West Ham play Crystal Palace next week and I’m concerned that it will be a meeting of such colossal awfulness that it will somehow destroy the world. I'm not telling you to say goodbye to your loved ones, but I'm not telling you not to either.
On nights like this, when the fans flowed out of the ground like steady rainfall off a roof and the brief, fragile illusion of hope from last week was shattered like a Manchester United coach window, it was hard not to be transported back a few years.
I remember the Bond Scheme era of the early Nineties, when visits to Upton Park were shrouded in a deep sense of unhappiness and I recognise some of that again now. Fans always have a healthy distrust of those who sit in board rooms, but the disconnect now is substantial. In fairness, when you talk haughtily about taking the club to another level, fans are generally going to expect that to be a level up from the one you started at, after all.
Hello crisis, my old friend
I write a lot about the joy of being a football fan, and I think some of that has roots in those early years of being a kid on the North Bank when men were on the pitch holding banners calling the Board “Lying, Thieving Cheats”. That constant cycle of negativity, where one half decent performance would be followed by three awful ones, was a bleak one in which to learn to be a fan. If you wonder quite why Harry Redknapp is still revered in some quarters, it’s worth remembering that he is seen as having delivered us from that. He gave us joy after a long period of genuine misery.
And what price some joy now? Already that magical 2015/16 season seems like something from another lifetime. Thinking back on that now seems like reminiscing about the Renaissance so long ago does it seem, but as commenter Stu from Saturday points out, it only happened last year.
As impossible as it seems right now, all of that joy happened in the last calendar year. Knocking Liverpool out of the Cup? Last year. Stopping Spurs from going top of the league? Last year. 2-0 down at Everton and winning 3-2? Last year. Payet into the top corner at Old Trafford from thirty yards? Last year. Winston Reid with the last goal at Upton Park? Last year. I realise that I am literally explaining the concept of linear time to you but, my God, what the actual Whitney Houston has happened to us?
And so before we get into the post-mortem, it’s worth remembering that the anger and pain of right now is the direct descendent of the joy of those games and that season. That’s what football is all about.
There is always an episode of The Apprentice every year, where the candidates are set the challenge of sourcing a list of slightly obscure items without using the internet, because seemingly when you partner with Alan Sugar you also have to use all his Amstrad gear and apparently they haven’t added WiFi just yet.
Every year when this task arrives, one team spend ages trying to find all the stuff by ringing around and asking, and then run out of time, but get most of it. The other team always engage in no planning whatsoever, instead declaring that they’ll figure it all out “when they get there” and then end up running around at the deadline asking if French people love their children and trying to buy a Top Hat from a dry cleaners.
And then we can buy Chicharito and I'm sure we'll know just how to get the best out of him
We are the latter, of course.
All those failures of our leadership to self-review or acknowledge any of the external criticism of their incompetence has led us to this point, where we are nine games in and already the manager is a lame duck and the season is, at best, one of treading water and at worst a relegation struggle. In October.
And now, as we limp ever onwards with that lack of a plan, strategy or direction it’s even more galling that one of those very same board members sits in judgement on those poor bastards on The Apprentice, who can at least point to the fact that the things they are being asked to do are completely unreasonable.
I have come to the conclusion that West Ham as a club are rather like one of those lorries you see on the M25, where the vehicle has been limited so that it can’t go faster than 60mph. In this analogy I’m not disputing that Bilic needs to be questioned about why he can’t get the lorry past 40mph, but the broader question is why can’t any manager get us past sixty? And the answer lies in those self-imposed limitations.
I really, genuinely think the best manager in the world would struggle at West Ham. The board interfere constantly and unhelpfully, the off the field structure that delivers the playing staff to the first team is a joke and the Academy system doesn’t produce players able to take the team forward.This is a bad recipe for success I say, submitting my entry for the Understatement of the Year 2017 Competition.
It’s probably worth remembering that even in that magical 2015/16 season referenced above, the best campaign many of us have seen for thirty years, we still ended up just seventh, didn’t even qualify for the Europa League proper and Leicester won the whole bloody thing. If ever there was an opportunity for that lorry to go at 70mph it was then, and we still somehow managed to get a flat tyre in sight of the finish line.
So while this should be the end for Bilic, there is a pretty decent argument to be made that this is no different to much of what has gone before. Was the team demonstrably worse here than when they lost 3-0 to Southampton, 5-0 to Man City, 5-1 to Arsenal, 4-0 to Liverpool or 3-0 to Newcastle? I understand the difference between losing like this at home to a promoted team and to a Top Six behemoth, but the actual performances have been this abject for ages. So while it’s easy to ask “If not now, when?”, that’s a question we have asked a dozen times before now, and received the same inertia from the Board each time.
In fact, we’ve now reached a point where it’s actually possible to chart the cycle of performances under Bilic:
We’ve been bad under Bilic for a lot longer now than we were good. That’s not a defence of course, he should have gone ages ago, but just an attempt to explain why the Board will more than likely just shrug their shoulders and let it roll on another week. They never planned to extend him past the summer anyway, so a few more of these insipid home performances won't touch the sides.
I think David Sullivan was off the week they did “sunk costs” on his Economics course.
The strange thing about this game is that all the signs were there prior to the match that things were about to perk up. Most agreed that the team had been poorer for having to try and adapt itself to fitting Andy Carroll into the alleged short passing framework that Bilic likes, and were excited by the prospect of seeing Chicharito up front.
Also in was Arthur Masuaku ahead of Aaron Cresswell, who I felt was unlucky to lose his place. It did, however, seem to please the crowd slowly rolling into the arena that Phil Whelans now lovingly refers to as “The Thunderdome”.
And then, nothing.
We saw a passive start, as on so many other evenings just like this, and the visitors took an early lead as Glenn Murray latched on to a Pascal Gross free kick to nod past Joe Hart with less pressure on him than if he was in a vacuum. Gross was the leading chance creator in the Bundesliga last season, by the way, and cost the Seagulls just £4m. It’s amazing what you can find when you take FIFA off domestic mode.
After that we seemingly woke up and pressed Brighton back. It was immediately clear the visitors were very well organised with a clear plan to flood the central areas and force us wide. We complied willingly as Arnautovic and Antonio saw plenty of the ball but wasted it in the fashion of Chevy Chase with the water bottle in the Three Amigos!
Fer cryin' out loud, Marko. Can you beat the first man at least once?
According to Geo from HammersChat, by the end of the game we had thrown in 41 crosses, compared to 26 against Swansea and Spurs and 33 against West Brom and Huddersfield. I feel I must point out at this juncture once again that Andy Carroll was not playing.
What’s especially galling about this is that (as I repeat for the millionth time) crosses are not a great way to score goals at this level. Witness the unstoppable Manchester City machine and their parade of cut backs for onrushing players to score.
If Bilic has set his team up to hammer teams with crosses then he is even less tactically capable than we thought, and if he didn’t and the players just did it anyway then there’s not much point in having a manager who can’t get the team to play how he wants. I mean, if that’s the criteria then I might as well put myself into the mix for the job. I’m cheap and I don’t know how to organise a defence either.
As fans, however, it is hard to distinguish between the institutional incompetence of the structure the players are deployed in, and the personal deficiencies of those players. We currently are 20th in the league for distance covered and high intensity sprints ran. Taken in isolation, you might say those numbers could be explained away for one game like Friday where we dominated possession, but over a season it is a stark indicator of our failings. So as fans, do we lay the blame at the feet of the players who don't make the runs, or the manager who lamented a lack of intensity in training as though it was a natural phenomenon outside of his control? Christ, what a choice.
Similarly, how much of Friday night was down to Arnautovic and Hernandez being woeful and how much was it down to them being deployed in a system that didn’t suit them? I offer up no answers here because I don’t see how I could know, but the wider point is that whether it’s a failure of tactics or communication, both are vital for managers to succeed and a failure on either front really should be terminal. It is particularly unforgivable that Bilic spent all his summer budget on those two players and very obviously doesn't have a pattern of play in mind to extract the best from them.
I accept that certain things are out of his hands, and players must take a certain amount of responsibility for their own poor form and lack of independent thinking, but to watch this team on Friday night was like watching a scratch team chucked together for a charity match. I can forgive managers who can't put together a way of playing to get the best out of a front pairing of Usain Bolt and Boris Johnson, but this, however, was a nonsense.
As it is, we know that Sullivan and Gold want to be regarded as owners who give their managers time. Part of this is apparently down to the resistance they met from others within the game when they first took over at Birmingham. I get that – who wants to take lessons on morality and pornography from people who made their fortunes out of dubious housing and banking practices, after all – but they would be wise to consider that continued inaction from a board is just as likely to be problematic as knee jerk reaction.
By not acting once again, they have allowed Everton and Leicester to jump ahead of us. With Ronald Koeman and Craig Shakespeare gone we will now see another two targets go off the board and have two less names to pursue. Even though Everton fans bring their kids with them to on pitch fights, it’s still a more attractive job than ours, not least because the interference from above is less pronounced and the purse strings looser. Leicester, meanwhile, might be about par with us given their crazy board but they have the kudos of a Premier League title to throw around and crucially they've acted first.
When I analyse the way that this West Ham board approach managerial decisions I am forced to conclude that they have little confidence in their own ability to appoint anyone better than they already have in place. If I’m right about that, it is the nearest they have come to self-awareness, albeit given the way they have repeatedly been turned down by their first choice targets it would be odd if they didn’t realise this was true. I still remember David Gold being asked about why they had appointed Avram Grant and him offering up the excuse that “You don’t have anything to go on apart from the interview, do you?”. Christ on a mobility scooter, David, give me a ring – I know how to use Google.
Exactly how good were they to work for, Avram?
So while we may all clamour for Bilic to be dismissed, we have to accept that his replacement is highly unlikely to be much better. There is literally no way this Board could hire the equivalent of Pochettino from Espanyol or Marco Silva from Olympiakos because they don’t have the confidence or decision making structure to identify what it is that makes those individuals better coaches than the likes of Grant or Bilic.
They also don't seem to understand that the wider structure within which a manager operates is as big a factor in his success as his own abilities. For that reason, firing Bilic and replacing him with a mediocre short term hire feels pretty unappealing to me.
I feel forced to repeat once more that if the people who make decisions on our board about footballing matters were to apply for those same roles at other Premier League clubs, they wouldn’t get them. This should be a sobering thought for all those who think firing Bilic will provide an immediate panacea.
Still, at 1-0 down we shouldn’t really have been out of the game, even though the sight of us smashing cross after cross at Chicharito was beginning to feel like watching one of those “Vietnam War” documentary episodes where American troops continued disappearing off into the bush on hopelessly ill thought out missions with little or no success. We are, after all, yet to win a home league game at the London Stadium when the opposition have scored a goal. Going a goal behind has thus been a death knell for the last eighteen months.
Therefore, Brighton sat back and absorbed lots of first half pressure after taking the lead, although it was noticeable that they broke on the counter with more pace and purpose than we did at any stage. That lack of speed in our team was brutally exposed once more as Antonio was injured in a first half clash and then limped his way through the next seventy minutes. All hail Gary Lewin, folks.
The second goal, on the stroke of half time, killed the game as Joe Hart came rushing off his line to save brilliantly from Murray, but was unfortunate as the ball was recycled back to Izquierdo on the edge of the box. Hart might have expected some of his teammates to have shown an interest at this point, but they were all distracted by the sight of Ian Bishop wearing a particularly fetching hat in the Directors Lounge and instead allowed him to curl a sumptuous shot towards the top left hand corner. From the side I thought Hart had make a second outstanding save but instead he merely palmed it into the top corner and once more we'll have to contemplate whether he really does have more trouble going to his left than Tommy Robinson.
I'm blaming Bish's hat
I thought the acquisition of Hart was a pointless vanity signing for Sullivan, but one thing I would say is that he is probably the best I’ve ever seen coming off his line. He has made a number of outstanding stops in those one on one situations, but at least twice he’s been beaten by rebounds from those saves – here and the second Harry Kane goal against Spurs. If nothing else, that might point to the glacial speed at which our defence transitions back in such situations.
At two down, we might have expected a bit of second half fire and brimstone but instead we got a couple of Lanzini free kicks and yet more crosses towards a worryingly isolated Chicharito. Initially Lanzini had played as the number ten but he soon swapped with Kouyate, who was himself then withdrawn in favour of Ayew at half time. "If in doubt change everything", seemed to be the motto.
With time slipping away, Zabaleta conceded another brainless penalty and Glenn Murray dusted himself down to score his second and hand the visitors a thoroughly deserved win. The worst thing for Brighton was that they couldn't really tell if this was a good performance or not because we were so earth shatteringly, heart breakingly, Robbie Williamsly bad.
I should probably point out that this was all particularly embarrassing as Glenn Murray is fifty four years old.
Back when the Bond Scheme was halving the size of our support, and long before the internet and Twitter, the opinions of fans were shaped and carried by the fanzines of the time. Over Land and Sea, On The Terraces, On A Mission and Fortunes Always Hiding were the message boards of the day and I read them all voraciously. They were my window into the world of what other fans thought, and my hazy recollection is that they led the rebellion against the boardroom incompetence of the time. (I may be getting my timeframes mixed up there as On A Mission was more a Whistle era organ if I recall properly, but I think the point still stands). With such a small number of voices to listen to, I think fans were rallied more easily, and though discontent brewed in the pubs and in the stands rather than in cyberspace, there was a common train of thought among fans, arguably shaped by the fact that fewer people had platforms upon which to express themselves.
Plus ca change
Nowadays, of course, everybody has such an opportunity and the breadth of opinion is wider than a pair of specially made Neil Ruddock shorts. To my mind, with that proliferation has come a general decrease in the quality of thought given to the writing, but also a more disparate set of views. As such, I don't sense the same level of unity among fans as there was back then. Plenty of supporters think the club died when we left Upton Park, while as big a group seem perfectly happy with the new ground and instead lament the failures on the pitch more than anything. Whatever side of the divide you find yourself on, I don't get the sense of an impeding catastrophic seismic event in the stands.
Instead, if I took anything away from Friday it was that the great danger the Club faces now is apathy. I thought it was stark that the ground emptied in the way it did, and telling that people were laughing more at the ineptitude on display than any outright anger.
Maybe I'm projecting my own world view onto others and I'm a million miles off, but right now I get the impression that a lot of people are despondent about things because they see the bigger picture and wonder about how the club can really move forward, and lament what has been lost in the fruitless pursuit of even the slightest improvement in our on pitch fortunes.
Bilic will go at some point soon, but whoever comes in will still have to operate in the same broken system, with the same interference and the same financial limitations. I'm not saying people have stopped caring, but maybe they are starting to think that whether they do or not is a bit irrelevant because the board seem so relentlessly incapable of making good decisions. I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm wrong, but it feels to me like the whole club is at a crossroads right now and for every week they allow us to drift along aimlessly like we currently are, they lose a little more of the soul of the club.
I don't want these clowns making decisions, but even I am forced to accept that it probably would be better if they did something. Because somehow, this cycle needs to be broken.