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

Monday, March 20, 2017

West Ham 2 - 3 Leicester (And Other Ramblings)

1. A New England

I feel like I just watched the physical manifestation of Brexit. 

With our stadium move loosely mirroring the country's exit from the EU, everybody has split down the middle on its merits and division is everywhere as we wait to see if it was worth the pain. 

It began with hope and ambition, with dreams of a future that would surpass our history and allow us to move past our self imposed shackles to a bright new daydream. It might still happen, but I'm rather concerned that whatever gains there are may be illusory. 

For sadly, reality is a cruel mistress and many a harsh lesson has been learned when real life intersects with fantasy. On this drizzly, grey day where it all continued to go wrong, I sat in our new home and pondered our recent history and the present that was unfurling below me with predictable grimness. This was supposed to be glorious and easy. Perhaps we should have built a yacht to show Leicester how powerful we really are. 

Somehow, in my little corner of the cyber world Jamie Vardy has become synonymous with Article 50. For Brexiteers I think he might represent the kind of meteoric rise to glory that they themselves are shooting for, while for Remainers I think it's just that he's apparently a thick racist, which seems to be the lazy default position of the liberal press on Leave voters. 

I'm mostly puzzled at why an England centre forward who has scored fewer goals this season than West Brom's central defence would be quite so keen to taunt opposition fans, but perhaps I'm misunderstanding his "fairytale". In the end, this might have been the worst 90 minutes entertainment you will ever see, or at least will be until they release the Vardy film. Don't forget the diving, guys!


Jamie Vardy. A prick. 

But on this day, like so many others lately, we were destined to be on the wrong end of this shit. Slaven Bilic patrolled the sideline like our very own David Davis. "I haven't done any modelling on the impact of playing all my players out of position, but I don't need to. I just know it's going to be fine". Experts be damned - in went Kouyate at centre half to replace the injured Reid and no amount of head holding in the stands was going to change his mind.

High up above him, miles from the action, unelected and unloved, sat our very own Theresa May - David Sullivan - presumably wondering how everything had turned to disaster quite so quickly. After all, lots of clever people keep telling him it's all going extremely well. 

It's not a perfect metaphor, of course. Nobody voted for West Ham to move, and none of our counterparts have even the slightest interest in making it work. In both cases I can see the destination, but have no confidence in the ability of the people leading the way. These are chilling times for those of us looking up the road ahead.

But if I squint I can at least see the thinking. In both cases people really believed that this violent separation from history was necessary to improve our situation. Fair enough, but the problem is that when it looks like all you've done is take a hugely circuitous route to get back where you started...well, that just seems like a massive waste of time. 

2. Accident Waiting To Happen

I had every intention of making this piece entirely positive. I appreciate it's tough for you all to read the same match report week after week - "West Ham played without a right back and conceded early, sort of got back into it, Andre Ayew scored, Manuel Lanzini was great - wish we played him in his best position - better luck next time" - but hopefully you'll appreciate that it's even tougher to write it. 

I was done with that then. This was going to be ten positive points. Or as near to ten as I could muster, and then possibly Frasier quotes for the rest. 

And yet, somehow we found new and inventive ways to be bad. 

Worry not, Sam Byram started at right back and played pretty well. None of the goals were obviously his fault, and he attacked with plenty of verve and purpose. This counts as a huge positive in the world of West Ham fullbackery.

In fact, Byram looked far more dangerous than his winger Robert Snodgrass, who appears to have forgotten how to use his feet, and his left sided counterpart Aaron Cresswell, who seems to have forgotten that he has feet at all. The latter was eventually replaced by Arthur Masuaku, which is a bit like when they made Basic Instinct 2 and got Stan Collymore involved for reasons nobody has ever quite fathomed. 



@11tegen11 shows yet again how reliant we are upon Lanzini, who was at the heart of everything good that we did in this game, and whose wonderful free kick pulled us back into things after a dire opening saw us two down after seven minutes. And that despite David Sullivan telling them that they needed to stop conceding early and everything. 

Riyad Mahrez opened it up with a cross that accidentally went in. It could have been genius, but it was probably luck. Leicester, ladies and gentleman! In an ideal world Darren Randoph would have saved it, but he tends to save everything he should and nothing he shouldn't and thus it flew in and we were behind again. 

The second was a mixture of a nicely worked free kick and the sort of defensive display that one normally associates with Star Wars stormtroopers. I have watched it back and I have no idea what the West Ham players are doing. Leicester's little routine involved Mahrez and Albrighton shifting the free kick slightly, during which two second pause our players went absolutely mental and came wandering out of the box like zombies from The Walking Dead. When the ball eventually made it's way into the box it found an unmarked Robert Huth, who has exactly one footballing skill - heading footballs - and he made it two. I'm pretty sure we signed Jose Fonte to stop this kind of thing. 

After Lanzini's goal briefly gave us hope, Vardy pounced on yet another loose ball from a corner to add a third, and made it 103 goals conceded in Bilic's 67 league games in charge. And Dimitri Payet said we were too defensive. 

The bonkers reality is that even at 3-1 down we should have won this game. Andre Ayew got our second with a header from a corner routine that was so lame I had to blink twice to convince myself it wasn't us defending. Thereafter we rained efforts on the Leicester goal and only a combination of Kasper Schmeichel's excellence and incredible luck (Leicester, ladies and gentleman!) kept us out. 

Carroll alone had two great chances and both Ayew and Kouyate should have scored too. In fact, this really should have been the first truly great game at the London Stadium, but we blew our lines and proved yet again that no amount of attacking brio can make up for a defence this porous.

3. Days Like These

I don't go to games any more looking for victory, but instead I look for victories. Little ones, mostly. Can we get through without injuries? "Be not deceived: God is not mocked" says the Bible on that front, and sure enough this game saw us lose Reid, Antonio and Obiang for extended periods. At this point I'm pretty sure the Hull team talk in two weeks won't amount to much more than just "kick Lanzini". 

But more prosaically, what can we learn about certain players? Does Byram have a future here? Who has regained form? From where is hope going to spring as we limp in an ever more bedraggled fashion towards the mythical 40 point mark?

It's hard to gauge any of these things at present, as the team is just so disjointed. We fought back well here, and with great spirit, but it would take a peculiar type of myopia to overlook the disastrous defending. There is no getting away from the fact that we are an awful defensive side, as we boast the fourth worst goals against record in the league and for all the spirit we showed in the second half, it sure would be nice to avoid going behind early and having to chase games constantly. If nothing else, we aren't going to run into opponents like Leicester every week who are knackered after their midweek exertions in the Champions League. 

And so we sit, nine points off the bottom three, no wins in five, one win at home since December and no obvious help on the way. God's little joke at my attempts to be positive. 

Let me say now that I don't think we're going down. In fairness, the lads seem to be giving it a bloody good try but there are probably just too many bad teams around who have too much ground to make up. But with three new, long to medium term injuries - I know this because the details were tweeted out by the Chairman's teenage son, just like Bayern Munich do it - we face a tough few weeks to avoid getting dragged into a relegation fight in the manner of an errant two year old interrupting her fathers' BBC interview. 

4. Train, Train

There was an odd little sideshow this week when Jaap Stam and Reece Oxford joined the list of people to have decried our training as lacking intensity. They joined Enner Valencia, Simone Zaza and, weirdly, Bilic himself in questioning what is happening at our new Rush Green training ground. 

Now, the first thing I would do is to immediately discount anything said by another manager. They are all champion bullshitters who will say anything to help their own job security. Ever noticed how when a new manager takes over he immediately tells the world the players aren't fit enough? It's all part of the same trick to convince fans that any short term failure is not his fault and to send a message to the board that any success is his. When Stam talks about our training he's really saying to his bosses that he is better than a Premiership manager. That's his prerogative of course, but hopefully he gets a nice digital wanker sign next time he calls up looking for help. 

As for the rest? Well, I don't even really know what intensity means in this context. The training seemed fine last year, even if we were going behind too frequently then as well, and these are players who weren't getting in the team, which is also a point to consider. 

In general, though, I suppose it's impossible to say that our training has been adequate when the team are performing so poorly on the pitch. Whereas last year we seemed able to implement a high pressing game both tactically and physically, we seem incapable of either this time around. In fairness it didn't help that the game on Saturday was cynically and persistently slowed down by Leicester, in a style to make Tony Pulis weep with joy. 

Time after time Schmeichel kicked his studs against the posts and substituted players left the field with all the speed of teenagers at a zebra crossing. It was painful, and enough to drive me apoplectic except that nobody around me seemed to notice. At one point, only my small child next to me seemed to be able to hear me whinging, leading me to wonder if perhaps I was in The Sixth Sense, albeit with the big twist being that Havard Nordtveit is actually dead. 


I see dead people - OK, can any of them play right back?

Like many, I was quick to jump on the intensity and training bandwagon but in the end it's all a distraction. The only thing that matters is how the team play and the results they get. If our players can't press and harry like Liverpool or Spurs it's probably because they aren't as good or as athletic as them. Look at the way Byram visibly ran out of puff here after 70 minutes, or the way that Carroll loped around like a pissed Geordie Geisha at midnight in Bigg Market for most of the game. 

Maybe that's a lack of conditioning or maybe they just can't compete with Lallana or Alli on those terms. I don't know the answer but it feels like a cop out to simply say that training isn't intense enough. Maybe the answer has been staring us in the face for quite a while, and we just don't want to accept it because to admit it would be too painful. But maybe. Maybe we're just not.....very good?

5. Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

So what of Bilic? For the first time there seem to be a few ripples around the fanbase as people begin to divide upon pro and anti Slav lines, with the only comfort for him being that even if the crowd did turn on him, he’d be too far away from them to hear the boos anyway.

To get our message across we’d really need some planes trailing banners behind them, one saying “Enough – Slav Out!” and then a second saying “In Slav we Trust” and then finally a third one with “I’m not too fussed really as I think it’s quite hard to determine how much we should blame the board and how much we should blame the manager”.

My take last week is that I wouldn’t fire Bilic as the board can’t be trusted to replace him. This is a cop out, as it doesn't really answer the question of whether I think Bilic is up to it. As my wife will attest as she looks fondly at the family sized bag of Minstrels that she got for Valentines Day - I am a romantic. Last year happened, and I can't seem to let it go. Bilic produced a team with a swagger and a belief and I feel like I waited thirty years for that. So I am prepared to give him time, with the, frankly terrifying, acknowledgement that another summer of transfers like this one will probably see us relegated.

Of course, the murkiness comes in trying to establish why that fell away this year. How much should we blame Payet, the new stadium, injuries, bad luck, the terrible business by the board or the terrible business by Bilic? 

My conclusion is that the answer is a little bit of all of the above, and at least a couple of those shouldn't be factors next year. I see Bilic on a short leash though. This board have a pathological desire to be seen to be doing something - hence we get Monday morning apology emails from the Chairman - and if next season starts like this one, then I wouldn't be surprised to see Bilic gone. And then the white knuckle ride begins all over again. 

***

OK - let's be positive for a second. After all, how hard can it be - someone once heard the demo of this and decided to release it anyway. And charged money for it.




Seriously, please listen to this. It is amazing.

So, in the spirit of Vanilla and looking for the positives where there are none. What reasons do we all have for optimism?


6. God's Footballer

Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio play for us

For the first time in a long while we have young talent to build around. Lanzini and Antonio are both high class performers, in their twenties and signed to long term deals. One might also add Pedro Obiang, Aaron Cresswell, Cheikhou Kouyate, Andre Ayew and Winston Reid to that same bracket although I think they might each be slightly lower down the talent table.

I've excluded Carroll and Sakho from this list as I'm trying to highlight the players who don't have their own private MRI machines at home.

Around this core must be built a young, mobile, pacey side who can get back to being competitive with the top six in English football. It might feel like a flimsy base to start from, but somebody once took two empty loo rolls, glued cotton wool to them, painted them brown and sold them for £100 a pop as UGG boots. Anything is possible with the right people making the decisions and significant amounts of luck - just ask Leicester City and Toby Young. 


Please be like Payet, but don't be like Payet in absolutely every way

How far are we from being a good side? It's really very hard to tell. We probably need a goalkeeper, and whilst Byram might yet emerge, a right back seems essential. A striker has been on the agenda for years, and despite (or because of) the joke January window we still need a centre half and a creative player to share the burden with Lanzini. 

All of this relies very heavily on large amounts of money being made available to spend and a robust, perceptive policy for choosing the players. Which brings me to....

7. Sugardaddy

We are owned by David Sullivan and David Gold

By now, you're probably thinking that the PTSD caused by Huth scoring has seeped into my writing. But here's the thing: have you been watching events at Leyton Orient? Or Leeds, or Cardiff or Hull? Bad owners never ever equal successful teams. It's why Ken Bates is so popular everywhere in the country outside Chelsea and Leeds. 

Sullivan and Gold are far from perfect owners, and I've said so many times previously. But they are deeply attached to the Club. And I see them in two very distinctly separate lights: the first as off the field movers and secondly as they pertain to the team itself.

I don't really see how people can be unhappy at them taking over from the Icelandics. They have real money for a start. By which I mean legal tender, and not something they got out of a Scandanavian Monopoly box. They have also been prepared to spend that money, often unwisely but I don't feel like they've skimped on their outlay - it's just that they rely too heavily on Sullivan's web of agents and South American fetish.

Many are unhappy that Sullivan and Gold charge interest on their loans to us, seemingly unaware that owing money to your chairmen is a very different kettle of fish to being in hock to a bank. If you wish we were owned by Roman Abramovich then that's something else entirely, although maybe check out where he got his money from before you eulogise his largesse unduly. 

I understand the high emotions around the stadium and for some that is a bridge too far. For me, I wish they'd assume a lower profile, keep the kids off Twitter and take several steps back from the media. But weighing it all up, there is an underlying ambition to their ownership that was never present in my childhood. Back in the days of the Cearns family, the only ambition was to survive, and we have gone past that now. Even if you think they are only after success to line their own pockets, then I'm still not sure what the problem is? It all ends with West Ham doing well. 

On the flipside, they need to step away from the team as soon as possible. I understand the desire - they've spent their entire lives being successful off their own backs, and the cold reality is that I strongly doubt anyone is ever going to tell them that they aren't especially good at being Directors of Football. Self awareness and booming self confidence rarely go hand in hand at that level of business. 

But if they would just get out of their own way, continue to spend appropriately but hand the reigns over to someone who knew what they were doing, then that might just be the making of the Club. And if they don't want to do that, well, we've never been a sexier purchase then we are right now. We have manageable debt, a cushy stadium deal, a huge fanbase and we aren't successful so there's no premium to pay. Excuse while I keep making eyes at the Qataris....

8. Moving The Goalposts

We have Karren Brady

Again, I can hear some coffee being spluttered, but here's a question for you. Who is the most prominent woman in British football? And who is the most prominent woman in British business? I would argue that the answer to both those questions is our Vice Chair. She works for West Ham, is wildly popular around the country as she pulls faces on The Apprentice when some candidate asks "Do French people love their children?" and is a vocal and articulate advocate of women in business. How could this not be a positive thing for the Club?

I am proud that we brought Clyde Best to the UK when it was social anathema to do so (and we should memorialise that more), and whilst the two situations aren't equivalent I think it's brilliant that we now have a woman so visible and competent at the helm of the Club. I love that my daughters have someone at their Club they can look up to and not simply see a wall of middle aged white men staring back at them.

For some fans I know that there is simply no way they will ever accept this, and the air of latent misogyny that often surrounds that analysis is something I just can't be bothered to get into. It's like Eighties music - you can play it, but I don't have to listen.

Of course she has made errors like the Plus Two scheme and I wish she'd just ignore Spurs in her Sun column, but by and large I see nothing but progress off the pitch. Brady never chose to move us to the Olympic Stadium, but when she was tasked with doing so she secured a deal so good that other fans hate us for it. I prefer that to when they all called us their second team because they used to beat us while we played pretty football.


Our third choice right back too, probably

Of course the running track is a killer, but that's the price that had to be paid. Too steep for some, I know, but that was the cost of doing business. Without it, we'd still be at Upton Park and whether people want to accept it or not, significantly less well placed to progress. 

Brady has helped to put the base blocks in place and the hope is that one day there will be sufficient brainpower in the Boardroom to build upon them. For now, we should savour the fact that the commercial and administrative side of the Club seems to be blossoming nicely and try to forget all about the time we missed out on a semi final because we brought on a player who had already appeared in the competition. 

9. Somedays I See The Point

We're crap.

Not an immediately obvious cause for optimism, I grant you, but bear with me. Like Season 2 of Heroes this could be fucking terrible, but you've already started so you might as well finish.

We do not have a very good team or squad. And yet, there we sit in the middle of the Premier League. Despite our disastrous form in the new ground, a transfer policy carried out by magic 8 ball and our best player going home we're sill muddling along. We've barely played well all season and yet somehow have 33 points.

With this comes hope. For we cannot really get any worse. Some good investment and some luck and there isn't any reason we can't get back into the top half. I know that we were promised more, but I think we'll all have to accept a slightly less steep ascent than last year. Gradual improvement shouldn't be difficult when you can hardly get any worse.

10. Which Side Are You On?

The fans.

I'm not going to blow smoke by making those sweeping statements so beloved of Liverpool and Man Utd fans about how we're the best in the country. But there are a lot of us. Each week, we are seeing record numbers coming to the London Stadium, and even though I keep reading about all these tourists and opposition fans in the home end, I never see them. All I see are genuine West Ham fans who couldn't previously get to see their team. It's anecdotal, and probably not worth much, but I know a lot of casual fans who've been to games this year and keep going back. Premier League football is a wildly popular concept, no matter how badly corners are being defended. 

For those who have season tickets I think it's strange for them to realise that other fans might not be able to watch their team, but it's true. Not everyone could afford football at Upton Park. Tickets were expensive and hard to come by, while the ground was murder to reach. Now, with more availability and decent pricing - especially for those taking children - the Club is simply more accessible. 

And the thing about real fans is they don't really give a shit about results. I've been to pretty much every game this year and I've left miserable but still wanting to get my season ticket. I've rekindled my love affair with the Club after the Allardyce era and all it needed was a couple of rabonas and Manuel Lanzini taking off. 

Maybe all this will fade away in a year or two, especially if we keep getting served up a level of mediocrity only matched by the succession of hosts they've picked for the ITV "Tonight" show. But I don't think so. I think the stadium is helping us to reach back out into our heartlands and pull fans back to the Club, and when the team eventually rise up above the current sea of unrelenting dross that they are currently sailing on - I think we will be a club on the rise. 

8 comments:

  1. Koozy2:13 PM

    Good work.

    I think you may have opened an unintentional can of worms by suggesting Iceland is in Scandinavia but you can fight that battle on your own.

    I've never seen that Vanilla video before but it leaves me questioning whether I need to renew my season ticket as I could just watch that once a fortnight and it will leave me in the exact same state of bewilderment as virtually every home game this season.

    However, talking of season ticket renewals, it's things like the current communications that infuriate me, I hate it when I feel like people are forcing me to be grateful and that's how I feel. There was a ripple of applause as a big sign went up about season ticket prices being frozen, frozen?!? They should be halved after this shower of shit plus that would keep some money in our pockets as opposed to Sullivan's transfer process which is akin to Montgomery Brewster's investment strategies. Add to that the constant PR around record season ticket renewals (which probably just reflects most "customer's" desperation to be at the top of seat reallocation list) and I am livid.

    I just feel like the club is forcing me to feel like I should be happy and grateful. Please just let me embrace my unhappiness - I'd be happier.

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  2. I meant to go back and check the Scandanavian point and now I'm concerned I've alienated my Icelandic readership.

    Enjoyed the rest of the comment, cheers. Lots there to agree with.

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  3. Anonymous2:11 PM

    The Leicester game was my first trip to the London Stadium (ending my longest run without going to a game since I first started going in 1991). We defended atrociously (not just in the first half either) but at least attacked gamely. I don't blame Leicester for time wasting (can that much mud stick to a GK's boots from a 21st century pitch?) - they were ahead, they were away and, well, they were Leicester. Giving a two goal lead to a team against whom you know what you are going to get when you fall even one goal behind is inexcusable.

    I did enjoy the game though (masochism makes life as a Hammer so much easier) - excitement, end to end play, pantomime villain in Vardy, top drawer FK, and we were in it until the final whistle. I certainly enjoyed it more than our infamous 2-1 win over Hull, when Big Sam cupped his ears to booing fans - that was not entertainment. And, in a season where we are unlikely now (hopefully!) to flirt with relegation and even more unlikely to flirt with European qualification and a third defeat to Astra, entertainment is the best I can hope for.

    All of that being said - and I agree with pretty much everything you've written above (particularly on Brady), other than that I thought Byram was poor, with too much indecision when in the final third - I don't think changing the manager would help. Our problem is this squad of players aren't good enough for a sustained top 6-8 challenge. What we need is *sensible* recruitment in the summer. If it isn't working with Bilic into the autumn after a hopefully busy summer, then maybe think about a change. What I worry about the summer (aside from Sullivan's well-documented (by you!) shortcomings in the transfer market, is that Lanzini and Antonio get their heads turned by larger clubs (contract, schmontract). They are players to build a team around.

    While my view in this first visit to the LS wasn't as far away as I'd feared, the stewards were friendly enough and the facilities around the ground were much better than at the Boleyn, it seemed a sanitised football experience. When I used to travel on a rickety District Line train to UP and then walk past Queen's Market on the way to the Boleyn, there was no doubt I was in East London (which, of course, is wonderful). On Saturday after I got to London, I took the Javelin to Stratford International and then walked through the Olympic Park to the ground and I could have been anywhere in the country (finally - the reason we've added 'London' to the club badge becomes clear!). I appreciate fully that this makes me sound like an old 'things were better in the good old days' bastard but I do think it is a little sad that in not that many years, there'll be a sizeable chunk of the crowd that will never have experienced the Boleyn (not just the ground but the environment around it). At the risk of sounding like a Daily Telegraph columnist, possibly part of the wider change in football as a whole from being football fans to being customers #ponce

    Steve

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  4. Anonymous10:02 PM

    Just a point on Brady and her empowerment of women in Business..

    ..is this the same Karen brady who edited the sunday sport and would empower young girls to put beer bottles in interesting places for sad men to look at?!

    HammerKeith

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    Replies
    1. A slight misrepresentation, no? My understanding is that she was a Director, not the Editor and moved on to run Birmingham pretty quickly after.

      As for the ethics of that - well, football welcomed people like Abramovich and Shinawatra with open arms....

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  5. The world turned upside down.....Valentine's day is over

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  6. Are you doing a piece about the Hull game?
    I can understand why you wouldn't - apart from the game itself, it must be a lot of work and take real commitment. It's just that for someone who's spent the last few years following West Ham remotely, mainly via Radio London online (sub Partridgesque - not necessarily a criticism) and a Google news feed that basically explodes when the tranfer window opens revealing the sticker book* and a pin science behind our recruitment policy, your writing is the best thing about recent games.
    So no pressure then.
    TonyinBath (yeah I know it's not that far away)
    *with all the pages on right backs torn out

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    Replies
    1. Fear not Tony - it's up now.

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