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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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

1. Hors D'ouevres

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Mains

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

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

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

3. Pep

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

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

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

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

4. Slav Against Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

"Today Michail Antonio will play..."

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

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

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

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

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

5. Central To The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

6. Not If His Throat's Knackered Though

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slaven Bilic after Man City:

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

Slaven Bilic after Astra Giurgiu:

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

Slaven Bilic after Chelsea:

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

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

Friday, August 26, 2016

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

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

1. Everything Old Is New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, of course it fucking could.

2. Atmospheric Pressure

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

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

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

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

3. Stand And Deliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Game!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Squad Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Editors Note

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

8. In Summary

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

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

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