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, May 22, 2017

Burnley 1 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Holiday

So here we are. And there we were.

Stamford Bridge, August 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. On that balmy night under a crimson London sky, we still had the fresh faced innocence of youth. Back then we could destroy Death Stars and rescue princesses. We were Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. At Chelsea we came striding on to the stage, bursting with the confidence of a season spent bloodying the noses of the elite and with the strut that comes from having Dimitri Payet in your ranks. We lost, naturally, but with the ill fortune that seems to have been our constant companion during Slaven Bilic's tenure.

West Ham fan - August 2016

But ultimately we ended somewhat as we started, with injuries everywhere, no fit strikers and a seemingly terminal lack of direction to our play. By now we were limping forlornly to the finish of a dismal season. Now we were Luke Skywalker at the denouement of The Empire Strikes Back.

West Ham fan - May 2017. I hope none of you kissed your sister. 

In that vein, this wasn't a terrible game. It had the important feature of being unimportant, allowing us to watch it in the slightly catatonic, vacation like state that end of season games have when you're a bang average, mid table, vanilla scoop of a team in the giant Ben and Jerry's stand that is the Premier League. But that same lack of tension betrays something in itself. None of us watch our teams for safety. We watch to be entertained and for the pursuit of victory, however vain that might often be. To watch, perchance to dream, if I might misquote the Bard. 

However much it might knot the stomach, I think I prefer my football with something riding on it. 

2. Giving Up The Gun

I have seen some comments that paint this season as a triumph of sorts for Bilic. Amid the rubble left behind by Payet, he has fashioned a team that finished just two points - or a last minute Darren Randolph error at Sunderland - from 8th place. The stadium move, injuries like Platoon and a disrupted dressing room were among the trials he faced, and in the end he came through it all to lead us to 11th place.

There is no doubt some truth to all of that, but it's also true that the gap between ourselves and Everton (16 points) is enormous, and that's before we even consider the distant top six. We are firmly embedded in that glut of mediocrity that covers the bottom two thirds of the league.

I also find it hard to look past the self inflicted nature of some of our problems. The constant lack of a right back and the ludicrous and damagingly long exclusion of Adrian were both issues Bilic brought upon himself. Likewise, he must have some say in our transfers and therefore deserves a slice of the opprobrium for them, for if he really has no involvement then he should be moved on for a manager with a bit more spine who won't let his bosses suggest he does.

Sadly, as much as I find Bilic to be personally engaging and a seemingly very decent guy, I also can't look past those repeated shellackings at home. Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Man City again, Southampton, Leicester and fucking Watford all scored at least three times at our ground, whilst it would be remiss to ignore that we also somehow managed to go 4-0 down to West Brom without even the hint of a match fixing scandal. 

At some point it feels like we need to stop fixating on the rumour that Payet was being disruptive and focus a little more on the fact that the former Croatia centre half and manager couldn't organise his defence to stand in a straight line and stop Salomon Rondon from scoring. 

Arguing for Bilic's dismissal is pointless as he isn't going to be fired and also because I'm a blogger and nobody listens to me. But it feels reasonable to point out that Bilic surely won't survive another season of shambolic defending like this again. Sure, David Sullivan is happy to use the Club to promote his straight to DVD story about little known East End gangsters the Krays, but letting in four at West Brom is a bit embarrassing all round. 

3. I Stand Corrected

I wonder if I owe Andre Ayew an apology.

Probably not as he's never read a word of anything I've ever written and therefore doesn't give a shit about anything I think. But, if you can just exclude the memory of him having an epileptic fit last week and hitting the post from two yards out, he's actually been playing pretty well of late.

Deadly from 3 yards. If you forget last week. 

He started this game up front on his own because Bilic lost a game of pre match swingball to Sean Dyche or something, but made a very decent fist of it anyway. He's absolutely not a front man, but as a support striker you can see his merits easily enough. If nothing else he has the happy knack of finding himself in goalscoring positions more often than any of his team mates. 

The early pickings were slim as Burnley exploited the gaps in behind our wing backs very effectively, and opened the scoring after a glacial Andre Gray cross went through the legs of all three of our centre halves, two barstools, a giraffe and a snooker table before Sam Vokes tapped it past Adrian for the opening goal. 

We were level within minutes however, as Sofiane Feghouli ran on to a lovely Ayew flick to smash home a very well worked equaliser. That chance arose after Burnley midfielder Ashley Westwood fouled Ayew and was rightly booked. It seemed inevitable then, that the home midfielder would see red when shortly after he landed a knee high tackle on James Collins. 

Weirdly, referee Bobby Madley decided that knee high tackles are fine so long as you do them on the last day of the season and it's sunny and all the fans are in fancy dress. As such, Westwood got a mild telling off, while Lanzini then got a yellow card for a fairly inconsequential trip a few minutes later.

Premier League refereeing continues to distress me. 

As it was, Sean Dyche would later announce that his team should have been "out of sight" at half time, which confused me as his team managed one shot on goal all day, so perhaps he really meant he literally didn't want to see them as they were a bit crap. No matter, as we came out firing after the break and dominated much of the play. This included winning our first corner after an hour which we then executed so brilliantly that after taking it short on the left we somehow managed to engineer a situation where the ball made it's way out to the right for Jose Fonte to cross towards Feghouli. This actually happened. 

The winner eventually came when a Fernandes shot was parried straight up into the air by Tom Heaton, only to bounce off the bar to a waiting Ayew while Burnley defenders flung themselves into the net like parachutists exiting a glider. Aye meanwhile, buried it, as he is absolutely, unequivocally deadly from three yards except when he isn't. 

Thereafter we had several chances to get a third on the break, but managed to butcher them all like we were drafting policy for the Tory manifesto. Thus we were left to cling to a 2-1 win that propels us to the giddy heights of two places below Bournemouth, with one victory more than 17th placed Watford.

All in all we've generally looked a better team away from home this season, where the uncertain atmosphere and general malaise of the London Stadium has been but a memory. More importantly, on the road we've been able to sit back and seek to hit teams on the counter and we did that very well here in the second half, frequently disrupting play high up the pitch and then leveraging that into opportunities for our wide players to run behind and then spectacularly fail to play the correct final ball. 

No one disputes that there will need to be some major personnel changes this summer, but there does seem to be a method to how Bilic plays away from home that is working at least some of the time. We've still been too passive at places like Arsenal and Everton, but it's not hard to see the blueprint. The trick for next year is to find a more effective way to play at home. 

4. White Sky

Anyway, I feel like Ayew needs a song and the chorus of this is perfect. 

Skip to 1:06 if you can't stand the preppy magnificence of Vampire Weekend but either way I'm sure you'll agree it's perfect and not at all out of our vocal range. 

I feel like maybe I'm padding the article a bit this week. 

5. The Kids Don't Stand A Chance

On a scale of "1" to "Oh Christ, What Now?", how much did you enjoy this tweet by David Gold?
The thing is, I actually have some sympathy for Gold here. He was responding to a graphic showing West Ham had zero minutes from teenagers in the league this year, albeit this was prior to Declan Rice's four minute cameo today that may well have been Bilic's way of trying to shut up his chairman.

I think what Gold was clumsily trying to say is that most youngsters don't make it at Premier League level. This isn't news to anyone who watches the game, but the problem is that he said it at a time when fans are particularly desperate for help from the youth team because the senior squad looks so sparse.

So, fresh on the back of the u23 team winning promotion to Division 1 of what is effectively the old reserves league, fans were clamouring for some kids to be blooded. Nowhere was there much questioning of the fact that they were in Division 2 for a reason and didn't even win it but needed a play off. Instead, there was the usual lust for "something else". Football fans at heart are romantic and we are suckers for the story of the local kid coming through the ranks while skilfully ignoring the reality that when it goes wrong - Ince, Lampard, Defoe - it does so spectacularly.

But the thing that Gold really didn't appreciate is the value that players acquire in the eyes of fans when they can't see them playing. Diafra Sakho has had a brilliant season from this perspective as he is more highly rated now than ever, simply by virtue of being absent from the fray for much of the year. Likewise, young players like Martinez, Rice and Oxford simply must be better than what we have because there is no evidence to the contrary. One might point to the fact that our Academy hasn't produced a worthwhile first team player since Junior Stanislas, but that will never land with those fans who demand youth as the answer to all, and the elixir for our dying first team.

Gold's angle, I hope, was that young players who are good enough will always force their way into the side through their performance in training or out on loan. As prime examples Martinez didn't do much at Oxford, whilst Oxford didn't do much at Reading, which is a sentence you may have to read a couple of times to make sense of. However, Martinez scored a couple of goals in said play offs, getting lots of fans excited, although many seemed to ignore the fact that Newcastle u23 seem to defend in homage to Kevin Keegan and therefore didn't actually bother doing any.

Look, I'd love for our young players to emerge soon and be brilliant, but I also trust our Academy coaches to properly evaluate them to determine those who are ready. They have the advantage over 99% of West Ham fans because they have at least, you know, seen them play.

I'd also add that calling on them too young can be devastating for young players if it simply highlights their lack of readiness. I'm not entirely sure that Stephen Bywater ever recovered from his traumatic Bradford experience, as an example.

I'd like to think this is what Gold was trying to convey but, yet again, we find that tweets are rarely useful for addressing points with any nuance to them. What's perhaps most disturbing about this whole episode is that Gold somehow thought tackling it in 140 characters was a good idea. Yet again one of our chairmen is now a media story, as happens with depressing regularity, when a simple question to a media officer about whether this was a good idea for a tweet would presumably have elicited a "What? Jesus Christ, no! Give me that phone" response that I feel could preface about 50% of all public pronouncements made by our current Board.

There is no doubt in my mind that our Academy has underperformed for years, but look at Chelsea for a salutary lesson on youth production. They regularly have the best youth set up around, but are yet to graduate anyone properly to the first team due to the fact that none have been good enough to displace the incumbent. One might call that harsh, or simply the nature of professional football, but the point is that if even the best Academy in England can't progress many youngsters to help the first team then perhaps we should readjust our sights accordingly.

However, in some ways that issue at Chelsea should be our biggest selling point. We should be advertising ourselves to young British footballers as a place to come and play because at least there is a pathway to the first team here. "Come and play for us - we're not Chelsea!" - that sort of thing.

Which brings us back to where we started. Instead of that positive message, this ill judged tweet, however Gold meant it, gave the impression of the exact opposite and punctured any good feeling that had built up after the u23 play off win. I like David Gold and think his willingness to interact with fans on social media is both stupid and slightly endearing, but getting dragged into topics like this is just ridiculous. A good rule of thumb, David - if it requires to you to send anything more than three tweets to clarify your position, then it's too nuanced a subject for Twitter. Go write a long ranting post on Facebook like everyone else.

6. Run

I can't be bothered to write anything further about a season ending game at Burnley, especially given that it had all the dramatic tension of a North Korean election, albeit with less accurate shooting. So instead let me give you some H List end of season awards:

Player of the Season

1. Manuel Lanzini
2. Michail Antonio
3. Pedro Obiang

Apologies to: Winston Reid

No apologies to: Darren Randolph, Simone Zaza, Gokhan Tore

In the week that he gets a call up to the full Argentinian squad, Lanzini picks up this prestigious award as well. There's a new series of Game of Thrones on the way too - Christ, what a time to be alive, Manu.

I won! I beat Tore!

Picking up the mantle of being our only creative player after Payet disappeared, the diminutive midfielder was wonderful for the second half of the season. He scored crucial goals (helloooooo Spurs) and generally showed his team mates how to hold on to the ball for longer than the life span of a Tory policy on social care.

Behind him was Michail Antonio who started the season brilliantly, when played in his correct position which is Not Right Back. However, he tailed off a little towards the end and got injured before the run in. His fearsome physicality and unorthodox style made him one of our few leading lights this season, and the thought of him playing a full season with a proper striker in front is actually quite exciting. He also made the England squad but didn't get a game as Sam Allardyce opted for Theo Walcott instead and was fired shortly thereafter. Possibly as a result.

Third place goes to Pedro Obiang, who inexplicably started the season behind Havard Nordtveit but was soon making that position his own. As is customary, his season was cut short due to surgery, otherwise he probably would have won this award. He is, by now, the prime candidate to start in our central midfield with Kouyate next year.

7. Unbelievers

Goal of the Season

1. Dimitri Payet vs Middlesbrough (h)
2. Andy Carroll vs Crystal Palace (h)
3. Winston Reid vs Sunderland (h)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Crystal Palace (a), Manuel Lanzini vs Leicester (h), Michail Antonio vs Watford (h)

I know, I know. It's not fashionable to speak positively of Payet, but to watch him slalom through the Middlesbrough defence was to watch a master at work. Carroll's spectacular bicycle kick at home to Palace was itself majestic, but it really only required one thing to be done well. By contrast Payet needed to do multiple things, moving at speed and ended up beating four players before slotting past the keeper.

Put another way, I think Payet could have scored Carroll's goal but the reverse isn't true. The mixture of skills required was sublime, and the fact that he later revealed himself to be an utter Sheffield United of a man doesn't erase that.

Elsewhere, I have a particular soft spot for Winston Reid's last minute winner against Sunderland as this was a last gasp throw of the dice where we eschewed giving it to any of our forward players and instead asked our centre half to do a Cruyff turn on the edge of the box and smash it home with his weaker foot. As one does.

8. Young Lion

Best Individual Performance

1. Cheikhou Kouyate vs Spurs (h)
2. Winston Reid vs Spurs (h)
3. Aaron Cresswell vs Crystal Palace (a)

Apologies to: Manuel Lanzini vs Spurs (a), Andy Carroll vs Middlesbrough (a), Michail Antonio vs Liverpool (a)

No apologies to: Darren Randolph vs Sunderland (a), Havard Nordtveit vs Liverpool (h), Gokhan Tore vs Literally Anyone

Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier - meet Cheikhou Kouyate, destroyer of seasons.

I'm just going to pick you up and put you out of the way. Big boys stuff, yeah?

It says much that all of the performances from the Spurs home game could have made their way in here, and none of it really dispels the myth that this is our Cup Final. Kouyate was immense, however, and gave us all a chance to nod and smile knowingly whenever our Spurs brethren start going on about the fearsome Wanyama.

Behind him Winston Reid was sublime, snuffling out Harry Kane - an achievement that would take on even greater merit when Kane would subsequently score eight times in his next three games.

It says an awful lot that the next best I could think of was a game in which the player in question was actually sent off. Cresswell made his return from serious injury at Palace and was superb up until referee Martin Atkinson went the full Hackett and dismissed him for having an offensive taste in music.

Elsewhere Lanzini turned in loads of brilliant games and could have easily filled all three spots himself, but I am nothing if not mercurial.

9. Step

Best Team Performance

1. Spurs (h)
2. Southampton (a)
3. Liverpool (a)

I doubt this can really have been a surprise to anyone. Our only decent home performance of the season against a good team and it came when we most wanted it. Half of the team were injured but we swarmed all over a neutered Spurs and Lanzini's second half winner was the least we all deserved for a season of rare travails.

Elsewhere we were much better away from home, and the come from behind win at Southampton was a doozy, as was the point earned at Anfield which is so rare that we welcomed it like a decent Ed Sheeran song. Or I imagine we would have done if such a thing existed.

10. Ya Hey

And with that, rather half hearted, effort we come to the end of the season. I would like to thank all of you who have persevered with The H List, and I want to say now how much I greatly appreciate every comment, like, share, retweet, link, upvote, subscription to the mailing list or just general nice feedback. It's been a laborious season in many ways, with the games often being shrouded in negativity and many of our faults going unaddressed for long periods, making the blog often feel repetitive.

I am therefore indebted to those of you who have kept reading and kept sharing my work. I can assure you that without that kindness I wouldn't bother carrying on.

In particular I would like to thank Graeme and Gordon at KUMB for carrying the H List on their site and to Phil and Jim from the Stop! Hammertime podcast who have been kind enough to have me on the show a few times this year. Michael Casagrande and Rob Coker were especially generous in helping me out with tickets and Andy Ellis single handedly ended the Lukaku streak by putting me in the Executive Boxes against Everton. I am indebted to you all.

Jacob Steinberg, Terry Land, Emily Pulham and Dan Silver were kind enough to participate in a roundtable with me and have foolishly agreed to do so again. Be prepared for Director of Football questions folks and keep an eye out for that sometime in the next month.

And lastly, I really must mention my wife - Mrs Shark - who never reads this blog ("it's too long - why on earth would anyone bother?" she says not unreasonably, before spending two hours reading Facebook posts), but is unfailingly supportive of me writing it, and puts up with a lot of me swearing at the iMac over our full back adventures.

I can't say for sure if The H List will return in the same format next season as there are a couple of other irons in the fire (not Zaza and Tore, sadly) whereby I might be doing some writing for some other publications next season. It's not my intention to abandon The H List however, but maybe my wife might get her wish and I might abridge it a little, or alter the frequency. We shall see.

That's all in the future, however, and I do plan to put some articles out over the summer. I was considering some retrospective H List's for games of yesteryear. If there are any you think would be decent let me know in the comments, and if I saw the game I'll give it a whirl.

And with that, I'll bid you all adieu for now. For all my whinging I love West Ham as one might love a family member. I know every flaw and every failing, but I also love them unfailingly and with the ferocity of a raging forest fire, and being able to share that with like minded Hammers is a privilege I don't take lightly.

Thanks to you all.


  1. I agree with the comment about DG running his tweets by a media officer, until I remember our media officer is 16yrs old.
    I've got one bit of positivity for next year which involves our stadium. Hopefully at some point our players will be able to use the uniquely strange atmosphere of playing in an athletics stadium to our advantage, it needs to become our version of a plastic pitch, such that away teams look at the fixture list with the same trepidation I would have at seeing upcoming fixtures at Kenilworth Road and Boundary Park. I hate the viewing experience but perhaps it can become bearable if we do use it to our advantage one day.
    On the negative side, who knows what will happen with transfers, all I know is I'm sure we'll have a lob sided squad given the recent change to 3 at the back. We'll probably end up with a squad full of centre halves and then revert to 4 at the back once Slav's 3 at the back gets found out after several games as always seems to be the case.
    Anyway, biggest highlight of the year has been this blog. Well done and thank you, fully appreciate your hard work. It is no surprise to me if you have to modulate the frequency next year as it must be very time consuming, so whatever frequency we get next season, I'm looking forward to it already. Have a good summer.

  2. Thanks for these reports, HHS. They were a beacon in a season that was a murky sea of mediocrity.
    Let us know where you'll be writing and I'm sure a lot of us will follow you there.

  3. Anonymous3:55 PM

    The only two things I read about West Ham are your blog and Preview Percy. Please keep them coming as they make me laugh every week; even through the pain of watching the antics at Hammers HQ.

  4. You going all Seb Schemmel on us? Blog of the Year, take all the plaudits, new contract, pay increase and don't even turn up for the 17/18 season.

    We shall be watching. We know who you are.

    Amsterdam Arnie

  5. The only bad thing about this season ending is not getting my weekly dose of these.

    Keep it up chum