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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Watford 2 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Let's not fuck about. We're in desperate straits. I'd love to tell you that I saw the green shoots of recovery in this game, but in reality it was the same show we've all been watching for two years, with merely a different conductor. And, by the way, it didn't take David Moyes long to look like an extra from Full Metal Jacket did it?


I. What. How. Jesus H CHRIST

So let's examine the anatomy of this relegation battle, because that is where we are right now, irrespective of the pie in the sky nonsense that is being spouted by the club. What are the key areas we need to address?

***

Refusing to accept we are in a relegation battle

In 2010/11 we were relegated bottom of the league having allowed Avram Grant to manage the team all season because of *spins wheel* <incriminating photographs>. At this exact point of the season our records can be compared thusly:

2010/11
Played: 12 
Goal Difference: -11 
Points: 8
Position: Bottom

2017/18
Played: 12
Goal Difference: -14
Points: 9 
Position: 18th

It should be noted that with their current record this year's team would be bottom of the 2010/11 league as well. They are only presently being saved from that fate by the fact Swansea and Crystal Palace are so bad. 

So, by any definition of the term we are knee deep in shit, and yet the team and hierarchy are parading around with the familiar overconfidence that we have all come to know and love. "Look at our attacking options" they say, "That squad is way too good to be down there" I hear, and even as that misplaced bluster floats out into the ether, we continue to lose games like this. 

For shitty 2-0 defeats at Watford are the building blocks of relegation. It happens, we deserved to lose, Watford were the better side and we move on, but the problem with that is one then looks up in February and such defeats are scattered everywhere throughout the season. 

We have managed just three away draws so far this campaign, and when you play your home games at an abandoned nuclear bunker you don't get much home comfort. I'm really beginning to think that Karren should have put "Too Good To Go Down" on the new club badge, given I hear that said an awful lot more about West Ham than I ever hear the phrase "London".

***

Civil War

Ah yes, the third rail of West Ham politics. The board. The fans. The players. The bloggers. The flags. The stewards. The poisonous atmosphere that hangs over the club like our own private ozone layer. As soon as we fell behind yesterday the "Sack The Board" chants started up closely followed by "You're Not Fit To Wear The Shirt". I'd heard something similar at Spurs when we went 2-0 down, and other more regular away followers may be able to pinpoint earlier instances too. 

I will defend to the death the rights of football fans to protest about their club. I despise the patronising "well what do they expect, they should be grateful" media types who parachute into clubs for brief moments, shake hands with the owners and then disappear again like weekend tourists. The prime difference between the fans at the game yesterday and those talking heads is that the former have paid to be there. Both literally and emotionally. So if West Brom fans want to be entertained for their entrance fee then they are entitled to say so, and if West Ham fans want to understand exactly why we gave up our ground to actually get worse on the pitch then that is also perfectly reasonable. 


"But Zabaleta used to be good for City so how could he be bad for us?"

But I will also say this - such division never ends well for us. I was there for the Bond Scheme and the anti-Cearns protests and all it does is transmit a "get the fuck out of Dodge" vibe to the players on the pitch. It leads to fearful, nervy performances like we saw yesterday where a team bereft of confidence look petrified to get on the ball, and eliminates any synergy between the crowd and the team. And ultimately all any of us want is for the team to do well. 

For those who were at Spurs you will know what I mean when I say that there was a sense of inevitability to that comeback once the first went in. The fans abandoned their pursuit of the Board and instead turned to the team and a force of millions couldn't have stopped us. I'm not suggesting it's as straightforward as everybody going all Harry Potter and thinking positive thoughts to make bad things go away, but I'm also certain that history tells us the team cannot win while there is an open war between fans and the Board. 

So, as we go into Leicester at home on Friday the risk is that we let in a an early goal again, Jamie Vardy gloats again, and suddenly all that vitriol is on display once more. All of which might serve to make us feel a little better in the very short term, but with every game that we flush down the drain and with every point we let slip away, we stumble a foot closer to the trapdoor. And the ultimate sad truth is that if we go back down, the future makes for very grim reading. 

Now before anyone accuses me of being a stooge for the Board, let me say this. I'm not saying don't protest, I'm simply saying that protesting while the team is playing is just about the most self defeating thing we can do. I take a back step to nobody in holding up a spotlight to the failings of our Board, but whatever you are thinking about the value of getting your message across while we lose on the pitch, I'm here to tell you it isn't worth it. Inevitably what happens is that the message loses direction and starts going toward those on the pitch, and if you think we're getting out of trouble as sixty thousand of us slaughter Andy Carroll for 90 minutes then I don't know what planet you're on. 

So how do we protest? Well, there are quite a lot of ways. First among them has to be to join the West Ham Independent Supporters Association (WHUISA). It is a minimal cost of £3 that is charged not to make money, but to cover running costs and to give leverage to the group, and takes you all of about two minutes. 

Giving them numbers gives them credibility as they engage with the club, and the WHUISA board are all West Ham lifers with the best interests of the club at hand. If you don't like the cherrypicked nature of the SAB or the Bloggers Meetings then join up and demand that the club engage with your elected representatives. 

At this point I cannot understand why any West Ham fan would not have joined WHUISA. I hear those who say that they think it's pointless, but the group are already building links with the club and have succeeded in getting a platform with them too. From little acorns and all that, but you only need to look at the success of ISA's at places like Spurs to see what a force for good they can be. Don't sit outside the tent pissing in - sign up now. An ISA representing fifty thousand fans is a hell of a lot more credible than one representing a few hundred. 

Secondly, those other meetings that are run by Karren Brady are also platforms to air views. I know that Graeme Howlett of KUMB and Geo Mackie of Hammers Chat have attended past meetings and will willingly put forward questions on behalf of their readers. Engage, contribute, participate - standing in the away end and calling Karren Brady a tranny really isn't the Wildean contribution to this debate that you think it is. 

And on that very point - don't make the attacks personal. I really struggle to understand how Brady gets the same abuse as the Chairmen. She didn't choose to move the club, they did, and she has no involvement in on the field matters. Every time someone calls her a slag or a bint or a dyke or any other misogynistic, homophobic term, I tune out and ascribe it to the fact that lots of men don't like women. When you resort to attacking her gender, you're really showing you have nothing at all to say. 

Equally, let's refrain from going to peoples houses and hanging up flags, especially when there are young families inside. It's a nonsense. 


Sacking Karren Brady will definitely sort out our defence

If you must protest, and I'm not denying there are plenty of reasons to do so, then do it after games, or boycott the clubs commercial activities or do everything you can to get the media to acknowledge the depths of feeling, but ultimately I would suggest steering clear of anything that harms the team. To put it bluntly, we've got a better chance of winning on Friday with the Spurs atmosphere than we have with the one from yesterday. If we splinter now - we are done for. 

***

Incompetence

So, yeah, digging out the Board while the team flail away on the pitch isn't all that helpful but it sure is deserved. 

The frustrating thing that continues to drive me to despair about our Board is how they seem so impervious to outside forces. Having moved the club to the London Stadium they still seem to want to be judged as if we are at Upton Park, and scrabbling around for a few spare pennies from the Sky table. It is as though the clock stopped for them the moment they took over in 2010 and football has remained static ever since. So while English clubs have established a financial dominance over European clubs due to our TV deal, West Ham have shied away from dealing with overseas teams and instead tethered ourselves to the English market where everybody else gets the same bloody income and we have no advantage. That way Robert Snodgrass lies. 


The best thing we could do would be to buy a right load of old shit in January

Similarly, while other clubs look to scoop up promising young managers and snaffle their prime years, we instead look backwards to the distant past. I don't necessarily know if Moyes is a busted flush but he was last good about five years ago, which coincidentally is a rough match to where David Sullivan seems to think we currently are. From the transfer policy to the youth setup to the recruitment process to the interaction with fans - everything is retrograde. 

And people are swift to mock David Gold and his tweet about Champions League football but, to my mind, it's the only sensible thing they've ever said. It is, after all, the one time they've actually shown a scintilla of the ambition needed to match moving to that stadium. 

It was perhaps fitting that this game was against Watford, who seem to be a maelstrom of chaos but are actually a progressively modern organisation with a far better idea about where managers should fit into the structure of a football club than we do. So while Marco Silva is one of those young, progressive managers he is also fairly disposable within the Watford way of working. They have acknowledged that managers have a short shelf life and that asking them to spend all the clubs money is a short cut to having exasperated replacements on the touchline bemoaning the lack of pace in the team they have inherited. 

By contrast, we seemingly put the manager at the epicentre of everything. Truthfully, our transfer policy is opaque so it's impossible to know who is buying the players - a massive problem in itself - but if rumours are to be believed, then this is a Bilic team. But Bilic doesn't work here any more so what fucking use was it to give him £40m to spend ten weeks ago when this risk was always there? And watching this painfully slow team play in exactly the same manner as they did under Bilic, just highlights even more the lunacy of not having a proper Director of Football in place. 

When we moved from Upton Park, we were stepping up a level. A London club with fifty thousand season ticket holders, plenty of money, a playing staff good enough to have made the Champions League the season before. And what did we change off the pitch to match our newer, broader ambitions? Nothing. We persisted with the same structure and set up, meaning that our Director of Football was the man who led Birmingham to being a yo-yo club. That's it. That's his sole qualification for the job. I have said it repeatedly but it must be said again now - David Sullivan would not get the role he currently has at any other Premier League club, just as I cannot envisage any other top flight outfit employing David Moyes. 

For a club so desperate to break into the Champions League, we seem remarkably reluctant to employ any people who've actually done it. 

Consider this. When Sullivan took over in 2010, the following clubs were in the Championship or lower - Brighton, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Swansea, Leicester, Bournemouth, Southampton, West Brom, Palace and Watford. Burnley were also four months from relegation. 

So in the intervening seven years these clubs have all had to climb to the Premier League. We had an advantage over all of them at that point, simply by virtue of our loftier position. And yet, what has happened in that time is that smaller clubs have been forced to become smarter to bridge the gap to the monied elite. And while the smaller teams have got more intelligent, those larger beasts who have refused to adapt - helloooo Aston Villa - have fallen by the wayside. And once those smaller teams get here, and start making proper money, then they start to outperform us because they simply have better people making crucial decisions for them. 

So, look, we may go down this year or we may not, but until we show some desire to drag ourselves kicking and screaming out of the 1970's and into the modern world of professional football - where the chairman sits in the Director's Box and stays out of the managers office, and where we have proper scouts and not agents - we are always going to start every season on the back foot. The panic hiring of Moyes simply reflects the tearing up of yet another plan drawn up on the hoof, when the sad reality is that they should have been planning every aspect of the stadium move from the day they won the contract. But they weren't, and they didn't and this current mess is what you get when amateurs mix it with professionals. 

***

Bad luck

So with all of that whinging out of the way, I can honestly say that this was a very strange game to watch. I don't think any West Ham fan would dare suggest that we we deserved to win, but if you worship at the altar of xG then you would have to at least acknowledge that we really did create some outstanding chances. The Caley Graphics model below displays that rather nicely, and doesn't even adjust for the fact that the second Watford goal should have been ruled out for handball. 


Cheikhou Kouyate was deployed in an advanced role and had the kind of movement one usually associates with a bee trying to get out through a closed window. And yet for all that wasted energy, he had two glorious chances. The first produced a wonder save from Heurelho Gomes and the second was skied into that poisonous ozone layer like he was wearing a pair of flippers. 

In between Marko Arnautovic forced an incredible double save from Gomes, and when it's not your day you may as well give up and go home. Sadly, the Austrian didn't and instead broke his thumb and David Moyes is about to find out that every Christmas West Ham get a nightmare run of fixtures and every Christmas West Ham get a nightmare run of injuries and as such I'm already counting down until we hear his first "I've never known anything like it". 

But while we may have been a bit unlucky with our finishing there was precious little else to get excited about. What was most disappointing was that our tactical setup looked pretty much identical to that under Bilic, which rather begged the question of why we bothered to make a change. Andy Carroll was still isolated up front, displaying the temperament of an irate toddler denied his lunchtime Calipo, and should have been sent off before half time. Behind him we essentially deployed a flat midfield five, wasting Lanzini on the left and even then, didn't manage to offer up any more cover for the defence than usual. 

So the team ran the furthest they had all season, and Arnautovic sprinted about a bit and it still didn't make any difference because Watford still scored twice down his right side and running about a lot in and of itself, is actually fairly meaningless. Players need to be running with a purpose, to press or to harry or to get back from attacking positions into a tight defensive shape. I can't say that I noticed any of that - it just looked like the same thing I've been watching for months. 

But that said, we are probably due a bit of luck. A sending off or a penalty or a deflected goal or just something to cling on to. Because although all football fans collect examples of misfortune like coins in a purse, I feel like we've been on a bit of a tough run lately and when I think back to those relegation seasons of years past I can't help but think that there was quite a bit of ill fortune along the way. 

***

Confidence

Which brings me, mercifully, to the end. And I want to talk a bit about confidence because it's so hard to define but it's so clearly important, and we are a team demonstrably lacking in it. When assessing football games it's wise to remember it's a game played by humans. They behave weirdly and are affected by different things of which we know nothing. 

Who among us knows which player is suffering with injury or is playing in fear of losing his place in this team and then maybe his World Cup place? None of us knows who is an alcoholic or going through a divorce. I've made all these points before, but this is simply to reinforce that there is an awful lot going on that we don't see. Andy Carroll named his new born son Wolf Nine during the week, so it's safe to say that he probably has a lot on his plate just now like maybe a visit from social services, and he played like it. 

But confidence springs from lots of different places. Self confidence is one element, obviously, but there is confidence in your team mates too, or your manager, or the recruitment team who will provide you with some help in January, or in your home stadium where you simply know you will pick up points. And yet, as I lay all of that out in black and white it's pretty easy to see why our players might be on the floor right now. 

So many of them are out of form, playing for a manager they probably don't trust a great deal given his chequered history and knowing that there isn't any help coming in January because there never ever is under Sullivan, and playing at a stadium they all hate. That's the worst combination I've seen since some monster decided to put pineapple on pizza. 

Confidence can also come from believing in your team structure or tactics, or knowing that you are a fit team who can outrun any opposition. And I'm drawing a blank again. 

So for all the running that Moyes may have them doing, it's worth noting that fitter is not faster. And while there may be a lot of work getting done on defensive shape, that isn't going to make our midfield suddenly creative. And for all those four managers on the bench, if you just play 4-5-1 and get no service to your striker and your goalkeeper can't save anything low to his left, then it's hard to see change there either. 

Which brings me rather neatly back to where I started. I think us fans have a part to play here. Things are pretty desperate and it feels like it might get worse before it gets better. Plenty of you tell me that these columns are too negative and that's fine but your negativity is my reality. And I would call upon all fans to pull together now and forget that other shit. The team needs us. West Ham needs you. We need an atmosphere to pull the team up on Friday night and not force them back into their shells. 

I want a change in structure at West Ham but it's not going to happen now, and the most pressing matter we all face is beating Leicester. And if you don't do it for me, well, do it for poor little Wolf Nine. 

Monday, November 06, 2017

West Ham 1 - 4 Liverpool (And Other Ramblings)

"When your heart is black and broken 
And you need a helping hand
When you're so much in love you don't know
Just how much you can stand"
- The Stone Roses, "Ten Storey Love Song" 

***

There is, in Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus, a man condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity due to his trickery and deceitfulness. I don't think we can reasonably ascribe either of those two characteristics to Slaven Bilic, but I think the Croat would identify with the frustration and futility of the punishment. 

Given that Hollywood are gradually rebooting every story ever told by man, I suspect that when they eventually update Sisyphus he will be a Croatian Premier League manager doomed to play in a cursed graveyard every week, with the slowest team ever assembled, and a Chairman determined not to sack him but at the same time, never support him either. He'll be played by Gerard Butler because a thing that happens sometimes is that people pay Gerard Butler to be in films. I do not know why.


Wait, did we just concede from....our own corner?

So let's briefly address this game. 

We were destroyed. 

The thing is, you don't need me to tell you anything about it because you've seen it so many times before. Would you need me to describe for you the plot of a horror movie? Why bother - you know that some of them won't make it out alive, nobody should go into the forest and going downstairs is a bad idea. Well, spoiler alert guys - we went downstairs, in the forest, drunk, lost sight of our chainsaws and only Lanzini made it out alive. 

So this game didn't particularly move me in any way because it doesn't even crack the top 5 of worst home defeats under Bilic. The Board have made it perfectly clear over the last fifteen months that these kinds of results were not a problem for them. It can be dressed up in terms of wanting to support the manager but the reality is that so long as he didn't steer us into a genuine relegation battle, getting beaten 5-1 at home was an acceptable price to pay for mid table mediocrity and another £100m cheque from the Premier League. 

People might scoff at that and think I'm being too harsh on the Board, but what other conclusion is there to be drawn from how long this has been allowed to continue? If you think the image of everyone being hacked apart with a chainsaw is distressing, I should warn you now that I am getting ready to hit you with some STATS once I've finished fleshing out how truly Greater Anglia Rail we were in this game. 

***
"Nobody said it was easy, it's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard"  
- Coldplay, "The Scientist"
Things didn't start terribly as the East Stand did an excellent job of holding up some claret and blue plastic bags prior to kick off to create a moving tribute for Remembrance Day. I sound like I'm being sarcastic there but I'm not - it was genuinely lovely. 


We weren't totally shit

Sadly, that was the most coordinated move that anyone in a West Ham shirt would manage all day, as we were soon two goals down for the TWENTY SIXTH time under Bilic. We actually started with a slight spring in our step and Lanzini soon set up Andre Ayew to hit the outside of the post. This created a film of optimism around the ground that had all the rigidity of a Fairy Liquid bubble and was soon popped when Liverpool opened the scoring. 

The manner of the goal was a thing to behold as we somehow managed to turn our own corner into a three on one breakaway for the visitors, which ended with Mo Salah easily beating Hart at his near post. My daughters U10 team played a game this morning where they lost by so many that nobody had any idea of the score at the end and I still didn't see any defending as bad as for that goal. 

Here is Aaron Cresswell attempting to repel that particular attack, for anyone who missed it:



We then defended a corner by having all our players close their eyes, hold hands and offer up a prayer to Sauron, and somehow that didn't work either and Liverpool scored again and now every time I see Joe Hart I can only imagine how much he must hate his agent. 

So even as Manuel Lanzini briefly dragged us back into this game with a splendidly taken goal at 2-0 down, and then when we blew all of that up by conceding a third one fucking minute later, I couldn't even muster an angry epithet. This has happened so frequently, with such predictability and regularity that it simply doesn't register anymore. And truthfully I don't believe the Board are that fussed about these games, which in turn bleeds over into the crowd who can't get up for matches that we all know the team can't win, as well all accept that there is nothing in the running of the club which can change that. 

None of which is to say that the players and manager don't care, or didn't try to win but only that if these massive home losses were of any relevance to the decision making at the Club they wouldn't have allowed so many to pile up. I think it's fair to say that right now the Board don't think that we can compete with the Top Six (we can't) and that the gap between them and the rest is so large (it is) that those results can't be a barometer of how well a manager is doing (here we disagree). 

Truth be told, as I saw £35m Salah combining with £34m Mane, £29m Firmino and £35m Oxlade-Chamberlain I found it hard to disagree. Other clubs have managed it, of course, but then again we are not Burnley.

I say again - we are not Burnley, and the Burnley manager isn't going to leave them to come here. Ayew carumba indeed. 

Quite how all of this led to the Board deciding to vote to give Liverpool a greater share of the Premier League television money is a question for another day, but right now we are in the same league as these teams in only one way and it isn't in a playing sense. 

The visitors added another somewhere towards the end, when people in hockey masks and torches appeared and the walls started bleeding, and could have had several more but for Hart and the fact that most of the chances seemed to fall to James Milner. On another day I would probably attempt to describe how Liverpool didn't actually seem to play that well in this game but, you know, 4-1 does send something of a message. 

***
"Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings 
But you push too hard and even numbers got limits" 
- Mos Def, "Mathematics"
So, about those stats. Let's dig into the records of our time at the London Stadium, which I think we can all agree has unquestionably been built on the only Indian Burial Ground in Britain ((c) @LeBigHouse).

Let's start with our overall league record (I've ignored the Cups as this article is going to struggle to get an 18 rating as it is):


London Stadium Record
Played24
Won9
Drawn4
Lost11
For25
Against41

Before you all lose your shit over that, please remember that this doesn't include any adjustment for the size of our digital screens.

How about goalscoring:


Teams to have scored 4 goals in a game
Manchester City (x2)
Liverpool (x2)
Watford
Arsenal

We're not on this list. Watford are. The athletics were fun in the summer though.


Teams to have score 3 or more goals in a game
West Ham (x3) - Domzale, Crystal Palace, Bolton
Manchester City (x2)
Liverpool (x2)
Southampton
Leicester
Spurs
Brighton

So, to be clear, we have scored three times in a league game at our current ground as many times as Brighton have and fewer times than Liverpool. We are top of this list though, so let it not be said that we have been totally hopeless at our new home.

And lastly, a little look at a particular bugbear of mine, namely our first half performances:

Half Time Record
W2
D12
L10
For5
Against20
0-011

And just to put this little lot into perspective, what this is showing you is that West Ham have had a half time lead at the London Stadium as many times as Liverpool have.

***

"I don't feel bad about letting you go, 
I just feel sad about letting you know"

- Billy Bragg, "A New England"

While those tables might make for worse reading than Andy Carroll's medical records, they do unfairly discount Bilic's first season when we were still at Upton Park, Payet was still here, the sun used to shine and there was nothing wrong with the world. But, the sad truth is that his tenure has to be split into two halves - there and here. The first bit was an amazing glimpse into a brighter world, that now seems like it was about two centuries ago. When I watch video clips of those games I an amazed that they aren't in black and white with visible film breaks.


Who else remembers when we were good?

But no matter how great all of that was, the sands of time continued draining away inexorably and we've all paid for new season tickets, the owner has a new stadium and what have you done for me lately, Slav? And the sad answer to that question is...nothing but oversee decline.

Even the most ardent Bilic fan would have to accept that the team look listless and lacking in structure. I understand the flares of hope that go up when we win at Wembley or play well at Burnley with ten men, but that cannot be enough for a team with sixty thousand fans, the 18th highest turnover in world football and a squad that has so many of the 2014 Fantasy Premier League's top performers.

As I write this, Bilic remains in a job, but by the time you read this that may change. In many ways, I don't see why he is losing his job now given that this defeat was no different to the similarly lame capitulation against the same opponents at the end of last season. But if this was the end, then I will breathe a sigh of relief. There would be some, admittedly faint, sense of comfort that perhaps we might now improve and also for Bilic himself who will no longer have to stand alone on the touchline at the Terrordome, hands on knees, flicking his jacket out behind him in frustration as Mark Noble looks up again to find none of his teammates want the ball off him.

Can it be as simple as Payet being responsible for everything good that happened in 15/16 and once he left that was that? Can a manager who took his tiny country to two European Championships really have been solely reliant upon one player? We'll find out when the inevitable book comes out and Bilic reveals the true horror of what West Ham is really like behind the scenes, but I struggle to believe that. Whatever happens, he has carried himself with dignity in the face of working for people who have used him to mask their own failures.

In the end, the fault lines were too wide and too pronounced and we are now in a highly precarious position, bereft of confidence and with no discernible pattern of play. We're up shit creek without a boat.

But even if Bilic gave us all those two goal deficits he also gave us lots of high points too, and he deserves to be remembered for that. It's a shame that one of those - the Spurs 1-0 victory last May - was enough to convince our hopeless Board to stick with him into the new season. That mystifying decision has now left us adrift, with nothing to attract in any managers of high regard who have so far taken one look at the ageing playing staff, the board room interference and the fact that they will have little chance to reinforce the squad and all suddenly remembered that they have an urgent appointment but will definitely call Mr Sullivan back when they get a minute.

***

"There is a wait so long, you'll never wait so long
Here comes your man"

- The Pixies, "Here Comes Your Man"

So against the backdrop of all this turmoil, one man has emerged confidently into the spotlight.


My defence is how old?

As I write this David Moyes is the odds on favourite to succeed Bilic tomorrow, leaving us all with the thrilling prospect of having Darren Gibson and John O'Shea in the fold come January. There is so much about this which is odd, but not the least of it is that our Board searched the entire globe and decided that Moyes was the answer. And when I say the entire globe I of course mean the contacts list of British managers represented by whatever agent is in favour with Sullivan today. What a stultifying lack of imagination, and what a hospital pass to a manager who will get no honeymoon with a disbelieving fanbase.

Still, Moyes worked wonders at Everton on a mid sized budget, which in turn led to the Manchester United job. That's a significant achievement and whilst he didn't last long, with the benefit of hindsight I'm not sure his tenure was the failure it was deemed at the time. Thereafter he did what so many Brits do and decided to take himself off to Spain, where Real Sociedad were waiting to hammer another nail into his coffin shaped reputation.

Having left La Liga he decided to give up professional football management altogether and instead took over at Sunderland. There he presided over an absolutely shambolic campaign which ended in relegation as Moyes tried his best to reassemble his Everton side of 2009, which might have worked better if any of them still had their own hips.

There are those who would defend Moyes and say that Sunderland are a joke club with no direction, a ludicrous board, an ageing and uninterested playing staff and systemic off field problems that run far deeper than anybody knew. To which I say - yeah, does any of that sound familiar?

However, Sullivan is an apparent long time admirer of the Scot and we know that he has neither the wit, self confidence or ability to pluck a young up and coming manager from overseas or the lower leagues. He prefers the safety of getting a known quantity, meaning that we will forever be subjected to the known quantities of the British manager threshing machine. This same decision making process has delivered us to 18th in the Premier League, which is two places lower than we were when they took over. Ho fucking hum.

But worse than that is the news tonight that Sullivan is now reconsidering his decision in the face of a social media backlash from West Ham fans to the leaked news of Moyes arrival. This is not something that professional organisations do. They ignore the wishes of fans because fans do not have access to the information that would allow them to credibly form those opinions. That might include details of finances, availability of other targets and even things like the health of the candidates. Why on earth would Sullivan be taking into account the views of a crowd who, two weeks ago, were booing the team for smashing aimless long balls at Andy Carroll and then booed any players who declined to do that on Saturday and instead passed it backwards? Why listen to a crowd who were booing Mark Noble for being the only player brave enough to actually get on the ball in the middle of the park?

Fans are fickle, emotional, easily swayed and the last people who should ever be considered when making choices such as this. No other team does it. No other team is so insecure in their decision making processes that they subject it to the whims of Twitter. Indeed I would suggest that the very suggestion of doing so is evidence enough that those people shouldn't be within a million miles of a decision of this importance.

Properly run teams can trust the process of their selection and analysis, and put faith in the talents of the people making the decision, meaning they can ignore public sentiment because they are sure of what they are doing. The West Ham board (correctly) realise this doesn't apply to them, but instead of changing those people, they instead farm the decision out to bloody Facebook, with the seeming aim of blaming the fans if it doesn't come off. What a joke. What a Tyrannosaurus Shambles. What an embarrassment. Consider for a moment if Southampton Twitter would have wanted Mauricio Pochettino and then realise what a nonsense this is.

What's somehow even worse is that I do object to Moyes joining the Club on the grounds that at Sunderland he threatened a female reporter. "It was getting a wee bit naughty at the end there so just watch yourself. You might still get a slap even though you're a woman. Careful the next time you come in" he said, charmingly, to BBC reporter Vicki Sparks, and though he apologised to her the fact that Moyes can seemingly stroll into a job like ours just shows how little professional football cares about domestic violence or misogyny. What message does this send to our female supporters? What message does it send to our female employees?

Naturally when he was interviewed on TV this weekend about the job it was by Richard Keys on BeIN Sports in Qatar. Tell me, how's the sisterhood these days, Karren?

So, Moyes may join, most likely because he's cheap and he's prepared to work for Sullivan, which in itself probably suggests that he's going to struggle. Anyone decent would tell them where to go. And indeed, they frequently do, by all accounts.

***

"But there is really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew"

- MGMT, "Time To Pretend"

One viewpoint that tends to gain prominence at such times of crisis is that somehow getting relegated wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It's hard to overstate how untrue this really is. Going down decimates clubs as they lose their playing staff, support staff, recruitment staff, community staff, youth coaches and so on all the way down to match day employees. None of that is worth the fleeting thrill of winning a few more away games, which will quickly lose it's lustre the first time you see Lanzini or Antonio score for Spurs.

If you want a real life example, the England U17 World Cup winning star player Rhian Brewster hails from Chadwell Heath and plays for Liverpool. This is what happens when you have to reduce your scouting and development network as we did after our last relegation.

One way to make sense of all of this madness is to begin viewing all decisions made at the Club through a very specific prism. Assume the club has no money.

I have no inside knowledge here, no smoking gun and no knowledge of things unseen but merely a simple theory that I've been working on for a while. It was Sherlock Holmes who once said that when all possible solutions to a problem have been eliminated whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. Now Holmes was a fictional character so he should shut up really, but it kind of works here.

Why was our net spend so low in the summer? Why would we have resisted firing Bilic despite all evidence suggesting he should have gone in the summer? Why would we now be looking to avoid paying compensation for a replacement? Why bring them in on a short term contract that leaves the club in limbo yet further?

All of these can be answered logically in a number of ways, but one way to cogently explain them all is to assume we're broke. And don't forget to sign me up for your company annual seminar as a motivational speaker, folks.


"And no, Toni Martinez ain't the answer either"

I'm truly sorry to end up writing such a negative and gloomy piece but I suppose that's the reality of supporting the House of Sullivan these days. I hope they prove me wrong.

***

On a final, cheerier note (for me) I was thrilled to be nominated for "Blogger of the Year" at the Football Supporters Federation annual awards. This is a prestigious award ceremony, which offers up the pleasing prospect of me having to attend a formal dinner where my place setting will say "HeadHammerShark". 


Anyway, if you would like to vote for me, I'd be delighted to accept and if you wanted to get your family, extended family, neighbours and tarot readers to do the same that would be just dandy too. You can just click on this link and do it in 30 seconds. Many thanks in advance. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

In Retro - Jack Collison

Imagine playing a game of football for West Ham against Spurs, and all the attendant emotional baggage that goes with that.

Then imagine coming off the pitch and trying to find your father to talk about it like you do after every game, and being given the single worst piece of news you could ever hear - that he has passed away. And then having to call your mum to give her the news.

Now imagine that four days later you play for West Ham again, only this time in a poisonous local derby against Millwall that goes to extra time and features crowd disturbances both inside and outside the ground, while you try and honour the memory of your father.

And now imagine that when all this happened you were twenty years old.

And now you have imagined the four days in August 2009 that changed Jack Collison's life.

***

When I started to write this series of retrospective pieces I wasn't really sure how I was going to choose my subjects. I started with Ian Bishop as he seemed synonymous with my first forays into following West Ham around the country, and thus he invoked feelings of great joy in me.

Similarly, Trevor Sinclair was an important part of an important team for me, and a man who helped to change West Ham irrevocably for the better. I then toyed with doing some match reports but they proved either too hard to source (Metz) or simply too painful to reopen (the Cup Final).

And yet here I am writing about a man who has only just turned 29 and who finished with 121 appearances for us across parts of seven seasons.


Jack spies the front row at the London Stadium

Put simply, I chose Collison because of one thing that I return to again and again when I think of him. I believe that sports fans give over a very small, almost infinitesimal piece of ourselves to our teams when watching them play. And sometimes we get that piece of ourselves back, and sometimes we get even more back than we gave and sometimes we get nothing back at all and we are reduced.

Of all the players I have seen over the years, I think Collison understood that point as well as any of them. As much as Brooking or Bonds or Dicks or Parker or any other folk hero you care to name. I think he played with the joy of a man who knew he was living the dream of every person in the crowd and he never sneered at that chance. Instead he determined to be the best he could be, and to try and give us back those little pieces of ourselves as intact as possible.

And for that reason alone he deserves to be fondly remembered.

***

Collison made his full debut in a game against Bolton in 2008 and it probably won't surprise you to know that I spent most of the report whinging about the manager and his baffling tactics. My main recollection is of some nice touches, but a game that passed him by, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Bolton under Gary Megson used to pick midfielders based on how far they could throw it, and treated the middle of the pitch like a Demilitarized Zone. The biggest impression Collison made was that his hair was Premier League ready, even if his play wasn't quite yet there.

Tellingly perhaps, Collison wasn't even the most highly regarded youngster of the time as his team mate Freddie Sears was the great hope of the terraces back then, having emerged on to the scene with a debut winner and all sorts of hype. Take note, ye Toni Martinez fanatics.

As it was, Collison was an under the radar graduate from the Academy, without any of the fanfare of the likes of the Golden Generation before him or even his peers like Sears, James Tomkins or Jordan Spence. The fact that Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson were playing for Portsmouth at the time probably only made us more desperate for homegrown talent as the frittering away of the Rio Ferdinand era side was still a red raw wound for most, and Johnson was supposed to be leading us to glory and not nicking toilet seats from B&Q in Dartford.

And into this emerged a young kid from Watford who had already played in the youth systems at Peterborough and Cambridge before he joined West Ham at the age of 17 and was presumably introduced to the delights of Romford's fabled nightlife.

It didn't affect him too much, apparently, as he was making his debut within three years, albeit he had to wait for the arrival of Gianfranco Zola before he really began to make an impression on the first team. With the departure of the staid Alan Curbishley, certain players began to flourish under the Italian and Collison was among them. Carlton Cole finally began to deliver on his early promise at Chelsea, while the likes of Scott Parker and Craig Bellamy seemed perfectly suited to the intricate, short passing game that was suddenly on display.

With a midfield diamond to play around, we suddenly became a team of angles and perfect geometry. Our passing was a joy to behold, whilst Zola stayed true to other time honoured West Ham traditions such as being largely incapable of defending against better sides or ever beating Everton.


This dawn was false

It was against the Toffees that Collison took his first steps into a larger world. A replacement for Matthew Upson - naturally - he was the centrepiece of an excellent West Ham performance that seemed set to result in a rare home win against the Merseysiders. It was Collison who got our hopes up by opening the scoring with a typical Zola era goal. Bellamy and Parker combined beautifully to feed him just inside the left hand side of the box and the youngster opened his body and swerved a stunning strike into the top corner. It was the kind of goal you repeatedly practiced scoring in your back garden as a kid until you got it just right, or next door's greenhouse was finally destroyed.

It was also Collison's home debut.

As it was, we somehow contrived to lose that game 3-1 despite being one nil up with seven minutes to go, as we conceded three times in the space of four minutes. West Ham, 'yo. A truly remarkable collapse even by our lofty standards.

But it was official. The kid had something, and West Ham fans love nothing more than a West Ham kid. More appearances followed and he chipped in with a Boxing Day goal at Portsmouth in an uncharacteristically thumping 4-1 win and the winner in a thrilling 1-0 victory over Man City. Back then West Ham were flying, as Zola's determination to pass everybody out of existence actually made us entertaining to watch for a while. We finished the 2008/09 season in ninth place and probably should have been higher. Naively, I believed this would be a springboard to some serious world building on Zola's part but instead it marked the high point of his reign, as asset stripping off the pitch saw his best players sold and his diminished responsibility for playing staff acquisition and replacement saw his squad pared down to whatever the Italian is for "bare bones".

And then, as sure as night follows day and Alan Sugar firing the posh one on The Apprentice for using words with more than three syllables, Collison got injured.

In a typically West Ham turn of events, this happened in an away game at Wigan where Cole scored perhaps the definitive goal of the Zola era, superbly finishing off a one touch passing move that had more than a hint of genuine tika taka about it. Who needs Iniesta when you've got David di Michele, after all.


Two touch Parker letting everyone down

Rather than being able to bask in the glory of that moment, however, we were instead reduced to the sight of Collison writhing in agony on the touchline after controlling the ball on his chest and somehow dislocating his knee in the process. I'm in pain just typing that. The injury would only keep him out for a couple of months but it was the beginning of a series of knee struggles that would ultimately end his career, with Collison himself admitting that he was never truly fit again after this point.

***

As a player, Collison was unusual in that - despite his diffident debut - he arrived in the first team as an almost fully formed Premier League contributor. He wasn't terribly quick, but he had the stamina of a young man and the diligence and mental acuity to play in Zola's narrow diamond while running the hard yards required in that position. He is also a bigger man that he initially looks, with a slightly stooped running style, that meant he was probably a more physical player than he was given credit for.

In the modern game, where tackling has become less prevalent than intercepting and pressing, Collison was a modern midfielder in the truest sense. Comfortable on either side of the pitch, he eventually ended up primarily as a left sided player with the intelligence to pick passes, a silken first touch and an underrated eye for goal. Had he stayed fit and been able to play at full throttle for longer, one could certainly have seen him developing into a deep lying goal threat. He talks openly of his admiration for Kevin Keen and the work that he did with him at a young age, and I felt there was something of Keen in his play - the deft touches and eye for a short pass were definite hallmarks of (the startlingly few) West Ham midfield academy graduates.

But, for all the brightness of his future, sadly Collison was about to experience an eclipse of the worst kind. On August 23, 2009, his father Ian was killed in a motorcycle accident on the way to the home game with Spurs.

I am fortunate enough that both of my parents are still alive, so I have no frame of reference for this but right now, at the age of thirty eight I can assure you that I wouldn't have the strength of character to react how Collison did. Just four days later he played, brilliantly, in the league cup tie with Millwall. The night was horrendous but the youngster wanted to play in memory of his father and, in the end, we didn't West Ham it completely.

Collison himself was typically eloquent on the topic:
"Football was my escape, and I wasn’t playing for anyone, I was playing for West Ham, I was playing for every fan who carried my night, every fan who took the time to write to me. I was playing for the memory of my father and, after that night in particular, I always felt a special bond with the fans."
It's weird that I'm suffering from hayfever and my eyes are streaming despite it being November. A young West Ham team, filled with Academy graduates like Hines, Tomkins, Stanislas and Payne, had helped their youngest member to bid his father an emotional farewell. Collison would leave the pitch in tears, but firmly embedded as a hero in the heart of every West Ham fan.

*** 

Beneath his typically smiling exterior, it seemed that Collison had a steely side to him that would have set off an airport scanner. Shortly after his father was buried he suffered another setback as he was sidelined with a recurrence of his knee injury. It was beginning to seem that the Battle of Wounded Knee was being fought every week in the Chadwell Heath physio room just to keep the youngster on the field.

We missed him, as an ever declining squad spluttered their way through the season to somehow stay up with just 35 points and two wins from our final twelve games. It wasn't so much that the writing was on the wall for the following season, so much as it was spray painted on with flaming alcohol in script saying "You're Screwed, Lads". As it was, new owners David Gold and David Sullivan decided to dismiss Zola and replace him with former Chelsea boss, Avram Grant, a man so uninspiring that one can only imagine his own dog feigns sleep when he calls him for a walk. And with that we sleepwalked into the type of relegation that is usually the sole preserve of Sunderland.



Oh, Jack

Sadly for Collison, he was a spectator to all of this.

Read any footballing autobiography and you will read tales of players suffering from depression and slipping into addiction whilst being out for long periods. It is a strange purgatory that injured players live in - prevented from doing their jobs but still having to work incredibly hard just to figure out if they will ever be able to do that job again. Their once reliable body no longer the sure thing that it has always been, and when they come back not quite what it once was. It's a terrible thing to realise that some of your powers have diminished.

For a young man, still presumably suffering through the loss of his father, it must have been awful. Young men throw themselves into things they love to escape from grief, and while I don't know Jack Collison, I can only imagine that long rides on stationary bikes, tedious weightlifting sessions and constant medical appointments weren't the ideal way to spend that long, lonely period of his life, especially as his mates were off doing the thing that he loved - playing football - every day.

He worked diligently to return and indeed played in the final three games of that season, although he probably had to go through his new player initiation ceremony all over again, such was the turnover in the squad at that point.

But we went down and Grant was sacked in the bowels of the JJB stadium and then only got a lift home on the team coach because Scott Parker took pity on him. Sometimes we are even too West Ham for West Ham.

***
It was under Sam Allardyce that Collison experienced a career renaissance. He might have bored me to tears with his style of play, but Allardyce is much admired by those who played for him, for the clarity of his instructions and vision. He managed Collison carefully and despite limiting his starts across the season, extracted his best goal scoring return of six. These included a vital winner at Leicester late in the season, and then a high point as he scored a crucial brace away at Cardiff in the play off semi final first leg. One can only imagine that he and Allardyce shared a nice pint of Chablis after that one.

Even a knee high lunge at Jimmy Kebe couldn’t dislodge Collison from our affections, as most thought that the Reading winger got off lightly for a bit of needless showboating. We all also wanted Collison to repay the favour at a later date with some pisstaking himself. Football fans there, both complex and remarkably stupid all at once.

But with promotion secured, the reduction in his playing time became more pronounced as that knee injury continued to take a toll. His time on the pitch decreased and he became a more peripheral figure. Collison made his final West Ham appearance in a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City, in the semi final of the League Cup. Hammers fans will have this episode seared into their minds as Allardyce had rested the first team for an FA Cup Third Round match at Forest in order to prepare for the first leg of this tie. Forest promptly smashed us 5-0 and City went one further and won the opening semi final 6-0. I think that could be the single most West Ham sentence I have ever written.

In retrospect, with the dreams of a Wembley final gone,  perhaps the greatest shame of that night is that Collison deserved far better than to finish his career playing at a half empty Upton Park with Alou Diarra and Roger Johnson for company.

***

And with that, he was gone. Upon announcing his departure from West Ham, Collison wrote a long heartfelt letter describing his time at the club. While you won't be able to read it with welling up slowly, it is an moving piece of writing where he revealed himself to be articulate, thoughtful and adhered to West Ham in the way that we wish all our players were. Football fans dream that their heroes care as much about the club as them, but that’s a sad dream that is rarely accurate. In the case of Jack Collison, however, I actually believe it to be true.

Oddly, I feel that I have got to know Collison better since he left West Ham and then eventually had to retire. He set up his own soccer school, started a family and began a degree in sports journalism and his writing has impacted upon me greatly. Perhaps I empathise with the idea of revealing a little more of yourself every time you power up the iMac, or maybe I just respect him immensely for the way he has carried himself through difficult times and still presented his best side to the wider world.

Consider last summer when he had to watch on as his mates Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen carried a resurgent young Welsh side to the semi finals of Euro 2016. He should have been there and watching must have been a beautiful kind of torture for him. Decent Welsh teams are like good Guy Ritchie films, after all - there might have been one once but it was so long ago that nobody can truly be certain. 



That haircut improved, to be fair

But herein lies the thing that has always made me admire Collison more than most others who have worn the claret and blue. Whatever it was that he was going through, he never seemed to let it spill over into the way he played. I don't say that to diminish the difficulty of it, or even because I think footballers should be robotic and perform brilliantly no matter how they are feeling. In fact, Collison to me is an example of the reverse of this. He cried, he acknowledged his pain and he came through it, with a better understanding of himself as a person and a willingness to share his experiences with dignity and maturity. Forget his career as a footballer - in this most masculine of sports and in this most magnified of careers - I admire anyone who is able to achieve that.

I usually have no truck with the idea that former players should be able to return to the club as coaches simply because they played here once, but in the case of Collison I make an exception. He is now the manager of the West Ham under 16 team and I can't think of a better example for our young trainees to observe than the man who has experienced so much and come out the other side. Nobody in that team will ever want for a bit of perspective on life, which is probably more helpful to them than any Cruyff turn ever will be. 

***

So, Jack, thank you for everything that you gave to West Ham. Like Bishop and Sinclair, you connected with me as a fan, and even then I suspect that you gave more than most of us will ever realise, just as I think you were a better player than we appreciated too. 

When a retired player tells you that he wakes up in the morning unable to walk properly, the customary response is to feel sorry for him. You, instead choose to use that pain as a reminder that you were lucky enough to have played the game you loved. To my mind, that is a greater sacrifice than you should have ever been asked to make, but West Ham fans won't forget that you did so. 

Jack Collison - the one who deserved better. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Crystal Palace 2 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Now I've swung back down again, it's worse than it was before
If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor"
- James, "Sit Down"

So in a week where we learned exactly how long it takes to rig a league cup quarter final draw (it's two hours) we learned how long we are allowed to be happy. It's two days. Two bloody days of savouring that win at Wembley and then we're back on the rollercoaster once again. Even Pontius Pilate got three days of thinking he'd sorted out his Jesus problem before reality started to bite.

The worst thing is that viewed in isolation, it isn't that terrible or surprising that we can't beat the bottom team in the league. Over the last two years we were the only team around who struggled to beat Sunderland and if it wasn't for nine dropped points against relegated teams, we would have finished level on points with runners up Arsenal in 2015/16.

If, if, if - the clarion call of the desperate and the dreamers, but still. Shit.


This. The whole article basically boils down to this.

One thing that did hit me as I watched this game, is how difficult it really is to get a handle on West Ham. We so rarely play in the same formation, or with the same tactical approach or even with the same level of efficiency, that opinion tends to swing wildly from game to game. And so far, every game has come with a caveat: injuries, sendings off, the desperate need to just get a win so we just take what points we can get and then worry about the performance later. 

Someone - and I apologise to whomever it was because I can't remember who posted it and can't find it again now - appeared in my Twitter feed after this game making the point that we haven't played well yet this season. My immediate thought was that this was ludicrously harsh, but if you take that to mean a complete ninety minute performance then that's probably true. Even the Miracle of Wembley required a disaster in the first half, in order for the whole thing to be miraculous.

So I thought I'd list out our league performances so far and see if it's really true that each game has had a sizeable caveat attached to it, and whether any of them can really be said to be good, front to back, 90 minute displays:


OppositionResultCaveat
Man Utd0-4They'll beat everyone, loads of injuries
Southampton2-3Ten men, played well second half, ref
Newcastle0-3Loads of injuries, everything will be better at home
Huddersfield2-0All that matters is the result, it's hard at home
West Brom0-0Nobody plays well against West Brom
Spurs2-3Good start, we played Andy Carroll
Swansea1-0All that matters is the result
Burnley1-1Ten men, did you see that one move in the 2nd half?
Brighton0-3Erm, we didn't play Andy Carroll
Palace2-2Our players have no brains. None of them.

OK, so my immediate thought is that the Burnley game was probably our best performance of the season and it involved seventy minutes with ten men, an assist from our goalkeeper and featured another late equaliser. Overall I think we played well, but draws against Burnley do not contented supporters make, especially when they get followed up with 3-0 defeats at home to Brighton. 

Our two victories were both fairly dire, albeit we were the better team on both occasion. We're just so inconsistent from game to game, from half to half and even from one passage of play to another, that any kind of objective assessment feels impossible. But what fans really want is a complete display from start to finish, with all areas of the team functioning and a resounding victory, because that allows us to stop thinking of sustained competence as being a hypothetical concept. 

***

Take this game for instance. How can you moan about a team being two nil up at half time, with two superbly engineered and wonderfully taken goals? Well, I suppose the reality is that at the interval everything did seem to going swimmingly, even if we did have to rely upon an absolutely amazing double save from Joe Hart to keep us in front at 1-0. So what though, that's what he's there for, after all. 

But then the came the worst second half defensive performance since John Parker left Ford's Theatre, Washington DC, 1865 during the intermission of "Our American Cousin" to go and have a drink at a saloon next door. While he was getting smashed, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln and Parker struggled to get much more work in the bodyguard field, although he did later turn out a couple of times at right back for West Ham. 


That's it Michail, into the corner 

At one point in the first half of this game I was beginning to wonder if it was possible to write an article about a match where nothing happened. Even Sartre would have found this all a bit challenging to describe, as two very poor teams engaged in a battle to see who could do least with most. 

And then the game sprang into life. Wilfried Zaha broke into the box and went down in a tangle with Jose Fonte. I thought it looked a bit innocuous, but would have probably wanted it given at the other end. As it was, Bobby Madley waved it away and we then swept upfield with a glorious move that culminated in Chicharito slotting home his fourth of the season. The goal was fairly reminiscent of Lanzini's winner in the corresponding fixture last year, as Cresswell served it up on a plate and the Mexican cleverly flicked it in with the outside of his boot. 

Prominent in the build up to that goal was Andre Ayew, playing just off the striker and getting on the ball very nicely, and he was at it again a few minutes later. This time he latched on to a loose ball courtesy of some good pressing by Fernandes, and drove forward, turned Scott Dann so many times he could have opened a bottle of Merlot with him, and then smashed it in to the top corner from outside the box. He probably should have slipped in Fernandes outside him, but when you're having the kind of week he is, you can't blame him for taking it on. 

As it is, all West Ham players should probably be shooting from everywhere at Selhurst Park as we only ever seem to score screamers against them. 



So a two nil lead at half time seemed fairly sustainable against a team who had scored twice all season, but as this shot map from Caley Graphics shows, you can make an argument that we were fortunate to get anything at all such was the dominance of the home team. But football games aren't played on spreadsheets and when you get to the 97th minute of a game with the lead then you expect to leave with three points. This one was a gut wrencher. 

***

When whoever it is that assembles the playing staff at West Ham decided to put together the oldest, slowest backline in the league I'm fairly sure that they weren't envisioning games like today. We are now ten games into the season and have the third worst goal difference in the league, Zabaleta has been booked five times, we have been beaten 3-0 by two promoted teams and have conceded four penalties. 

Today it was Angelo Ogbonna who decided to forget everything he had learned playing for Juventus and Italy, and brainlessly nudged over Andros Townsend right at the start of the second half. It was soft as ice cream in a sauna and wouldn't have been a penalty in 1985, but as far as arguments go that's not actually a very good one. The penalty went in and suddenly we lost any momentum rolling over from Spurs and instead found ourselves penned back as the home team bombed forward. 

Moments after that goal, Yohan Cabaye hit the post and we were wobbling mightily. It was good timing then, for Joe Hart to start illustrating quite why we'd gone out and paid so much money to get him when Adrian is a perfectly capable Premier League keeper. Wave after wave of home attacks were repelled with a combination of last ditch blocks and brilliant Hart saves. 

Among a number of fine stops, he kept out a Cabaye free kick that looked destined for the top corner and somehow tipped a James Tomkins header on to the bar. In truth, much of the Palace threat came from set pieces as they looked for all the world like West Ham 2014/15 under Sam Allardyce, featuring long deep crosses to Tomkins that were then kept alive in the box for onrushing attackers.  It took a decent amount of World War One style Tommies in the trenches defending to keep them out, which was fitting as we were wearing our new third kit which is apparently a homage to our first ever strip in 1900. 


Joe Hart, ladies and gentleman

So Hart probably deserved better than to be beaten by Zaha's 97th minute equaliser, but in reality we couldn't complain. Had we not wasted so much time throughout the second half we wouldn't have been on the pitch to have given up the goal. As it was, Lanzini and Antonio took a free kick in the 87th minute and decided to keep it in the corner. This was particularly ironic as Palace would score their second a whole ten minutes later, but perhaps more crucially still - neither one of them took it in the fucking corner. 

***

Ah yes, taking the ball into the corner to protect a one goal lead. It's boring and negative when it's done against you, and the height of professional game management when your team does it. And now this morning, Antonio has been roundly criticised for failing to do exactly that in the minute before the goal. 

The problem I have with this is that had Antonio ignored the three on one situation in the Palace box, where Ayew, Lanzini and Chicharito were waiting for any kind of decent cross, and gone over to the corner flag it's still possible that the same thing could have happened. He could still easily have lost the ball, and Palace could have broken away and scored and everybody would have lost their shit that he was being so negative and spurned a gold plated opportunity to seal the win.

Therefore, my issue with Antonio doing what he did isn't that he did it, but more that he did it so badly. The worst part of it all is that any half decent ball would surely have resulted in a goal, which is of course the absolute best way to kill off a game. As it was, Dann chested the laziest pass of all time back to Speroni, and Palace worked it out to Zaha who did a bizarre loop with the ball before driving the winner through a crowd of legs and thousands of West Ham fans muttered "Of course he fucking did" to whomever they were with at the time, before crying like we were watching a walrus trying to find a bit of ice left at the North Pole to park her kid on.

That said, we had so many opportunities to launch late breakaway counters and we seemed clueless as to how to do it. I haven't seen a group of people so unsure of how to attack since the villagers in The Magnificent Seven

As such, I have no issue with Antonio doing what he did - he should have just done it better. And maybe the players in the box could have actually chased back, but then I guess when we all moan that the team doesn't look remotely fit enough, we can't really complain when they can't physically match other teams in the late stages of games.

And so the rollercoaster surges on. 

***

What is interesting after games like this is how we all fall very easily into the trap of telling each other how obvious and predictable it was that this would happen. Truthfully that's not really very fair as we are no worse than any other team when it comes to defending two goal leads. However, as a club we are pretty bad for letting in late goals, and we also have exceptional timing, meaning that we would of course throw away a two goal lead just two days after skewering Spurs in the same way. It's more West Ham than Bubbles, Bobby Moore and getting drawn away in the cups to Big Clubs ()

Under Bilic our record in this situation is actually pretty good:

2-0 Up2-0 Down
WLDWLD
11111213

So, with a two nil lead this is only the second time that we've failed to win under Bilic. The other was when we were ahead against Watford at the London Stadium and then Troy Deeney got upset about rabonas and everybody forgot how to defend and instead just rode around on unicycles squirting water in each others faces.

It would perhaps be better if you tried to ignore how often we have gone 2-0 down under Bilic unless you want to completely lose your mind.

***

And what of Bilic? What does this game tell us about him? We routinely lead the league in defensive errors that lead to goals and that shows no sign of abating. You can argue that he isn't responsible for experienced defenders giving away needless penalties or you can say that when people keep continually making mistakes in his teams that perhaps the structure in which they are playing isn't conducive to error free football.

As it is, we don't really know anything today that we didn't already know yesterday. He still seems cursed with bad luck, he still can't organise a defence, and juggling all his attacking options around seems to befuddle him. Here he pushed Kouyate back into a trio of centre backs and he did pretty well, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the 3-4-3 came back into fashion when Barcelona started dropping their central midfielders between their centre backs and sending their full backs off like auxiliary wingers. The problem is that without him in midfield we lacked the ability to carry the ball or break up play, and even Manuel Lanzini looked peripheral as we struggled to get him in possession.

We also scored with our only two shots on target which either shows a pleasing level of efficiency or a desperate lack of creativity, depending on your world view. While all of that was happening Obiang, Antonio, Carroll and Arnautovic were on the bench and you couldn't help but return to that question one more time - what the hell were we trying to achieve with our summer transfer activity?

So Bilic will wander onwards, because when he was given two games to save his job it didn't make any particular sense, but once you say that then you probably can't fire him after a win and a draw even when the circumstances of those results were so crazy.

It will surprise none of you to know that I don't think a great deal of our Board and their management structure, but I have some sympathy over this decision. How can you assess this? It's impossible to sift through all the madness of those two matches and draw anything concrete from it. And realistically, this constantly undulating graph of our performance that reflects a Himalayan skyline is probably reflective of where we are as a club. Everything is chaotic, there's loads of wild stuff happening behind the scenes and in the end that was always going to bleed out on to the pitch.

Changing the manager might help, purely because they might be able to organise our defence to at least recognise each other occasionally, but I don't think it would make too much difference. This is the problem when you choose not to back a manager by giving him a new contract, but also choose not to fire him. So Bilic exists in this strange footballing purgatory because we all accept that you can't get anyone better in November, especially when you're down with the dead men, but we all know he won't be staying beyond July. In some respects it's probably a testimony to his man management skills that the players pay any attention to him at all given the circumstances, but even though that may be true, I really do wish he'd sort out our back four.

So on we roll, back on the rollercoaster.

***

In a week where the growth of English youth football is on everyone's mind, it's worth noting that England have won both the u17 and u20 World Cups without any West Ham players. This has been a common theme this summer, as most of the best kids seem to come from the same academies - Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are prominent - and it does lead me to wonder quite what is happening with our scouting.

It's not to say we don't have kids at these tournaments as Dan Kemp and Nathan Trott were squad players at their respective Toulon and European Finals, while Domingos Quina also represented Portugal in the latter. But what is striking is how so many of the kids that represent England at these tournaments come from London and how we really seem to be struggling to identify and attract those kids.

Quina was picked up from Chelsea and the likes of Toni Martinez and Martin Samuelson were also transferred for decent sums. Not that this isn't a reasonable way to acquire players but what I'm referring to is the older method of picking up a boy at the age of 9 or 10 and bringing him through your system, moulded as the kind of player you want. We've been struggling with this for a while, and maybe Declan Rice and Reece Oxford will prove us wrong but it's starting to concern me that London kids might now be presented with three other better options for their footballing development at Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal.

A friend of mine took his very talented nine year old to West Ham recently at the club's request, and when they arrived he was bunched in with a huge number of other children and nobody took any notice of them. His main observation after watching his son learn precisely nothing in an hours worth of coaching, was that "they fail primarily as human beings".

One persons experience isn't indicative of anything, but at some point we may want to ask why our youth policy isn't delivering players in the same way as other teams. Declan Rice might very well be one such player but our London rivals are currently producing Premier Leaguers at a rate of far higher than once every five years, as we tend to do.

I don't know enough to comment fully on this, but I highlight it just to make the point. More help from the Academy is needed.