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 26, 2016

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

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

1. Everything Old Is New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, of course it fucking could.

2. Atmospheric Pressure

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

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

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

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

3. Stand And Deliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Game!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Squad Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Editors Note

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

8. In Summary

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

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

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


  1. Old timer5:16 PM

    Excellent article look forward to your next musings

  2. Anonymous11:26 PM