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, 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.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Everton 1 - 3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Throw those curtains wide!
One day like this a year would see me right"
- Elbow, "One Day Like This"

Act 1 - Rarely Seen Moments of Joy


Frantically googling synonyms for "happy". Frantically trying to remember what time Match of the Day 2 is on. Our season starts today, folks!





The most coordinated we have looked all year


***

"Don't get sentimental, it always ends in drivel"
- Radiohead, "Let Down"

Oh, but what a day, What a reward for the hardy madmen and women who ventured to Liverpool on a Sunday when just about anything else would have been more appealing. Fancy going to watch West Ham at Everton. That's like going to the Colosseum to cheer on the Christians for their difficult away fixture with the lions. 




Not the best starting position I've ever seen defensively

But I suppose that these are the slings and arrows that keep us coming back. Without hope where would we be, after all? Well, Stoke is where we would be, but you get my point. For those fans who travel to Everton on days like these, there can be no sweeter or more deserved feeling than this. From the moment that Andriy Yarmolenko loped into the box and fired us into the lead, we never looked in danger of losing this match. The eternal pessimist in every West Ham supporter might well have said "we can get a point here" when Arnautovic made it 3-1, but in truth we were always oddly comfortable even though the home side did create some good chances. Perhaps the reality is that they were so visibly lacking in confidence that it was just impossible to imagine a player like Cenk Tosun taking the chances that came his way. 

Everton were shocking then, but such qualifiers don't matter much when you have lost your opening four matches and looked bad doing it. We needed this win, and we got it through an excellent team display. What was interesting was that we seemed to abandon the wider, more expansive game that was allegedly being tried in the previous games and reverted to a more compact shape, better suited to exploiting the high raiding Everton full backs. And it worked a treat.

Declan Rice returned in the holding midfield role and was the best player on the pitch. He is the epitome of keeping things simple, but as my good friend The Boleyn Beluga once said to me - "simplicity is deceptively complicated". The skill required to take up the positions he did, and the technique required to take the touches he did should not be underestimated. He was superb in that role and outshone his competition. Beside him Pedro Obiang was released further forward and was impressive too, playing a major part in the first and third goals, and generally looking like Cheikhou Kouyate but with an end product. The third Musketeer was Mark Noble, who yelled at the foreign lads last week , and justified his return to the side with a performance that showcased his worth. We know that central midfield is a problem, and that on tougher days against better teams it probably still will be, but this looked like the beginning of a solution. 

Ahead of them Marko Arnautovic was outstanding, and every bulldozing run through the centre should be a fond reminder that David Moyes made some changes in his time here that will long outlast his shortened tenure. Yarmolenko too was very good, sweeping in the first after Arnautovic broke on to Obiang's pass and unselfishly squared it to him, with just nine minutes gone. He doubled the lead before half time when cutting in from the right and curling a beautiful finish into the top corner. It was a lovely finish but scandalously bad defending against a player so obviously one footed. Still, the Ukrainian has always been a goalscorer wherever he has played, and a threat from somewhere other than Arnautovic is going to be vital, especially with Manuel Lanzini currently laid up on the Andy Carroll Memorial Wing. 

We still look shaky at the back sometimes, although perhaps that is to be expected when the defensive set up changes every week. I still feel we have the defensive players best suited to a back five and the attackers for a back four and that mismatch is partially why we have looked so disjointed prior to this game. That said, for today this group held firm, despite the frankly terrifying sight of various Everton youngsters running past Pablo Zabaleta like they were playing in the park with a well meaning but disastrously unfit Uncle. 

I still like the look of Issa Diop in the middle, even if he broke the defensive line to free up the space from where Gylfi Siggurdsson headed Everton's goal in first half stoppage time. But he is mobile and composed and very much worth persevering with. I had initially thought that he might take a year to settle in, and so Balbuena would play alongside Ogbonna until the Frenchman was ready. As things have transpired, it's the Paraguayan who has looked a bit temperamental, but he was good here too and it was his quick thinking challenge that won back possession for Obiang to create our opener. Alongside them Arthur Masuaku was the name thrown up by the Pellegrini magic eight ball to play at left back, and he did an impressively physical job on Theo Walcott - so much so that he was probably lucky to get away with a head high attempt to control the ball that caught his opponent in the face. 

And the calming influence on all of this was Lukasz Fabianksi, who was once again faultless and continues to make a mockery of my suggestion that his purchase was a waste of time and money. 

We won't meet teams this compliant every week, but we won't meet teams as good as Liverpool and Arsenal either. It's a shame that the fixture list continues to laugh in our face by giving us Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs in three of our next four games but there you go. Perhaps with some confidence and self belief hewn from this result, we can eke out one of those famous home wins that used to seem so frequent but probably never were. 

***

"So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place"
- Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, "Tracks of My Tears"

So what should we make of this in the grand scheme of things? We win at Everton less frequently than David Sullivan pipes insane films into my TV, and yet I'm still a bit unsure. It is early, and there are qualifiers to our poor start, for certain. The fixtures we have faced have been difficult, and by the time we hit nine games we will have played five of the inevitable top six. That is brutal. One also has to allow for the cultural change that is happening, as Pellegrini tries to shift us away from the chaos that remains after a stolid Sam Allardyce team was left rudderless by Slaven Bilic's lack of a plan, and then moulded into something more necessarily functional by David Moyes. When you view it like that, we can't be too surprised when the players seem slow to adapt to whatever new ideas the Chilean has brought with him. 

I will admit that I had hoped for a greater consistency of selection at this point. I'm bemused by why Ryan Fredericks keeps appearing then being dropped from the squad altogether, unless Pellegrini really is going to rotate his fullbacks every week. Fredericks and Diop are my two favourite signings of the summer because I like their speed, and both are young enough to actually command a transfer fee in the future. That is actually a genuine step forward for us in terms of acquiring players.

I was nonplussed about Fabianski, reasoning that his marginal upgrade over Adrian wasn't going to be worth many points to us and, in fairness, after four games I was right - we literally couldn't have been any lower in the league if the Spaniard had been playing. 


Making me look stupid - not hard, admittedly

But Fabianski is more than a marginal upgrade, I think. Adrian has had to fight for his place under four consecutive managers and the fact that none have truly committed to him as a number one does suggest that there is something there that I am not seeing. Fabianski has shown an ability to make excellent saves, and generally exudes an air of calmness that you don't tend to get from Adrian, who frequently resembles a puppy going mad in a hall of mirrors. I wouldn't have signed the Pole, and I would have been wrong. Score one for David Sullivan. 

But you can immediately deduct that good mark for the signing of Jack Wilshere. Leaving aside concerns about his ability - and again, to be fair, this was the formation in which he should have been playing all season - he has now had a thoroughly predictable surgery and will be absent for six to twelve weeks. It's as tedious for me to say this as it is for you to read it every week, but our transfer policy is just Brexitly stupid. Signing a player with a long history of ankle injuries and hoping that he will be magically cured by the healing gale force winds of Rush Green is insane. Giving him a three year contract is just full on Caligula. 

Elsewhere, I felt Anderson was at least the right profile of player, even if he seemed extraordinarily expensive. He was decent in this game, offering a constant outlet on the left, and generally looking like a highly dangerous prong of our attacking trident. On the other side was Yarmolenko, who has a touch of Chris Waddle about him with his languid gait, 80's haircut and lovely left foot, and he finally looked a bit fitter here, although he does appear to be one of those guys for whom the very act of existing seems to be exhausting. 

He is also bordering 29, and thus won't have long with us before the legs go, and thus needs to make an instant impact. At £22m he has a lot of work to do before he has repaid that fee, but two goals at Goodison is a very nice down payment. 

But drip feeding all of these new players into the team is no easy task, and while I think there might be some doubts about Pellegrini's hunger - do elite managers really just pack up and head for China mid career? - he has a big job on his hands here. I'm nervous, because there is much at stake and trusting that Sullivan has done his due diligence is probably not a good idea, but there can be no argument about his pedigree. I would like to see this shape and formation given a chance now. We need some stability and a pattern of play, and perhaps this is the blueprint to giving us a nice peaceful rest of the season. 

***


Act Two - Standard Misery Addendum, Because West Ham

"So before you take this song as truth, you should wonder what I'm taking from you
How I benefit from you being here"
- Villagers, "Becoming A Jackal"

But there can be no peace, not really. If you're in London you're always five feet from a rat, and if you're a West Ham fan you're always two days from a crisis. And so, before this game The Times ran a piece about Manuel Pellegrini being unhappy about the culture of leaks that surrounds the club. It wasn't attributed to Pellegrini, and he later denied it was true, meaning that it was a leak about leaks. Get the fuck outta here Newcastle, the professionals are in town. 

The focus of the story was well known Twitterer @ExWHUEmployee who, the article claimed, had revealed the team early on his account for sixty successive games. Ex denies this element of the story, but there can be little argument that his is the account to follow if you want the inside track on what is happening at the club. Although I have never met Ex, we have swapped messages in the past, and I have urged him to put less information in the public domain. His response was that he feels he has a right to publish his information as would any other journalist utilising his sources, and furthermore that he does actively filter out stories that he believes are damaging to the club. I take him at his word in that regard, and I also cannot deny the truth of what he says. If I have a right to post these articles every week, then he has every right to post his. 


I should also add that Ex and his site, The West Ham Way, have done sterling work in raising significant funds for Isla's Fight, host a popular Pre Match Event and radio show and generally are representative of the views of an awful lot of West Ham fans. That matters because it adds the context that most of what I am about to say has already been rejected as irrelevant by a lot of supporters. Additionally, none of this is a personal attack, but I feel I can't leave it unaddressed if The H List does indeed purport to be an accurate journal of what it is to be a West Ham fan. 


All of this led to a bit of a shitstorm where Ex ended up on various radio shows defending his position, and then social media went wild as lots of people jumped to Ex's defence, pointing out that leaking a team an hour before it goes public really doesn't make much difference as the opposition is already prepared. And in that very strict context, I agree. 


Now, in the interests of balance I ought to say that I think Ex used to leak the team or suggest possible changes quite a bit earlier than that, until fan pressure got him to do it a lot closer to kick off. Still, while I agree that naming a team on a Saturday really doesn't make much difference to a game, I think it's also fair to say that there is literally nothing positive that can come out of it for West Ham. 


As part of his defence, Ex conducted a Talksport interview that bordered on the farcical, where he claimed that he wasn't a leak and that he actually just guessed the team. Sixty times in a row. I'm a bit disappointed that he took that route as I don't think you can spend years on Twitter demanding acknowledgment for your inside man status, and then suddenly pretend that you've just been cleverly guessing all along. It takes us for fools. 


But for all of that, the broader point is being missed here. None of this is about the leaking of the team, or indeed about Ex, because he is far from the only person on the web with seemingly inside information coming from high places within the club. No, the broader point is that information is being leaked at all. Why do we know that the chairman offered Jack Wilshere a one year deal and was overruled by the manager, just four games into his West Ham career? Why do we know the details of what Declan Rice wants in his new contract? 


This. Is. Not. Normal. 


Properly run football clubs do not leak like this. Properly run football clubs do not have family members placed into positions of authority with no qualifications for the role. Properly run football clubs do not have every aspect of their transfer business widely published before it happens. Properly run football clubs do not release emails detailing their transfer business in order to refute accusations from other clubs that they have lied. Properly run football clubs don't entertain allowing large, undemocratic supporter groups to have back channel access to the chairman. Properly run football clubs don't allow managers to hire their own boss. Properly run football clubs don't canvas the opinion of fans about managers and players. Properly run clubs don't have their own Insider column on their website to discuss gossip and leak their own transfer plans. Those are things you expect from despotic third world regimes, not Premier League heavyweights. 



And that's where Pellegrini sat when he signed his contract

But all of this speaks to the totally unprofessional culture round West Ham. The shitty training ground, the malfunctioning Academy and the fact that managers are routinely bemused by the way that private details of the club keep ending up in print are all sides of the same coin. And while I don't doubt that Ex and others like him have kept a lid on certain unsavoury stories (and just imagine how mental they must be when you consider what is in the public domain) that isn't reassuring to me. Ex, as he says in his Talksport interview, isn't a journalist and that matters. He has no editorial policy or requirement to provide counterbalance in his reporting. He may try, indeed I'm sure he does, but what if this information ends up with the hands of someone who isn't putting the clubs best wishes first? Ultimately the Board are standing by while fans exercise their own discretion and put this information out there against their manager's wishes and they do nothing to stop it. Why is that? I mean, really, why is that?


Ultimately the only conclusion to be drawn is that either they don't think it matters or they are aware of, and approve the leaking. Marvellous. 


Because here is what all of this stuff does. It degrades the culture and reputation of your club. It allows your stewards and your office staff and your youth team players and your ground staff to know that this isn't an elite professional working environment. And gradually that becomes baked into the skin of your club and doing things "not quite right" becomes good enough. And then eventually "good enough" degrades to "it'll do", and then suddenly you are Blackpool or Coventry. 

And our managers know this and hate it. Two have had this to say on the matter:


Sam Allardyce: “You pull your hair out at the beginning and in the end you have to accept it for what it is and move on and accept that it is going to happen.”

David Moyes: “It makes it very difficult. There are so many things at football clubs that can happen daily, whether it be transfers, dealing with players or team selections, and you hope you get a bit of trust.

I’m sure every manager who has come in has tried to change it.”


And I return to something I said last week. What has been the constant during this last seven or eight years when the club has gradually slipped into this state of disrepair? Hint; it ain't the managers or the players.

So really, none of this is about Ex or Sean Whetstone or Hugh Southton or any of the others who get regularly accused of being stooges for the Board. It isn't about team leaks or the fact that managers have to give the team to the chairmen before the players. It is all of that and none of it. It is about the culture of West Ham United.



Not sure we'll see his like again

I leave you with this. Imagine you are a professional footballer, and an agent acting on behalf of West Ham approaches your agent. You think that is a bit weird because usually that would be a club representative, but they are offering a massive wage increase so you agree to hear them out. You ask your current manager about the move and he tells you that he interviewed for the West Ham job previously and the owners teenage son was in the meeting, and that was a bit weird too but, still, big money. So you move forward and in the end your agent hammers out a deal and you sit down to discuss it over. But something is nagging at you - maybe you are gay. Or maybe you have an illegitimate child your wife is unaware of. Or a huge gambling debt. Or you are concerned about your wages being made public because of societal pressures in your home country. Or maybe you have none of those issues but you are just a regular person who is bemused at why so much of the club's business is public knowledge.

Ask yourself this - would you move to West Ham in those circumstances? The club that can't keep it's team secret? The team where any wage negotiation is public knowledge? The club that resides permanently on back pages for everything other than footballing reasons? The club where managers leave and smile ruefully when asked what it was like?

Clubs with this type of unprofessional culture either don't get very good players, or they pay through the nose to get them. And at this point I feel I should remind you that we pay our squad more than Roma and Dortmund.

Now, I am not suggesting that any of those people I listed above would out a gay footballer, but that's not the point - it's illustrative. The point is that it shouldn't really be in their power to even consider it. And yet it would be, and that is the problem. And. It. Is. Not. Normal.

The Board could end this right now if they wanted. They know who Ex is, as Jack and David Sullivan Junior have been guests on his radio show and his Twitter account. Sean Whetstone sat on the Supporters Advisory Board, and indeed took over leaking the team on Sunday from Ex - something that concerns me greatly given that he now sits on the board of WHUISA and he really is accountable to a code of conduct.

Let's wrap this up - it's had more false endings than Lord of the Rings so far.

This is a long, rambling set of thoughts, but it comes down to a simple point. I follow Ex on Twitter, I pore over his articles like anyone else, and for that I guess I am a hypocrite. But I also want to see this stop because of what it says about the club. I want West Ham to be better, to be ultra professional and a football club that other teams aspire to emulate. That is absolutely, definitively not the case right now.

Be better, West Ham.

Because of the nature of this piece, I felt it only fair to allow Ex to have a right of reply. His response was this:

***

ExWHUEmployee - 

"Firstly, I would like to clarify some of the things that I said in the TalkSport interview here and dispute the fact that they are farcical.  When I said I guess the starting 11 it is obviously meant as educated guessing which I did try to explain in the interview.  The way my information works is that I hear different bits of news which I then piece together to “predict the team”.  For example you hear of injuries/illnesses, you hear of how the team sets up in training, you hear of certain players being told they are starting and certain things make sense as fans as to who would be playing.  Geo Mackie of Hammers Chat would often send me his “predicted team” which he based with less inside hints then I would get and most weeks he would be right or out by one player which proves it can be done.  It is very rare anyone of any note will message me and say this is the team from 1-11.  When it comes to things like transfers I am not predicting because I am told directly things from scouts, agents, players, people in the media but again it is a case of putting it all together and working out what is accurate and what isn’t and this is where my comments about not being a journalist but being better than most comes from.  

A lot more work goes into doing what I do than people will credit especially those that wrongly assume I have a direct line to David Sullivan.  As I have maintained I only put out stories that I believe to have no harm to the team and have helped the club many a time to quash stories that I have heard of before that reach the mainstream.  Whilst I admit it is pleasing to get stories right if what I did was solely based on ego I would also put the negative stories out because those are the ones that get the most attention too but I don’t because I am a massive fan and want the best for this club. 

This article says that it is only West Ham that have these social media leaks and that is quite simply not true. Newcastle recently commentated on having leaks and I am in a few Twitter groups where myself and other people in the know from other clubs swap information and then you can piece a story together.  An example of this was our possible signings of Fabianski and Mawson where most of the information that I got on the deals came from the Swansea end of things rather that West Ham.  The difference between it is that as West Ham fans we do not search for other clubs’ news so we are not aware that it also happens and is an indication of the social media age that we live in.  Even when I was growing up there was the pay per minute service TeamTalk that operated for every club and charged you a fortune to get the inside scoop from your club and they were a company with multi million profits because fans like to hear the news from within the club and it also explains why I have over 50k followers on Twitter, if the majority of people didn’t like it these numbers wouldn’t be achieved.  There are thousands of transfer based social media accounts with millions of followers who leak transfer news for all clubs and back up my point.  

The culture of leaks within the club is not the case of it just being one mole or one high profiled person leaking to me.  My news often comes from third parties from West Ham such as media outlets, friends of friends within the club and so when people call for the mole to be outed and sacked it isn’t one person and sometimes the person may not know they are even doing it.  There is one site in particular who has an open line to all of the board members and are told things to publish and this site is not mine.  If all board members are prepared to tell people things then you can understand why others within the club may not see it as a huge issue.  

I understand why some people do not like what I do but the ironic thing about this is those that are most vocal against it are two well known forum based West Ham sites of which I used to read to get inside information and team selections which is fine for them to do but not for others.  This links to my point that if my account didn’t exist many other would and still do now.  Every transfer window new “transfer accounts” occur and there are other West Ham accounts who do put the starting 11 out days in advance they are just not as well known as mine.   

This story has been blown massively out of proportion because Pellegrini has already stated that firstly he wasn’t aware of the leaks and even if it is true he isn’t bothered.  If the manager of the club isn’t bothered about it then why does it need this much attention which when you look at it was a poor journalists attempt to make another negative story about west ham in a slow news week.  

Every newspaper does a predicted team at the weekend for each club and does their best to get any story on the club most of which are inaccurate.  Look at how much negativity has been put out recently even on Sunday when finally winning a game Sky falsely claimed that Perez refused to warm up and within minutes most of West Ham’s social media were calling for him to be sacked.  I do the same yet I put a positive slant on it and I am more accurate that is the only difference.  Whilst I do not wish to blow my own trumpet and has been kindly pointed out by the author of this article I also use the account to promote positive causes and raise money for a variety of charities as well, whilst I am not using this to hide behind I do find it odd that some people refuse to look at the good that can be achieved and will find anything to knock the account, you would have to speak to them for the motives of it.

I am old school and I miss the old days where you would only hear news on deals in the paper the next day but for good or for worse social media has changed the face of football and whether you like it or not there will always be many ExWHUEmployee equivalents".

***


And there you have it - both sides of the argument, debated civilly on the internet. Who knew. I'll let you decide which side of the fence you fall on.