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

Friday, August 15, 2008

West Ham United vs Wigan Athletic: Match Preview - 16/08/2008

1. They’re Under Starters Orders…

Here we go again!

Firstly, allow me to publicly register my outrage at the sale of King John Pantsil to Fulham – a decision so bereft of imagination and foresight that it could only have come from Alan Curbishley.

The loss of image rights alone has deprived us all of the proposed line of official Pantsil silken smoking jackets with complimentary snuff box.

I am still understandably raw and emotional at the prospect of never again seeing John Pantsil careering across the pitch from right to left before delivering a perfectly timed waist-high challenge on Reo-Coker without getting himself booked. A genius.

So then…

Greetings everyone and I hope you have all enjoyed a welcome break from the banality of last season and return refreshed, ready to forsake any faith and see ones hopes and dreams systematically crushed by Christmas.

An above average if unspectacular pre-season, complete with the customary smattering of injuries, has led us all to Saturday’s opener at home to Wigan Athletic – a game with all the inevitability of a condemned man’s slow march to the gallows.

There has been no activity in the transfer market to set the pulse racing, whilst we have all sat idly by and seen many a comparable team strengthen. Still, I personally am looking forward to seeing whether Curbs can break last year’s record of squeezing his favourite saying “with the injuries we’ve had” into as many sentences as possible.

2. Comings And Goings

The major signing of the summer has been Valon Behrami, the Swiss international signed from Lazio for £5 million who plays as a versatile midfielder-cum-fullback.

Behrami was an unspectacular presence at Euro 2008 but one of the more impressive players in a tame display against Villareal during the inaugural Bobby Moore Cup last week. He seems capable of slotting in where needed and one hopes that he can perform sufficiently well to command a place in the starting line-up, particularly by making forward runs into the box.

(Curbishley seems adamant that Scott Parker is our attacking midfielder, but the truth is he does little on the rare occasions he finds himself in advanced positions.)

Other additions include Czech goalkeeper Jan Lastuvka from Shakhtar Dontesk and Icelandic U-18 international defender Orn Eyjolfsson, as well as Balint Bajner from Liberty Oradea – big names all.

To make way for the newcomers and to ease the wage bill, Nobby Solano was puzzlingly released and Fulham laid claim to both Bobby Zamora and marauding hero King Pantsil for a combined £6.3 million. Perennial underachiever Richard Wright has also been sent back from whence he came.

I read a typically misleading tabloid rumour that we are tailing Fenerbache captain Stephen Appiah. Having also been linked with him last year one hopes there may be some truth to the story as Ghanaian Appiah would be a classy addition to our midfield.

Of course I read the very next day that Portsmouth were on the verge of poaching him from under our nose but even if we do acquire him, although a welcome addition, he is not the sort of player to address our chronic lack of creativity.

3. Swede And Sour

Tight economic times have meant that redundancies are becoming an increasingly regular occurrence in the workplace and it seems that even professional footballers are not immune. Fortunately for Freddie Ljungberg, he received a £6 million payoff.

Ljungberg’s departure confirms that his headline grabbing acquisition has backfired spectacularly. A £3 million transfer fee and £85,000 a week wages for a 30-year old past his best was always a questionable business decision and the resultant parting of ways are a direct result of the Board’s commitment to cutting the wage bill.

Two goals in just 25 appearances is a modest return at best, despite Ljungberg turning in steadily more impressive performances towards the back end of last season.

The undoubted commercial motive behind his signing (Ljungberg must have fronted every new-fangled Hammers product in the last 12 months, save John Pantsil’s cravat and monocle combination pack) is now exposed as the short-sighted policy it was and has all but been negated by Ljungberg’s exorbitant release fee.

Hopefully the money men learn from this expensive lesson and resist the temptation to pay over the odds for what amounts to little more than headlines, good and bad. Either way, the Board appear a lot less wasteful in the absence of Eggert Magnusson.

4. No Moore Number 6

Fifty years since Bobby Moore made his debut for West Ham United, the Board has made the commendable decision to retire his famous Number 6 shirt in honour of all the great man did for the club.

This step is all the more unusual as the retiring of a squad number is an unprecedented practice in English football. A common theme for retired greats in America (Wayne Gretsky of the NHL, Michael Jordan for Chicago Bulls), this action has only marginally found its way into Europe via a very select few from Serie A – Diego Maradona for Napoli, Franco Baresi for AC Milan and Roberto Baggio for Juventus.

The West Ham number 6 seems the most appropriate place for this kind of honour to debut on these shores, although one hopes that it does not become too regular an occurrence among English teams as there are very few genuine candidates (George Best, Bobby Charlton, Mike Small) and the retiring of tottenham’s number 3 in honour of Justin Edinburgh would nullify the whole point.

Retiring tottenham as a club in preservation of the sanctity of football, now that would get some backing.

5. The Opposition

It’s Wigan Athletic and I hate them.

The most interesting thing about their visit will be to see whether Wigan Chairman Dave Whelan has the balls to turn up this time having failed to do so last season after his insidious part in the Tevez-Mascherano furore.

The prospect of shouting at him was the sole reason I went last year, although even rarer than the sight of a convicted price-fixer was that of watching Wigan equalise with an overhead kick.

Wigan have made a few distinctly unimaginative signings this summer, the recruitment of Oliver Kapo from Birmingham City and Lee Cattermole from Middlesbrough being the most high profile. Yes, the most high profile.

To be fair to Steve Bruce, he was forced to spend most of the summer with a host of Oxbridge students as plotting the many angles of his furrowed nose has recently been incorporated into their Geometry Masters syllabus.

I really can’t bring myself to do any more research or speculate further on Wigan as they are the very antithesis of a proper football club.

6. When Irons Eyes Are Smiling

Some of you readers will know that I have recently upped sticks and moved to Dublin - a decision not influenced by Curbishley’s ‘attacking football’, but certainly vindicated by the criminal sale of King Pantsil.

Having arrived on the Emerald Isle it was fascinating to learn which English teams garner the most support. Manchester United and Liverpool have long enjoyed a strong following here, although one suspects that has a lot to do with their dominance of the game in the 80’s and 90’s.

Chelsea shirts have been spotted with alarming regularity but I’m sure that is a trend of only the last four or five years and perpetrated by those hungry for reflected glory, blissfully unaware of the ceaseless shadow cast across the UK by Lampard’s cold meat platter. Even impressionable children wearing Chelsea blue have been met with my steely-eyed glare and a firm shaking of the fist.

Sunderland have a sizeable following here too, obviously directly linked to the Keane-Quinn axis (the former revered as a god) and Aston Villa surprisingly command a small percentage of fans.

It was reassuring however to see a few West Ham shirts around and more than a few on sale in a host of sportswear shops. While obviously not one of the most supported clubs across the globe, we always appear to have a sprinkling of fans in every country and a noticeable increase compared to those clubs who like to think of themselves as bigger (tottenham, Newcastle take note).

Rest assured I have also located a Dublin Hammers Club for myself and any visitors, which I will be signing up for, regularly frequenting and enlightening them to the horrors of Fat Frank’s now infamous Porkpie Purges of 2003.

7. The Big Four Divided By Two

It’s safe to say that this season’s Premier League, like any other, will be won by one of Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool. However it is looking increasingly likely that the list of potential winners can be cut yet further.

The odds speak for themselves – you can barely get odds of 2-1 on either Man Utd or Chelsea whereas Arsenal are 6-1 and Liverpool out at 8-1. tottenham appear to be the bookies favourites outside the usual suspects, but still command a price of 55-1 whereas Everton, last year’s 5th place, are 440-1 for the title.

(If you’ve got a lot more money than sense, we’re 950-1 and Hull City? 10,000-1)

Despite the Premier League’s protestations that we have the healthiest league in the world, the truth is more like they directly equate health with wealth and that the upper echelons are becoming an evermore elite band. The fact is that the Premiership is now the least competitive of the major European leagues.

While it’s obvious to everyone that Hull City have as much chance of winning the Premiership as Phil Neville has of sealing a L’Oreal endorsement (and their prohibitive odds rightly reflect this), the weakest teams in Serie A and La Liga are a relatively safe 1000-1 and the Bundesliga just 500-1.

Competing for the right to finish 5th may only hold the interest of many international Premier League followers for so long and watching one of two teams win the league every year would become as entertaining as an evening with Steve Coppell.

While it would never happen, implementing practices from America such as a salary cap or their promising-youngsters trading system (not to mention their foot-long chilli cheese dogs) would surely move us all a little closer to the edge of our seats.

8. The Need For Greed

Recession? What recession?

Anyone with shares in Ginsters will have seen their dividends rocket over the last couple of days in light of the news that Fat Frank has recently signed a 5-year deal worth an estimated £140,000-per week.

Lampard insists that his desire was always to remain at Stamford Bridge and that he’s glad the whole matter has now been resolved after “compromise on both sides.” Chelsea’s reluctance to offer a morbidly obese 30-year old a five year contract is understandable and well documented, so one can assume that the length of the deal has been their submission.

Does this mean Fat Frank was forced to temper his wage demands to a mere £140 grand? Would he have walked (or waddled) had he been offered five years on £125,000?

Player’s insistence (particularly Lampard’s) that they love their clubs and protestations of loyalty become increasingly hollow each year. This has been further underlined to me since moving to Ireland.

The two largest domestic sports over here are Gaelic Football and Hurling – Gaelic being a high-paced mix of football and rugby and Hurling a higher-paced game (officially the fastest field sport) set along similar lines with the noticeable difference that each player is armed with a big stick.

Both games are played to packed houses and by genuinely hard men who have no inclination to roll around on the floor in agony unless a limb has been detached, and even then only until the necessary Savlon and Elastoplast have been applied. What I found most inspiring however is that they are both amateur sports.

Players are permitted to sign endorsement deals for sports equipment, energy drinks and the like, but they all hold regular jobs. The rules stipulate that a player cannot play for any county other than their birthplace, so essentially they are playing purely for pride in the shirt (a motivation mirrored by many an Olympian at the moment) – something to which many a footballer attests, but very few fulfil once the dollar signs light up elsewhere.

9. For Whom The Bell Tolls

Everyone knows it’s crunch time for our exalted manager. Having undoubtedly done a fantastic job in preserving our Premiership status in the first few months of his residence, Alan Curbishley then went on to spend over £40 million on assembling a squad he thought would take us to the next level.

The story since then has been one of marginal advancement tainted by bland mediocrity. Curbs has long lamented an inability to field his first choice players with any consistency whilst underlining that we finished seven places above our previous years efforts.

There are those who agree that he has yet to be given a fair crack of the whip in light of our lengthy injury list, but these few are outnumbered by those who point to his acquisition of players with poor fitness records and the grave paucity of attacking intent in our style of play.

Curbishley’s record in management thus far has been a litany of plucky teams who admirably battle their way out of relegation danger before stagnating in the back half of the season without any genuine year-on-year progression.

Our man is currently favourite to be the first manager jettisoned by his employers and it’s hard to escape the feeling that, were we to suffer a string of bad results between now and Christmas, the Board would ring the changes.

I would be genuinely interested to see what Curbishley regards as his best XI, although it remains to be seen whether he could ever field them in light of wearisome recent injuries to Craig Bellamy (Small Pox) and Kieron Dyer (Tennis Elbow).

There can be few other managers under as much pressure as Curbs before the first whistle of the season has even been blown, plus the poor fellow has to plan a viable escape route from the inexorable vortex that is Steve Bruce’s Angular Hooter ™ (you knew it was coming!)

I have no doubt that many would be happy to see Curbishley shown the door sooner rather than later, but there is no sign that we would be able to attract the requisite calibre of manager to take us forward in the style we would wish.

‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’

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