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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Slow, Dissolving Dream

"What's left for you and me?
I ask that question rhetorically"
- Alvvays, "In Undertow"


McNulty!

The West Ham board have been doing stupid things. It's The H List bat signal.

I am, I suspect, quite a long way behind the rest of you, but I have stumbled upon something that has rather simplified my life. Much like the brilliant, multi faceted Showtime drama "The Affair", this required alternate viewpoints and an ability to stop seeing only one side of the story, but after a decade of smashing my head fruitlessly against the wall of Sullivanism I have finally seen the light.

For those of you who have read The H List for a while, you will know that I have spent years battling against the way West Ham has been run. Why, I pondered, would a football club that has ambitions to break into the Champions League be managed this way? What logic was driving the baffling sequence of decisions that have been the hallmark of this decade of ownership? What, assuming you weren't a blackmail victim, would convince you that signing Carlos Sanchez was a good idea?

My repeated conclusion has been fairly straightforward; the people in charge of West Ham don't know what they are doing.

And, in fairness, the results have tended to back that up.

But after a while, I began to slightly question my logic. People do not tend to make billions while being idiots. They are certainly capable of poor decisions, but they aren't generally stupid. Now, there is the wrinkle that our owners made their fortunes in an unusual way. The requirements of making lots of money from porn are not exactly the same as those in manufacturing or finance. Sullivan and Gold didn't need a genius design, or fossil fuels or a whizz bang trading algorithim or anything unique like that. No, they simply needed to be prepared to operate in a murkier part of society than others had been prepared to do before them. They needed sharp elbows, a different take than wider society on sex, and a willingness to flirt with the laws of the day. I make no judgement about any of that, but it's also true that once they had that cash they then stuck most of into property and let market forces do the rest.

So those skills don't really translate to running a wider, more traditional business. Filming and selling hardcore pornography doesn't require business acumen so much as having a different view on prurience to the vast majority of the country. 

And so here we are in 2019 with West Ham having lost more Premier Leagues matches this decade than anyone else, and the club is still run and operated in exactly the same way it has been since Gold and Sullivan arrived in January 2010. And the club have duly finished the decade exactly where they started it - 17th in the Premier League, facing relegation and with no discernible plan for the future.

So with that in mind I just couldn't see the point of writing this column any more. How many ways can you say the same thing before it ceases to have any meaning?

Of course, following West Ham in the Olympic Stadium era has been an even more frustrating experience than any of us could have imagined. Rather than catapulting the club on to greater heights, it has instead become a test of strength. How much do you really love West Ham? Enough to give up the vast majority of the things you used to enjoy about football to continue watching them? Do you want to watch the same shit football but just from further away? Well, unbuckle and despise the ride because that's what you're doing.

And so my analysis of the club's owners still seemed pretty sound; they don't know what they're doing. I'm right, aren't I? Consider the league finishes of the club under the ownership of Terry Brown and then under David Sullivan:


Terry BrownFinishDavid SullivanFinish
1992-932nd (Div 1)2009-1017th
1993-9413th2010-1120th (Relegated)
1994-9514th2011-123rd (Championship)
1995-9610th2012-1310th
1996-9714th2013-1413th
1997-988th2014-1512th
1998-995th2015-167th
1999-009th2016-1711th
2000-0115th2017-1813th
2001-027th2018-1910th
2002-0318th (Relegated)
2003-044th (Championship)
2004-056th (Championship)
2005-069th

Five of the top six West Ham Premier League finishes happened under Terry Brown. So yeah, how good can you really be when you're demonstrably worse than a caravan park owner who thought we once got relegated because it was our turn. I say again (and again and again) - they don't know what they're doing.

Right?

But that just didn't sit easily with me. Wealthy people aren't always smart, and smart people aren't always wealthy, but unless you inherit your money the truth is that billionaires are likely to be smarter than the average bear.

So, what if my analysis was fine, but I was simply asking the wrong question?

"Why do they keep failing?" is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and "because they don't know what they're doing" is a very reasonable answer. But then I was hit by a notion not unlike Morrissey's double decker bus...

What if they're not failing?
What if this is fine?

What if the things that you want for West Ham are not the same as the owners?

And that, my friends, was when it all began to make a lot more sense. We had made the mistake of assuming that success for them was the same as success for us. And with every misplaced pass, every abysmal signing and every short term bodge job it came became ever more clear that this was simply not the case.


***

"I thought it started as a daydream
But I'm not dreaming anymore"
Mattiel, "Keep the Change"


Same

Firstly, I want you to click on this link and read the attached story, for it is key to everything I am about to posit.

For those of you with the work rate of a West Ham wide player, let me summarise. This link tells the story of how investment firm Silver Lake recently purchased a 10% stake in Manchester City's parent company for $500m. For those paying attention at the back, that values Manchester City at a cool $5bn. Now, this might seem as relevant to West Ham as the stock price of Waitrose to your local second hand car dealership, but sadly it's not.

Booming valuations of sports franchises have a knock on effect, and an astronomical valuation like this has the consequence of helping to raise the price of teams like West Ham. It matters not that City are run by an oil rich state and we are being run into the ground by snake oil salesmen - we occupy broadly the same real estate and that is all that matters. Call it trickle down economics, or call it a symbol of how fucked up the world is, but you can probably value West Ham somewhere around $500m nowadays assuming - and this is the kicker - that they remain a Premier League club.

And thus I began to view West Ham a little differently.

Us fans may pore over u23 score lines, scout Belgian central midfielders on YouTube and look longingly to the Bundesliga for a sexy young saviour, but the sad truth is that none of that matters. West Ham is not a club with aspirations about floating - West Ham is a club determined not to drown.

Now let me be clear about what I mean by this because I think this could be prettily easily construed as me suggesting that the owners are asset strippers or uninterested leeches, and I don't think that's really true. I believe that David Sullivan and David Gold would like West Ham to be successful, and I can even allow myself to be convinced that as supporters they feel the highs and lows just as we do. 

But their primary driver is simple; in summer 2021 the club can be sold without any of the proceeds needing to be repaid to the public purse. (*) Assuming that West Ham are still a Premier League club at that point and that $500m valuation holds, then Sullivan and Gold will be free to sell up and bank the kind of profit that one does not usually see when you flog an asset based in a leased building, constructed to last a fortnight.

So while I accept there is a nice spot in the Venn diagram where the things we want overlap with the owners, we can stop kidding ourselves about the wider dream. We aren't going to see £100m plans for training facilities or substantial investment in a new scouting and analytics set up, or a tonne of money being thrown at the women's team, because these things just cost money and depress the amount of the money the owners will trouser in a sale. You don't stick long term expenditure projects on a balance sheet when you're preparing to sell up. 

I don't doubt for a moment that the owners would like West Ham to be successful but that is a secondary consideration to avoiding relegation. Champions League football would be a wonderful boon to the valuation of the club, but it's a very long shot. As such, you are seeing a football club run more to avoid finishing 18th rather than with the intention of finishing 6th. And I have found that once I started viewing things through that prism, it all made a lot more sense.

Sullivan has always been prepared to spend money - and let me be clear here when I say that this is primarily because it's the clubs money and not his - but there has been a distinct lack of any kind of cohesive plan in any of it. Think of the endless words written on this site crying out for strategy, forward thinking purchases, better facilities, investment in the marginal things that might eke out the odd point here and there and then remember that the club is valued the same whether we finish 14th or 9th.

It's not that they don't care - they just don't care about what we care about.


***

"Anybody with a worried mind, could never forgive the sight
Of wicked snakes inside a place, you thought was dignified"
- Vampire Weekend, "Harmony Hall"


Just a fabulous group of people

I suspect a decent number of you are wondering what took me so long. This is all probably fairly obvious stuff. 

Perhaps I always realised this too but never wanted to admit it to myself. But let's be clear, the realisation that your football club isn't primarily concerned with winning football games is actually quite a hard thing to type in black and white. 

It is the end of the slow, dissolving dream that moving to Stratford was done to enhance the fortunes of the club, and instead is the realisation of a long gestating nightmare that the club can sit and fester until a buyer can be found who has the cash and wherewithal to try and do anything other than just exist. 

You see, all of those articles and those conversations and arguments about who to buy and sell were all had in good faith. They were all held by fans assuming that the owners were wanting the same thing as them. And while I don't doubt that Jack Sullivan really does love West Ham, and that David Gold would really like us to beat Palace instead of allowing Jordan Fucking Ayew to waltz through our defence, they have a hundred million reasons not to demand change.

The visit of Leicester was, in many ways, the perfect send off to this decade for West Ham. Here is a club who have climbed through the divisions, won the league, made a Champions League quarter final, weathered the death of their owner and most recently sold their best player for £80m while replacing him with a home grown kid and simultaneously improving their squad. They have plans for a monumental training ground and can attract top managers because it is seen as a premier place to work. They are, by any definition the antithesis of West Ham.

The owner of StatsBomb wrote this Twitter thread on Friday and while I broadly agree with him, he really should be using Leicester and not Liverpool to illustrate his point. But the wider issue that he correctly identifies is that the Premier League will leave teams like West Ham behind. We have survived so long because of our relatively higher income, and the general stupidity of those around us. In a couple of years that advantage will be gone, and while we may survive this year the writing is certainly on the wall for the near future. The current iteration of West Ham has the same bright future as the gramophone.


But I digress.

So, we play Leicester in the final game of the decade at 5.30 on a Saturday evening. The game isn't televised but kicks off late to allow Westfield shoppers to spend their cash in the daytime. You and me can wait. West Ham were, by pure coincidence, away on Boxing Day once again.

Our best player is Michail Antonio, who made such an impact when he arrived in 2015 that David Gold was tricked into tweeting a picture of him with a missing persons report. Having settled in, he was then used by the fans favourite manager of the decade - Slaven Bilic - as a right back, and fucked our only chance of ever making the Champions League.

Years later, he is by some distance the most effective player in a team featuring four £20m+ signings, and without him we look like Destiny's Child sans Beyonce. He starts on the bench here having crashed a £200k Lamborghini into someone's house on Christmas Day, while dressed as a snowman.

And that, my friends, is pretty much the only three paragraphs you will ever need to explain your support of West Ham to a non believer. 


Not even close to being the biggest car crash of this Christmas

So Leicester arrive, play their reserves and beat us so comfortably that Manuel Pellegrini just gives up and lets some small children in the seats behind him make the substitutions. The crowning moment came in the second half when Issa Diop produced a piece of defending that looked suspiciously like when I play my kids at FIFA and I press all the wrong buttons and my player does a goal celebration instead of a sliding tackle.

And after all that, and since the time I started writing this piece, Pellegrini was sacked.

***

"Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know then what a drag it is to see you"
- Bob Dylan "Positively Fourth Street"

He will, one assumes, be followed by David Moyes, who ought to have been given greater consideration two summers ago and we will begin the now customary annual bailing of water in the hope of making it through to the summer where we can, ahem, rebuild.

People will be upset about Moyes and see it as a regressive, uninspired choice without putting the pieces together that this is a regressive, uninspiring club. The team is listless and without direction because the club is too. There is no culture of success or excellence anywhere at West Ham and that is reflected in everything that happens at the club. There is a reason that every interaction with supporters is seen as transactional; there is a reason that kids don't want to go the to Stadium; there is a reason that the Academy doesn't produce good players. The culture is one of abject mediocrity that even hard working, dedicated employees cannot transcend. It hangs over the club like a shroud and is Karren Brady's great bequeathment to us. Not bad for someone who is hardly ever here.

Managers have to be paid outrageously to come, because they must work within the restrictions laid down by the Board. No long term planning, no vision and nothing to harm the balance sheet. For this privilege Pellegrini took home £8m a year, and it's why I have no sympathy for him. He came back from a retirement in China and changed absolutely nothing about the club. He took that money and shut up about what was needed for West Ham. He deserves nothing and can't piss off soon enough, what with his main achievement being to transform Sebastian Haller from pretty good to Priti Patel.

And in that vein, why do we think so many of our players clearly don't give a shit about West Ham? What linked Payet, Arnautovic, Diame, Sakho, Hernandez, Carroll et al was that they all fundamentally understood that they were playing for a club with no ambition. And thus, when the chance came for them to better themselves or enrich their fortunes they took it. And I don't blame them one bit. We paid Javier Hernandez more than Harry Kane, but look at what Spurs were able to offer their player. It is no wonder that the team so frequently look like they'd rather be anywhere else than here. After all, so would half the crowd.

So Moyes will come, and this time he will have more leverage and I suspect that he may wrest a little more control away from Sullivan. I don't have any particular issue with appointing Moyes as he has a vision and some semblance of an idea about how to build a stumbling club. And frankly, who do people think would be better who would realistically come? Frankly the appointment of Moyes or Chris Hughton or Danny Cowley is all a bit moot. Nobody is going to be able to thrive under these circumstances.

Either way, I think it's likely that Moyes will be paid an eyewatering amount and given a contract up to that magic 2021 date and then everything will be reassessed. Yet more treading water and frantically hoping not to drown, and all the while ensuring that the balance sheet is kept pristine.

In some ways I don't even really blame Sullivan and Gold for their stance. They have, correctly in my view, decided that success in English football would require an amount of cash and intellectual heft that they do not have. Young players with resale value require scouting, higher transfer fees outlaid on less sure things, and giving up control to others. Sullivan won't do that, and instead prefers to sign the likes of Yarmolenko or Hernandez because he thinks he knows what he is getting for a shorter, controlled period of time. In much the same way as Mike Ashley, the owners are simply sitting in and waiting for someone else to come and make the investment that they cannot.

But what an impact that is having on the club. This is starting to feel terminal. Everywhere I look there are empty seats and apathy is starting to take the deepest root I have ever seen amongst our support. I still feel there will be one more Burnley incident before the whole thing goes full Wimbledon, but it's not an exaggeration to say that "I just don't care any more" feels like the new refrain from the terraces. Maybe it's me, and a reflection of my own ennui, but I don't think so. Fans aren't stupid and watching a club be transparently run for the benefit of two individuals has poisoned the experience. And that stadium. That fucking stadium.

My own view is that fans have been extraordinarily patient with these owners, and far too willing to forget old mistakes in the face of a brand new fixture list and a couple of sunny pre season friendlies. But that's a part of the great set of lies we mid-table fans must tell ourselves. We have to pretend that these new signings are the ones, or that the chairman really is trying to produce a younger, faster team even as he extends Pablo Zabaleta's contract, because otherwise what is the point?

Well, once again we're forced to ask that question - what is the point? Nobody believes in the slow dissolving dream anymore, and we can't go back to what we had before. I don't have the answer but I'm happier now I don't have to try and pretend that the club are trying to win. Moyes is fine because it doesn't matter who they appoint. It's all about drifting and listless nothingness. It's about hanging on until something better comes along. It's the fading and dying of dreams.

Happy New Year everyone.

(*) This article contains a link to a City AM piece that incorrectly states that the earliest date at which the club can be sold without a slice going to the public purse is 2021. This date is actually 2023 (thanks to Mark Inskipp on KUMB for picking this up). It doesn't change my thoughts about any of the above - it's just a longer period of purgatory for us. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

An Inconvenient Truth

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


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



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

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

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

One would be too many. Got it?

Because West Ham fans are very clear on this point. 


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Banter"

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

***

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

So, where now?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ought not to leave him alone to do so.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

West Ham, Women and What We Do In The Shadows

(Longread - allow 10-12 minutes)


***

I often wonder what is wrong with me.

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

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


First the vote, and now this.

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

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

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

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


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


***

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

The History

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


***

The Privilege

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

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

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


Rosie Kmita - icons come in all shapes and sizes

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

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

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

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


***


The Rebuttals

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Women players aren't as good as men"

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

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

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

OK then.

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

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

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

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

"Having female pundits is just tokenism"

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


The Context

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

And Into The Fire

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

Well, that didn't last long.

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


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

Brighton 1 - 0 West Ham 

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

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


And Glen Murray did appear

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No problem lads, Zaba and Nobes are there

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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


Flowers for Al-Jazeera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


That West Ham leadership structure in full

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

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

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

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