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

Friday, February 15, 2019

An Inconvenient Truth

"Seems like every time you turn around,
There's another hard luck story that you're gonna hear"
- Bob Dylan, "Black Diamond Bay"


There is an issue that has been vexing West Ham fans this week. It's been bubbling around for a while and finally came to the surface during our rousing 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool. You probably know what I'm talking about...yes, it's the huge issue of away fans sitting in the home end at the London Stadium. Time to dust off the laptop, say I. 



That's not the current club crest, oh wait.

I've followed this topic all week as various forums and social media platforms have been awash with West Ham fans who are extremely upset about this. I keep reading about this great scourge and how we ought to be telling stewards as soon as we see anyone in an opposition hat, and how the club ought to be doing more to stop it. I'm not necessarily opposed to that line of thinking, as I think it is a problem if home fans can't get tickets at the expense of travelling supporters, but I confess I don't see this as being all that troubling considering we struggle to fill the stadium. I've sat in the home stand at opposition grounds to watch West Ham on their travels so I'd be fairly hypocritical if I started objecting to it now. 

But, no! The West Ham online community has spoken and we must have a zero tolerance policy on away fans in the home end. The answer to the question "What number of away fans is acceptable in the home end?" is categorically zero. Remember this number, because I'll return to it. Zero. None. Nil. 

One would be too many. Got it?

Because West Ham fans are very clear on this point. 


***

"Another head aches, another heart breaks
I'm so much older than I can take"
The Killers, "All These Things That I've Done"

As I write this piece, the Official West Ham Supporters Board (OSB) are meeting. You might recognise the name because they were in the news recently when a member of the group, Nik Tucker, resigned from his position after posting homophobic and anti-Semitic images on his website. I have never met Tucker, or heard of the website, but I've seen the pictures and they don't leave much room for argument.

Those who know him speak of a man who runs a boxing club, gives his time freely to the community and doesn't practice discrimination. I have no reason to doubt any of that but it rather serves to highlight that decent people can still unwittingly propagate anti Semitism when they aren't attuned to what it actually is.

None of this would be all that newsworthy were it not for the fact that Tucker had been selected by the club to serve on the OSB. The process for this involved individuals garnering a small number of nominations from fellow season ticket holders, writing a profile of themselves which was then presented on an anonymous basis to a selection panel which may or may not have included some former players. That group then chose the representatives, thus leading to the possibility that Tucker found himself on the board because Carlton Cole didn't do a background check on him - and that, ladies and gentleman, may be the single most West Ham sentence ever typed.

Also included in the OSB is a guy by the name of Greg Smith, who attended the infamous Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) march in October last year. I have already written about that here and will return to it later. I continue to find it strange that the club don't consider the use of their image by the DFLA to be a significant problem.

What is clear is that none of the individuals on the OSB have been elected by supporters, and that the body has been set up because West Ham still refuse to engage with the West Ham United Independent Supporters Association (WHUISA). The latter is an actual democratic group with over 5,000 paying members and a committee who are required to stand for election. They are recognised by, and affiliated to, all relevant supporters groups, and yet West Ham continue to do everything they can to avoid speaking to them.

The OSB, meanwhile, has members representing such minority groups as BAME, LGBT and disabled fans, which is quite right and also others such as the West Stand, which is quite weird. I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of any of the members, but I am struck by what lengths Karren Brady will go to avoid sitting down with WHUISA and answering questions from people who the fans actually elected to speak on their behalf.

If you want to hear an explanation of what the OSB are doing then there is a good section here towards the end of the Stop!Hammer Time podcast, where Pride of Irons chair Jim Dolan talks about the good work being done. I applaud the intentions, but disapprove of the gerrymandering.

Now, at this point you may think that I'm just going over old ground, but where this gets interesting is how this news reached the wider consciousness. Nobody in the West Ham world knew about this until Tucker himself posted about it on his website, where he described his departure as being "by (cough) mutual consent...I suppose I am just one of those dinosaur fans who the club would like to be extinct", which is a strange way of saying sorry.

This was picked up by Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian, who has been covering the issues between the Hammers board and support for years, and then suddenly it became big news in the West Ham world. At this point; cavear emptor - I consider Steinberg to be a friend, even though we have a thoroughly modern friendship that has only ever involved us meeting once very briefly on a five minute stroll to the stadium for a home game. We have, however, exchanged messages and emails in the past, he has been very supportive of The H List, and I think he has been fearless in highlighting issues within West Ham.

For the crime of reporting something that the individual had already publicly posted, he was then attacked on Twitter and online. He was described variously as a grass, a Spurs fan, a blood sucking leech, a scumbag, a c*nt and received a number of threats both veiled and overt, and often dripping in anti-Semitism.

Included in this barrage were comments from well established West Ham social media personalities including Nicky Hawkins of West Ham Fan TV (*), who launched an impassioned defence of Tucker before revealing that he hadn't actually seen the posts in question, but he couldn't have put up anything anti-Semitic or homophobic because he was their mate. But this is an example of what he posted:


"Banter"

West Ham Fan TV have 13,000 Twitter followers, 43,000 YouTube subscribers and 16.5m views of their videos.

***

"Well a lot of people guess, 
Some say no and some say yes"
Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Airline to Heaven"

I want you to know that I appreciate very few people come to the 12th most popular West Ham blog on the web to get their fix of political commentary. But I'd ask you to bear with me briefly while I talk about Brexit. There will, I promise, be a point to it.

I live in Romford where we are, to coin a phrase, well Brexit. We are, in fact, so Brexit that The Guardian, CNN, The Washington Post and The Independent have all been to have a chat. As a Remainer, I feel I know how easy it is to label my neighbours as racists and fascists and I confess that there are times when I think my wife and I were the only two people in the whole town to have voted to Remain.

But here's the thing. Those of us who live here have seen great change in the last decade. Our schools are under horrendous budgetary pressure, the roads are overcrowded and poorly maintained, the train service to London is so packed that the new trains ordered for Crossrail actually have fewer seats in them to allow for more standing space, the local hospital had to take a £15m loan and be put into financial special measures, it's not terribly safe and the standard of our public services is dire. People had, and still have, good reason to be pissed off.


A picture taken at the Armed Forces Parade in Romford, 2016

And then arrived a referendum, like a gift wrapped rocket launcher which voters could turn in one particular direction and fire with gleeful abandon as a way of venting their frustration at the people responsible.

To me, it seemed fairly logical that after years of austerity and slashing budgets that the people of Romford might point that rocket launcher back at David Cameron and the Tory party who had inflicted that hardship upon them. But at this point, our old friend cognitive dissonance stepped forward. Since 1974, apart from a brief four year hiatus in 1997 under Blair, Romford has been staunchly Conservative, to the extent that you could put a dustbin named "Blue Passports" on the ballot and it would pick up 30,000 votes here.

And thus, the referendum asked a hugely complicated question in a ludicrously simple way. And when the voters of Romford looked round for an answer as to why things had got so bad they unsurprisingly chose not to blame the people they had been voting for. Who, after all, wants to accept they might be complicit in their own unhappiness?

So the people who voted for austerity, and then got it and then hated it, needed somewhere else to place the blame. And into that light stepped mendacious grifters like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, none of whom care one bit about the people of Romford, but were perfectly happy to give them an easy answer: The EU.

The Remain camp bear a huge responsibility too, as they ought to have been able to craft a response to this by simply pointing at a picture Cameron and mouthing "it's his fault". Instead, Corbyn went on holiday like the useless sixth form politician he is, Nick Clegg was a busted flush after the University fee shambles and nobody in England pays any attention to Nicola Sturgeon or Leanne Wood because they don't care about Scotland or Wales.

And so it came to pass that Leave won, and while I accept that all racists will have voted for Brexit, I don't accept that all Leave voters were racist. It just isn't that straightforward, and until the Remain camp understand that, they will continue to be perplexed about why people would willingly vote for something that seems so obviously harmful.

And why do I give these opinions and make these points on an article that is seemingly about West Ham? For a couple of reasons; firstly, to illustrate that no point of political contention is ever straightforward or without nuance. These issues are complex in their origin, and the positions that people have arrived at are being informed by all sorts of competing factors. I don't agree with Brexiteers, but I have tried hard to understand why people may have voted the way they have.

Additionally, because the entirety of British life at present is dominated by Brexit, and the entirety of British political discussion is influenced by Brexit, the resulting issues that we see at West Ham are a fall out from this. West Ham currently has a problem with race and antisemitism and Islamophobia and homophobia for the simple reason that our society has a problem with all of these things.


***

"Tryin' to be like no-ones ever been
You try so hard, you get it wrong"
- Embrace, "You're Not Alone"

But there is another reason I say all this. I want to demonstrate that I am perfectly prepared to sit down and consider both sides of an argument. You may disagree with my conclusions - I'm guessing around 52% of you probably do - but I'm not into blanket condemnation of people, just because we don't share the same political real estate. Nor am I permanently and dogmatically wedded to my own political views; Labour will never again get my vote while anti Semites run the party, because I've got to be able to look my Jewish friends in the eye. 

But I struggle with the DFLA. I've tried. I've read their Facebook pages, listened to those of you who have contacted me with their side of things, and read their policy demands. And I'm afraid that I get nothing from it apart from Far Right dog whistling. They are on police extremist watch lists for a reason, which is pretty damning considering that's what they purport to oppose. I've read the news reports and I've seen the images of Nazi salutes, and while I'm perfectly prepared to accept that the majority of people on that march would disown those views, I'm afraid "Just because I'm marching with Nazis doesn't make me a Nazi" isn't an argument that has improved with time. There are better ways to oppose extremism. 

And the problem with Mark Phillips, and now Greg Smith, is that they have attached our club to that organisation with a degree of formality. My issue with Phillips attending the march wasn't that I felt he was a racist or a fascist because I don't know him (or indeed Smith), and indeed I am very uncomfortable with the idea that people be punished for their political views. His misstep, however, was to tweet out something to the effect of "great to see so many West Ham fans here, always the biggest group". And the problem with that, from a member of staff with access to our players, is that it suggests that West Ham are connected to the DFLA.

But what about those of us who don't espouse the views of the DFLA? What about those who think that the group are marching under an Islamophobic banner and think that our Muslim fans deserve better than to see their club crest being carried in support of those views? Why is it that Karren Brady will smugly tell small businesses that they cannot use the West Ham crest to sell badges and scarves, but is seemingly willing to see it carried on a march like this, and doesn't see it as a barrier to somebody serving on her OSB?

I'm well aware that some of you may have gone on that march, and some will be DFLA members and that's your prerogative, of course. But you don't speak for me, and whether Mark Phillips intended to or not, he did try and speak for me by tweeting his views and attaching my club to his march. And while I am sympathetic to any club employee who wonders why they seem to be held to a higher standard of behaviour than certain Board members, I still think there is a significant problem with him doing this.

And as I watch all of this unfolding once again, as if scheduled into some sort of annual timeline of fuck ups which the club adhere to religiously, I keep wondering...what exactly is it that West Ham United stand for these days?

***

"The world is overrun with the wealthy and the wicked"
- Mos Def, "Fear Not of Man"

So, where now?

The last week has been a depressing time to be a West Ham fan. Steinberg has been shot for delivering a message that a lot of people seemingly didn't want to hear. First he highlighted the posts from Tucker, then retweeted the video clip of someone at the London Stadium calling Mo Salah a "Muslim c*nt", and then shared the various threatening Tweets he received. By any stretch of the imagination these were newsworthy stories, and yet the defensive refrains have been familiar:

"It's just one guy out of 60,000 so stop tarring us all...it's just banter and you're a grass...it's filmed by a Liverpool fan - let's focus on THAT!....you just want to hurt the club...journo scum...what about other clubs...I don't see any threats of physical violence, actually..." and so on until he eventually locked his Twitter account to escape the abuse.

We've even seen some of the fabled victim blaming that Twitter ought to really market as it's USP, whereby people are suggesting that if Steinberg doesn't want to hear anti-Semitic remarks then perhaps he should just stop being a Jew on Twitter. As though he is a diver in a well known hotspot for Great White Sharks and should really just get out of their territory.

And of course, the appropriate response to all of those points is a simple one, namely how many antiSemites, homophobes, racists, sexists or Islamophobes is an acceptable number in our stadium? And if the answer is zero then what is the problem, and if the answer is higher than zero then why do we care more about away fans in the home end than we do about this? Why should we report away fans and keep quiet about racist chants?

And while we're on the topic, how about some West Ham fans grow up a little bit around this topic? Just because @Tonythespur087654 with three followers and a "proud Dad" bio called West Ham a racist cesspit doesn't actually mean anything, because we are all grown adults here and not twelve year old's trying to win a schoolboy argument.


I wonder if I can "Well, Actually" antisemitism out of existence?

When I talk about shades of grey and political nuance, I am talking about the wider issues that cause people to take the view they do. But in this area, there is only right and wrong. Either you are against people being antisemitic and homophobic and racist and Islamophobic or you are not. There are no caveats, or whatabouts or conditions upon that. Pick a side. Stand with gay people and Muslims and Jews, and yes, stand with Mo Salah even if there seems to be a pretty decent chance that he'd fall over the minute you put your arm around him.

What's really noticeable about this is how many folks don't view things as a problem unless it affects them. Away fans in home ends wind them up so it's a big problem that must be addressed. Muslim footballers being abused doesn't touch them so everyone ought to lighten up a bit. Well that's cowardly and remarkably dumb. It's not just Mo Salah who gets abused when that happens, it's every Muslim West Ham (or Liverpool) fan in the stadium too. And when you decry it as meaningless you are invalidating their experiences and feelings, and telling them it doesn't matter.

And so it goes. When you turn a blind eye to the hissing at Spurs games, or the chants of "I'd rather be a Paki than a yid", or "Does your boyfriend know you're here?" then you allow it to be normalised.  Fans need to do better. When we see or hear this stuff we have to take action. Speak up if you think it's safe to do so, but alternatively just don't give those people oxygen. Block their social media accounts, unfollow them, and don't click on their links or engage with them. This doesn't have to be the identity of our club.

And this is where West Ham the entity needs to step up too.

There should be a well advertised hotline where these things can be reported, and a campaign fronted by first team players aimed at educating our fans on what really constitutes abuse. At least part of the problem with our fanbase is that large numbers of them seem completely incapable of determining what is antisemitic abuse and what is an acceptable song to sing at people because they support Spurs. We long ago blurred the line to the point where the two are now one and the same. I can accept that Tucker genuinely didn't think he was being antisemitic by posting the images he did, but that's the point - we've lost touch with reality and rather than face that inconvenient truth, lots of West Ham fans would apparently rather pretend this is all overblown and not a problem.

And so Steinberg finds himself fighting the great War of You Can't Say Anything Anymore Can You?, in the Battle of Actually Muslims Aren't A Race So It Can't Be Racism, against the 5th Armoured Dickhead Division of the Whatboutery army.

We ought not to leave him alone to do so.

***

"You say you lost your faith, 
But that's not where it's at"
- Bob Dylan, "Positively 4th Street"

I have no doubt that many of you will find elements of this article disagreeable. That's ok, it's how free society works. I can write it, and you call me names.

To the extent that you feel you'd like to tell me I'm wrong and have a civil chat about things, you can do so at an upcoming WHUISA event. I am part of a panel that is discussing "The Identity and Culture of WHUFC in 2019". Also there will be noted author Rob Banks, KUMB editor Graeme Howlett and Dave Evans of the Recorder group, and while I can sense the eye rolling from here, I think it will be an interesting chance to talk about what we really want from our football club.

You can get tickets here for a fiver, with proceeds going to the Dylan Tombides Foundation. I hope you can make it.

(*) This article originally stated that the tweets in question were made by the West Ham Fan TV account, but were in fact posted by Nicky Hawkins, the founder, owner and content creator of West Ham Fan TV. He has asked me to correct this. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

West Ham, Women and What We Do In The Shadows

(Longread - allow 10-12 minutes)


***

I often wonder what is wrong with me.

When I log on to the Internet, I have the entirety of human creative and cultural output at my fingertips, and I could look at all manner of incredible things. The writing of Shakespeare, the paintings of Constable, the "films" of Guy Ritchie. Almost all the touch points of human evolution are within my grasp and yet still I am drawn inexorably, magnetically, towards reading about and watching sport.

So rather than being elevated by the beauty of "The Hay Wain" or a bare knuckle boxing version of Sherlock Holmes, I instead find myself slowly descending into the depths of the human psyche. Because nothing seems to bring out the worst in people like the ability to write something anonymously about sport on the internet - he says, as Irony starts gasping for breath - and nothing seems to bring out worse people than the ability to comment anonymously about women's sport.


First the vote, and now this.

When I first considered writing about the West Ham women's team, it was around this time last year. I spoke to a number of female fans and started researching the history of the game on these shores. And then #MeToo broke, and I decided that the last thing anyone needed was a middle aged white guy weighing in on a topic he didn't remotely understand. 

But since then West Ham have begun to take women's football seriously, indeed one might argue it is the only progressive part of the club at all, and what I have observed is that the conversation on this point among our supporters is rather dominated by middle aged white guys who don't understand the topic. In those far corners of the internet, in the shadows underneath progressive, supportive articles there lie great swathes of people who seem to absolutely detest the idea of women playing football, representing their teams, being pundits on the TV or just playing sport at all. And so here we are, in a world where the current fad is to find short clips of women playing football, find something funny and post it on Twitter with the comment "and they want equal pay!! (emoji, emoji, megabantz)". 

Watching the evident delight with which male fans responded to Toni Duggan and Lucy Bronze (World Cup footballers from Barcelona and Lyon respectively) shanking a couple of shots on Soccer AM was depressing and predictable.

Because, of course, it's impossible to find clips of male footballers doing embarrassing things, even when they're not even wearing flip flops.


Twitter, of course, is both a cesspit and a poor indicator of how normal people act whilst also being a weirdly accurate barometer for society. It is also manna from heaven for those men who like to actively set the cause of women's sports back whilst simultaneously wanting to be able to send those same women unsolicited pictures of their genitals. Beat that Facebook.


***

To talk properly about women's football, I think we must first understand some very specific things, namely the long and meaningful history of women playing football in this country, and also the role of privilege in our society. The former is important because so much of the criticism of women's football can be understood by learning about the way in which the game was deliberately held back by the FA in this country in 1921, and the latter explains why they were ever able to do that at all. 

The History

As with men's football, the women's game began to slowly take root in Britain in the late 19th century. There are records of English women touring Scotland, a preeminent footballing hotspot of the time. The most noteworthy point about these games was that they had to be abandoned due to men in the crowd rioting due to the "unseemly" nature of women doing something so strange as playing football, when they could have been off bearing children or washing something.

No such restrictions existed around tennis, by the way, as this was actually seen as an allowable form of courting in the Victorian era, and history has told us that if men can get laid at the end of something then they have generally always been supportive. And lo and behold if - after a century of support, finance and growth -  tennis isn't just about the most financially rewarding sport a woman can play nowadays.


The North London Women's Team, 1895: I think they've had more than enough of your shit

While male society still refused to countenance the unfathomable idea of women playing football, this didn't stop pioneering feminists such as Nettie Honeyball, Florence Dixie and Helen Matthews from setting up their own teams and continuing to try and grow women's football. Unsurprisingly, they had to play using pseudonyms but still continued to be dogged by men who refused to allow them to play and several more games were abandoned due to crowd trouble. It's almost as though men didn't want women to get good at something. 

What was particularly ironic about all of this, was that during the 1880's some English clubs hit upon the idea of allowing women to attend matches for free as their presence was thought to curb the unruly behaviour of the men in the crowd. This was so successful, and women came in such huge numbers, that the scheme was discontinued before the turn of the century due to the money being lost in gate receipts. The idea that women have never been interested in football, so often put forward as an excuse for unequal treatment, is bullshit.

Despite the fact that women's games were attracting decent crowds, sometimes larger than the men, it took the First World War to really progress the growth of the sport. With so many men away at the front, women were pressed into service at munitions factories up and down the country, and from there came the idea of those factories having their own teams. These Munitionette teams began to participate in matches across the country, and from around 1916 there were organised competitions in place, and large amounts of sums were raised for charity through the staging of these matches. The most famous of these sides was the strangely named Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston who famously raised huge amounts of money for injured soldiers and the various hospitals treating them. There is a movie waiting to be made about their adventures.

What was notable about these teams was that their popularity continued after the finish of the war, with the Dick, Kerr Ladies playing to huge crowds both here and in France. This reached a peak when they played St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920 in front of 53,000 people, while a further 14,000 were locked out. These were amateur footballers and working women who played in their spare time to raise funds, on that occasion for the Unemployed Ex Servicemens Distress Fund, bringing in a sum worth around £650,000 in modern value that day alone.

The following year the Dick, Kerr team would play in front of nearly a million spectators and continue their valuable fundraising. They were filled to the brim with the best players of the era, having taking a Manchester City style approach to recruitment, albeit without the morally dubious Middle Eastern owners. Foremost among them was chain smoking, openly gay inside forward Lily Parr, who was renowned throughout the game for her brilliance, and would still be one of the most famous people in the country today were it not for the overt sexism of the era in which she played.

By now the Football Association had begun to take note. Not only were these women challenging the popularity of men's teams but they were using their fundraising for other causes. The women were now playing matches in support of striking miners in the North, and the FA saw this as an unacceptably political position and the chance they had been waiting for to stop the growth of the women's game.


An FA propaganda card from the 1920's. These people ran the game.

The FA thus launched a successful propaganda campaign against women playing, using cards like those above as well as finding sympathetic doctors to say that the game was unhealthy for women. Nobody knows what a woman should be doing with her body quite like a man, after all.

Their main tactic, however, was to slander the Dick, Kerr Ladies and claim that some of the money raised for charity had gone missing and alleging financial impropriety. Whilst the claims were false, they garnered enough popular support that the FA were able to successfully ban all women from playing on their grounds in late 1921. With no FA members able to host matches, coach women or officiate in their games, the sport effectively died.

The FA would eventually reverse this ban in the 1970's - only under pressure from UEFA - but that fifty year gap is the single most important reason as to why women's football is where it is today, and why so many men feel able to hide in the shadows and continue to mock and deride female players. It is against this backdrop that women's football must be viewed.

And what does this have to do with West Ham? Maybe nothing, and maybe everything.


***

The Privilege

By banning the game, and forcing women's clubs out of existence, the FA did more than just keep women down - they elevated men. And that is the crux of all of this. In the course of those fifty years, the roots of what we now see were put down. Football was established as a game for boys, with girls quite literally banned from playing. This had an effect in obvious ways, as all of the money from sponsors and supporters was diverted to men, and culturally football was allowed to take its place as a male activity.

While men were allowed to be professional, women were kept at a level below that of even non-league football. There was no funding for girls, but also no infrastructure for them anyway. No access to high class coaching, facilities or medical care. It's easy to scoff at a perceived lack of athleticism until you realise that until very recently female players were having to pay for their own operations and healthcare. This would bankrupt Andy Carroll.

Because of all that, there was no publicity for their endeavours and thus no heroes for young girls to emulate. When I took my daughters to see West Ham women for the first time, it really stuck with me that they told me their favourite player was Rosie Kmita because "she wears her hair like us". It hadn't ever really occurred to me that this might be important because, as a guy, I've never had to look far to find a hero in any field who looked exactly like me.


Rosie Kmita - icons come in all shapes and sizes

Never underestimate the power of heroes - no white boy in this country has ever had to wonder if anyone like him could ever become a footballer. And the problem is that those boys then grow up in the shadows, never understanding the privilege that allowed them the freedom to play football and which they so easily take for granted.

And what was also missing was the cultural framework that exists for men. The wisdom passed down by the generations of fathers and grandfathers didn't exist in the same way for girls because their female relations weren't allowed to play. There were no magazines or comics with female footballers, no highlights of women's games, kit sizes were in "Boys" and if you wanted to offer football as a club to young girls in the last century, you needed to be prepared to travel a very long way to get fixtures.

Essentially every possible barrier was put in place to prevent girls from playing the game. And still men sneer at the standard of women's football, as though it would be any different if the gender roles had been reversed and men had been playing the game professionally for just a decade or so.

But that is the problem with privilege. As Hollywood executive Franklin Leonard said "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression". We are a very long way from equality in football, and yet men have been conditioned to feel that they own football, and that the participation of women somehow requires them to give something up. It is this curious thinking that drives so much of how some men view women and football.


***


The Rebuttals

So, in reading up about this piece I started looking at what West Ham fans have been saying about our new team. The club, who were shamed into supporting their women's team, went from distinctly amateur to professional in a short space of time. High class players like Gilly Flaherty and Claire Rafferty arrived, the club started to spend some money on the team, and slowly the women started to occupy a slightly less tiny portion of the West Ham world.

This reached a peak when a documentary about the women's team was filmed by the BBC and began broadcasting last month, primarily showcasing the club's decision to allow teenager Jack Sullivan to run the women's team, but also doing a nice job of highlighting the journey of the group. I went to watch it through my fingers and came out liking everyone involved a lot more. What they are trying to achieve, after all, is remarkable.

So, this piece isn't really about West Ham, and certainly not about West Ham fans, a large section of whom are embracing their women's team without descending to misogyny.

And yet most of what I could find online was largely demeaning and unhelpful. This is not unique to West Ham fans, of course, and as a season ticket holder for the women's team I can attest that there is a nicely growing group of fans who watch the side each week. But everywhere you look, online chatter about women's football seems to be dominated by men telling us how poor it is, to the extent that the Guardian now pre-moderate all comments on the topic.  Start a thread on your forum about your clubs youth team and you'll never get anybody popping up to tell you that youth football is a waste of time because it can't compare to the Champions League. Do the same for your women's team and it will happen in a matter of minutes.

I have no doubt that most football fans are behind their women's teams, or at worst ambivalent, but there is a decent number who just seem to be actively opposed to the concept. The comments on this Marina Hyde piece about FIFA's scheduling of the Women's World Cup Final are instructive.

You'll be familiar with the lingo by now, I'm sure:

"Women players aren't as good as men"

Ah yes. The binary choice. Women aren't as good as men and therefore the sport they play is crap. Serena Williams couldn't beat the world's number 600 guy so it renders her achievements obsolete.

The really interesting piece about this argument is that men never apply it to men. So they can parse the fact that Floyd Mayweather couldn't beat Anthony Joshua, or that Usain Bolt couldn't hang with Mo Farah over 10,000 metres, or that Chris Hoy wouldn't last a day on the Tour de France with Geraint Thomas.

In those cases, the nuance is fine and can be processed. It is irrelevant how those men compare because they'll never have to face each other. Fran Kirby, however, isn't as good as Messi and therefore we won't watch her play.

OK then.

"Women need to get there on their own. If the product is good enough they'll get crowds and TV money and sponsorship, Until then - I just feel like it's being forced on me"

Another favourite. The Mobius strip of internet arguments where people say they won't give their money over until something is good, but that thing can't get good until you hand your money over. Wonderful.

The only real way to test this of course is to ban men's football for fifty years, and direct all available resources into the women's game. Then the men can work their way back up and show us how it's done. Assuming that won't happen, then perhaps we could all acknowledge that having suppressed and ignored women's football for generations, then the least we can do now is give it even a sliver of support.

I also have no idea how a sport is supposed to grow without funding and exposure. The British cycling team didn't become the best in the world by working full time and training in the evening. Instead we just accepted that pumping money into a sport can help and we gave them National Lottery funding. And Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott seem to evidence that women can become elite when supported by a professional framework.

"Having female pundits is just tokenism"

Off the beaten track perhaps, but this is almost the prime example of where men seem to retreat most quickly to the shadows and fire off abuse from the safety of the darkness. What is clear from reading around this is that a lot of men feel that the job of talking about football belongs to men. And therefore "giving" the role to women involves taking a job that belongs to a man and presenting it to an undeserving woman. And by extension, if we tell ourselves that women get to places in life through tokenism, then we can be comfortable that men are getting there deservedly. And by the way, that is a pretty helpful starting point for any men who feel the need to assess the trajectory of their own careers.

I mean, fancy listening to Eni Aluko and Robbie Savage and somehow deciding that Aluko got her job for reasons other than her ability, and not drawing the same conclusion about Savage. For what it's worth I think pretty much all punditry is tired, cliched drivel and I hardly listen to it. And indeed, I concede that not all women pundits are to my taste, much in the same way as their male brethren.


Can we please stop having inarticulate pundits who only care about their appearance?

But that's just a personal take on what I do and don't want to listen to, and the idea that women simply don't possess the ability to be broadcasters - in an area of stunningly low quality already - sounds a little bit "-ist" to me.  We have heard these arguments before through human history and those presenting them have invariably been found to have been on the wrong side of that history.

Even more remarkable is the fact that fans are still spouting this nonsense in an era when it's really not hard to find incredibly accomplished women like Kelly Cates and Gabby Logan fronting football shows with all the practiced ease of someone like Gary Lineker, except that they didn't get the two year grace period that he got to learn the job while being terrible.

All of this boils down to personal preference, of course, and I accept the difference in role between a presenter and pundit but for all that, let's not make out that every man on screen is great at this. You all remember Gazza as a pundit, right?

"I'm not sexist, I have a daughter"

"If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit" - Rust Cohle, True Detective.

In Rust we trust. This, but about women instead of religion.

"Why is men's football subsidising the women's game?"

It's not. Women subsidised men for fifty years while the Football Association that was supposed to represent them took their half share and gave it entirely to men. We should be thankful they aren't asking for reparations and charging interest.


***


The Context

And so we come to it at last. The great elephant in the article. The reason this matters.

With every muttered aside at the dinner table, every snide comment on Facebook, every derogatory comment on the train and each "I'm sorry but.....", men chip away at what women are trying to achieve. It doesn't seem like much, of course, because none of the people who say these things have had to work as hard as women just to play the game and be taken seriously while doing it.

I spend my weekends coaching my daughters under 11's team and I love it, truly. It is a life affirming thing for me, even when we have to stop a particularly engrossing discussion on Expected Goals because someone is doing the Floss. And those girls are every bit as talented as their brothers and male classmates, with the only difference being that they have to listen to grown men tell them that the game they play, and the women they look up to, are "shit". And it wasn't lost on me that when I asked Amber Stobbs (formerly of West Ham, and now running Equal Focus Football) to take a session for me, the girls were energised by this in a completely different way, to the extent they queued for her autograph after. Representation matters. Heroes matter.

And this is the bit I don't understand. Even if men do think the women's game is useless, and the standard of goalkeeping is hopeless and the only reason to watch female athletes is because they want to have sex with some of them, I still don't understand the need to constantly denigrate it. I think watching Top Gear is one step removed from introducing yourself at work meetings as The Archbishop of Banterbury but I don't feel the need to go on websites devoted to the show and tell people it is shit. Likewise, deep down I suspect that men who wear shoes with no socks are all probably aliens who have misunderstood how humans dress, but I don't take pictures of them and post it on social media when I see teenagers doing it.




"Yes, just like a regular human - they won't notice a thing"

In researching this article I started to ask various my closest female friends whether they had ever suffered sexual harassment. The answers I received depressed me so much that I just stopped asking and pretended I'd never peeked under that rock. From the woman who had a guy get on the Tube and start masturbating in front of her, to my friend who had to pick up her dog and run 400 yards to her car because a man had followed her for a mile, to the one I can hardly bear to type, of the girl whose sister was followed into a park and stabbed to death. By the end one of my close friends told me I'd be better off just assuming that every woman has suffered this to some degree, unless they explicitly tell you differently, and to stop being so naive. While we bleat about "not all men", I think we might have missed the point that it does rather seem to be "all women".

And maybe that doesn't have anything to do with football or West Ham, but it all exists in the same universe. The world's most famous footballer has been creditably accused of rape and the world's media appears to have developed a sudden and dramatic case of myopia. Marlon King played Championship football after serving a prison sentence for sexual assault. Richard Keys and Andy Gray still have jobs, which is mystifying on several levels. I can't write a word about Ched Evans without unleashing the hounds of hell. Women are still not allowed to attend matches or play the game in certain countries. I'm afraid the fact that Alex Scott covers the odd England game doesn't really mean that feminism has taken over football completely.

We're deep in the shadows now, and a long way from the simple act of posting that you think women's football is a waste of time, or that you can't understand why a woman is commentating on a game. But like it or not, these are all a part of the same dark shadows that women spend their lives literally crossing the road to avoid in a way that men would never consider.

I'm not asking you to care about the West Ham women's team (or whatever team you support) if you can't bring yourself to do so, but I am asking you to acknowledge the reality of what led us to this point. To understand the disparity in how football as a sport has treated men and women, and recognise the debt that has to be repaid. West Ham women deserve our support just as much as anyone who pulls on the claret and blue, and it would be amazing if they could start to attract bigger crowds and garner wider attention. Imagine if we could be leaders for women's football in the same way that we were once were for black players. That didn't weaken the club - it made us stronger. It gave us Clyde Best, Leroy Rosenior, the Charles boys, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe and now Grady Diangana and gave black West Ham supporters some heroes that looked like them.

We could do the same for the women of West Ham. Let's get out of the shadows.


***


For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend this wonderful piece by John Simkin at Spartacus Educational or the book "In A League of Their Own" by Gail Newsham. 

I am a long way from being an expert in this topic and am indebted to Emily Pulham, Bianca Westwood, Sue Watson and Amanda Jacks for their help with this article. 

Despite the assistance of those people and resources, any mistakes in this article are entirely mine and I would be happy to address any historical inaccuracies. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

And Into The Fire

"Out of the blue and into the black
They give you this, but you pay for that"
- Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)

Well, that didn't last long.

When last you were here, we were basking in the warm glow of a nascent unbeaten run and an emphatic thumping of Manchester United. Since then we've lost to Brighton and Spurs, found ourselves in the middle of a national discussion around employment rights and freedom of speech and a new signing has picked up a season ending injury because traditions must be upheld, goddamnit.


I'll see you soon - save me a bed on the ward

Brighton 1 - 0 West Ham 

Our trip to Brighton could almost have been directed by Guy Ritchie, so predictable was the outcome, as we followed up a rousing victory over Mourinho by going very quietly into the night. Such swings of form and fortune are the hallmark of supporting a lower half team, but it's still a thudding punch when it happens.

The most frustrating element of this game was that we had so much of the play. After a fairly non descript opening, our defence went full Moses and the Red Sea as Beram Kayal set up Glen Murray in the 25th minute. This marked the sixth time Murray has scored against us which officially means that he is now a Nemesis, which rather reminds me of the moment you find out that the bad guy in Lord of the Rings is an upset lighthouse keeper.


And Glen Murray did appear

Thereafter we pressed and harried for an hour, and ended up fielding a thoroughly playground 4-1-5 formation as Manuel Pellegrini asked the outstanding Declan Rice to do everyone's defending and shovelled attackers on ahead of him. For all that, our best chance fell to Fabian Balbuena who headed inexplicably wide, unmarked from a Felipe Anderson corner. This upset the Brazilian so much that he has apparently refused to ever take a decent corner again.

Marko Arnautovic also had some presentable chances, including a last minute opportunity created by Robert Snodgrass and Lucas Perez that he skied over the bar. In such moments it's possible to see why he plays for us and not for a bigger club. That inconsistency probably says a lot less about him than it does about the remarkable continued excellence displayed by the likes of Kane and Aguero.

And thus we left the South Coast with a curious mixture of feelings. In isolation it was hard to criticise the performance given that we had dominated the ball and had the better chances, but there remains an itch that can't be scratched about defeats such as these. It's not that I think we ought to always beat teams such as Brighton - we have, after all, not ever actually done so in the Premier League - but more a sense that such erratic failure remains hard coded into our DNA.

We did enough here to win, would have grumbled but accepted a point and yet somehow went home with our pockets empty. Plus ca change. Perhaps one ought to acknowledge the difficulty of getting a team up and running in just eight games. Pellegrini has endured a difficult start after all, with no team in the league having a tougher opening nine games than us, but I'm still waiting to see something click into gear, a penny drop or a corner turned. We remain a footballing roulette wheel.


***

"No I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace"
- Bob Dylan, "Positively 4th Street"

And so to Spurs. It doesn't make much sense, but in recent years this has been a fixture to rejuvenate us from cold spells. Whether it was Ravel Morrison crowning Sam Allardyce's tactical masterclass at White Hart Lane (and convincing Big Sam to play unsuccessfully without a striker for two more months), the highlight of Andre Ayew's Hammers career at Wembley, or the Friday night title charge ending winner from Lanzini, we have done well against Spurs of late. Indeed, going into this game we had actually won this fixture more times than them in the preceding eight years, despite that being arguably the best period of their modern history.

It was a shame then to see us fritter that away with a subdued performance of questionable intent. Andriy Yarmolenko started diffidently and ended up being stretchered off with an Achilles tear. His season is over, and the wisdom of David Sullivan's long held policy of buying players who are either old or have poor injury records continues to look like a folly. A reminder too that the glibly promised new scouting and analytics department has yet to be seen. Perhaps it's part of a package deal with the London Stadium WiFi.

Anyway, Yarmolenko joins Carlos Sanchez, Jack Wilshere, Winston Reid and Lanzini on the Andy Carroll Memorial wing, and we are now just a couple of weeks away from the Pellegrini rite of passage press conference where he tells us he's never seen an injury crisis like it.

I have no sympathy - when you buy with no regard to player fitness being a skill and don't invest in training or medical facilities then this is what happens. Topping the injury charts stops being unfortunate when it happens every single year. So off went Yarmolenko and on came Grady Diangana, which tells us quite a bit about how well Michail Antonio must be doing in training.

We were also missing Pedro Obiang, which was a shame as central midfield has long been the weak link in the Spurs chain. With the Spaniard missing, Harry Winks was the best player on the pitch in the first half, which was even more impressive as he was playing alongside Easter Island statue Eric Dier and "bring your best mate to work day" winner Moussa Sissoko. In the second half that accolade belonged to Declan Rice, in supreme form again, and it wasn't hard to see that we might be witnessing an England midfield pairing of the near future there.

I thought Spurs were the better side in the first half as they pushed Kieran Trippier way up the pitch to take advantage of our defensively weak left side, and used some clever movement from Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura to trouble our back four. We held firm as the visitors nice play rarely resulted in attempts on goal - they mustered just two all day - until Sissoko took advantage of Anderson and crossed for Lamela to flick in a header. They could have scored again soon after but for a marvellous save from Lukasz Fabianski, and at half time I wasn't all that confident.

We looked especially vulnerable from our own corners as Anderson was taking them with all the skill of a man whose eyes were sewn shut, and our two deepest lying defenders were Pablo Zabaleta and Mark Noble which is akin to leaving two guys in a canoe to keep out a submarine. We survived, although I refuse to accept this as evidence that this plan is a good idea.


No problem lads, Zaba and Nobes are there

The second half was much better, as we pushed higher and played all the game in the Spurs half. In the end, we failed to get anything largely due to the excellence of Hugo Lloris who made four fine stops. Tactically I still struggle to see exactly what Pellegrini is attempting to achieve, although he wasn't helped here by the performance of Anderson, who was resolutely dreadful until he was mercifully hooked off. Worryingly, our best performances this season have come when we've been able to counter attack against stronger teams and thus we have been heavily reliant upon the trio of Yarmolenko, Arnautovic, and Anderson. The first is done for the season, the second is operating on one knee and the last made me pine for Sofiane Feghouli here. With softer fixtures finally around the corner, Pellegrini is going to need to find a way for us to play on the front foot. 

It would also be remiss of me if I were not mention the outstanding performance of our centre halves, Balbuena and Issa Diop. While they probably get altogether too many opportunities to demonstrate their excellence, it has been reassuring to see them settling into something approaching a solid partnership. Coming into this season it seemed impossible for us not to play with three at the back simply due to the limitations of our personnel, but Diop alone has been so good that those fears have faded away. With the brilliant Fabianski behind them there is cause for optimism as we face weaker opposition, even if our general approach to full backs seems to be to pick two people at random and then reach for the rosary beads. 

Midfield remains our main area of concern, primarily because most of them are injured. A central trio of Noble, Obiang and Rice offers a nice balance, but we finished this game with a four of Diangana, Rice, Snodgrass and Antonio and a sudden surge of affection for Cheikhou Kouyate. It is slightly disconcerting that if Rice were to suffer an injury, it feels like it would curtail the entire season. Perhaps we ought to stop leaking details of his contract demands to friendly websites and instead concentrate on actually advancing his career.


***

"Get out your mat and pray to the West
I'll get out mine and pray for myself" - 
The Jam, "Eton Rifles"

But matters on the pitch are only ever the hors d'oeuvres when you're dining at Chez Titanic.

And so perhaps the most controversial element of the last month has revolved around our Under 18 youth team coach, Mark Phillips, who sprang into the public consciousness after writing a number of tweets where he stated that he had attended a march by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) in London, and explicitly praising West Ham fans for being the largest segment of the marchers. For those of you unfamiliar with the DFLA, they are a self styled anti-extremism group who splintered from the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), who were themselves an offshoot from the English Defence League (EDL), and I'm now wondering if their main plan for defeating extremism is through the medium of acronyms. Phillips was suspended by West Ham, and our fan base was cleaved down the middle by the issue. 

The DFLA pronounce themselves to be a non-political, anti extremist group and they appear to have garnered a lot of support from West Ham fans. From the state of my timeline on Twitter after this story broke, I would hazard a guess that some H List readers were on the march and in that sense I feel duty bound to examine the organisation properly. Members are adamant that the group opposes all forms of terrorism as well as holding other disparate positions such as demanding better treatment for military veterans, objecting to paedophile grooming gangs and wanting action on "missing" immigrants. Noted right wing agitator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has also previously attended a march under his more commonly used moniker, Tommy Robinson.


Flowers for Al-Jazeera

Quite what any of this has to do with football is beyond me, and while the marchers may feel their stance is apolitical, a letter was handed in at Downing Street by the organisers demanding changes to government policy, which seems to me to render that argument redundant. Thus people carrying our club crest on this march are making a political affiliation of their cause to West Ham whether they accept it or not.

But one also has to acknowledge that the march was legally organised, did not contravene hate speech laws and thus was lawful. Therefore, the question of whether Mark Phillips was within his rights to legally attend seems clear to me - he was.

But freedom of speech and thought and expression are not the same thing as freedom from consequence. Glen Hoddle was within his rights to say that he thought disabled people were being punished for sins of a former life, and the FA were within their rights to decide that was unacceptable and fire him. Thus, Phillips was perfectly at liberty to attend this march, and tweet in support of it - his sister was caught up in the London Bridge terror attacks - but one also has to acknowledge that the DFLA have been described as Far Right by the Police, Anti Fascist groups and the Premier League and appear on several watch lists due to anti Islamic posts on their Facebook page.

It probably didn't help Phillips that his Twitter timeline was later examined and it was found that he had liked a post from Katie Hopkins suggesting that Viktor Orban would "defend Christian culture in Europe", and another comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Hitler. Friends say he is a great guy and a good coach, but people who don't know him have no personal interactions to go on and can only therefore judge him on his actions. It isn't surprising that people have concerns.

While several members dispute that the DFLA position is Islamaphobic, I would suggest checking your back door for Labradors if you read their site because there is an awful lot of dog whistling going on. And this, I think, is the key point that seems to be missed by so many in this debate, and it's something I have said about West Ham previously;

You don't get to tell other people how they feel. 

So yes, Phillips was entitled to attend the march, and others are just as entitled to decide that the intent of that march was Islamaphobic. That same freedom of speech that protects him also protects them.

And if Muslim Hammers supporters say that this is an issue, and that they would be less likely to take their child to our Academy, or even to games, then DFLA members don't get to tell them they are wrong. That's just not how society works, and anyone truly believing in free speech wouldn't pretend otherwise.

And no doubt there are some who feel that their support of the DFLA has been misrepresented and that they genuinely are just taking a position against terrorism. Well, that's reasonable enough and we all ought to be grown up enough to accept that there is nuance in everything and that no one group of people ever think homogeneously about anything. I, after all, consider myself a Labour supporter but have little time for Jeremy Corbyn or the anti-Semitism that seems to stick to the party like glue. I understand the shades of grey.

But any DFLA member wishing to apply that logic, and wishing to be distinguished from those who marched with them and threw Nazi salutes, might want to ponder the irony of asking not to be judged by the actions of a few individuals - whilst marching against Islamic extremism. If the DFLA wants to get off Far Right watch lists and be seen as the peaceful non political group they wish to portray, then they need to do an awful lot more to disentangle themselves from those who clearly have no issue with those labels.

***

"You do it to yourself, you do
And that's what really hurts"
- Radiohead, "Just"

But back to West Ham. My overriding feeling about Phillips is that I am angry with him for dragging the club into this. It is bad enough that fans choose to march in this way with our club crest so prominent, and claim to represent the rest of us, but for an employee of the club to do it is naive at best. And lest we forget, he has done this just a few months after Tony Henry was fired for referring to African players as causing "mayhem".

But then I find myself asking the same question over and again. What exactly does it say about the culture of our club that these things continue to happen?

For an answer to this I think you first have to understand Sullivanism. How no stone shall ever be overturned, no edge shall be sought, and how others do the leading and we follow on later when it is more expensive. Tomorrow never matters, only today, which is currently a catastrophe because we didn't do what we were supposed to do yesterday. Sullivanism is a lifelong devotion to bailing water out of a sinking ship and never addressing the hole in the boat. This is how you spend more on your squad than all but fifteen other European teams and still end up being worse than Bournemouth.

And what this culture of being substandard does is bleed and seep everywhere. If the training ground isn't up to scratch and the Baroness is encouraging people to watch her new TV show rather than the first team match being broadcast at the same time, then why the hell should anybody else care about the way the club is projected? What exactly does working for West Ham mean, and what exactly does our club stand for? Truthfully, I think what these repeated episodes tell us is that the answer is.....nothing. The club stands for nothing.

And when you have no moral core, no vision, no structure and no plan and you stand for nothing, then this is what happens. People lose sight of the success of the club being meaningful. From the outside it looks to me like there is a huge vacuum where there ought to be leadership. Sullivan is holed up in Theydon Bois on the phone to agents, Brady is part time and Pellegrini disappears back to Chile whenever there is a break in fixtures. Who, I wonder, is there to shape the club and establish the values that employees ought to be adhering to?


That West Ham leadership structure in full

I don't know Mark Phillips, and I have no idea what his past performance or conduct has been like, or the terms of his employment contract, and therefore it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on what should happen to him. Very specifically, I have no idea if his views have ever impeded the development of kids from ethnic minorities because until a month ago we had never developed any kids from any background at all.

I will say this though - this sort of thing happens too often for me to think it is a series of random events. Employees are operating with no regard for the club's reputation either because they have no regard for the club's reputation or it has never been made clear to them that they need to be more professional in their conduct. And that comes from the culture within West Ham. It comes from leadership, or more relevantly, the absence of it and it comes from the acceptance that West Ham is not a high performance work environment.

So, when youth coaches feel they can tweet from Far Right marches, and when high profile players go out boozing while injured, and when nepotism is rife, and the Vice Chairman refuses to give up a pointless and unhelpful Sun column lest it detract from her personal brand, then what does that tell us? What do these repeated demonstrations of valueless behaviour really mean?

I think it is clear: the club is rotting from the inside out. Mark Phillips is just a symptom - the disease is elsewhere. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Week of Waking Up

"My mind is open wide
And now I'm ready to start"
- Arcade Fire, "Ready to Start"

Act One - Zabaleta Earns Hazard Pay : West Ham 0 - 0 Chelsea

I don't know about you guys, but I'm quite enjoying this good start to the season that we have made, whereby one must discount the actual beginning to the season and instead pretend it all kicked off last week.

Chelsea were the first to arrive, kickstarting our week of waking up by strolling into the Kitten's Den with a 100% record and leaving with just a point, and a great deal of appreciation for Andriy Yarmolenko's aerial ability. Our first home point of the season was hard fought and well earned, and a generally optimistic glimpse at a slightly brighter future.


Worst game of "Simon Says" ever

That said, I think we have to be realistic about what this point says about us, and what it says about the wider landscape of the Premier League. This was a counterpunching performance, whereby we allowed Chelsea's dreamy midfield to dominate possession, relied upon channeling their most dangerous players into places we could deal with them and then looked to our counter attacking ability to create chances.

Such a strategy is perfectly in line with where we are as a team, with where Chelsea are under Maurizio Sarri, and also with the ever widening gulf between the Big Six and the rest of us. While we may wish for something more offensive, the truth seems to be that opening up against these sorts of teams rarely works well for middling types such as ourselves. So Manuel Pellegrini kept the structure tight, and watched as we bundled Chelsea up quite nicely in a shrewdly put together defensive blanket.

Key to all this was the midfield trio of Declan Rice, Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang, who ceded possession to the fabulous Jorginho - Mateo Kovacic axis in the middle of the park, but brilliantly blocked off passing lanes and made important tackles and interceptions when needed. Because of the way Chelsea play, their midfielder with the most licence to roam is N'Golo Kante, of all people, and we were probably fortunate that two of their better chances fell to him. He popped up in our box with all the confidence of your parents trying to cope with series linking a recording on Sky Q, and duly deleted all your stored episodes of Band of Brothers, blazing over both times

Interestingly, Eden Hazard was kept largely under wraps by the outstanding Pablo Zabaleta - with some help from Fabian Balbuena and Rice - and even though the FA Level 1 coach in me was purring at his ability to "hide, manouevre and reveal" the ball - he had little impact until late on when he switched sides and started getting in behind Arthur Masuaku. As it was, the best chance of the game for the visitors fell to Alvaro Morata who capitalised on a piece of defending from Yarmolenko that can charitably be described as "worse than Farage turning up for dinner", only for Lukasz Fabianski to rush off his line and save with his face. I should note that Morata was so impressive when he came on that it took me four days to realise it was him and not Giroud who missed the chance. Sixty million quid. Modern football.

Meanwhile, our first half counterattacks were working now and again, and a lovely piece of skill from Felipe Anderson set Michail Antonio away, only for him to blaze wide. Shortly after, Rice and Yarmolenko combined to get him much closer to goal, but Kepa blocked his shot, and his afternoon was best summed up by him being substituted just as he was starting to physically dominate David Luiz. Those chances remained the sum of our threat until substitute Robert Snodgrass picked out Yarmolenko late on with a sublime cross that found the Ukrainian totally unmarked at the back post. With the goal at his mercy, he somehow achieved the impossible by heading wide and actually making me yearn for Andy Carroll.


This weeks xG map from Caley Graphics does a good job of showing that while we certainly could have won, it's not entirely accurate to say we should have done. Chelsea had lots of shots from good locations and on another day might have sneaked one in. Let's, gulp, respect the point.

***

"He knows so much about these things"
- The Smiths, "This Charming Man"

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this performance was the overwhelming feeling that Manuel Pellegrini had finally hit upon a tactical system that made sense in the context of the match. At Liverpool it seemed be the case that he wasn't budging from a flat back four playing high, and we were duly treated to an afternoon of chasing after disappearing Scousers. This time, he took a more pragmatic approach and cut his cloth according to the situation. Thus we restricted the attacking excesses of Masuaku, and focused our midfield efforts on stopping Hazard.

Is it entirely inaccurate to suggest that this was the kind of performance one might have expected if we were still managed by a furiously masticating Brummie, swigging from a pint of wine on the touchline? Maybe not, but we set up to stifle Chelsea and stayed in the game with the intention of hitting them on the break. It wasn't quite the cavalier attacking we were promised during the glorious summer, but then again, those statements are a lot easier to make when the whole season is pregnant with possibility. When you've lost four of your first five games, however, and a winter relegation battle is beckoning then pragmatism is a much more comfortable bedfellow. And fair play to Pellegrini for finally compromising when it was needed.

Further abroad, Antonio was deployed up front in the absence of Marko Arnautovic, and struggled along manfully. I didn't think he did as badly as some people felt, but I also remain unconvinced that he is fully recovered from his hamstring injuries. As a player he rather resembles a toy electric car, wound up and left to ping explosively about the place, crashing in to things and generally causing havoc. On days such as this, we missed the slightly cooler thinking Arnautovic.

And imagine how panicky you have to be if you're considered less clear headed than a 29 year old man who dyed his hair peroxide blonde.

***

"Cause I ain't gonna be made to look a fool no more, 
You done it once too often, what do you take me for?"
- Chas n' Dave, "Ain't No Pleasing You"

I should admit that I am often wrong about things. I write down my thoughts after each game, committing them to cyber stone, and thus they can be thrown back at me when they later prove incorrect. And this happens frequently. And it has happened again.

I've written about the mixed bag of a summer that I felt we had. Issa Diop and Ryan Fredericks are my favourite signings, and I hated the decision to take on Jack Wilshere. The others all lay on a line somewhere between those two points, including Lukasz Fabianski. about whom I was largely ambivalent. And I was wrong. Totally.

Adrian, a man who plays as if permanently chasing after an imaginary raccoon, is someone who I love like a brother, or a friendly newsagent, but whose time has sadly come. Fabianski exudes calmness. Indeed, such is the feeling of serenity that he engenders that I found myself watching this game and thinking fondly of the Seinfeld episode where all the characters yell "serenity now!" when they get angry, and then slowly go crazy through repression.


Serenity now! Insanity later!

As it is, Fabianski simply radiates a feeling of security through the team that even seeps all the way to the crowd. For all Chelsea's late pressure I don't ever recall thinking that they were remotely close to scoring, such is the confidence I had in the big Pole. Barring peak Robert Green or Ludo, I can't really remember feeling like that for an awfully long time.

So, a point gained. Traction. A foot on the ladder at home, and a journey begun. I'll take it.

***

"Dream it while you can, 
Maybe some day I'll make you understand"
- Oasis, "Fade Away"

Act Two - Not Shrewsbury : West Ham 8 - 0 Macclesfield

As I get older, I like to think that I've grown as a person. I no longer see opposition fans in the same way as I did when I was a kid, as enemy combatants to be taken on and somehow beaten. Now I just see other people exactly like me, who happened to be born elsewhere. In other words, I am no longer thirteen.

And so as we smashed eight goals past Macclesfield I began to feel rather sorry for their supporters. Bottom of the league or not, they still would have harboured hopes for this game. It is the trick we all pull on ourselves as football fans - to conjure belief where none really ought to exist. And thank goodness we do, because a lot of stadiums would be empty if we didn't. So we can all sympathise with their predicament here, as they would have spent the day finding a way to view this game through a prism of optimism, only to have that view shattered by three first half goals.

From our perspective, the joy in this game came more from the unexpected nature of it all, as we eschewed our usual policy of not scoring against lower league teams until extra time and instead starting smashing goals in from the start. While we have generally stopped our habit of losing to smaller clubs, we have instead tended to make interminably heavy weather of it, even managing to go two nil down to Spurs at one point, before managing a second half revival at Wembley last year.



Nobody has ever looked this happy to score against Macclesfield

In truth, just about the only way for a game like this to mean anything for a Premier League team is if this happens. Winning 8-0 is almost pointless, but it is infinitely preferable to sneaking past in extra time as we recently did against Accrington Stanley and Shrewsbury. Worse still was that we turned in those awful, laboured performances with players like Payet, Lanzini and Arnautovic on the pitch. Those games tended to shine a light on our glaring inadequacies, rather than allow us to build any confidence.

This time around, we played the guys who needed minutes and not only did they sweep Macclesfield away as one might expect, but everyone who needed the confidence boost of a goal got one. Michail Antonio, Lucas Perez, Angelo Ogbonna, Ryan Fredericks and Robert Snodgrass all scored, with the latter managing a particularly joyous double. Better still, perhaps, was the debut of Grady Diangana, who played out wide and linked up with fellow youth team new boy Joe Powell rather well. Both looked as though they have enough in their games to play at this level, although the question remains as to whether beating a team who would rather have been at the dentists is much of a barometer.

My favourite moment amid the carnage was the sheer joy shown by Snodgrass at scoring his first West Ham goals. It's easy to be snide and condescending about goals against Macclesfield, and players signed from Hull, but isn't Snodgrass everything that we want in a player? He cares, he tries, he wants to be here and he takes joy in our successes. A player like that in a squad can be invaluable, especially when he is prepared to bide his time as a substitute. His brief cameo against Manchester United roused the entire ground as he chased fruitlessly after the ball for a full minute before needlessly fouling someone. And how the supporters seemed to be galvanised by this. If the divergent careers of John Moncur and Freddie Kanoute taught me anything, it's that you need to look like you're showing effort, irrespective of what you're actually doing. Snoddy has this nailed, and I rather like him for it.

Elsewhere, there was a pleasant hue to the evening as Powell, Diangana, Declan Rice and Conor Coventry all finished the game, giving us the merest hint that maybe our decrepit Academy might be about to splutter into life once more. Our reward for this jolly run out is a home tie with Spurs, just as their fixtures take a turn for the brutal. What's past is prologue, dear friends - history awaits us.

***

"Whenever I'm asked who makes my dreams real
I say that you do"
- The Temptations, "Get Ready"

Act Three - The Pay Off : West Ham 3 - 1 Manchester United 

Isn't this the point of it all? Isn't this why we go? Why we moved ground? Why we pay over the same money to watch our team as Manchester United fans, even though they're the casino and we're the idiot pensioner about to blow our savings on the roulette wheel? This is it, friends, and I'd advise you never to look past such moments. Savour them. Revel in them. Drink them in. This is why we do this. 



I enjoyed this

Things started well, as the marvellous Zabaleta took a pass from the equally marvellous Noble on five minutes, drove in behind Luke Shaw and crossed for Anderson to flick brilliantly past David De Gea. After that start, we continued to push the visitors back, as their play was as weak as their godawful salmon pink strip, and we duly scored a second when Yarmolenko's shot took a heavy deflection off Victor Lindelof just before half time. I googled it and Lindelof is actually a professional footballer, as opposed to a competition winner, by the way.

What was interesting was that this was another game against a decent side, where we showed we actually had the ability to throw a couple of punches back in their direction. Whether it was Arnautovic bullying their many and varied centre backs, Anderson and Yarmolenko getting in down the sides, or Mark Noble reinventing himself as a central playmaker, we continued to pose problems all game and were well worthy of the 3-1 scoreline, earned against a team full of players who are hugely pricey and used to be good when they played for other teams. Tellingly, our own version of that player - Jack Wilshere - has missed all three of these games. One wonders where he will fit in when he returns.

Once more our tactical setup was both thoughtful and successful. The visitors played with three at the back, and consequently were able to create lots of crossing opportunities for Ashley Young wide on the right. He drifted in behind Anderson frequently, and with Masuaku engaged in the inside right channel by either Fellaini or Martial, this looked to be their best hope of scoring. This in itself was odd given that Romelu Lukaku was playing, and he scores a goal a game against us, but such was the excellence of Issa Diop that he was almost invisible. Ironically, Mourinho congratulated "the scouts who found Diop" after the game, which means we are about two weeks away from David Sullivan claiming credit for his signing.

However, for all those moments of success for the visitors out wide it amounted to little and our midfield trio were once more excellent in controlling the centre of the park, with Noble repeatedly finding himself alone in acres of real estate. He  responded by creating the first and then picking out Arnautovic for the third, when the Austrian calmly drew De Gea before sliding it past him with ease. Whisper it quietly, but that front three is starting to look the part, as well they might for the £80m they cost us.

What Anderson's failure to track back also did, was give him a head start on Young whenever we broke, and it was noticeable in the second half how frequently he got the ball in advanced areas and just failed to pick out a pass. On other days, in colder climes, we might find ourselves getting a lot of joy from such swift counter attacks. If the manager was to blame for the underwhelming start to the season then he ought to get credit for things like that. I loved the way we played in the second half here.

To wit: I saw something today that I hadn't seen yet this season - the sense of a beginning - and Pellegrini deserves credit for that. I was fuming after the Wolves debacle, but this was clear progress even allowing for the woeful way in which Manchester United played. We have seen plenty of underpowered visitors waltz off with the points from our new home, so what a distinct joy it was to see this bunch of expensively assembled charlatans sent back empty handed. And all the while, there was Jose Mourinho, weeping, moaning and dissembling, desperately trying to get fired so he can move out of his Manchester Travel Tavern and get back to his hobby of shouting at the weather. What a lovely day it was, and what a fine week for us to have woken up. Lovely football, a stadium with a pulse, the hints of promise as new players settle down. Savour this. Revel in this. Drink this in. It's why we do this.

***

"You can't play it safe
And still go down in history"
- Emmylou Harris, "Belle Starr"

The three men that Manchester United took off cost them a cool £180m, and serve as a gentle reminder that sides such as these have privileges and head starts that we can only dream of. It is also why a result such as this is always presented as a Manchester United defeat and never as a West Ham victory. Don't get upset about it - instead, savour the moment we gave a bloody nose to the elite and won a hand even though the deck was stacked.


Hazard doesn't play for United yet as he's still good. Give it five years.

But we shouldn't get too carried away in lauding our attackers, when the base for all of this came from our increasingly decent looking defence. We shouldn't ignore the early season fragility, as there was a reason for that, but a couple of recent fixes have certainly helped an awful lot. Fabianski is wonderful, of course, and his save here from Fellaini was the equal of anything we will see from De Gea all year. But Zabaleta has returned on the right hand side and although he still plays as though he is twenty three and at Manchester City, he has added some undeniable zest to that side of the pitch. I don't think it's a coincidence that Noble has drifted wider and is playing so well in the space being created inside by the Argentines "Han Solo chasing after stormtroopers" style overlaps. 


Cover me Andriy!

Inside him Fabian Balbuena has really settled in, and has given us the kind of solidity that we might have got from Jose Fonte had we bought him before he became a cast member of New Tricks. The Paraguayan has brought some physicality to our back four that has been needed, and has slightly more recovery speed than the likes of James Collins or Ogbonna, which has proved useful when he's been needed to cover Zabaleta's Death Star frolics. 

His partner, Diop, has been equally good and his sixty yard accidental burst forward with the ball at his feet here was my moment of the match. It's been a long time since we had a central defender who could carry the ball in any meaningful way. The fact he looked terrified for most of his run shall not deter me. I want to see more. 

Perhaps the only concern is the way in which Arthur Masuaku has curtailed his forward surges to take a more conservative left back role. While that is probably a good thing for us defensively it does rather beg the question of why we would have him in the side, given that Aaron Cresswell is a better defender but doesn't offer the same threat going forward. Masuaku, we should remember, was quite literally one of the most successful dribblers in Europe last season. 

Perhaps the answer lies in who we have been playing, and we might get the more adventurous Arthur back once we start playing sides at a similar level to ourselves. For now, I shall take a watching brief - without that attacking threat, I am not sure I value Masuaku highly enough to play him over Cresswell. 

And in front of them is the glue that binds the whole thing together. Declan Rice, at the tender age of nineteen, already looks like he might be the most important player in our side. Certainly Arnautovic and Anderson are more eye catching, but each have understudies with some degree of competence. If Rice gets injured we will be reduced to stabbing voodoo dolls of opposition number tens, as the only way to stop them. 

His assurance on the ball is spectacular, and his new found ability to play passes off both feet is really the thing that has elevated him to another level. His ability to read the game is good, but with that range of passing he is no longer an attacking black hole, and indeed has started a decent number of counter attacks, simply by getting rid of the ball quickly and efficiently. I'm fairly ambivalent about the contractual impasse that we find ourselves in with him, reasoning that both sides are probably leaking equally, and that this is simply the culture of West Ham at present. I highly doubt that his contract negotiation is all that different to any other player, but for all of that, the club desperately need to make sure he sticks around. He is fast becoming indispensable. 

***

"Every minute, from this minute now
We can do what we like anywhere"
- Snow Patrol, "Open Your Eyes"

And there we have it. The week of waking up. The week when things came together and the fruits of that summer labour were finally borne. Perhaps that much lauded promise of playing attacking football was actually a distraction for a manager and a team who were getting to know each other, and couldn't realistically be expected to get into high gear without first turning on the engine. Perhaps we just needed to play bigger teams so that we might get into that counterpunching mode, and take our first baby steps that way. Perhaps I just need some new metaphors. 

In the end, I am just relieved that we are off and running. The very notion of taking seven points from fixtures against Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United seemed crazy just ten days ago, but there we have it. Picking up unlikely points was what propelled us up the league in 2015/16, and dropping them where we shouldn't was what curtailed our Champions League hopes. Maybe more consistency lies ahead, or maybe we'll just continue to be totally unpredictable. For all the joyousness of the last week, I still think a top ten finish would be a significant achievement for Pellegrini.



Worth more of your time

A word too, for West Ham women, who picked up their first win of the season with a 2-1 win over Yeovil, to complete a fine weekend for the club. It is a strange situation that the women are in, having come up two divisions into the Women's Super League, and having to build a squad from scratch. Given that, they have recruited unusually well for a West Ham side, and presumably the teenage Managing Director Jack Sullivan deserves some credit for that. Players like Claire Rafferty and Gilly Flaherty are outstanding signings for the team, although it was rather fitting that it was Rosie Kmita who scored the winner, as she is one of the only players held over from last season. In true West Ham fashion we missed about five outstanding chances in the first half alone, which suggests that the new girls are settling in to the West Ham Way quite nicely.

I will be writing more extensively on the women's team now that I have my season tickets sorted out to go and see them. They deserve a bit more support than they seem to be getting from the West Ham fanbase. Perhaps we've all still got some waking up to do.

***

"You'll never know just what you wanna do
Or where you wanna go, I think it's time"
- The Stone Roses, "What The World Is Waiting For"

Epilogue: The H List, An Announcement

As you may have noticed, this article is late and free wheeling and not at all what any of us are used to. It is those final weird series of Scrubs when everything was the same, but not really the same, and none of the jokes were funny.

This is partly because I've been ill this week, but also because finding the time to write so frequently about the club is proving difficult. My children are getting older and are demanding more of my time, and indeed my daughters Year 8 homework now includes quadratic equations, and that alone took care of me writing anything after Chelsea.

So The H List can't continue to be the weekly match report that it has been recently. Instead, I'll move to a less regular opinion piece, where I talk more generally about the club and less about specific matches. That will take some of the pressure off me to produce something each Monday after we have played, and also expose you to fewer articles that might well be reasonable but totally depress you on your way to work.

It will also allow me some more time to research a book that I have been thinking of writing for some time. I have finally decided to dip my toe into that murky stream, not allowing myself to be put off by my lack of experience, publishing deal or literary agent. If it's good enough for best selling author Katie Price, it's good enough for me.

I hope you'll all still keep reading.