A weekly blog following the hidden fortunes of the Boleyn Boys with an eye on all things related to the Premiership

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Manchester City 3 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Hors D'ouevres

My last post was somewhat swathed in negativity about West Ham and I'd like to counteract that a little. Sadly the actual game I'm writing about didn't offer me that opportunity, so before we get on to our latest adventures in debacleland, I thought I'd share a story with you all that made me incredibly proud to be a West Ham fan.

During the last school term, the head of literacy at my daughters' school came up with a rather good plan to try and get boys more interested in reading. She wrote off to several leading professional sports clubs asking them if they could send old, unused programmes to the school as this was almost exclusively the only thing that certain young boys could be enticed to read.

A number responded with small donations of ten or so - Manchester United, Leyton Orient, Harlequins RFC and, to their credit, Spurs. From West Ham, the club with the most young fans in the school, there was nothing.

Disappointed, the Head Teacher wrote again to the Club, reiterating the request and explaining that this was a school squarely in their catchment area and full of disappointed young Hammers who were desperate to read all about Joey O'Brien's record collection.

A week later he received a telephone call from none other than David Gold, who apologised profusely for the oversight and explained that with the upcoming Stadium move having just been sprung on them, there was an awful lot going which had only been exacerbated by a number of our fans deciding to take up renovating coaches just as Manchester United arrived in town. He then passed him through to the Department of - actually I have no idea - Programmes, who explained that the school could have whatever the Club still had in stock.

And so it came to pass that loads of young West Ham fans received a bulk delivery of old programmes after a personal intervention from our Chairman. Say what you will about the way the Club is run but I thought that was fucking brilliant.

2. Mains

What I think we're all currently trying to figure out, is whether or not we should be panicking yet. It is, after all, three games into the season and therefore the perfect time to assess things if you're an idiot. Now, in fairness to those on Twitter who are warning that the Four Horsemen are upon us, we have played 7 competitive games this season and won just 2. That's a pretty shitty start even when you factor in our injury list, which can only really be described as "West Hamian".

However, some perspective is required. The injuries matter as they have robbed us of 3 of our 4 most important players (Payet, Lanzini and Cresswell - Kouyate is the other, in my opinion) and mean that we are seeing players without the requisite ability or confidence starting games.

But beyond that, look at the fixture list. Over the course of this season Chelsea and Man City are going to be two of the toughest away trips in the league, for everybody. We should have got a draw at Chelsea - overmatched even though we were - and here we put up a reasonably decent fist of it in the second half. In between, we bored Bournemouth into submission and thus sit with 3 points after 3 games. It could be better, but it could also be Stoke. So let's wait and see how we fare against Watford in a couple of weeks, with a few players back and an international break to fix up some of the tactical messes we've been creating. If we lose that though, we should all go apeshit.

3. Pep

God bless plucky little Pep Guardiola. Battling along with just the best squad in the league and £150m of new players to work with he has somehow managed to turn things around at everybody's favourite friendly oil baron's plaything. After the shame of losing at home to us last year, it never really looked like that would be repeated once Raheem Sterling put City into the lead after just 7 minutes.

Once Fernandinho had doubled that lead on 18 minutes - akin to being punched in the face by Santa Claus - it really did feel like we had got our West Ham back. I fully expected us to lose by 4 or 5 goals, but credit to the new found resilience of Bilic's side we stuttered through to half time with the score still at 2-0.

At half time Slav abandoned his experimental homage to the Ajax youth system, which dictates that forwards must be able to play at right back to learn every position on the pitch, and brought Sam Byram on. This had the dual effect of allowing our best attacking player Michail Antonio to play further up the pitch and also removed Gokhan Tore from the field of play where he had been stumbling around with all the impact of your drunken uncle Barry at a wedding.

With Antonio freed to actually do something other than chase aimlessly around after Nolito, we got back into it in the second half but a lack of real cutting edge eventually did us in and we settled for one of those "lost 3-1 but it could have been 6-0 so just think on that before you get too uppity" kind of defeats. I consider these to be even more intrinsically West Ham than Bobby Moore himself.

4. Slav Against Humanity

There is a funny board game that I discovered recently called Cards Against Humanity. You may be familiar with it, but if not let me describe it a little. Each player in the game is given ten white cards which have random statements on them. A black card is then placed in the middle of the table with an open ended sentence on it, and players then have to complete the sentence using a white card and the funniest version wins, as selected by the player whose turn it is to judge that round.

As an example, on holiday recently a card was drawn that said "Delays on the Underground today were caused by....." and the answers given were:

a) ...two midgets shitting into a bucket
b) ...sperm whales
c) ...Christopher Walken

My friend genuinely went for c) having decreed that the first two were "just stupid". I'll leave you to consider that for a moment.

Anyway, what does that have to do with West Ham? Well, I'm beginning to suspect that this method is how Slaven Bilic is deciding where to play Michail Antonio. Before each game he lines up the cards and Edin Terzic, Nikola Jurcevic and Julian Dicks all have to try and make the big guy laugh the most with their answers.

"Today Michail Antonio will play..."

a) ...right wing back
b) ...Vladimir in a production of Waiting for Godot
c) ...Christopher Walken

"Ha-ha, nice one Dicksy! A back 5 it is"

You're probably familiar with the statistics. The most headed goals in the Premier League over the last year, and second only to Dele Alli in midfield goals over the same time despite not actually playing in midfield. 

He is being picked there because Bilic doesn't think Byram is up to it, and because our squad is top heavy with attacking players and he's trying to shoehorn Antonio into the side. One would think this might lead to us buying a right back and letting some of our front players go, so naturally we have bought holding midfielder Edmilson Fernandes and striker Simone Zaza for reasons I can't fathom at this point.

Michail Antonio has now deservedly been called into the England squad and I'm pretty sure it's not so he can play at right back.

5. Central To The Problem

I'm just going to say this - I think we have a problem at centre half. Winston Reid got injured last year and has not been the same since.

James Collins told everyone he was in the form of his life last year and it sort of became a narrative, but it was noticeable that he didn't play at Euro 2016 until suspension kicked in and before then he was kept out of the side by James Chester.

Angelo Ogbonna is our best pure defender but he is also Italian meaning that his customary corner marking tactic is to envelope forwards like a Portuguese Man O' War. This is being clamped down on heavily this year and seems like a penalty waiting to happen. Note how he was absolutely nowhere near Fernandinho when he headed in his goal.

With no Tomkins around, these are the prime options and it felt like Bilic didn't much fancy any of them and so just went with 5 at the back. This was supposed to lead to marauding wing backs but instead led to us sitting deeper and deeper as Man City toyed with us in the first half.

Reid is probably the best player of all three and the one who is most able to stabilise things with a return to form.

6. Not If His Throat's Knackered Though

If we're talking about Reid then we should also mention the elbow in the throat he took from Sergio Aguero. Although he's not a typical dirty player like, oh I don't know, Diego Costa it was still a red card offence and he should have walked.

That said though. Arthur Masuaku should also have been sent off for persistent fouling and was very fortunate to last the game. I'm pretty sure he wasn't dismissed solely because referee Andre Marriner thought it was all a bit one sided anyway and felt a touch sorry for us.

I particularly enjoyed the Chelsea fans on social media who launched a campaign to get Aguero banned retrospectively, arguing that if it had been Diego Costa everyone would have been going mad. The reason I found it amusing is because this incident was exactly the same as a Costa one. Everyone saw it, it should have been a red and it wasn't. He didn't get sent off - just like Diego Costa!


Diego Costa - hard done by. Everyone knows it.  
                                  
7. Talking Diego

It's an article about a game against Man City, so let's talk a little more about seismic dickhead Diego Costa. Or more specifically refereeing decisions of the type he was involved with in our first game. Here is a little run that West Ham endured in a crucial five game run at the end of last season:

Everton (A) W 3-2 (Everton awarded penalty for foul committed outside the box)
Chelsea (A) D 2-2 (Chelsea awarded last minute penalty for "foul" committed outside the box)
Crystal Palace (H) D 2-2 (Kouyate given red card, later rescinded, when leading 2-1)
Arsenal (H) D 3-3 (Lanzini goal incorrectly ruled offside)
Leicester (A) D 2-2 (Leicester awarded last minute penalty because FAIRYTALE)

Now, every set of fans in the country could compile a list of decisions that they feel have gone against them, but these were either flat out incorrect "line" calls or widely pilloried judgements where even the national media were sympathetic toward West Ham.

That run of decisions, amongst other things, did for our Champions League hopes. Now we are just three games into the new season and we already have seen two opposition players not being sent off when they clearly should have been. These things happen, and it's a long season but it feels like we're due a run of shockingly bad decisions that actually benefit us.

8. I'm Formulating A Theory Here Slav...

Slaven Bilic after Man City:

"We stayed in the game. I wasn't happy at half-time, I asked the guys to show character and spirit and a different mentality, which they did. Praise for the team for the second half performance."

Slaven Bilic after Astra Giurgiu:

"We didn't play good in the first half or with desire as a team. We were second best."

Slaven Bilic after Chelsea:

"When you lose a game and concede late, of course you are disappointed. Apart from the first 15 minutes until we equalised, they were much better than us. We came back into the game. We played well after 1-1, but we made the mistake in the middle of the park. We gave the ball away and conceded a cheap goal."

Chasing games is not a good way to win games. It might help us immensely if we didn't start so badly so often.

Friday, August 26, 2016

West Ham 0 - 1 Astra Giurgiu (And Other Ramblings)

Before we begin you need to know something. Anyone who has read my last column will know that I was pissed off about not getting a season ticket at the new ground. I think the Clubs decision to allow existing season ticket holders to bring two friends with them was unfair and has marginalised a lot of genuine fans with far more history of following the Club than some of those who now have very cheap season tickets. Lots will disagree with me, which is perfectly reasonable, and I write this not to debate the point, but to simply remind you to read this column through that prism.

1. Everything Old Is New Again

So I did a series of tweets on this game last night and then decided that 140 characters wasn't quite enough to capture the full glory of the experience. And thus another biennial H List post appears.

I'll try and keep things linear and describe the entirety of my experience from beginning to end. Having been away for all three of the prior games played at London Stadium, I decided to cave in to the constant badgering from my 9 year old daughter and take her to a game. "It'll be good" she said, thus proving definitively that children should not be allowed to make any decisions that involve entertainment.

I began on the West Ham ticketing website, which allowed me to select our seats but which wouldn't allow me to pay for them. I won't lie - I found this shocking, given that pretty much the only area where West Ham have consistently demonstrated market leading excellence is in taking money from their supporters.

Undeterred, I abandoned modern technology and went full 1999 in my attempts to watch Astra Giurgiu by calling the Ticketmaster hotline. Here I was informed that I was 89th in the queue and could expect a wait of around an hour (at 13p a minute - it's the West Ham way).

Feeling ever so slightly agitated I tried the website again, which was still stoically informing me that I had no right to buy tickets for Claret members despite us both being Claret members, before yielding to the inevitable and calling Ticketmaster back. The young lady I eventually spoke to was very apologetic, and seemed upset with the online system which will come back to bite her when the machines rise up and take over the world. Although if that rebellion is being led by the West Ham ticketing system I'll still feel fairly comfortable that we can outflank them.

So, as requested, she booked me two seats on the end of the aisle, which was my cunning plan to avoid the standing issues that have plagued others with young children, and we parted as friends.

Two weeks later, I had not received a confirmation e-mail or indeed any tickets. The club did then send me an email the day before the game telling me that they were fairly certain someone in the post room had mailed out our Claret Membership cards, but Darren was off last week and you know what Graham's like so on the off chance that it hadn't happened, would I be a sport and pop to the Ticket Office a mere two hours before kick off and get paper tickets then?

Leaving aside the fact that I bought our memberships weeks ago, I was a bit puzzled by this chain of events. Where was I sitting? I had still received no details of our seats. Oh well, I've seen Karren on The Apprentice and that's always a slick endorsement of modern business practices so I shouldn't worry as doubtless this little chain of events would end up with a relaxing customer experience the following night.

Well, lo and behold, the cards arrived on the morning of the game and off we went. I logged in to my ticketing account and took a screen shot of the seat details and showed them to a steward when we arrived - who sent us off to Block A. On the opposite side of the stadium from the one I'd requested, but at this point I was simply glad that we were in the correct stadium at all so I ignored that. We joined a lengthy queue and then in a stunning turn of events, the cards didn't work.

Like a fat Frodo, I wasn't to be defeated and thus we went back to the ticket office where a frazzled looking lady printed us paper tickets, just like Gandalf would, and then looked at me like I was asking for her kidney when I mentioned that I'd been trying to find out for three months where I was on the Season Ticket waiting list and would she be able to help me? I'll own up that one - I think my timing was a little off there.

Now armed with paper tickets we wandered back and in a moment reminiscent of Indiana Jones finding the Holy Grail ("Only the penitent man shall pass") we entered London Stadium a healthy 9 minutes before kick off. Off we went to find our seats where I was delighted to discover they were slap bang in the middle of the row. Skynet getting it's revenge in early.

Now, this has been a largely negative commentary up until now but I should point out the many things about last night that were enjoyable. The tickets themselves were amazingly cheap. I paid £22.50 for my daughter and I to watch top level football, and also West Ham.

The staff that we encountered were also all exceedingly helpful, all sympathetic and all very good at their jobs. Nothing was too much trouble, and I got the distinct impression that we were far from alone in experiencing difficulties getting in. And I do understand that it's a new stadium, with lots of people using it for the first time and lots of teething problems.

So, I can give the Club a pass for not really having their shit together but it still made for a largely miserable experience up until that point. Being inside the ground though I drew comfort, because after that crappy 90 minutes nothing the players could serve up would be any worse.

And yet, of course it fucking could.

2. Atmospheric Pressure

Before we get to the game, and believe me when I say I'm putting that off as long as possible, let's talk about the surroundings, briefly.

There is a moment when you enter a new stadium where it rises up in front of you as you leave the concourse and head to your seat. It happened to us last night and the look of wonderment on my daughters face was almost enough to wipe out all the misery up to that point. London Stadium is a huge, sprawling arena that has been impressively customised to feel like home. She loved the crossed hammers and the massive player banners outside. It's a nice looking set of digs alright.

It has its flaws, of course, and the running track is horribly obvious. There is no feeling of being on top of the pitch like there was at Upton Park, and I wouldn't exactly say there was an atmosphere inside so much as the sense of an atmosphere. Old pockets of supporters have been broken up and distributed around the ground, and new fans have arrived and it feels like it. But on other nights, when the opposition are more meaningful, the team are better and the stakes higher I can see how the noise will swell up and move around the seats like a slow moving wave.

Of course, I still remember my first trip to Upton Park, but that didn't inspire awe in me, more a homely sense of comfort. It was a back alley bare knuckle fighting club compared to this gladiatorial Colosseum, and truthfully you'd probably rather have the former on most days but for the big games it will be fine and for midweek home games against Accrington Stanley it will seem like Lord's on Day 4 against Zimbabwe.

3. Stand And Deliver

At the moment most fans seemed to be most upset about the fact they aren't allowed to stand and have taken to tweeting David Gold about this in a furious temper, which makes sense because Gold is a football club chairman and prints the Daily Sport and is therefore in charge of standing regulations at live events in England.

I am not sure exactly what it is about this that is puzzling so many fans. Football supporters are not allowed to stand consistently at matches and haven't been able to do so for decades. When I had my season ticket at Upton Park the club went through a period of sending lots of letter to fans in the Bobby Moore Lower about persistent standing where they repeatedly asked people to stop as they were at risk of having their capacity slashed.

This seems to be the same deal. As far as I am aware, Newham Council grant West Ham a permit to host live events, and if West Ham can't guarantee that their fans will co-operate with the terms of that permit then they are able to impose limits on capacity. I read a Twitter rumour that this was the reason behind the big block of unsold seats at the Bournemouth game. I can't confirm that, but I believe it is also true that these problems are now preventing the Club from getting permission to extend the capacity upwards of the current 54,000.

So when those fans take to Twitter to bemoan the fact that they can't show their pashun for the Club by standing up and abusing Enner Valencia, it is worth remembering that their actions are actually stopping other West Ham fans from being able to see their team - literally in the sense of those behind, and also tangentially as the Club can't increase capacity while they do this. If they feel that strongly about safe standing perhaps they should register with the Footballer Supporters Federation who do lots of good work in this area.

But logic isn't the strong point of mass gatherings of people, particularly those who feel they have a cause, and so with their hearts full of the desire to stand up and yell things at the referee, many supporters last night chose to eschew singing anything in support of the team and instead focused on singing "Stand up if you love West Ham" for the entire game. Because remember folks, nothing shows how much you love the team like standing up to boo them. You just can't get the necessary basso profundo when you're sitting down.

4. You Can't Spell Infant Without The Word Fan

I will get to the game soon I promise, and rest assured I don't want to write about it anymore than you want to read about it. But first I just wanted to make a couple of observations about the crowd last night. I've been in absentia from West Ham for a season or two but last night was the most ethnically diverse crowd I've ever seen at a game. Additionally, there was a much increased percentage of women and girls in the crowd too. For that alone, Sullivan and Gold deserve credit for seemingly moving the Club away from it's long time (ageing) white male fan base.

But where I was sitting there was a weirdly poisonous feeling in the crowd. This was primarily because most fans were drunk, a long held side effect of late kick offs, and not particular to the new stadium. One trio of dashing young gentlemen arrived 20 minutes into the game and then proceeded to call everyone "cunts" when they didn't stand to join in with any of the 400 renditions of "Stand up if you love West Ham". These lads were big on showing pashun, and less big on actually watching the game, and certainly unconcerned about the high volume of small children sat near them.

Elsewhere, a guy in the row behind me spent the entire second half shouting "You're shit Valencia" every time he or Michail Antonio touched the ball, to the point where I actually questioned if he was a West Ham fan at all. Meanwhile the three teenagers in front of me were so bored they took to not-at-all annoyingly throwing their Sprite bottle in the air and attempting to land it upright, whilst the young boy behind me played on his iPad for the full 90 minutes. None of these things are especially remarkable, but when you combine them with the footage of some fighting in the crowd and pictures of some people wearing other clubs colours you can see there seems to have been a bit of a change in demographic.

When you increase the number of tickets available, and then lower the price of those tickets you remove barriers to entry for people. Some who couldn't afford a ticket can now come (this is a good thing) and those who were previously not too bothered about attending can also now come (this might not be such a good thing). I think there were a lot of the latter sat around me last night, and it shocked me a little. The joy of a season ticket is the like minded sense of devotion that it engenders in you and your fellow season ticket holders. The communal suffering is almost cathartic. My concern about the new stadium is that it encourages football tourists, a transient group who come for the experience and not for the cause of supporting the team. No one in my section did anything last night to support the team, and for that reason it was one of the least pleasurable games of football I've ever attended. And I had a season ticket at West Ham for 25 years so terrible football games is an area on which I am an undisputed authority.

5. The Game!

I enjoyed the way that the stadium is decked out to honour those heroes of the past. Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds for us and Ennis, Farah, Rutherford and Bolt for athletics fans. It's nice - a tie to the past in a way that makes you nostalgic but also highlights that all journeys must begin somewhere.

To that end, Slaven Bilic also decided to pay homage to Alan Curbishley last night and seemingly pick a team for a 0-0 draw. There were many tropes that I noted and enjoyed - the right footed centre half at left back, the right footed winger on the left, the left footed winger on the right and the substitute centre half being chucked up top for the final few minutes to really highlight what a successful summer it's been in the transfer market.

If this particular West Ham team was to play an entire Premier League season, there is little doubt in my mind that we would be relegated. There were contributing factors, of course. We had no fewer than nine players missing, which is pretty good going even for West Ham, but there were also lots of things to worry about.

Has a team ever looked this lacking in match sharpness seven competitive games into a season? Where the fuck did they go on their summer holidays - somewhere with an all you can eat buffet based on the lack of dynamism on display.

There was also a worrying lack of progression to our play which highlighted the missing creative players. Tore nominally fits that bill, but playing on the wrong side and lacking fitness he just looked like Alessandro Diamanti without the end product, which is really saying something as the Italian is the footballing Sagrada Familia - 130 years and still no finish.

Elsewhere, Kouyate ran around a lot and Obiang looked very decent so naturally he's being shipped out on loan. Enner Valencia appears to have lost all confidence and Reece Burke might have a strong hair game, but a left back he ain't.

It was a scratch team, and they played like it, but there was a worrying lack of intent and incision that will get badly punished by better teams in the Premier League. I could go into the match stats but it's all too painful - we lost deservedly due to not being able to create anything and an absolute masterclass in time wasting from Astra. Fair play to them.

6. Squad Goals

Primarily my concern is how far backwards we appear to have gone from last year. We are just a few months removed from a fabulous season and yet the squad appears substantially weaker. Alex Song has been replaced by Harvard Nordtveidt, Victor Moses by Gokhan Tore, Emmanuel Emenike by Jonathan Calleri and Eliott Lee by Ashley Fletcher.

It's only early of course, but the first two seem substantially worse than their predecessors. Emenike was one of the worst players I've ever seen at West Ham so if Calleri can stop missing one on ones every game he couldn't fail to be an improvement, and Fletcher is already the player who presently looks to have the most to offer of our new boys.

Of course, Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli are currently undergoing their initiations and are therefore unavailable - at most clubs they make you sing a song, at West Ham you do your hamstring. Welcome aboard boys!

Simone Zaza is also apparently about to arrive for a cool £24m which seems like a lot, but I paid £7.40 for a stale hot dog and a Sprite last night so I think we'll be fine, and so long as he stays off the penalties he should be a good addition. Arthur Masuaku also looks decent enough as a stop gap until Aaron Cresswell returns and reminds us all what good full backs actually do.

The problem with that amount of turnover is that there is a period of time when those players need to be moulded together. Very good players fit into any system, but it can't happen instantly and rather sadly we are already into the new season. Bringing a team together on the hoof is challenging and we have the double whammy of lots of difficult away games to open the season, while our home games are winnable but we're still struggling to settle into the new ground.

It will take time, and by cunningly playing like the Watford Long John Silver Impersonators we have ridden ourselves of the pesky business of playing in Europe. Ironically, those players who were so inept last night are largely those who would have benefitted most from a decent European run in terms of playing time.

It seems highly probable that some will now be loaned out. After all, how do you fit all of Carroll, Sakho, Valencia, Zaza, Calleri, Fletcher, Payet, Tore, Feghouli, Ayew and Antonio into a front 3? Of course, this being West Ham that will probably remain a largely hypothetical question.

7. Editors Note

My wife has just reminded me that our daughter is 10, not 9.

8. In Summary

A decidedly mixed experience. There is a notable new stadium effect when teams move to new surroundings and I think it's highly likely that we will be affected by that this year. It's a shame that the team is so disjointed at present, as I think a fully fit squad could have hit the ground running and gotten off to a flier. Still this is West Ham so I might as well wish we could have a unicorn as a mascot as wish for a fit group of players.

I can see long nights of frustration ahead as teams sit back and defend, and hit our shaky looking back four on the counter attack while Bilic struggles to get some cohesion into our play. We'll be fine, eventually, but there will be bumps in the road. Our next 5 home games are Watford, Southampton, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Stoke all of which are winnable and all of which have banana skin written all over them.

'Twas ever thus. I suggest we all sit back and enjoy the ride. Or stand. But only if you love West Ham mind you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

West Ham 1 - 0 Sunderland (Or My Last Visit To Upton Park)

“Oh excellent” said nobody. Another memorial for Upton Park.

I don’t care – this is for me, not you. Sitting here in the seamy grey drizzle of a London Tuesday, I am hit with an overwhelming desire to write something down. This is it. The last time I’ll ever get to see West Ham play at Upton Park. Or The Boleyn Ground if you’re feeling posh.

And I won’t even be there. So forgive me this little act of vanity but I’m having a slightly out of body experience today as I contemplate all of this moving on happening without me. At the place where I spent the best part of twenty five years giving a little piece of soul fortnightly to men like Ian Bishop, Julian Dicks and Matty Holmes. Rio Ferdinand, John Moncur and Sasa Ilic. Samassi Abou, Trevor Sinclair and Lee Boylan. Paolo di Canio, Edouard Cisse and Darren Powell. Kepa Blanco, Scott Parker and Kevin Nolan. Some heroes, some not, some you won’t even remember, but all of them important to me in some way.

I can't say that it ended as it began.

***

My first trip to Upton Park was on April 30th 1986, when West Ham seemed destined to win the League and Alan Devonshire was the best player you'd never heard of before. Ipswich were the visitors, West Ham won 2-1 and I'm pretty sure the 7 year old me was holding back tears of joy when Ray Stewart banged in the late winner.

That game had a Nick Hornby-esque story arc as Ipswich took the lead and John Lyall's exhausted team - in the midst of playing 10 matches in the final month of the season - fought back valiantly to nab a late victory. In many ways, I've never forgiven my Dad for taking me to that game. It set an impossibly high bar, and created a world for me where West Ham would always play free flowing attacking football, challenge for the title, and come from behind to win games forever.

It was false bloody advertising is what it was.

***

And so at 12.45pm on February 27th 2016, nearly 30 years on, I watched my last ever game at the Boleyn Ground. West Ham versus Sunderland.

It had the kind of weather where the cold permeated your bones like ice water, where your breath hung in the air long after it was drawn and the wind whistled through the stadium, swirled in the stanchions and dived down on to your head like a Stuka bomber. It was almost as though God had asked Sam Allardyce what kind of day he would like for his return to East London and Big Sam had puffed out his large Dudley frame, grinned his chewing gum grin and said "Let's pay homage to those lovely Icelandic former owners", before presumably blaming his back four for something.

As things transpired, West Ham won an unremarkable game 1-0. Michail Antonio scored a well-crafted winner and then had an epileptic fit, Dimitri Payet shivered his way through the game as peripheral as one of the many plastic bags floating across the sky on the breeze, and Sam Allardyce bemoaned the state of the pitch. Because when you're a footballing purist like Big Sam you want a billiard like surface in order to maximise those diagonal lofted balls to the edge of the box.

I must say enjoyed that last comment from Allardyce. I got my first season ticket when I was 11, and held it for the next 24 years with my Dad. We stood on the North Bank and sat in the Bobby Moore Stand Lower, saw us go up and down, and survived the Bond scheme and Carlos Tevez and Manny Omoyinmi. But we sat down after the 2013/14 season and both confessed that we were no longer enjoying watching West Ham. I respected Allardyce's arch pragmatism and I admired the limitless self-belief, such a curious counterpoint to the strict limits he imposed upon his players on the pitch, but I wanted something more from my football viewing. I wanted to dream.

***

I understand that West Ham isn’t special to anyone but West Ham fans. I understand that Upton Park isn’t a cathedral to anyone but those who worship there, and not even all of them. That’s how football works. I’m sure that Tottenham and Derby and Burton fans are rolling their eyes today at the “Farewell Boleyn” circus. I don’t blame them, but I’m not apologising either.

I often ask myself, how could anybody ever support Arsenal or Manchester United? You might as well go into a casino and cheer on the house. But that’s how these things work and that’s the universal oil that greases the cogs of the game. I have never been in thrall to the legends of my football club in the same way that, say, Liverpool fans seem to be. My club is special in certain ways, but to me and my fellow fans - nobody else, and I understand that. We are no better or worse than Aston Villa, Barnsley, Millwall or Chesterfield. And that’s the crux of it. There is nothing inherently special about any football club or stadium, unless it’s yours. And then they might just be the most special things of all. It’s all just different sides of the same many splintered thing.

But moving on from this stadium is oddly difficult. I’m beginning to think that maybe Indiana Jones knew why – it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

As I look back on it now I seem to be able to tie so many important moments in my life to visits to West Ham. My nan died the same day as a 1-0 Cup win at home to Crewe; my parents split up the night after a 1-1 draw at home to Barnsley; my first love broke my heart after a 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa, my daughter was born just after a home win against West Brom. Maybe these things are meaningful, maybe a lot of stuff happens on weekends, but I suppose the constant is that much of my life was measured by the distance to the next visit to Upton Park. That wasn’t always a positive thing, but it’s how it was.

Walking away after that Sunderland game and knowing I would never go back was a strange, elegiac experience. It was a final line drawn under a period of my life.

***

So we gave up our season tickets in 2014, and it didn't help that by Christmas, we were second in the table. Of course, Allardyce had essentially stumbled arse backwards into a formation that worked but, as is customary, West Ham came down with the Christmas decorations and he reverted to type once the injuries hit. But for a while there it was fun, and I missed my fortnightly trip to Upton Park.

Which brings me back to where I started. One shouldn't romanticise the place undeservedly of course. It is a jigsaw of a stadium, with mismatched stands and terrible transport links and the worst customer facilities in the universe. The next time hot water comes out of the taps in the toilets will be the first. But as a hothouse for memories it holds many poignant and special moments atop those turrets.

I love the idiosyncrasies of the layout. How a song can spring up in one corner of the ground and rumble around the stands until the whole stadium is rocking. Ipswich (them again) were the visitors for the 2004 play offs when the girders shook and the noise was enough to scare the opposition into allowing Christian Dailly to score. Of course, that aspect of the ground has faded now, and the really atmospheric fever dream midweek games are long consigned to the past. It’s why I don’t object to the move. We can either sit around in our comfortably uncomfortable old house reminiscing about glory days that don’t have that much glory, or move forward and make new and better memories.

***

I can’t say I’m happy about the way the priority list has been managed. I followed West Ham all my life, and when this move came about season ticket holders were allowed to bring two fans with them and effectively jump ahead of me in the queue. I have paid a tremendously high price for tiring of Sam Allardyce. I am sure many will say that once I gave up my season ticket I lost my right to complain, and that’s probably correct. It is somewhat galling, however, to find that after a quarter century of attendance the Club deemed me less worthy of a ticket than random friends and acquaintances of other fans. Thus I now sit in a huge, sprawling waiting list with no obvious hint that I will ever get a ticket again. Another line drawn, another chapter closed.

It’s an overlooked aspect of the process which leaves a sour personal taste, but I still don’t object to the move. John Ford once said “Whether or not you believe you can do something, you are right” and I respect and admire the energy that David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady have injected into my club. I wish our social media presence wasn’t filtered through a 15 year old boy and I hope that we never have to hear about the rise of the Krays again, but I can’t deny the forward path being furrowed.

I shall probably blink back a tear tonight, but only for myself and my own loss. Farewell Boleyn, and all that, but hello Olympic Stadium and the promise of a brighter, much brighter, future.


I think there is a bubble rising in East London – I hope it never bursts.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The West Ham Way (Or, why I decided not to renew)

There is no apology that is less needed than the one that goes "Sorry I haven't blogged for a while". So I won't make it.

This season has been one of the worst I have ever endured as a West Ham fan. And I'm 35, so I speak with a wealth of experience of terrible seasons. It has been tedious, dull, repetitive and hopelessly uninspiring. Highlights have included been outplayed by such footballing luminaries as Stoke and Crystal Palace, losing 5-0 in the FA Cup to a team managed by Billy Davies, and an accidental run to the League Cup semi finals where we showed so much backbone and attacking ambition that we managed to hold Man City to an aggregate 0-9 score. Because double figures would have been embarrassing.

Since March 1, when West Ham were beaten at Everton by a late Romelu Lukaku goal, it has been almost unbearable to watch us play. Things reached a nadir when the team were booed off the pitch after a tortuous and undeserved 2-1 home victory over Hull City, and with just three games remaining it is entirely possible that we will finish the season with six straight defeats, staying up only by virtue of the appalling teams around us.

Fans are divided over the issue of Sam Allardyce. Many, myself included, have been prepared to hold their nose and accept his pragmatic style of play in return for the promise of security that it brings. In that respect he has been a godsend for the owners David Sullivan and David Gold, who have mortgaged so much on the club being in the Premiership at the point where we move to the Olympic Stadium.

Allardyce started in the Championship with the wreckage of Avram Grant's ineptitude and smuggled the team up through the Play Offs. The first season back in the top flight was a relative success, with fans happy enough just to survive and bloody a few noses on the way. This season, however, has been lost in a blizzard of injuries and a mystifying transfer policy that saw us playing without a striker for the best part of two months after Andy Carroll was injured, Modibo Maiga was proven to be hopeless, and Carlton Cole was released and then re-signed in typically West Ham fashion.

But things are different now. There is an increasingly vocal minority who have lost faith with Allardyce. There has been no visible progression in the style of play and perhaps most alarmingly, a worryingly inability to get the best out of Andy Carroll despite structuring the entire team around him.

The backdrop to the unrest has been the thorny issue of "The West Ham Way". Decried by Allardyce and most media pundits as a figment of the imagination and dismissed as the delusional ravings of a fanbase who have romanticised too much of their past and forgotten the reality of their existence. The most commonly repeated phrase through the whole debate has been - "Be careful what you wish for". In short - fear prevails.

We, as West Ham fans, are being patted on the head by the media and told that we need to accept the current horrible reality or we will go the same way as those other teams who got ideas above their station. Remember Bolton? Remember Newcastle? Remember Blackburn? Be careful what you wish for.

Never was this more apparent than on last nights Match of the Day when the "West Ham Way" was once again declared as being simply losing and Allardyce was at least transcending that. I thought that was typically lazy punditry so I did a little research. Here are the Premier League records of West Ham managers since 2006:

Curbishley W23 D13 L26 (Win% - 37%) {Points per game - 1.32}
Zola          W20 D13 L32 (Win% - 30%) {Points per game - 1.12}
Grant        W7   D12 L18 (Win% - 18%) {Points per game - 0.89}
Allardyce   W22 D17 L34 (Win% - 30%  {Points per game - 1.13}

So, Sam Allardyce is delivering the same results as Gianfranco Zola.

I'll just let that settle in for a moment.

There is another side to this, of course. West Ham's transfer policy has been haphazardly schizophrenic for years now and the squad he inherited was uniformly awful. The club is still partly owned by Icelandic creditors and for all the good work of the owners in reducing the debt, we still can't afford any missteps in the transfer market. This years summer budget was substantially less than, say, Southampton and once it was all spent on Carroll and Stewart Downing it was utterly predictable that both would then miss the start of the season with injury.

But this is West Ham. We always have loads of injuries. Generally we have a good team and a weak squad and the latter is almost always exposed due to injuries. Every manager we have ever had has had to deal with this and it engenders little sympathy from me.

This is getting a little long

I should cut to the chase, in the absence of a decent editor.

I don't think Allardyce plays as bad a style as many others think, but he also doesn't play as attractive a style as he thinks. There are others who could achieve the same limited results as him and do it without boring us all senseless.

As it stands, I have decided not to renew my season ticket for next season. And neither will my Dad or Sister, and I have shelved plans to buy season tickets for my three kids.

Such is the structure of modern football that West Ham, who are in the top 10 of English clubs in terms of Premiership longevity, attendance, turnover, wage bill and ticket prices have almost zero chance of winning anything. The game is so utterly rigged in favour of the big teams that a club such as ours has nothing to aim for except the odd cup run. Our acceptable range of league position is 8 - 17. Where we finish really doesn't make all that much difference to anything except for prize money, which never results in lower ticket prices and therefore I don't care about.

All we have, therefore, is the way we play and the entertainment it provides. And the Allardyce style of play is boring. Defensive solidity is nice, but it's also boring. When I think back on the games I have watched this season, my overwhelming recollection is of how utterly tedious the games have been.

I could perhaps live with that if we were knocking on the door of the top 6, but we're not. We are mired in mid table looking at the likes of Swansea, Southampton, Hull and Stoke and wishing we were them.

It's no longer fun to watch West Ham, and I can't continue to be fed this line that it's Allardyce or bust. This isn't the only way, it's just the only way he knows, and the owners are too scared of not being in the Premiership to make a change. That's fine, and their prerogative, but I am not sure sure how many fans are going to stick around to watch it.....

Friday, September 24, 2010

West Ham United vs tottenham hotspur: Match Preview - 25/09/2010

1. Is It That Time Already?

After registering a solitary point from our opening five fixtures, we are already at that stage of the season where we scour the fixture list to see where we can pick up the points necessary to avoid relegation.

Meanwhile, through the looking glass, tottenham fans are convinced they have the capacity to secure both silverware and peace in Afghanistan by May.

Traditionally, it is also around this time of year where they all too easily secure three points at Upton Park.

2. Opposition

Despite being as odious as ever, few can argue that this is not the best-equipped Spurs squad for some time. Champions League qualification finally arrived at White Hart Lane last season, and I feel sick even typing about it.

It’s not jealousy. I know as well as anyone that European fare at Upton Park will only ever come in the guise of the Intertoto Cup, or some ‘ollandaise sauce on yer ‘otdog. It’s the perceived validation, that last season confirmed what Tottenham fans knew all along – their status as a massive club.

Fulham got to the UEFA Cup Final (I’m still adjusting to ‘Europa League’), but entertain no fantasy of grandeur, content they are a midtable outfit capable of exceeding expectations on occasion.

The bottom line is, tottenham have to do well if they are to remain competitive. This summer’s acquisition of Brazilian Sandro and Dutchman Rafael Van Der Vaart has taken tottenham’s expenditure since May 2008 to £173 million.

The alluring prospect of a financial whirlwind just waiting to be reaped, remains.

3. Butterfingers

Robert Green’s summer exploits remain in the public consciousness thanks to a couple of similar blunders in consecutive weeks.

Green’s spilt effort against Chelsea lead inexplicably to the champions’ second goal and killed the game. At The Brittania Stadium, Green again displayed the nimble dexterity of an arthritic mammoth to present Robert Huth with a gilt-edged chance, the German bruiser mercifully striking the post.

Indecisiveness also contributed to Stoke’s equaliser – Green failing to claim a cross which should’ve been his, further illustrating his current fragility.

All goalkeepers make costly errors, errors which are sternly judged as they often lead to goals.

Despite continued woes, I think Green has the mental strength to rediscover his old form and once again embody the assured goalie we have often relied upon. However, he is, and will always be, one of those ‘keepers prone to the odd clanger.

I can accept that (to a point), but it’s the current lack of belief which concerns me. Defences look to their ‘keeper to command the box and act decisively. Any crisis of confidence will inevitably bleed through, particularly to a back four which has seen five different line-ups this season.

4. Picture Book



Joe Jordan was all too willing to accept Harry Redknapp's insistence on a holding midfielder.

5. The Only Way Is Up

A first win of the season, and a first away win since the opening game of last season, is as good a place as any to put a stop to the most septic rot on the fetid corpse of our recent exploits against tottenham.

Two good goals away to Sunderland in midweek will hopefully provide some crust of confidence to our malnourished ego.

If Scott Parker can maintain his recent dominance of any midfield he steps onto, Kieron Dyer and Pablo Barrera run effectively at the creaking Spurs defence, and Rob Green keep his gloves free from goose fat, the backing of what will doubtless be an intially vociferous home support could provide the result which will kick-start our season.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Manchester United vs West Ham United: Match Preview - 28/08/2010

1. Opposition

Since the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez, Man United have not looked as accomplished an outfit as their main title contenders, Chelsea. With a lack of big money investment this summer, the west London outfit are favourites to claim back-to-back Premiership titles.

Despite undoubted class, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes will play increasingly diminishing roles, and in the absence of a firing Wayne Rooney, the ‘attack attack attack’ nature of United looks less threatening now than in recent years.

Mexican mouse, Javier Hernandez, is their most noteworthy addition in the off-season. Unlike billions of others, the pint-sized striker enjoyed the World Cup, made an impact in the Community Shield and seems blessed with innate technique.

At £6 million and just 22 years of age, Hernandez may well prove to be another Ferguson masterstroke, despite the effeminately precise nature of his acrylic eyebrows.

United have made an unremarkable start to the season relative to some of their chief adversaries, last week’s 2-2 draw with Fulham an unwelcome blip as both Arsenal and Chelsea scored six. However, if there is one team in the league that the Big Boys look to to provide a welcome tonic, it’s us.

Man U are a wounded animal. They can not afford another slip up so early and will be looking to exorcise any doubts as to their title credentials by thumping us on Saturday evening, and who can say they won’t do just that?

Fantasy Football managers across the globe are frantically packing their teams with as many United players as possible.

2. Park Yourself Here

The importance of Scott Parker was again evident on Tuesday night as he popped up with the injury-time winner against Oxford United, in lieu of any incisive forward play.

He also created our best chance against Bolton, threading though a neat pass to Kieron Dyer, who forced a good save from Jussi Jaaskelaineuaiieenanen.

Parker has been the focal point of our transfer speculation this summer, with feather-ruffling tax cheat Harry Redknapp lodging a bid in spite of David Sullivan’s unequivocal refusal to sell. A lucrative five-year contract has been put on the table for Parker, a notable commitment to a 29-year old.

However, this contract has been awaiting his signature for nearly a month.
Parker must know that this is his last chance of a big contract and stalling thus far does not fill me with confidence regarding a long-term commitment.

Spurs qualification for the Champions League group stages will guarantee them a tidy income, and so expect another offer to be forthcoming before the close of the transfer window next week.

3. The Proposal

‘Fergie – how about it. You. Me. Candlelight. A can of Kestrel Super and some oven chips. Come on, you can't resist this.’

4. History

Since John Paintsil showed the world why he is the greatest player of all time back in 2007, United have utterly dominated us. In the five fixtures since, they have one all five, scoring 14 goals in the process.

A close fought 1-0 loss back in February 2009 is as admirable as we have been, competing until Ryan Giggs stepped inside an askew Carlton Cole to fire in a low, right-footed shot through a crowded penalty area.


Last season’s corresponding fixture ended in a 3-0 defeat with Wayne Rooney scoring a brace of headers during the red-hot spell of form he singularly failed to employ in South Africa.

Despite a similar deficit, this fixture was an improvement upon the home match, in which we were thoroughly outclassed and lost 4-0, picked apart like a Dan Brown plotline.

It says something about our expectations when you’ll take a 3-0 loss as long as we show some appetite.

5. The Response

‘Errrrr…’

6. Arrivederci Alessandro

This week saw the sale of Alessandro Diamanti to Brescia for £1.8 million, representing a loss of £4.2 million on our original £6 million investment.

The crass financial folly of this deal aside, I can’t see how it makes any football sense.

Diamanti was sometimes wasteful and as many of his efforts ended up in Zamora territory as tested the ‘keeper. But he was an attacking player, he wasn’t a ‘safety first’ footballer, he was someone willing to take on defenders or try the unpredictable.

At the very least, he provided a positive option on the bench. Kieron Dyer’s papier-mâché knees will not hold out for more than a couple of months, and two games since joining, Pablo Barrera can not solely be expected to carry the burden of creativity.

I just can’t see how this deal makes any sort of sense. While not a great player, Diamanti was a committed one who on his day could provide a breakthrough to a deadlocked situation. There are plenty of other contenders who should’ve been shown the exit in his stead.

Diamanti wore his heart on his sleeve. Benni McCarthy wears his mayonnaise on his shirt.

7. The Case For The Defence

The need for a settled back four is obvious, but prior to settling, it’s important that the right quartet is selected.

Herita Ilunga is nailed on at left-back. Not through exceptional ability, but just through a lack of alternatives. Fabio Daprela is yet to be given a sustained opportunity and one presumes he’s just not impressing on the training ground.

Ilunga has hardly been in dynamite form to keep Daprela out, although the Congolese merits some time to rediscover the form and appetite he showed before securing a lucrative long-term contract, Range Rover and big house in Chigwell.

Our need for a right-back is well established. Julien Faubert has sought to adapt and won a few people round with his renewed endeavour, but his midfielder’s nature has been cruelly exposed by a lack of positional awareness on more than a few occasions.

Matthew Upson has not been the same player since he had his head turned by the prospect of a regular England place. He has been embarrassingly caught out by some ‘Route 1’ football several times in recent months, and he just doesn’t reassure me as he once did. It’s the absence of that beard.

James Tomkins is dangerously close to joining Mark Noble in the ‘promising youngster cruising to mediocrity’ stakes, and his youth can no longer be used as a reason for under-performance. With two seasons of fairly consistent Premier League involvement behind him, he should be making progress.

Manuel Da Costa is on the fringes, but I see no reason why he cannot command a regular first team slot. Amid a mediocre bunch, it’s a good opportunity for the Portuguese to assert ambition beyond that of a Jeremy Kyle guest.

Tal Ben Haim is a bewildered and bewildering lump, probably still confused as to how what he thought was the Kings Road is now apparently littered with broken glass and swarming with pickpockets. His physical presence is his main asset, which also demands a mobile centreback be used in tandem.

Danny Gabbidon is a conundrum. Experienced and injury-prone, he would be considered merely a standard squad player were it not for that dynamite season in 2006, which has mostly served to leave us wondering if he is ever capable of regaining that form.

Everyone would probably have a different favoured four from this bunch. The important thing is that Avram Grant selects his, drills them incessantly and sticks with them.

Monday, August 23, 2010

West Ham United vs Oxford United: Match Preview - 24/08/2010

1. The Weird And Wonderful World Of Avram Grant

Other than our woeful defending, one thing has struck me thus far about the recent exploits of Mossad’s finest: his mysterious take on reality.

I have not determined whether Grant is yet to fully master the English language, or if his flabby jowls generate sufficient turbulence to distort his view of the world.

Consider his assessment of the Bolton game:

‘I am happy with how the players responded. The defence was good…(?!) On the football side everything went well. We played like a team at the top.’

And how about Villa:

‘We were on top of Villa in the second half before they scored their third.’

This last statement is particularly amusing, essentially translating as: ‘At 2-0 down we controlled the game. Until we went 3-0 down.’

Grant has undoubtedly had a rude-awakening, realising something we’ve all known for years: no matter how good many players look on paper, how respected their reputation, stick them in a West Ham shirt and they become as erratic as an autistic child left out in the sun.

2. Opposition

Oxford United visit this evening for our opening foray into the Carling Cup, a competition we regularly laud as an opportunity for Europe, but rarely progress beyond the 3rd round.

Oxford have recently returned to the Football League proper following their 3-1 victory over York City in the Conference Play-Off Final back in May.

They currently sit in the lower half of League Two, with two draws and a loss from their opening three games.

3. Six Degrees Of Separation

After tonight’s Cup distraction, we face one of the toughest stretches of the season: Man United (a), Chelsea (h), Stoke (a) and tottenham (h).

On current form, it’s far from inconceivable that we will lose all those fixtures, making six losses from our opening six games.

Grant took over at Portsmouth last year after it had taken Pompey eight games to register a point, a deficit they were unable to overcome.

Optimists will say we’re far from that at this early stage, but it is depressing to consider that just two games into the season, it looks increasingly likely that all we can realistically look forward to is another relegation scrap.

4. Picture Book

‘Pssst – Dave. I’ve got three Ann Summers dildos up my arse. And a writ for The H List.’

5. Backwards In Going Forwards

Rumours abound that Alessandro Diamanti is on his way to Brescia, a confounding move.

Diamanti is no DiCanio or Tevez, but he is the only player we have capable of the unexpected.

Despite his occasional wastefulness, I see no reason why he should be sold off and can only presume it is purely a financial decision, but there are plenty of players I’d offload before him.

A midfield of Diamanti, Parker, Hitzlsperger and Barrera would be one of the more promising we have fielded for some time. To jettison a genuine attacking threat is bemusing – it’s not as if we’re ruthless finishers upfront.

6. The Milk Of Human Kindness

Nothing can be said to excuse, explain or improve upon our opening two games this season, so I’m just going to pretend they didn’t happen, but when the present is unsure and scary, it’s always comforting to engage in a little nostalgia.

For no reason I can fathom, I have a particularly sharp recollection of Oxford United winning what was then the Milk Cup Final with a 3-0 victory over QPR back in 1986, later cruelly denied their place in Europe under the Heysel ban.

This star-spangled memory, combined with West Ham’s current malaise has resulted in no small part of me wanting to see Oxford progress this evening.

A win will mean an awful lot more to them than it would to us, and a defeat might just give us the kick up the arse we need before Man United on Saturday.

The mid-80’s era were simpler times: footballers were on a wage akin to that of the working man, West Ham had a title-contending team, to qualify as a ‘celebrity’ you had to display talent, football shirts were plain and functional, moustaches commonplace, and an iPad was something you stuck on your face.

Today’s fast-paced, information-saturated world seems cynically twisted by comparison, prostituted by media giants hell-bent on hyping over-stylised national pastimes to such an extent that they feel entitled to charge us for the spectacle as it’s ‘the best we’ve ever had’.

When the bewildering circus of modern football becomes too much, there is comfort to be had in the wistful remembrance of youth: Battle Of The Planets on a Saturday morning, Routemaster buses, Keith Houchen diving to meet Dave Bennett’s cross, and the brooding sexual menace of Michael Knight.

Such reflection becomes skewed over time, rose-tinted and largely pointless, but this harmless indulgence is an awful lot sweeter than the sour reality of the here and now.