Director of Football questions folks and keep an eye out for that sometime in the next month.

And lastly, I really must mention my wife - Mrs Shark - who never reads this blog ("it's too long - why on earth would anyone bother?" she says not unreasonably, before spending two hours reading Facebook posts), but is unfailingly supportive of me writing it, and puts up with a lot of me swearing at the iMac over our full back adventures.

I can't say for sure if The H List will return in the same format next season as there are a couple of other irons in the fire (not Zaza and Tore, sadly) whereby I might be doing some writing for some other publications next season. It's not my intention to abandon The H List however, but maybe my wife might get her wish and I might abridge it a little, or alter the frequency. We shall see.

That's all in the future, however, and I do plan to put some articles out over the summer. I was considering some retrospective H List's for games of yesteryear. If there are any you think would be decent let me know in the comments, and if I saw the game I'll give it a whirl.

And with that, I'll bid you all adieu for now. For all my whinging I love West Ham as one might love a family member. I know every flaw and every failing, but I also love them unfailingly and with the ferocity of a raging forest fire, and being able to share that with like minded Hammers is a privilege I don't take lightly.

Thanks to you all.