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 29, 2017

Newcastle United 3 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrapten"
- Dante Aligheri

Sure, Dante might have had a decent crack at describing hell, but he never watched West Ham lose at Newcastle. 


Where does one even start? What can I write about this game that hasn't already been spewed forth and vomited up on every West Ham forum already? How I can honestly detail my feelings about this performance without simply repeating things I have been saying for months? 

Worse still, I am at a loss as to how I can actually try and entertain people - which I do realise I am purporting to do in offering up my work here for public examination - when I haven't felt this disconsolate about the present and future of my club since Avram Grant was in charge. How do I give you anything approaching the unvarnished version of my opinion without encouraging those who already claim I hate this club that I follow everywhere and devote hours of my life to writing about?

I'm not asking for sympathy, by the way, but more openly questioning quite how many more times I can chastise the manager for his ineffectiveness and the board above him for their complacency in assuming that the problems at the club are happening in spite of them and not because of them, and still hope to retain a readership.

But what else is there to think when watching games like this? Here was a West Ham team apparently chosen by a fucking Magic 8 ball and playing with all the cohesiveness of The Beach Boys at a family dinner. 

I'll take Perez, you take Ritchie and you take Mitrov- fuck

This absurd start to the season is just another waypoint in the series of crises that the club lurch between on a constant basis. First the team has to play all their opening league games away from home, then the overpriced £10m January vanity signing is gone after 15 games as he bemoans never being played in his correct position, then the vaunted new £40m big name transfer breaks down, then the managers position is put under review and then it was Bank Holiday Monday so everyone took a day off because constant unceasing stupidity is tiring. 

This nonsense barely even registers any more. Remember the halcyon days of six weeks ago when we made a teenager the Managing Director of the West Ham Ladies team or when the chairman told everyone that no kids would ever break into our first team? Pfft, that shit is old, yo. In the Def Con 4, constant Code Red world of West Ham the sad fact is that this week is barely a ripple on the surface of the permanent shitstorm that engulfs the club. 


So, what of this match? A confession. I was driving through France as it was being played. At one point I was under the English Channel where, I regret to tell you, West Ham still cannot defend. 

The television highlights doubtless don't give up all the secrets of this game, although I rather fancy that nothing positive has been hidden from me. The same problems persist as have done for months. The team cannot defend, the personnel are changed like bandoliers in rapid fire M60 machine guns to no obvious effect, and if there is a plan to score it is apparently so secret that it has yet to be shared with any of the players. 

This was the day the music stopped, the lights came on and the full gory truth was dragged blinking into the harsh glare of reality. Newcastle are quite possibly the worst team in the division not named West Ham, and they beat us so easily that the man of the match was Ciaran Clark, a footballer that bad he was once let go by Aston Villa. Mocking the Toon is ludicrous of course, seeing as how they polished us off like Neil Ruddock with a Gregg's pasty, but I'm sure you'll allow me some gallows humour.

Every manager has a landmark game where it ends. Irrespective of how much longer he stays, this is the end for Bilic. The fans have turned and once that happens nothing will ever be the same. Where once he offered hope and forward progression from the interminable boredom of watching Allardyce's teams, these constant defensive capitulations have dulled the ardour of even his most fervent supporters. 

Whether it manifests itself immediately inside the ground is a different matter, but it's all simply a matter of time now. I would have fired him last season after the Arsenal away game, but he earned a stay of execution with the Spurs victory. That typically short sighted thinking from the Board has given us (yet) another lost pre season, transfer window and now seemingly another year of struggle. 

Simply put, there is nothing left to believe in. Belief has turned to equivocating and now to the sad, reluctant realisation that nothing is changing. And when you don't offer hope to fans of mid table teams, you offer them nothing at all. 

To pick an arbitrary point, in 2017 we have played 22 league games with the following record:

Goals For26
Goals Against41

Allardyce was fired for that sort of turgid, dire output and few were sad to see him go. The circumstances were different, of course, but the fact that our support have chosen to romanticise Bilic's association with us doesn't change the bare facts that his teams are awful and have been for a while. That Spurs victory isn't so much papering over the cracks as filling a hole the size of the Grand Canyon. 

Enough. So long Slav, and thanks for all the fish. 


But wait, I hear you cry. Are you seriously suggesting that we're going to struggle all season on the strength of three away games? Well, yes and no. I'm actually suggesting that on the back of our results going back a lot longer than that, but also simply on the strength of history. There have been 28 teams in the Premier League era to have started the season with three defeats. Here they are, with a big shout out to 2017/18 for providing three terrible teams:

ClubSeasonForAgainstGoal DifferenceFinished
West Ham2010/1119-820
West Ham2017/18210-8?
Aston Villa1997/9806-67
Crystal Palace2017/1806-6?
West Brom2002/0339-619
West Brom2011/1225-310

Now the good news here is that we are a highest new entry in this particular table and have now provided two of the worst starting teams in the Premier League ever, gang. And they said we'd never amount to anything.

Another cracking Sullivan and Gold decision

We have actually begun this season worse than the Sunderland team of 2005/06 who were so bad that if they'd have sacrificed a member of 5ive for every game they won we'd still have two of the fuckers left alive today.

What this chart tells us is that if we stay up we'll be the first team to do so with a goal difference this bad this early in the season. On the other hand, none of those teams played all their games away from home so that needs to be factored in as well and realistically this is still a sample size too small from which to draw any meaningful conclusions.

As such, what the more optimistic of you may wish to note is that only 10 of the 25 teams shown here went down. It strikes me that we could very easily win our next two games and pull away to finish twelfth and you can look back at this column and laugh at my over reaction. 

What probably is true, however, is that those pre season dreams of our new super-duper-glacially-slow-but-it-don't-matter-cos-they-are-well-experienced team pushing up to challenge for a European place are already dead in the water. Only four of these teams finished in the top half, and none of them defended like they were drunk.


It's a difficult task to make sense of this team. Blown away and seemingly clueless at Old Trafford, they rallied superbly at Southampton when all seemed lost. Claims that Bilic had lost the dressing room seemed spurious as the team showed all the fortitude that had been missing the week before to come within a Zabaleta brain fade of stealing a point. I don't think there is much doubt that he's lost his UEFA Tactics Manual but I'm not sure Bilic has lost the support of his players. They seem to genuinely care, even if they don't seem to understand what it is he wants them to do. But then a week later, awful again.

What can't be denied is how our basic default position seems to be one of general cluelessness. Our problems begin in the back four where our centre backs are so slow that the only way we can really guarantee a defensive base is the 3-4-3 formation that allows us to flood the central area with bodies.

Against elite teams, however, that doesn't tend to work because they press high and without a top level ballplayer in either central defence or midfield we have no way out. Think back to those maulings at the hands of Manchester City for evidence.

The significant problem with the 3-4-3 however, is that Pablo Zabaleta can't play as a wing back anymore and Aaron Cresswell is a pale shadow of himself. I am beginning to wonder if he didn't actually die in that pre season game in Germany and what we're watching is just a reanimated version of him, brought back by the Night King to wander idly around on our left flank and possibly kill a wildling or two.

Any chance we can have Aaron back please?

Elsewhere, James Collins played well in midweek against a Cheltenham side who are literally the second worst team in English football and thus was immediately restored to the starting eleven at the behest of West Ham Twitter. I respect Collins, love his willingness to throw himself in front of anything for the cause, but also accept that at 34 years old he shouldn't be playing regularly in the Premier League. Check out his defending for goals two and three. He looks like a remote controlled car being operated by a two year old, going in weird directions for no obvious purpose.

The only reason you might have missed this was because you might have been asking yourself where Pablo Zabaleta was for these goals. The answer is fucking miles away. Maybe he was over next to Sam Byram giving him all this advice that I keep hearing so much about.

While the defence is largely shambolic, there is also a problem in front of them. Our defensive midfielders don't seem to have any clear idea of their roles and both Obiang and Noble have looked way off the pace so far. Best of them has been Declan Rice, making it even more of a shame when he was caught in possession here for the first goal. Weirdly, Lanzini did exactly the same thing for the second and didn't get anywhere near the same level of public opprobrium. In both examples, it should be pointed out that there were several subsequent phases of play before the ball ended up in the net. Our ability to transition back when we lose possession like that seems to be almost nil, not least because our only players with any pace are attacking players with no interest in defending.

Whilst Rice was unlucky, I don't buy into the notion that Bilic was wrong to remove him at half time. You don't keep professional footballers on the pitch to massage their egos or soften the blow of their errors. Rice is a young kid and will learn, but Bilic had a game to win. It may not have looked like it but he was attempting to get us back into the game and the idea that the manager who gives a young player his debut is hanging him out to dry by substituting him seems deeply flawed to me. I absolutely guarantee that Slaven Bilic rates Declan Rice more highly than you.

Ahead of them we rotate our endless cast of players with obvious physical skills and talent and no clear position. Ayew plays wide and then through the middle, Fernandes plays everywhere but in goal and manages to look good whilst not contributing anything and Michail Antonio rotates between playing wide and up front, with no obvious suggestion that these movements are related to anything being done by anyone else in claret and blue. Chicharito signed as a fearsome goal poacher and after three games I am reduced to wondering if our sole plan for getting him the ball is to concede endless amounts of goals so he can take kick offs.

It's a mess. A terrible, long gestating mess that cannot possibly be a surprise to anyone who has watched our slow decline over the last calendar year. Watching all of this only serves to reinforce the notion that the thrilling 2015/16 season owed more than a little to the defensive base left behind for Bilic by Allardyce, and the rest to the mercurial talents of Dimitri Payet. The Frenchman dropped in Bilic's lap, motivated, in glorious form and capable of dragging his team to hitherto unheralded levels amid the weakest Premier League ever.

As soon as those circumstances changed, the Croat proved incapable of moving with the times, incapable of recreating that brio and verve once the music stopped.


All of which leads to the inevitable question of "what next"?

If I had to guess, I would say there is an existential crisis in the West Ham boardroom right now. Gold and Sullivan have a hard earned reputation for sticking with their managers through thick and thin and even away defeats to teams who literally cannot score against anyone else.

But the ghost of Avram Grant haunts them like a clueless, inept Israeli ghoul. By retaining Grant for the entirety of the 2010/11 season they condemned us to relegation. They are terrified of making that mistake again, although apparently not terrified enough to delegate a bit more of the decision making process to people who actually know what they are doing.

It would suit them down to the ground if Rafa Benitez could have his inevitable falling out with Mike Ashley over this international break, enabling them to have him installed by the Huddersfield game. Sky reporter Peter Graves even offers up some interesting commentary on the possibility. If that doesn't happen, however, it starts to look a little hairier. We know that the Board don't have the knowledge or imagination to make a progressive appointment, and it strikes me as unlikely that progressive managers would be queuing up to manage a club still being run in the same way as it was in 1980.

How do you fancy advertising my film about the Krays, Rafa?

All of which leaves us at the mercy of a Pardew or Hodgson style stopgap, each fulfilling the seemingly obligatory requirement to be famous enough that fans have heard of them, but not successful enough to be in employment currently.

But let's lay it all on the line here. Bilic isn't a cause, he's a symptom. One has to look deeper to ask ourselves why we are constantly having these same dark nights of the soul every few years.

Two weeks ago, David Gold gave an interesting interview to Moore Than Just A Podcast where he talked openly about a wide range of subjects. It's an interesting listen, and you'll like him a bit more at the end of it, as always seems to be the case with Gold.

But there is one section where he talks about the club transfer policy that only lasts a few minutes and yet caused me to lose my shit about five times in the process. The transcription, from Claret and Hugh, is as follows:

“We all have our opinions, We all have our viewpoints and we make them clear but in the main I’ve worked with David Sullivan for 30 years, we are like an old married couple, he starts a sentence and I finish it or the other way round. We trust each other, he’s got his role and I’ve got my role. The club is very fortunate in having David Sullivan on board in the way he does, he is a workaholic, he takes responsibility and I am a great admirer of him.”
Asked whether the board sit down formally to discuss transfer business Gold replied:   “We have chats, it’s very informal, it mainly it comes from Slav. Slav will give us a list of the players he is looking for and he will give a list of first, second and sometimes a third choice then it is up David (Sullivan) to get agents onboard because it is agents in the main that drive this. If you look over this summer, you can see how well it works. It is a tried and trusted system, it has worked nearly ten years we have been at West Ham and of course it worked for twenty years at Birmingham so if it’s not broken don't fix it.”
Asked whether the board brings in players themselves he added: “It is usually a young player that we bring in and we say to Slav 'Look we are bringing this player in, it’s not affecting your budget, this is the boards decision, we fancy this player, he could be a complete flop or he could be a superstar, we don’t want this to impact on you, your requirements have been fulfilled, this is something we are doing'. Call it an indulgence of the owners but our first requirement is to fill Slaven’s requirements, his targets, that is our first priority.
“If you go back to last season I can’t think a signing that wasn’t Slaven’s approval or requirement, if its a first team, if he’s put in a list of what he wants, they’re the ones David Sullivan and the team go out an pursue, please don’t feel this is any other structure.”
Now I don't know about you, but whenever I'm in a pub discussion about the greatest transfer policy of all time, the conversation always comes to a dead stop whenever anyone brings up Birmingham City circa 2001. It's just a huge relief to know that the transfer policy which managed to get Jesper Gronkjaer and Richard Kingson to St Andrews is alive and well at West Ham.

What's even more absurd about this is that Sullivan and Gold know all too well that business practices need to change or become rapidly obsolete. Sullivan made his fortune in pornographic publishing. I can't think of two industries forced to change their models in recent times more than porn and publishing. And what of Gold's Ann Summers stores? Twenty years ago they made their money through parties and in store purchases. Now, they sell in vast quantities online. The world has changed. Uber is the largest taxi company in the world and doesn't own a single vehicle. Airbnb is the biggest provider of accommodation in the world and doesn't own a property anywhere.

Put simply, it's not good enough to do something because that's how it's always been done. Wake up David - they didn't treat you with leeches that last time you were in hospital.


Leaving aside the fact that the phrase "tried and tested" apparently has a new definition, there is so much else in here to get your teeth into. The first is the confirmation that Slaven Bilic provides the transfer targets.

That'll be the Slaven Bilic who trains and prepares the first team, analyses the opposition, does all the media duties of a Premier League manager and then sits down to inexplicably pick Michail Antonio at right back. That Slaven Bilic. It rather seems like he already has a full time job, but there he is heading up our scouting department too.

The same Slaven Bilic who had his hip replaced in the summer.

The same Slaven Bilic with a newborn baby and young family.

That Slaven Bilic.

So, to be clear, the guy with the single most time consuming and important job at the club is doing the job of player recruitment in his spare time. I wonder how many Eredivisie games he sees, or how many MLS players he's scouted in person, or how long he spent in Uruguay before deciding we desperately needed Jonathan Calleri?

No wonder he looks so tired


Consider this for a moment. Who do you think is in the room when West Ham decide to buy a player? I'm guessing David and Jack Sullivan (we all know it happens), David Gold, Slaven Bilic, Edin Terzic, Tony Henry, Rory Campbell and maybe a low level analyst or two.

When the team lose 3-0 to Newcastle, who of that group is most likely to lose his job? I would say that is indisputably Bilic. So why, therefore, would the employee with the least available time, the most responsibility and the least job security be entrusted with spending a £70m budget? And what happens in the incredibly likely scenario that we lose at home to Huddersfield and a new manager arrives and promptly says that the squad has huge holes and big money needs to be spent in January?

Managers shouldn't be identifying players, they should be identifying specific needs and Directors of Football should be meeting those needs with players. The problem is that our Director of Football offers no direction and doesn't understand football. This is how you end up spending £20m on Andre Ayew when you need a right back. This is how you end up with Joe Hart when you need a winger.

It is now clear that the price of Sullivan and Gold investing in us was that the former wanted to play at being a football guru. It's also pretty clear that he has none of the contacts nor the experience nor the simple understanding of sport to do this. Answer me this - have you ever seen any football team make transfers look so difficult as West Ham?

And so we drift along aimlessly, forever condemned to a cycle of ineptitude because the people making the decisions about that direction never change.

Sullivan is the wealthy ship owner who decides to help out the captain of the Titanic and promptly crashes straight into an iceberg. He then commandeers the life raft and smashes it straight back into the same iceberg. As he comes to the surface he sees some driftwood, hops on top and sails that straight back into the same bloody iceberg. After resurfacing yet again he turns to the captain and says "I don't think much of the steering on these things".

It is, I think, the hardest thing a person will ever have to do professionally to admit that they are not up to the task. It's why I think Kevin Keegan and Nasser Hussain are English sporting heroes for pushing their respective sides forward by accepting that they could no longer do it themselves.

Sullivan must be a West Ham hero now. Bilic must go, certainly, but we will be here again soon enough if the whole structure at West Ham doesn't change. The roiling incompetence and institutional lunacy begins at the top and after nearly a decade we deserve better. Progress is impossible in this structure. We need highly skilled professionals with cutting edge thinking and adaptive practices to stand even the smallest chance in this competitive environment. Instead we have a businessman determined to live out his dream of being a Football Manager vicariously, and every single one of us is paying the price for that hubris, and for the weakness of his fellow chairman in playing along.

I know you've heard this all before. I know this is the same old diatribe with a fresh lick of paint. I know this is a broken record. But in the end, that seems apt. Today, after all, was the day the music stopped. 


  1. Tony Henry probably has an extremely infuriating, yet equally easy job. He must, must, must know of good options and have an idea of talents (otherwise he's a waste of space), however it would seem he can only bring those ideas forward if they are under 23.

  2. Thanks for the post, no idea how you managed to get a few jokes in there, I feel utterly depressed at the state of our club. Not wishing to piss on your bonfire, but who appoints the forward thinking Director of Football? Unfortunately I envisage a shortlist of two; Willie McKay and Damien Comolli.

    1. That's a very good point. Me?

      I think I have reached a point where I think anyone would be better than Sullivan. Like those who would accept Pardew just to be rid of Bilic. Apropos of Chris's point, I wouldn't be unhappy with Tony Henry although he seems like more of a scout than the polyglot thinker you might want in the DoF role.

  3. Thanks HHS, this is pretty much how I feel about the whole situation. I'm not about to walk away from my club, we've seen all this before with other equally poor owners, but Bilic's first season is the kicker, it gave us such hope and as you know as an Irons fan, hope is the killer. Now the whole situation seems a mess, poor stadium, misguided owners and manager who is either paralysed by the situation or simply out of his depth.

    At least we've got your column to make us look on the bright side... oh.