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, September 28, 2008

Fulham 1 - 2 West Ham (And Some More Tevezgate)

This weeks column will be a little different. No, it won't be well written or funny, but it will have a pre match comment, a first half and then a distinct second half. This is really in order to let me write a report on the Fulham game whilst launching into some Tevezian areas of debate.

Pre Match Warm Up

1. Get This

As a matter of interest, if we had managed the not wildly implausible feat of beating West Brom, we would now be top of the league.

Currently, we sit 2 points behind Chelsea and Liverpool, level with Arsenal, 4 points clear of Man Utd and 10 points clear of tottenham. Naturally, our nearest challengers for the UEFA Cup spot that we currently occupy are Hull City.

We are the most free scoring team in the top 6.

Statistics are brilliant.

The First Half

2. Get Them

Two post match quotes from the managers:

Roy Hodgson: "If you look at the possession statistics and that of the chances created it would be in our favour"

Gianfranco Zola: "I think it wasn't luck, I think we played a good match. There was only one team that deserved to win and I'm pleased that it was West Ham".

To get two more conflicting statements than that you would need to ask Sarah Palin and my two year old daughter a question about foreign policy (my daughter has had her passport for two years you see), and yet strangely both Zola and Hodgson are wrong.

The statistics do not in any way support the assertion that Fulham dominated this match, but having said that, it wasn't exactly as one sided an affair as Zola seems to think. I can't agree that Fulham deserved to win this game, but there is a reasonable argument somewhere that they deserved something from the game.

I suppose I am concluding that all in all this was a strange game. Let's leave it at that.

3. The Statistics

As mentioned above, it would be hard to contest that Fulham were especially dominant in this match. They mustered a surprising 20 shots to our 17, but only 2 were on target against 7 from us. Given that they scored with one of those shots, this actually meant that Robert Green made just one save all match. Ho hum.

Possession was split with a 53% share in our favour, although even that doesn't really tell us much. Incredibly, Jimmy Bullard attempted 8 shots all on his own, all from free kicks, and 7 of which were directed straight at our wall. It's hard to believe he doesn't still play for us with accuracy like that.

Craig Bellamy had a couple of efforts when he came on. I think now would be a good time to move on.

4. The Opposition

For a long time I have to admit that I found Fulham to be fairly pointless. Under Tigana they played nice football, had an attacking outlook and were quite entertaining. Then they spent £11m on Steve Marlet which precipitated the current global banking crisis, and I lost some respect for them.

Under Coleman and Sanchez they were simply there, never going down but never really contributing. Sort of like the Belgians.

It should be noted, however, that under Roy Hodgson they have gained a new lease of life. Their survival last year was impressive, and they have begun to pick up a few players that don't make my eyes glaze over and my eyelids heavy. The midfield quartet of Gera, Davies, Bullard and Murphy is quite tasty and Zamora and Johnson seems like a functional pairing up front.

I shall not go overboard - we did beat them after all - but there are lots more reasons to hope Fulham stay up than previously. Unlike, say, Middlesbrough who are currently setting a world record in pointlessness and should probably just be closed down to save us all a lot of hassle.

5. The Referee

Mr A Marriner took charge of this match and had a somewhat eventful time. In between penalising Scott Parker for pretty much every challenge he made, he sent off Andy Johnson for a couple of nasty tackles. Although I am the model of impartiality, given that he was lucky not go for the first one on Illunga I have limited sympathy for the cheating little gobshite.

With West Ham cruising at 2-0 up and Fulham struggling, for reasons best known to himself and an opiate farmer in Afghanistan, Lucas Neill decided to handle an innocuous ball into the box. It wasn't immediately obvious but it looked close enough and Marriner gave it. Pretty hard to blame the referee for that.

6. The Flourishing Left

I can't say for sure that I completely understand our new formation, or even whether it's having any impact. That may sound somewhat silly given results, but I'm not quite ready to salute the revolution simply on the back of beating Newcastle and Fulham.

So yes, this may be the Emperor's New Clothes, but it certainly seems to have perked up Matthew Etherington either way. Having waited 11 months for a goal, he now has two in a week and seems liberated by the new system. His finish here was a splendid effort, although there was something poignantly familiar about watching a winger sprint clear of Konchesky and Paintsil to score.

He is being helped enormously by the presence of Herita Illunga behind him, whose early performances are enough to suggest that George McCartney isn't going to be quite as sorely missed as we feared. Illunga has a neatness about his play that appeals, and his willingness to advance deep into opposition territory is welcome, even if it leaves the terrifying prospect of Neill and Upson on their own against quick forwards, slow forwards or indeed any sentient beings with the gift of mobility.

7. The Return Of Our Midfield

Having spent quite some time mocking our midfielders for their uniform lack of creativity it behooves me to eat some humble pie and acknowledge that since the arrival of Zola, Mark Noble has set up two goals in as many games, Etherington has scored twice and Valon Behrami has yet to actually stop moving.

In Noble's case I'm not going to break out the champagne just yet as Newcastle and Fulham aren't exactly Arsenal circa 1989, but it's a start.

Scott Parker is quite possibly not made of balsa wood.

8. Cole Patrol

Got nicked. Ran the Fulham defence ragged. Scored. Made some post match comments that looked like they used English. Job done.

2nd Half

OK, now I know for a fact that some legal types read this blog, mostly because they all offer their services immediately after The Boleyn Beluga posts anything.

I'd like to hear from you all. I appreciate that maybe you're not all experts in the area of sports law, or even the arcane rules apparently being operated by the FA, but even so let's hear your thoughts.

You see, I have a question and it maybe entirely obvious, but it interests me none the less. Before I get to my question, let me recap a few things just in case anyone has been living in the state of Alaska for the last week and has had no exposure to the rest of the Universe. Last week an Independent FA Tribunal decided that Sheffield United were indeed entitled to claim compensation from West Ham as a result of the shenanigans around Carlos Tevez.

We ended up in this position after Sheffield United had failed with two original appeals of the original Premier League verdict and a further challenge in the High Court. As I understand it these were mainly rejected because those courts could only rule on the legality of the original decision rather than whether the outcome was "sensible".

Having successfully tried the case through the media, Sheffield United were finally able to find a kangaroo court to their liking when they spoke to the FA, who by pure coincidence are a body at war with the Premier League. Under the rules of the FA, governing all member clubs, both West Ham and Sheffield United were bound to attend the tribunal and yield all right to an appeal of the decision.

Here, things got hairy as Sheffield United were able to bring to bear a great deal of media outrage and hyperbole, calling witnesses as varied as Graham Taylor, Alan Shearer and Henry Winter (Chief Dickhead for The Daily Telegraph) to make the argument that without Tevez we would have been relegated.

Shockingly at the culmination of the hearing the panel agreed, stating that they were certain West Ham would have accrued three less points without the Argentine, and describing Tevez as "infinitely more talented than any other player in the side". Sheffield United are now claiming £30m and given the ludicrous nature of the initial decision it doesn't seem like the craziest notion in the world that they might get it.

And so to return to the question I mentioned when I first started writing this brief recap sometime back in the late 90's - "If the commission decide that we should pay Sheffield United £30m........ why don't we just refuse to pay? "Hear me now, your judgement is flawed and if you want my money I shall see you in the High Court where your argument about parallel universes will have no weight"

Now, that may appear nonsensical but hear me out.

The FA is a private organisation, which is the reason that we were forced to attend the hearing in the first place. If we disregard their rules presumably we'll be chucked out of the FA which would have a whole heap of other problems but I don't see any legal mechanism by which we can be forced to pay the bloody money, right?

Of course Sheffield United could take us to the High Court, but presumably this would be advantageous to us because no judge in the cosmos would agree with a ruling that is basically one step removed from saying "Well my tarot cards indicate..."?

Clearly I am to the law what Victoria Beckham is to neuroscience but is any of this plausible or simply the ramblings of an idiot raging against the dying of the light? It wouldn't be the first time..

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fulham vs West Ham United: Match Preview - 27/09/2008

1. Why Are We Here Again?

Not an existentialist query, just a plea for confirmation.

Jesus, what a couple of weeks.

Managers being sacked, speculation swirling around Upton Park, well-dressed Italians consolidating their influence, the mutated offspring of once-dead court cases rising from the grave, West Ham scoring freely at home with good football and the US Government stalling over a $700billion package to move Wall St in it's entirity to Jerusalem where Paul McCartney plans to symbolically batter it down with his ex-wife's prosthetic leg whilst singing 'Give Peace A Chance'.

Just once this year it would be nice to write a preview centred on sporting matters.

2. The King And I

The most telling aspect of this Saturday's trip to Craven Cottage is of course that West Ham fans will be reunited with the majestic sight of a marauding John Pantsil running around any part of the pitch he sees fit and hurling himself acrobatically through the air for little or no reason, albeit in a white shirt.

Regardless of who he plays for (bar the obvious), King Pantsil will always be a hero to me and as such he shall be commemorated in these pages with The H List's first pictures. Et voila...

See here how brave KP tries vehemently to kick Brian McBride's head off - a figurehead of the common man taking on the world's superpower. What a biting social commentator.

3. Happy Hunting Ground
Craven Cottage has proven fertile ground for us during the Premiership years and it must be the only place in the land where we remain unbeaten. I would hazard a guess that the boys have even contrived to lose to the local school kids at our Chadwell Heath training ground on occasion.
For some considerable time we have always managed to come away from Fulham with either a win by a single goal or a scoreless draw, so it seems as good a place as any to get our stuttering away campaign out of the blocks.

4. The Opposition

Woy Hodgson has done a great job since taking over at Fulham (as was so insightfully predicted on these very pages), pulling off an improbable relegation escape akin to our own and strengthening his squad in the summer, wisely resisting the temptation to overstretch and lose sight of Fulham's place in the natural order of things.

We are all aware that the strengthening of Fulham came at a cost to our own squad, with Bobby Zamora and King Pantsil making the switch across the capital in the summer months. With the Board's insistence of a cut in the wage bill, Zamora's position was always precarious after a return of just one goal last season and a goal that came against the porous Derby County.

Bobby seems to have flourished at Fulham, turning in some top class frontman displays and scoring a lovely goal against Bolton. He, like many others, is a player who needs regular football to show his best form and I don't think any of us would begrudge him a successful spell at Craven Cottage.

Another former West Ham player, Jimmy Bullard, is the lynchpin of the Fulham side. A Newham lad and Hammers fan, Bullard's work ethic was forged from working his way up to top flight football via a host of clubs. Having started out in non-League football, Bullard came to West Ham via Gravesend & Northfleet but failed to break into the team. Spells at Peterborough and Wigan followed before Chris Coleman brought him to Fulham where he has successfully returned from serious injury to become the fulcrum of the side.

Bullard is Fulham's main creative outlet and forms a competent central midfield partnership with Danny Murphy. That these two are of much the same style and calibre as our own central pairing of Scott Parker and Mark Noble, should make for an interesting contest.

Andy 'Kojak' Johnson was Fulham's main transfer indulgence, but the slaphead with the most annoying goal celebration in world football still flatters to deceive and I'm perplexed as to how he can boast even a handful of England caps. He reminds me of Kevin Phillips in that one swallow does not make a summer.

Woy has Fulham playing some decent football and Saturday's encounter has all the ingredients of a decent game. Fulham's impressive early home form coupled with our lamentable away displays could see a turning of the tides, but the Zola-effect should still have some way to run and it's a match where a positive result is certainly achievable.

5. Picture Book

Upon reflection, I think it's fair to say that we've all wanted to kick Harry Kewell in the face at some stage in our lives. And to whom do you think that errant boot belongs? That's right - our very own King Pantsil, selflessly living the dream on behalf of his people.

6. Sheffield Appeal Works

For those of you who haven't got round to reading HeadHammer Shark's Newcastle review below, he makes some very salient points regarding the neverending Tevezgate in his final entry (I'd skip the rest).

It appears that our torrid affair with controversy is ceaseless. This morning it has been reported that more than a few Sheffield United players plan on suing West Ham for loss of earnings in light of their relegation from the Premier League 4,000 years ago.

These fine pillars of men are riled that their pay packets have sunk below the 20,000-per-week mark and that they have been made to pay a financial cost for their own incompetence and distinct lack of class on and off the pitch.

What is the world coming to when an employee is judged on personal performance and rewarded accordingly? The Yorkshire industrialists of years gone by must be spinning in their stainless steel graves.

Surely there must be a court in the land, or indeed the continent, that can see this whole case for the folly it is. We at The H List receive two or three summonses a week for innocuous investigative journalism into Heather Mills’ alleged funding of Hezbollah.

Naturally, not every neutral will agree with us, but I’d guess that in spite of their personal opinion, they can see that this case has mutated into so much more than West Ham United vs Sheffield United.
I personally have no time for Scott Duxbury and think he is an unsightly stain on our once fine reputation. He has a bit too much of the Peter Kenyons about him and his corporate smugness has no place in our club, but the ruling as it stands would be every bit as momentous as the Bosman, in a wholly negative way.

To not nip these dangerous precedents in the bud is to risk the very essence of the national game, to move the theatre of contest from the pitch to the law courts.

McCabe, Colin, Sean Bean and all that lot may think they have struck a blow for justice, but they risk irrevocably undermining the game they purport to love and becoming the real villains of the piece. History will judge them harshly should they succeed and football’s once sacrosanct and last enduring appeal would be lost.

7. Cole Parole

Just when you thought we had found a competent striker who could play more than three successive games or wasn’t an embarrassment to the shirt, Carlton Cole goes and gets himself nicked for drink-driving.

Getting pulled over at 4-30am on the morning before a game you will miss because of ‘injury’ is a fine way to endear yourself to your new manager. The Little Big Man has fined Cole the standard two weeks wages and given him a right ticking off, which must have looked something like The Borrowers meets Shaft.

I always thought of Cole as a grafter who largely kept his head down and got on with the job (relatively speaking, these are professional footballers) and I was disappointed to hear of his transgression.

Come on, Carlton, pull your socks up – you’re no John Hartson.

8. Struck Down Striker

Dean Ashton’s shortbread lapse of last week has seen him directed to the operating theatre for exploratory surgery on his ankle, which will keep him out for at least a month. Our brittle strike force has been further hampered by doubts over comparative ever-present Carlton Cole, who has a raging hangover and with every week that he doesn’t play, Craig Bellamy threatens to fade from existence much like Marty McFly in Back To The Future.

David di Michele has surely done enough to warrant a place in the starting line-up this weekend regardless of who else is available. He looked a handful at West Brom and an accomplished threat against Newcastle.

Don’t be surprised if Freddie Sears gets the nod to start on Saturday. Sears was the recipient of some encouraging praise from the manager after our familiar, comedic capitulation at Watford in midweek and he could be our best available option alongside di Michele.
An hour for Sears and a run out for Bellamy if you’re interested, Gianfranco… Gianfranco?

9. Baptism Of Pantsil

In our final photo of the article, we see how this young Moroccan Number 17 is about to get the rude awakening of his life. Look at him, all wet behind the ears, blissfully unaware of his imminent demise - he has absolutely no idea of KP’s aptitude for aerial gymnastics.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

West Ham 3 - 1 Newcastle United (And Other Ramblings)

1. A Good Walk Spoiled

Not that I would ever consider golf to be a sport, but I quite enjoyed replacing my weekly boo with Boo Weekley for a while this weekend.

That said, I'd like the chance to boo Boo Weekley weekly. What a tool.

2. Forza Hammers!

Who knew? There we all were, wondering how "our" West Ham under Pardew had been so turgidly deconstructed and replaced by Alan Curbishley's wonderful world of tedium. And yet, just a week into the job, Gianfranco Zola has us playing one touch football, has released the full backs, transformed Carlton Cole into Alan Shearer and still preserved our constitutional requirement to concede poxy late goals.

Before we go all US Ryder Cup fan on the back of one result, it is worth tempering our joy somewhat. Let us not forget that beating Newcastle United is a feat that could reasonably be expected of just about any collection of 11 adults in the western world.

3. The Statistics

Interestingly, for a game that felt like a comprehensive victory, the numbers are surprisingly even. Both sides mustered 17 shots with just 5 on target, and with possession split evenly at 50% each. The visitors actually forced 10 corners to our 2, although this might be taken as a positive for us given that it suggests we have finally done a better job of stopping crosses coming in from the wings - a problem that has plagued us in recent matches.

Digging a little deeper, however, the ESPN gamecast shows that at least 8 of those Newcastle attempts were from outside the box, and 9 of them came after we scored our 3rd goal. So in short - too little too late.

Elsewhere, Michael Owen scored his 54th goal against us in 12 career performances(*), despite Lucas Neill's heroic attempt to prevent this by eating him.

(*) This statistic may or may not be true. I'll say this though, he has never had any trouble scoring against us.

4. The Opposition

Let us not beat around this bush people, Newcastle were, are and remain absolutely dire. If you thought we had the market cornered on abject defending then you had all forgotten about the unique ability of Steven Taylor to look suspiciously like a large potted plant when faced with real life Premiership strikers.

From the outset of this match the visitors seemed totally flummoxed by the deployment of three forwards, and spent much of the first half looking stunned at the presence of Matthew Etherington more than 10 yards from the wing.

Their curious decision to play Michael Owen as a second striker didn't seem like a sensible use of their only major talent, but I won't complain as it removed the only goalscoring threat 40 yards from our goal.

Of course, by the time this game came around, Newcastle were in disarray with all of the shenanigans off the pitch, and the departure of their beloved Messiah, Kevin Keegan. And boy did it show.

(It should be noted that lots of other football fans would like to see Keegan stay in charge at St James's Park, but perhaps for slightly different reasons than the (Car)Toon Army.)

Help is at hand, however, in the brilliantly left field emergence of a a group of Nigerian millionaires. These chaps have approached Mike Ashley with a view to buying him out at a price of approximately £400m. They have emailed Ashley and as soon as he sends back details of his bank account the money will be transferred.

Good times are ahead.

P.S: Nicky Butt is made entirely of balsa wood.

5. The Referee

Surprisingly for a game that saw one side playing a quickly paced passing game, and the other drowning in a sea of frustration, there were only two bookings. Lucas Neill and Steven Taylor went in the book for hefty challenges on Owen and Cole respectively.

Newcastle fans might wonder exactly why the latter didn't happen a whole lot earlier in the piece.

Phil Dowd saw fit not to book Luis Boa Morte for either of his two late misses. This vexes me.

6. Right Back Atcha

Gianfranco Zola's first action as our manager was to shift Neill into the middle of defence, accomplishing the previously impossible feat of making our central pairing slower, and introducing Julien Faubert at right back.

Ordinarily the prospect of Faubert being our last line of defence would make me queasy, but against a team with no actual attacking threat then I guess it's a logical enough move. In fact, there is something to be said for having your best crosser of the ball in a position where he can take advantage of that skill. Unlike say, as our winger, where up until this point he will have simply developed a crick in his neck.

It should be noted here that he was in direct opposition to Damien Duff, a man who was a good player once upon a time. Then he moved to Newcastle.

So what I'm saying then is that I can cope with this line up against crappy teams, but if I see that back four against Arsenal I am liable to have an aneurysm.

7. Kudos

It's quite hard to simply pick one player from a team who were collectively so good. In spite of eye catching turns from Parker, Noble and Neill, however, I would have to pick out Carlton Cole as the man around whom this was all built.

I don't know if he was energised by the presence of familiar faces from his past, or simply the Christmas present that is the ongoing Laurel and Hardy homage currently masquerading as Newcastle's back 4, but the man was inspired. Indeed his turn and pass to set up our third goal as the best piece of forward play I have seen from a West Ham striker for quite some time, even allowing for the arboreal nature of Steven Taylor's defending.

Elsewhere, new boys Herita Illunga and David di Michele showed plenty of promise, although they also displayed enough foibles to suggest that they will spend quite a lot of this season in the drawer marked "maddening".

There they will find long term occupant Matthew Etherington who managed to pick himself up from last weeks minor £800k gambling debt and popped up with our third goal. He also availed himself of Zola's newly installed maze of underground tunnels to turn up in locales as exotic as our right wing, and at one point I swear I even saw him in our half.

Whilst we're on the subject, Etherington's goal was set up by either: a) the best pass seen at West Ham since Di Canio or b) the worst shot seen at West Ham since erm... Boa Morte. I personally don't care, but it's been a subject of great debate on t'web.

Scott Parker showed me enough to suggest that we shouldn't sell off his body parts for cash just yet.

8. I Am Ready

.....for Craig Bellamy to be resurrected.

9. Luis Boa Morte Footwear Report

This feature has been missing for a while now, primarily because Boa Morte hasn't featured much recently - a fact applauded by my stomach lining.

Here, however, he made an unforgettable cameo here as he contributed two of the most egregious misses seen at Upton Park since his last one.

The first of these featured a technique for striking a football not seen since Diana Ross lit up the USA '94 opening ceremony (http://kr.youtube.com/watch?v=WXjCKwBtG0I).

The second was one of those curious moments where all else seemed to stand still as Boa Morte raced through on Given's goal, filled out his tax return, fired off a couple of memo's to the Labour Party conference, changed his pants before calmly placing the ball 5 feet wide of the goal.

Only then did I realise that instead of normal football boots, Boa Morte was instead wearing cricket pads and spikes. Ho-hum, at least he isn't owned by a third party.

10. Watford

Welcome, Gianfranco. You're a true West Ham manager now.

I can say no more on this topic. We've got our West Ham back.

11. Sheffield United

Another subject upon which I cannot speak - primarily as it tends to leave me foaming at the mouth, apoplectic with rage.

For a reasonably balanced view try reading Mick Dennis of, God help us, the Daily Express ("The Best Newspaper in the World" - seriously?) at http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/62970/Football-loses-in-sorry-saga.

For a less balanced but at least not avidly pro Sheffield piece, try Martin Samuels of The Times at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/martin_samuel/article4812559.ece.

For a chance to send your blood pressure through the roof, read Henry Winter of The Telegraph at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/leagues/premierleague/3069183/A-star-performer-like-Carlos-Tevez-made-all-the-difference-to-West-Ham---Football.html

Incredibly, Winter was called as an "expert" witness at the arbitration, where he testified that Tevez was a significant part of our survival and agreed that this value could be quantified as a distinct number of Premier League points (which coincidentally happens to be 3 - enough to keep Sheffield United safe). Brilliantly, the crux of the above article is that Tevez was a one man band during our 1-0 win at Man Utd on the last day of the season, heroically forgetting that a draw would have kept us up anyway, and that Winter himself gave Rob Green his man of the match award.

Quite how any panel can claim to be able to accurately forecast games is beyond me, and shame on The Telegraph for printing this bilge, and even more shame on Winter for jumping into bed with men of avarice who would make our national game a John Grisham sub plot.

My disgust knows no bounds for these people., and I include Duxbury and Joorabchian in that statement. But the day that nonsense like this is allowed to pass is the day that British football dies. To Lausanne, good people.......

Friday, September 19, 2008

West Ham United vs Newcastle United: Match Preview - 20/09/2008

1. Northern Exposure

Over the last 18 months or so, only Newcastle United can match West Ham for the sheer volume of negative press cuttings written about them. However, there is a distinction: whereas we were unjustly rebuked for commendably giving two young, disadvantaged Argentinean street urchins the chance of a better life, Newcastle have allowed their deluded self-regard to get them into all sorts of trouble.

Current owner Mike Ashley’s recent announcement that he is willing to sell up is just the latest episode in a long litany of disruptive happenings on Tyneside. The rational and even-handed Toon Army only had a few minor differences with Ashley: that he was from London, that he was unwilling to sacrifice his entire self-made fortune in pursuit of a mirage and that he was neither Kevin Keegan nor Alan Shearer.

Since the turn of the century, Newcastle have conducted themselves with all the composure of an epileptic break-dancer stuck at a set of traffic lights, their all-too-public dealings sufficiently farcical to make even ourselves look as if we’re run by a bunch of fiscally prudent Mormons.

As things currently stand, Newcastle are once again trying to find themselves both a manager and a buyer and can have no real qualms if they experience trouble acquiring either. Without any help, this well supported and largest football outpost of the North East has become the poisoned chalice of the domestic game.

2. Who Lives In A House Like This?

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Manhattan’s Lower East Side? By the beach in the Maldives? Among the untamed jungles of South America, perhaps?

For me, there’s only one place – inside Kevin Keegan’s head.

From what I gather, the interior of Keegan’s cranium constitutes a fantastical world of flight and whimsy, the breeding ground and nursery of the most unrealistic scenarios imaginable, a place where the most outlandish requests soar across marmalade skies.

Before the most recent of his many departures, King Kev thought it wholly reasonable to demand that his paymasters fork out whatever cash necessary to buy Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry and David Beckham.

Amazing. You’ve got to admire his resolute belief in the utterly illusionary, if not his tactical shortcomings or questionable coiffeur history.

Now just because you want something really badly, it doesn’t mean that (a) you’ll get it and more importantly (b) you’re entitled to it. The sooner that Newcastle United and all their followers realise this, the sooner they’ll come to terms with the fact that they’re nothing more than an average Premiership outfit and not in fact destined to frequent the upper regions of the league with which they flirted so briefly in the mid-90’s.

A case in point - “I would love it, love it” if I were an integral member of CHiPs, but I’m more contented having slowly begun to realise that the chances of this are now only hovering at around 40%.

3. Little Big Man

I struggled to aptly incorporate the word ‘Zola’ in the title for this section, having spurned Ms. Beluga’s valiant suggestion of ‘Let’s Not All Get Extinct Like The Zola Bears’, (firstly ‘Zola (read ‘Polar’) Bears’ are alive and well and secondly, there’s no suggestion that Upton Park will this weekend be the scene of a genocide, unless Lucas Neill has missed lunch).

Anyway, Saturday sees new manager Gianfranco Zola’s first proper game in charge having taken the reins on Monday after seeing his new charges throw away a goal advantage at West Brom.

In past previews it has been possible to have a fair inkling as to the approaching game’s formation, personnel and tactics (4-5-1 at home, Scott Parker x11 and guarded restraint). This Saturday is a more complex affair for obvious reasons.

Zola has highlighted general fitness levels as his main area of concern, having witnessed his side fade in the final 20-minutes at The Hawthorns. It is strange that something so immediately apparent to Zola went largely unnoticed by Curbishley. Curbs no doubt felt the spotlight of Neill’s voracious eyes burning into his back many times, unwilling to deny the big Aussie that fifth pie.

One would assume that the starting XI would remain largely the same, albeit minus Dean Ashton who is predictably out for a few weeks having turned on his ankle whilst bending down to pick up some shortbread.

His absence and that of eternal truant Craig Bellamy underlines the fragility of our main attacking options. For all his endeavour, Carlton Cole isn’t going to get us 20-goals a season.

Formation will surely be the standard 4-4-2 affair and one would expect that, in his first game at home, Zola will be intent on attack from the outset. Steve Clarke’s recent arrival as first team coach also gives hope that our defenders have not spent this week getting carried away with the new manager’s ethos by practicing volleys.

We are currently the proud/baffled guardians of the only 100% home record in the league, although this dubious accolade masks the reality that we are yet to keep a clean sheet at home since last season’s last minute 1-0 win over Liverpool - a stretch of seventeen games.

In the absence of George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand, it will be interesting to see what the back four line-up is and whether the promising James Tomkins can force away in to form a potentially sturdy centreback pairing of himself and Matthew Upson.

Another question mark is whether Herita Ilunga or Wally Lopez will get a regular spot thanks to the advantage of being genuine attacking full-backs in comparison to Valon Behrami (more of a midfielder cast adrift) and Lucas Neill (not really movable).

One hopes that Gianfranco has a few surprises up his sleeve, be it tactically or in terms of team selection, if only to keep the players on their toes, but I think it will also send the right message to the fans that this truly is the start of something new.

Lastly, what with the recent managerial goings on at both clubs, I would like to think that this fixture will feature prominently on Match Of The Day in a change to our traditional post-midnight slot.

4. Sponsor-litis

The tea ladies at Chadwell Heath have been rushed off their feet this week, frantically sewing on patches of ever so slightly off-colour ‘claret’ material onto first team shirts in order to cover the recently defunct XL logo.

The sale of replica kits on the club website has been suspended and it remains to be seen whether they will return only with the announcement of a new sponsorship deal or logo-free.

Some think it would be a bit cheeky to sell the kit anew now that many of us have forked out £40 or more on the sponsored version, but I think more than a few would be interested in buying the increasingly rare sight of an untainted football shirt.

I’d probably get another one myself were they to be reissued unsoiled by ‘Poundstretcher’, ‘Tangy Toms’ or my bet, ‘Lehman Brothers’.

Addendum: since this segment was written, an online petition has sprung up asking for people to sign an appeal in support of The Bobby Moore Fund cancer charity becoming this season’s official sponsor in light of XL’s demise - in much the same way as Barcelona are sponsored by UNICEF. I would urge all those who have not already done so to click on the link blow and add their name to this worthy cause:


5. The Opposition

It doesn’t really matter what team Newcastle field this weekend as none of them must know what they’re doing at the moment.

Newcastle traditionally have a shambolic defence coupled with an adventurous attack and our similar qualities produced an entertaining 2-2 draw in the same fixture last season. Unsurprisingly, we squandered a two-goal lead.

We haven’t managed to beat Newcastle since a 3-0 win in September of 2001, having drawn four and lost five of our last nine encounters. Everyone knows that Shay Given is a consistently fine ‘keeper, but come on, this is Newcastle.

Michael Owen is always a threat, although less so nowadays and particularly when played in the hole behind the strikers as he has been of late, which negates his favoured goal-poaching tactic.

Formerly one of world football’s most effective attacking threats, Owen has been so injury-ravaged that he deserves a place in our treatment room. It appears that over the last five or so years, his bottom half has metamorphosed from lightening quick, pin-sharp striker to flaccid sea kelp.

For the last couple of seasons, Obafemi Martins has been Newcastle’s most potent attacking threat, but thankfully he is out injured and a doubt for tomorrow.

Joey Barton should be in prison.

6. Speaking of Convicted Criminals

Well look who it is.

Never one to miss an opportunity to stick the knife in, the odious Dave Whelan has piped up again this week to give us his opinion on the current Newcastle fiasco. According to the repellent little man, Mike Ashley is getting all he "deserves" for not being "100% Geordie”.

Despite my belief that Ashley has done little wrong bar try and prudently stabilise a club that was on the financial precipice prior to his investment, even if you were the most ardent Geordie who believes his conduct has been shocking, the last thing anyone wants is to hear it from Whelan.

I don’t mind Newcastle as they are largely irrelevant, but what I can’t abide is the regular assertion that they are somehow better supported than nearly any other club or, as Whelan puts it, "a different kettle of fish to most in the land".

Different in terms of wildly unrealistic expectations most definitely, different in terms of being an actual football club as opposed to say, Wigan, sure - but to insinuate that they would rally to the banner more than a Liverpool, Rangers, West Ham, Everton, Celtic or Manchester City is one of the greatest myths of the modern age.

(Yes, I’ve gone off message a little, but regular readers will be aware of my fondness for a Wigan-directed rant. Bare with me, the next part is staggering.)

It appears even I have underestimated both the cataclysmic effect and range of Steve Bruce’s Angular Hooter TM, although Dave Whelan’s regular proximity to his craggy-faced manager can not be discounted.

Brace yourselves:

"Sooner or later one of the Big Four clubs will come for Steve, I realise that and I think the whole country realises he is one of the best four managers in the world."


In the world?! The world??

Had he said ‘one of the best four managers in the country', we all would’ve fallen about laughing.

Even 'one of the top ten managers in Lancashire' would’ve raised an eyebrow.

Only‘one of the best four managers in the Wigan area with the ability to refract light with his chaotic snout' would’ve caused us all to say 'he's got a point'.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

West Bromwich Albion 3 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Be Thankful For Small Mercies

I've got to be honest. If it wasn't for the existence of Newcastle and tottenham, I really don't know who the rest of the country would laugh at but us.

2. Circus Stories

To be honest, we all probably should have realised something was up when both defences came out for this game riding unicycles and carrying custard pies. Sadly, Matt Upson was still affixing his comedy red nose and flower, when he allowed James Morrison to cut across him and head the first goal.

(For all I know, the Morrison in question may actually be the shitty "soul" singer of the same name, such was the unique crappiness of Upson's defending).

Thereafter followed a twenty minute passage of play that simply screamed "In Honour of Newcastle United" as both teams eschewed traditional defensive methods and instead resorted to yelling insults at each other and sticking pins in voodoo dolls.

Not to be outdone by our early ineptitude, West Brom soon allowed Mark Noble the freedom of the entire Black Country to tap in our equaliser, before somehow contriving to let noted goalscorer Lucas Neill volley in our second, even as he was surrounded by 5 (five!) West Brom players.

Our immense concentration held up for a mammoth 70 seconds, before Robert Green came riding off his line and slammed a pie right into the face of Leon Barnett, thus conceding a penalty. (I actually thought Green got the ball, but no referee is going to ignore a pastry based challenge).

The piece de resistance was saved for the final 5 minutes as we allowed West Brom to break 80 yards from a corner and sneak an undeserved winner. I am well aware that I have been yelling for ages that I would rather lose excitingly than draw boringly, but I was envisaging us trying to protect the draw with rather more than 1 (one, One!, ONE!) bloody defender.

3. The Statistics

Unsurprisingly given the result, this was an end to end affair with huge numbers of goal attempts. The home side managed 15 efforts, with 6 on target. By contrast we mustered a mind boggling 23 on goal with 8 on target. Now I don't know how you can have 23 shots at a goal manned by Scott Carson and not score, ooh 16 or 17 times, but we managed it superbly.

Of course, the main statistic shows that we conceded 3 times to West Brom, a feat which I am pretty sure will be considered impossible by the end of this Premier League season.

4. The Opposition

Fair play to West Brom, they weren't what I would call "good", but they also weren't what I would call "Derby County" either.

Over the course of a 38 game season it stands to reason that a team such as ourselves is not going to go unbeaten, nor are we going to go winless. Every mid table side will win 8 and lose 8 games no matter what, and it's what you do with the remaining 22 that really dictates the tone of your season.

It would be hard to argue successfully that we were robbed of a win here, but if we have any pretensions about finishing in the top ten of the league (oh, what lofty goals we set ourselves) then our plan had better not include losing to teams like West Brom. These just don't seem like games we should be losing, no matter how expertly we manage to imitate the Saudi Arabian defence of the 2002 World Cup.

I should hold my hands up though - writing the line "what exactly is a new manager going to do in these two days that would transform our fortunes against a side who are relying on the goalscoring talents of Chris Brunt to stay up?" was a pretty foolish idea. Sorry about that.

5. The Referee

It's tough to point at a referee and ever blame them for a defeat, and I'm not about to start now. Lee Probert's performance was coruscating, but it should be remembered that no team ever lost to a bottom of the table side due solely to the referee.

Certainly Leon Barnett's approach to the game was fairly, ahem, industrial, but that's the way it goes sometimes. There are several hundred places I would rather start in apportioning blame for this defeat.

6. Be Careful What You Wish For

Oh, the delicious irony. I spend 18 months telling the world - for I am a global media magnate - that I would willingly sacrifice a couple of places in the table for a bit more entertainment in my life. So, lo and behold, along rides Kevin Keen on the back of a pantomime horse to give me every little bit of my wish.

He took a circuitous route to doing so, by abandoning the customary notion of having a back four and instead playing an unusual 1-0-4-6 formation. Mystifingly, despite this commitment to mindless optimism, Keen decided not to throw Craig Bellamy into the fray. I find this decision to be bordering on the insane.

If Bellamy was fit then he should have been on, and if he wasn't then he shouldn't have been anywhere near the bench. If he somehow injured himself in the warm up, which is the rumour, then I really must object in the strongest possible terms to our policy of allowing our players to limber up by eating pizza.

And on the topic of substitutions, I'm not entirely sure I understand what sequence of events led up to Matthew Etherington appearing on the pitch, but I have to assume that it involved a miners strike, the sudden arrival of a unicorn, a lava flow and twelve angry dwarves. Because otherwise it would really make absolutely no sense.

It will be interesting to see what Zola made of all of this, although early thoughts are likely to have focused on "Oh my God, what the hell have I done?".

7. Alternate Endings

There can be little doubt that under Curbishley we would never have lost this game. At 2-2 he would not have allowed so many men to advance forward and get caught on the break in that fashion. Of course, in doing so he would never have allowed us the chance to snatch a late winner, and this is probably the crux of the argument about why Curbishley had to leave.

In short, over the course of a season I don't see that the brand of football we played on Saturday would garner us many, if any, more points than we would under Curbishley. But herein lies the great divider. At 2-2 with 7 minutes remaining, did you want to see us hammering away at a crappy side like West Brom, or settling for the comfortable point?

Given that on another day we could have grabbed a winner in those last few minutes, I prefer to have a go. All of the above being said, I still don't really like to see us playing "rush goalie" at any point in the match.

8. Things That Interest Me

We have now gone 7 months and 17 games without a clean sheet. The board have responded to this by selling two of our first choice back 4, and appointing noted defensive specialist Gianfranco Zola as Manager.

Alan Curbishley's team have now scored 12 goals in our first 5 games this year, and 19 in our last 9.

These are simply facts presented with no angle or slant. I just found this intriguing because none of those statistics seemed as though they could possibly be true until I looked them up.

9. New Boys

Herita Ilunga started at left back in the wake of George McCartney's impossibly controversial departure. Pretty much his first act as a West Ham player was to watch a cross come in from his wing that culminated in West Brom's first goal. Comme ce, comme sa - welcome to the circus Mr Ilunga.

Later on, David di Michele was introduced to replace the earless Dean Ashton. His header led directly to Noble's opener, although he should have scored shortly after when he found himself clean through with only Scott Carson to beat. Sadly this coincided with one of Carson's bicentennial brushes with competence and the effort was saved.

Thereafter, di Michele decided that there was no passage of play that wasn't complete without an overhead kick, and I began to wonder at the sense of having this man as our link forward.

All told, I can see the value of both players, but for no discernible reason whatsoever, I see Ilunga lasting longer. Which is a lovely phrase to say out loud.

10. Kudos

Lucas Neill deserves some love for the splendid technique demonstrated in scoring his goal. A left footed volley of a ball appearing over his shoulder is not anything to be sniffed at (I have seen Emile Heskey attempt this after all), and the chance was taken rather well.

Not so splendid was Scott Parker's late attempt to scramble an equaliser when faced with none other than Scott Carson. Losing a game as a result of two pieces of good play from Carson is roughly equivalent to failing in your attempt to climb Mount Everest because you didn't pack enough golf clubs. Utterly impossible.

11. And The New Man Is...

A late piece of news just in - Steve Clarke was today named as our new Assistant Manager. Clearly this is provoking an unimaginably high level of optimism amongst fans because of his prior success at Chelsea. Sadly, this is not provoking an unimaginably high level of thought amongst fans, who appear not to have cottoned on to the minute differences between Carlton Cole and Didier Drogba et al.

At the very least, Clarke brings a degree of experience to the role which Zola is not in possession of, and I sincerely hope he also has the ability slap Craig Bellamy around once in a while as well. Because, for all the unquestionable decency of Gianfranco Zola, it doesn't hurt to have a hardass around the place...

Friday, September 12, 2008

West Bromwich Albion vs West Ham United: Match Preview - 13/09/2008

1. Precocious Preview

There have been some momentous happenings in the world of football since our deceptive demolition of Blackburn Rovers a week ago last Saturday, none of which have revolved around West Bromwich Albion. Therefore, in a break from tradition (apart from when I did the same thing last week), this preview will be kept short.

Saturday’s upcoming trip to The Hawthorns constitutes one of those games in which we should ruthlessly strive for all three points.

West Brom finished top of The Championship last season and were deservedly promoted having played an attack-minded brand of football which saw them finish the season with a goal difference of +33, fifteen goals more than nearest rivals Hull City(?).

Last season’s Championship was one of the most closely fought in years with The Baggies claiming the title by a mere two points from runners-up Stoke City. Some saw this as a sign that the general standard of English football’s second tier had risen, when in fact the opposite was true. There was not one stand out side in last year’s former 2nd Division – not a Newcastle, Sunderland or West Ham of days gone by who towered over the rest come May, thereby giving themselves every chance of survival in the top flight.

The realisation of these lessened standards have caused many onlookers to surmise that this year’s new crop stand more of a chance than usual of being immediately banished from the Premiership. In a pre-emptive move anticipating their shortcomings, Stoke City, Hull City(?) and West Brom have spent more money in the off-season combined than any of the previous newly-promoted sides.

West Brom’s most noteworthy signings were those of the poor man’s Robert Green, Scott Carson from Liverpool (£3.25m), Luke Moore from Aston Villa (£3m) and Spanish playmaker Borja Valero from Real Mallorca (£4.7m). They have outlaid close to £20million in all but would do well to maintain their attacking, passing style of last year without running the risk of being routinely found out by superior opposition.

This dilemma begs the same question that we ourselves have pondered for many a month – is it better to fail in fine style and go out with a bit of swagger, or cling to survival at the cost of any and all aesthetic, hoping that one day you too could be Bolton Wanderers?

At least this weekend we have the added security that should we find ourselves a goal or two behind in the closing stages, a simple 10-yard gentle pass to Scott Carson should see him spoon it dramatically into his own net.

2. Shifting Sands

Even though unrelated to West Brom and not considered part of the preview, there is still much to write about.

Just prior to this whole management merry-go-round blowing up in our collective faces, the big news was of Manchester City’s takeover by the Abu-Dhabi United Group (ADUG). While this may seem at first glance to be just another in a series of recent big money takeovers, it is on an altogether different scale and as such deserves a closer look.

Manchester City find themselves the random beneficiaries of a nation’s quest for regional sporting supremacy, the lucky swines. As one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi currently plays sporting second fiddle to their less powerful and astoundingly, relatively poor neighbour, Dubai.

Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim announced the takeover with much fanfare, proclaiming his intention to make City “bigger than Real Madrid or Manchester United”. But despite his own vast personal wealth, Al-Fahim is merely the frontman for the operation with the strings being pulled by the catchily named Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Sheikh Mansour is a member of the incredibly wealthy Abu Dhabi Royal Family and should they ever find themselves short of a bob or two, he also had the foresight to marry the daughter of the ruler of Dubai. You’re unlikely to see him at East Ham station trying to scrape together enough change for a Travelcard and a Dixy Chicken value meal.

As the capital of the UAE, the ruling Al Nahyan family feel that Abu Dhabi should embody the sporting centre of the Middle East and have set their sights and significant wealth to that end. For example, they have recently procured an F1 Grand Prix for 2009 and bought City for a paltry £200million as a way into the most lucrative and popular football league in the world.

The numbers involved are nothing short of staggering. They make Roman Abramovich look like, well, me.

As an illustration, Abramovich’s net worth is said to be around £12billion. ADUG recently announced a single construction project in Dubai worth £34billion. The wealth of the Al Nahyan family is estimated at around £560billion. Every time the price of a barrel of oil rises by a single dollar, Abu Dhabi’s wealth increases by $280million a day.

The Al Nahyan family know that its oil reserves are finite and are looking to diversify their economy in preparation for the eventual prolonged dry spell. With that in mind they have recently bought a 12% stake in Ferrari and purchased the iconic Chrysler Building in New York City, but they see this sporting revolution as a major part of their post-oil world.

Despite ADUG’s reported resolve, the whole selection process could have gone a number of ways. Several clubs were looked at prior to the purchase of Man City: Arsenal’s Board are known to not be willing to sell to anyone, Liverpool were deemed poor value thanks to their need for a new stadium and Newcastle were quoted at £400million (hah!)

Whilst showy frontman Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim has given the impression of bolshy excess, the real moneymen have a more reasoned outlook. It is rumoured that since Al-Fahim’s outlandish claims of buying Cristiano Ronaldo for £134million, Sheikh Mansour has ordered him quiet for fear of ADUG looking like rich, obtuse chancers – a sign that over time they want to be taken seriously and seen as genuine players.

And this is our window in which to strike.

For all their unfathomable wealth, City’s new owners are still relatively wet behind the ears when it comes to the machinations of football business. If we can get our new best mate, the principled Kia Joorabchian, into a room with Al-Fahim then maybe, just maybe we can offload Luis Boa Morte for a cool £48billion.

So, the Big Four will either become the Big Five or one of the current Four will find themselves starved of the Champions League funding that has been so instrumental in underpinning their place among Europe’s elite, the (soon-to-be) poor things.

What has any of this got to do with West Ham? Well, every comparable club that leaps out of reach leaves us fighting over a yet smaller piece of the pie and one step closer to the drop.

3. A Feast Of Football? Let’s All Gorge-on-Zola

A little over a week since Curbishley departed and his new replacement has been confirmed as Gianfranco Zola, the former Italian midfield dynamo who could fit in your top pocket.

Despite the stirring and coherent arguments of this blog to see Slaven Bilic instated, the Board have opted for the diminutive Zola as the man to lead the Club into our next spell of barren underachievement punctuated by the occasional oasis of adrenaline.

Prior to the official unveiling, many established names were being touted as prospective appointees and it is noteworthy that the managerial position at West Ham would not have been so readily linked with so many prominent names two or three years ago.

Bilic was the early favourite among both fans and the Board and was keen to take the role so long as he could combine it with his Croatia responsibilities until being able to exploit a clause in his contract enabling him to come to Upton Park full-time from January. This proved unacceptable to the Board, but I’m not so sure it couldn’t have panned out well for us in the long term.

Gerard Houllier, Roberto Mancini and John Collins came and went and Michael Laudrup was also mentioned, although he chose to take up the reins at Spartak Moscow before the Board were able to speak to him. I was a little disappointed that Laudrup was not considered sooner and more thoroughly. Having achieved considerable success as a manager in his native Denmark, he has done a commendable job with a comparable Spanish side in Getafe, taking them to the final of the Copa Del Rey, and is known to be an advocate of attacking football.

A surprise early frontrunner was former Italy manager Roberto Donadoni. Donadoni eventually ruled himself out of the running prior to any official announcement being made, which sounds to me like an attempt to avoid any more embarrassment at not being first choice for a mid-table Premiership team having recently managed the World Champions.

I heard a rumour last week that it was all but a done deal with Donadoni (there’s a mouthful), and my initial reaction was one of being distinctly underwhelmed. I saw nothing in Italy during Euro 2008 to stir the soul and with a less talented bunch at his disposal, I couldn’t see how Donadoni’s trademark Italian style of sturdy defence coupled with long spells of concise, considered possession could work in a squad boasting the likes of Calum Davenport, Nigel Quashie and Luis ‘I do what for a living?’ Boa Morte.

Zola’s appointment was certainly a tough one to predict when all this hoopla began, but I think it’s important to get behind him from the start. I’ve already heard a few Hammers fans lamenting the fact that he has strong Chelsea connections, which is just plain foolish. Like it or not, some of the finest talent in world football will find themselves at Stamford Bridge in years to come and to veto the lot of them on that basis is a nonsense.

Despite his affiliations, Zola is a universally liked football personality with the winning combination of an affable nature, undeniable class as a player and ‘cheeky monkey’ looks. He was one of the handful of original worthy foreign imports who forged the Premier League into the success it has become along with Cantona, Bergkamp, DiCanio, Ginola and Marco Boogers. Even in a blue shirt, Zola was the kind of inoffensive and special player that you had to hold your hands up to.

As untested as he may be in club management, I am quietly pleased with his appointment and have liked the things I have read of his management philosophy. Zola will certainly be the kind of boss who the players will immediately respect as they all know deep down that he could still do a better job than any of them.

Steve Clarke is rumoured as favourite to be his number 2 although Chelsea have today refused both Clarke’s resignation and West Ham the chance of speaking to him. As Zola’s Italy U21 coaching buddy Pierluigi Casiraghi has ruled himself out, from my perspective it’s tailor-made for Paolo DiCanio to step in and wreak his own brand of deputising, nihilistic mayhem. You know we’d all love it!

For the first time since our pre-2007/'08 enthusiasm was crushed within 5 minutes of the first half of the first game of the season, I am actually excited about the future - and with no real basis.

So let’s give Gianfranco a fair crack of the whip and try to give it ‘til at least halftime on Saturday before chanting “Zola out!”

4. Captain Meathead

John Terry was kind enough to give his slitty-eyed approval of Zola’s appointment, remarking that it would be the perfect place for him to hone his skills and gain the necessary experience to one day become Chelsea manager, as if we’re their feeder club.

Managerially speaking. We all know we are player-wise.

Of course, Terry infamously initially refused to sign a bumper contract over the absence of a clause allowing him to go straight into the manager’s chair at Stamford Bridge upon retiring as a player - as if that meathead knows how to do anything other than get kicked in the face or spunk the most important spot-kick of his life.

His presumptive arrogance really got my goat so, John, if someone’s kind enough to read this to you – go fuck yourself.

5. XL-ent

At the time of going to press, news broke that club sponsors XL have today gone into administration. Just as I buy the new kit with their failed moniker emblazoned all over it.

It makes you long for the days of trustworthy sponsors such as Dagenham Motors or BAC Windows…

6. And Lastly…

Anyone see that Soccer Aid claptrap on ITV at the weekend? Basically a few old pro’s played alongside and against a load of nobodies in aid of charity. It was largely missable, but I was tickled at one stage.

When I wasn’t throwing up at ITV’s routinely saccharine football coverage or cheering DiCanio’s lovely goal, for once in his life the usually infuriating Clive Tyldesley unknowingly out did himself:

*adopt Tyldesley’s overly serious commentary tone*

“Jaap Stam, forward to DiCanio. Lovely from DiCanio, who feeds Luis Figo. Figo… running at Craig David.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obfuscation, A Shortlist And A Zola Eclipse

The Searchers

I'll say one thing about West Ham - they do nothing quietly. Or with anything approaching competence.

First, the club announce a list of 30 candidates, which they whittled down to 5 within about twenty minutes, presumably after calls to Barack Obama, the Sultan of Dubai and President Bartlett et al were answered with a loud guffaw.

They then conducted a short, but very public interview process which culminated with Gianfranco Zola being unveiled today as our brand spanking, shiny new manager.

I began to have my doubts about this approach, when PR "guru" Mike Lee appeared on Radio 5 Live this weekend giving a running assessment of the candidates. To say that this is unusual is to rather understate the fact. I have never heard of this before, and for the life of me I cannot understand why the Club decided to conduct the search so publicly.

Still - chin up, Allardyce wasn't mentioned.

Before We Begin

Like most of those I have consulted (i.e: Papa Shark and the Beluga), I remain an unabashed Slaven Bilic fan. This is nothing to do with his West Ham past, indeed it is largely in spite of it, but rather more because of the progressive style of football played by his teams.

I am acutely aware that even as I type this, Bilic's Croatian team are somehow contriving to lose 4-1 to an England side containing Wes Brown, Emile Heskey and Jermaine Jenas, but let that not obscure the tremendous job he has generally done with his national team. After all, it can't be helpful when your goalkeeper seems to have the spatial awareness of a salad bowl and your centre backs are demonstrating the depth perception of elks.

But I have a question about our courtship of Bilic. Did he not take the job because he didn't want it, or because he didn't want to accept it before the game against England was over? If it is the latter, then this seems to be a ludicrous, if entirely believable, situation. The self imposed deadline of Saturday's match against West Brom was always a curious one from the outset, given that it seemed to rule out Bilic immediately.

With all due respect to Zola, and with slightly less respect to West Brom, what exactly is a new manager going to do in these two days that would transform our fortunes against a side who are relying on the goalscoring talents of Chris Brunt to stay up?

If we have missed out on Bilic simply because we were too impatient to wait for him, then I can't fathom exactly who at the club ran this search, but I wouldn't feel at all silly suggesting that it might have been one of the ballboys.

How Not To Interview

Was anyone else put in my mind of the FA's calamitous search for a successor to Sven Goran Eriksson over the last week? I rather suspect the FA phone call to Phil Scolari went something like this:

FA: "Hello, is that Big Phil Scolari?"
Phil: "It is I"
FA: "Phil, we'd really like you to be the England manager"
Phil: "And I would have the chance to work with players like Robinson, Downing, Jenas and Neville?"
FA: (excited) "Yes!"
Phil: "Fuck off"
FA: "We'll give you £6m"
Phil: "It would be an honour"
FA: "Great, when can you start?"
Phil: "After the World Cup"
FA: "Great, we'll announce it tomorrow"
Phil: "Well, can't you at least wait until I've knocked you out?"
FA: "No"
Phil: "Why?"
FA: "Erm, we haven't worked out why but we feel very strongly about it"
Phil: "Then I must decline. You idiots"
FA: "No problem, we have a top quality alternative"
Phil: "Who"
FA: "Steve Maclaren"
Phil: "Seriously?"
FA: "Yes"
Phil: "See you in 2010"
FA: "Don't you mean 2008?"
Phil: "No" (hangs up...)
FA: "Phil?......Phil?..... Phil?"

Substitute Slaven Bilic, Scott Duxbury and the odd mention of Luis Boa Morte in there and it feels like we have ourselves a picnic.

Zola Power

Quite how we have ended up with Gianfranco Zola is a bit of a mystery. The fact that he was once a Chelsea player is irrelevant to me. I care so little about Chelsea that they may as well play another sport for all the impact they have on my life. In fact, during our home match with them last year that was pretty much the case.

My issue with Zola is purely that he has no managerial experience. Certainly it's nice to think that his team would play in his image, but he could just as easily channel Bryan Robson as Frank Rijkaard. Indeed, at this point the only tangible difference between Zola and Di Canio appears to be that the former is sane. I'm not ruling out the signifance of that point, but it is an interesting notion. After all, pretty much every other fan that I know simply laughed at the idea of Di Canio as manager.

Of course, as Papa Shark pointed out, Alan Curbishley had plenty of experience and that didn't exactly turn out to be the worlds most illuminating two years, so I can probably live with Zola's rawness if it doesn't translate into 4-5-1 at home to Bolton.

Perhaps there was an inevitability about us ending up with an Italian. Many of our backroom staff are Italian, and clearly Gianluca Nani had a huge input into the selection of the candidates. I have to assume this is true, because otherwise it seems like we just got a Panini sticker album from 1994, closed our eyes and pointed.


The Director of Football role was perhaps the biggest stumbling for a strong personality like Bilic, and perhaps a pointer towards the future we can expect under Zola. A manager prepared to see a semblance of his traditional powers siphoned off and given to Nani, was the only person who would ever have been given this position.

To be fair to Nani, we have no idea quite how good he will be in his role, and maybe this will be the most succesful restructuring of a British football club ever, but it seems like quite a risk.

My biggest concerns for the future are that Gudmunsson is engaged in a course of monumental asset stripping, and that Nani is about to turn us into the Italian version of Arsenal (France) or Liverpool (Spain).

We have made 5 signings since Nani was put in his role and nary a one has been English. Call it xenophobia, nationalism or call me Oswald Mosely (well don't - but you know what I mean), however I prefer it when our team hail from Beckton and not Brescia.

In Summary

I have absolutely no idea what to make of this appointment. I'll feel a hell of a lot better about it if Steve Clarke comes across as Zola's assistant, but largely this just feels like leftest of left field appointments.

As safe and dull as Curbishley was, it feels that Zola sits right at the opposite end of the spectrum. And I don't mind admitting that the prospect is actually quite................................heaven help me, exciting.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Kicked To The Curb

1. Finally…

A lot of us thought this day would never come. For months now we have all battled against lowered expectations, increasing frustration and even a progressively diminished appetite for one of those things we hold most dear.

But then came the news we’ve all been waiting for. Yes, the reports are true - two H List updates in one day!

2. Curb Your Enthusiasm

This hastily drafted edition is of course in commemoration of yesterday’s resignation by Alan Curbishley as manager of West Ham United. Having been the bookies favourite for the chop since before the start of the season, Curbs beat the Board to the punch by handing in his notice yesterday afternoon.

Rumours of dissatisfaction at all levels of the Club (including Curbishley’s) blossomed over the weekend. Saturday’s impressive if flattering result conversely appears to have fuelled the fire and the transfer activity of the last few days has been cited by Curbishley as his reason for leaving.

According to reports, it was Lucas Neill who soured Curbishley’s buoyant post-Blackburn mood by declaring in front of the whole team that the players had "kept you in a job" and that the manager needed to do more to lead and inspire the team.

Now, I find it laughable that Lucas Neill feels qualified to tell anyone they are not performing. The Australian’s questionable facial hair is the very essence of sound reasoning when compared to some of his laboured defensive work and his favoured method of inspiration is to berate less experienced team-mates for his own shortcomings, but things are obviously not going all that well if your captain openly rocks the boat in front of the staff.

On the transfer side, the recent sale of Anton Ferdinand and the more surprising departure of Gorgeous George McCartney on Monday had been interpreted as symptoms of Chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson’s displeasure with his manager, but it was thought he was willing to persist with Curbishley having seen the team win three of their four opening games. It was these enforced sales however which convinced Curbs that he had to go.

His loss of control over club transfers (a dangerous precedent for the Board to set should they wish to attract a top manager) and the steady erosion of authority since the arrival of Sporting Director Gianluca Nani have lead Curbishley to the door. The former manager was left out of the decision to sell Anton Ferdinand to Sunderland but still felt confident enough to state that "no-one else" would leave, only to see McCartney go the same way a week later. This left Llewellyn suffering a "breach of trust and confidence".

The club maintain that McCartney’s sale was only decided upon having received a written transfer request from the player, who was troubled with his wife’s inability to settle in London (anyone else find it strange that Roy Keane, having famously denounced players for kowtowing to their wives demands is only too happy to snap up a player for doing just that?) and that Ferdinand’s inability to agree a new contract forced the club to cash in, although Anton has publicly claimed that West Ham’s contract offer was withdrawn once news of Sunderland’s interest emerged.

While transfer policy being taken out of his hands made Curbishley’s mind up for him, the Board’s concerns went further, incorporating misgivings about both man-management and tactical nous.

One wonders why those in charge did not make a clean break over the summer, but it was felt that Curbishley had earned the right to stay on in the job having suffered a lengthy injury list last year. It is now apparent that the Board had a clear vision in mind and did not think Curbs prized enough to stray from their charted course.

3. Tale Of The Tape

During his 20-months in charge, Curbishley’s record was 29 wins, 28 losses and 14 draws. His win percentage was 40%, which was a mild improvement on his more acclaimed term at Charlton where his team won 38% of the time.

We undoubtedly have him to thank for a commendable job in steering us through the choppy waters of the back end of the 2006-’07 season, avoiding relegation thanks to a remarkable run during the last ten games. Since then however, with the pressure off and money to spend, Curbishley flattered to deceive and largely wasted our biggest ever transfer kitty. He has merely managed to compile a squad peppered with troublesome characters and an injury list as long as your broken arm.

Oddly, the Board attest to being proud of this rather damaged and disruptive bunch, lauding the funds made available and the personnel at Curbs’ disposal, with particular praise heaped upon our "central spine of internationals". Little attention is paid to the fact that more than one vertebrae of that spine is a crumbling, brittle mess.

One statistic which testifies to the fickle nature of modern football is that West Ham are now looking for their fifth manager since the turn of the millennium. In the 92 years between 1902 and 1994, we got through just seven. The average tenure of the 20th century manager was a giddy 13 years and that includes Billy Bonds four year term and Lou Macari’s single season. How times have changed.

4. The Contenders

For the time being, the first team will be in the competent hands and bandy legs of former winger Kevin Keen, but speculation is rife as to who will take over full time. So who to replace the former man in charge?

Harry Redknapp was touted as a target some weeks ago and is among the favourites, but I can’t see it. I doubt he will leave his palatial Sandbanks residence for a one-bed flat in Newham, particularly considering the potential lack of control over the transfer wheeler-dealing upon which he thrives. And we don’t want his shifty sidekick Peter Storrie back anyway.

Ruud Gullit recently resigned from his position as manager of LA Galaxy, citing similar familial reasons to George McCartney, but despite being a world class player, Gullit is to management what Silvio Berlusconi is to sexual equality in the workplace.

Speaking of right-wing Italians, everyone’s favourite fascist, Paolo DiCanio has already thrown his hat into the ring. With typically emotive language, DiCanio stated "Of course, the dream for me is West Ham and I keep them in my heart". However, his distinct lack of coaching experience will not appeal to the decision-makers and he remains an outside bet.

Roberto Mancini is another surprise shortlist entry. He apparently has close ties with Gianluca Nani and a proven track record in management, having lead Inter Milan to their last two Serie A titles. Despite wanting to prove himself in the Premier League, West Ham would be a significant step down from Internazionale and it is unclear whether a club of our size could tempt a man who has feasted at the top table of football management to pop round for some pie and mash. I would be interested to see the ensuing chaos of a full-blooded Mancini-DiCanio axis, however.

Avram Grant has also been touted as a potential. The West Ham Board are reportedly not too keen on appointing the former Chelsea chief, which is just as well as he is in the midst of raking the gutters at Toad Hall.

Sam Allardyce has been out of the job market for a while now but his appointment would be a disaster for all concerned. His sole achievement of keeping Bolton in the top half of the table with a tepid brand of apathetic football is precisely the same modus operandi which caused so many of us to lose faith in Curbishley.

Hang on a second…. Look at our releases this summer: King Pantsil, Bobby Zamora, Anton Ferdinand…. Ye gods, the Board aren’t paving the way for the return of Big Racist Ron Atkinson are they?

5. Waiter! Bring Me The Bilic

I think many of us are on the same page when it comes to who we would love to see in the hot seat at Upton Park.

Slaven Bilic is the dream ticket: not yet 40, charismatic, a champion of hard-working, attacking football and a passionate, no-nonsense disciplinarian - he ticks all the right boxes for me.

Bilic famously sticks to contracts, which does not bode well, but is known to want a move to the Premier League and has cited West Ham in particular. He has been in charge of the Croatian first team since July 2006 and gone on to become one of the most coveted young managers in football. For some time Bilic has been recognised by the National Team Coaching council to be #2 on the international scene behind Dunga, but I think any one of us could be manager of Brazil and keep them in the top 10.

Just yesterday Bilic stated that he did not yet want to leave his national side having signed a contract extension ‘til 2010. It has been reported however that he has been keeping tabs on the situation at West Ham over the last few weeks.

Bilic began his playing career at Hadjuk Split before moving to the Bundesliga and Karlsruhe in 1993 for £750,000. Three years later, Redknapp picked him up for £1.3mllion and Bilic spent four years at Upton Park where he established himself as a regular and passionate defender – if a little dirty.

After an impressive showing for Croatia in Euro ’96, Everton came in for him with a bid of £4.5million brokered in March of 1997. Slaven however declared that he owed a debt of loyalty to West Ham and admirably insisted on staying ‘til the end of the ’96-’97 season to ensure that we avoided relegation that year.

His management career began with the stewardship of the Croatian U-21 side, helping them to qualify for the European Championships, before he agreed to temporarily manage his beloved Hadjuk Split for five games while they searched for a permanent replacement. It was in this brief spell at Split that Bilic caught the mangement bug and from there he embarked on a research tour of Europe, receiving management guidance from Arsene Wenger and Marcelo Lippi among others.

In keeping with our club traditions, he has a proven record of promoting youth: his first action as first team coach of Croatia was to promote Eduardo da Silva, Luka Modric and Corluka from the U-21 squad. Neither does Bilic suffer fools having boldly cut established seniors Dario Simic, Olic and Balaban from the squad for his first competitive game after they missed a single training session.

As you can see, I’ve obviously tied my colours to the mast. I think the club should go all out to lure Bilic and make every effort to get what should be their primary target. No-one will be well served by a second choice or stopgap alternative, given a year to impress before Bilic becomes available or, worse still, causing us to miss out on the Croatian altogether.

Despite his recent refusal, Bilic could really say little else in light of England’s World Cup Qualifier against Croatia in Zagreb next Wednesday. He is a fiercely patriotic man and that would be my main concern, but with the England fixture soon approaching and with the spotlight firmly on him, at the very least we should have a definitive answer within the next week and be able to move on from there.

We all know that he would be a great asset in attracting the sort of technically accomplished young players Croatia seems to churn out so much more effectively than England, the sort of players we’ve been crying out for for over a year.

As if all these reasons weren’t enough, he’s also fluent in Italian, German and English, has a Law degree, is lead vocalist/guitarist in a Croatian rock band, chain-smokes on the touchline, runs around like a loon when his team scores and has the presence to make Jose Mourinho look like an unkempt Andrew Lloyd Webber in piss-stained Y-fronts – all vital managerial credentials.

But best of all, his aforementioned band wrote and released a Number 1 single in aid of Croatia’s Euro2008 campaign called ‘'Vatreno Ludilo', which literally translates as 'Fiery Madness'.

Someone give this man a job.

Monday, September 01, 2008

West Ham 4 - 1 Blackburn Rovers (And Many, Many Other Ramblings)

Late Addendum

Those inconsiderate bastards. I had this column written not once, but twice, before the Day of the Long Knives. You've already forgotten about Blackburn, I know, so you're wanting to know about Curbishley and the high class boardroom operatives at the Boleyn. Well ok, but I'm warning you we're coming back to Blackburn - we haven't won 4-1 since the ration book fer cryin' out loud.

1. In Memory

So farewell Alan Curbishley. It would be hypocritical for me to suggest that I'm upset by this, but I can certainly say that I am dismayed at the manner of it.

I have covered the sales of McCartney and Ferdinand later in this article but today's events require a different slant. No longer can we look insouciantly at tottenham and Newcastle and mock as they blunder their way through managers with all the PR flair of Jean Marie Le Pen, because I am afraid we are now amongst their number.

The Club have undermined Curbishley for weeks, and the snide and utterly incomprehensible public statements have done nothing to dissuade anybody from that way of thinking.

I am not going to pretend that I understand the Club's finances, primarily because I don't think there is a human being alive who does, but I can't believe that we are in a better position now than we were one week ago. McCartney and Ferdinand were big players for us, and whilst their loss could be tolerated with adequate replacement, selling them on the eve of the transfer deadline shows either a remarkable lack of forethought or a totally separate agenda.

Rumours abound that the board have been trying to drive Curbishley out by carrying on like a bunch of renegade Enron directors, but I'm not sure I credit them with the intelligence for a plan like that. From everything I can see, we are paying the price for the excesses of Eggert Magnusson which have coincided beautifully with the worst global economy in years.

Once upon a time it seemed too good to be true that we were bought by a billionaire banker, when rather sadly it was simply too true to be good.

1a. The Legacy

The departure of Curbishley is, of course, a potential turning point if properly exploited. Not that we have any precedent in this area but every now and again you catch lightning in a bottle, I suppose.

The prospect of Bilic, or Rijkaard, or any other footballing idealist is pretty enticing but it's also worth bearing in mind that Allardyce, Grant et al are still lurking and presumably much more willing to work with no budget and a crazy bunch of lunatics at the till.

Whoever it is - I say again, as I have done before, that being manager of West Ham is a reasonably straightforward task. We you know you won't win anything, so you sure as hell better entertain us. (So someone shoot Sam Allardyce for me please).

Meanwhile back at the Blackburn review.....

2. Be Still My Jerking Knee

We won! We lost! How can't we beat Macclesfield? We scored 4 times, it's our best start in 9 years! Curbishley ou - my God, this paragraph is obsolete already. I'm telling you, it's hard to be this reactionary.

3. Unleash My Jerking Knee

As you all know, we here at The H List like to deal only in facts and rarely ever indulge in innuendo and pointless name calling unless Michael Dawson is in the vicinty, or The Boleyn Beluga is writing. All of that being true - the time has come to reveal the real reason for our continued and soul destroying ineptness.

Step forward Papa Shark.

Yes folks, for donkeys years my father has been regularly attending West Ham games and clearly casting a shadow of doom over the place. On Saturday he couldn't make it and Mrs Shark made her debut at the Boleyn.

This led to a rather amusing afternoon for me ("Is it Blackburn that have dogs on their badge? Aren't they called the Rovers?" / "My feet don't touch the ground with these seats - what's all that about? / "God, there are a lot of brutes in here aren't there?) and also led to a stellar afternoon on the pitch.

Using the celestial guidance of my lovely wife we played Blackburn off the pitch for a whopping twenty five minutes before hanging on grimly for the rest of the afternoon. In the interests of the masses, I have therefore instructed my father not to return for the Newcastle game.

As far as I can tell he's seeing it as a blessing.

3. Deadline Day

Before I get into the more convoluted stuff from later in the day, I guess there would be some merit in looking at the events of the recent transfer window. It fairly boggles the mind that despite having been taken over by a billionaire we have now lost two of our first choice back four to the footballing powerhouse that is Sunderland.

In isolation, each sale had it's own logic. Ferdinand apparently wanted more money and could get it at the Stadium of Light. I find this notion surprising - wasn't this why we got rid of Ljungberg after all, to free up more money for players we actually did want to keep? - and McCartney was sold as a result of some apparent homesickness on his wife's part.

What a load of crap.

If Middlesbrough is where good footballers go to die, then Sunderland is merely where good footballers go to be told they aren't as good as they think they are by Roy Keane. Certainly I have a lot of respect for Niall Quinn and Keane has done a remarkable job, but they are still, and always will be Sunderland. The day that West Ham players start to move there to further their careers is the day that we should all pack up and go home.

The club is holding a firesale to the tune of a £15m profit this summer. 'Twas ever thus and I can't be bothered to get too worked up about it as it simply turns out that this was my fathers West Ham after all. I just find it a little hard to stomach our sudden penury when all others around us appear to have located their hidden pot of gold.

I mean, honestly, Hull bid £7m for Fraizer Campbell today. Hull! City! Christ on a bike I earn more than Hull.

Oh yeah - and what a splendid idea to get two foreign lads in at the last minute with dodgy paperwork. Because that never worked out badly for us before.

4. Slightly Off The Beaten Track

Apropos of not very much, but if I was Anton I would be slightly worried about the quote from Roy Keane stating that he hopes "we can take him to a different level". Use of this phrase by a Sunderland manager is usually followed by a visit to the Championship, which is certainly a different level alright.

4. The Statistics

This game was pretty bonkers from start to finish. Our biggest attacking threat was Calum Davenport, Jason Roberts took a penalty with a part of his antomy other than his elbow, and we scored 4 goals without creating four good chances all day.

The numbers show a fairly even game with each side mustering just 5 shots on target, which perplexingly translated into a 4-1 scoreline. You might suspect that the respective ratios of shots to goals reflects a huge gulf in class between the two strike forces but this would be untrue. I don't care how drunk you are - there is no way that Carlton Cole is superior to Roque Santa Cruz.

If anything, this game gave an object lesson in the benefits of having a top class International level keeper between the sticks, as oppsosed to say, Paul Robinson.

Elsewhere, we gave away 15 fouls, of which 7 were courtesy of Carlton Cole. I have a suggestion at this juncture.

5. The Opposition

Time was that you needed to play against Blackburn with plenty of bandages, lots of plaster cast, an X-ray machine and an MRI Unit in your changing room. They have undergone an interesting journey from playground bullies to perennial top ten finishers, and have even begun to play some decent football on the way.

Not much of this was in evidence on Saturday as they resorted to their more industrial selves. Australian Vince Grella set the tone with a thigh high introductory assault on Scott Parker - a theme that was lustily endorsed by his team mates, culminating in Jason Roberts whacking Valon Behrami in the face towards the end, to the surprise of no human being alive except Mrs Roberts.

Thuggish though they were, there is little doubt that a 4-1 reversal was as fair a reflection of the facts as a George W. Bush election poll.

6. Lu-cast A Spell On Me

I have no idea what has happened to Nigel Quashie but at this point I am willing to consider that Lucas Neill has eaten him.

Honestly, I look at Neill and wonder exactly what has gone wrong. The positioning is still there, the brain looks as though it's working, and the technical skills haven't disappeared but something is up. Right now, I can only assume that the extra weight he is carrying has scuppered all else around him.

I sincerely wish that Lucas Neill could fix himself. A fit and firing Neill is a key part of this team, and you should think back to the 06/07 run in if you think I'm crazy.

And the less I see of Valon Behrami at right back seems to be in direct correlation to the strength of my aortic wall.

7. Hells Bells

Craig Bellamy is back in case you didn't notice. He scored, got booked, annoyed the Universe and apparently had a row with Matthew Upson in the dressing room.