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, February 27, 2017

Watford 1 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. Save Me

One of the joys of having children is watching them grow into confident young people, with their own opinions and thoughts on the world.

It should also be said that one the downsides of having children is watching them grow into confident young people, with their own opinions and thoughts on the world.

Gone are the days when I could simply put my own music on the car stereo or watch what I wanted on the TV. Now I have to listen to Capital and watch drivel like "The Voice" because when you tell children to think for themselves you can't really ignore them when they do, or it sort of defeats the purpose.



I'm sure he's very talented

One such demonstration of their independent thought has been an insistence on introducing me to the music of Ed Sheeran. I have welcomed this new element in my life with roughly the same level of enthusiasm as Native Americans greeting the Pilgrims turning up on their lands, riddled with leptospirosis. 

His latest tune is an eight hour form of Chinese torture called "Castle on the Hill" which takes us on an autobiographical tour of Ed's childhood in Suffolk. He tells us of the time he broke his arm, his first love, his first trip to the dentist, his ongoing love for the music of Sid Owen, the trouble with biscuits and their packaging, the time he took a city break to Budapest and somewhere around this point I began to wonder if at any point Ed was planning of introducing any more traditional elements into the song like, say, a melody. 

But Ed is not old fashioned like that and on he went, reciting his grandmothers twelve favourite Psalms and then including the name of every person who died on the Titanic before telling us the exact life situation of his four closest friends followed with the lovely line "but these people made me", with that use of the word "but" really being quite telling. 

Anyway, at half time in this game I was thinking to myself - "This is like that Ed bloody Sheeran dirge. I'm 45 minutes in and I keep wondering if a game of football is going to break out". 

2. Out Of Nothing

Looking back now, it seems impossible that we nearly lost this game. 

We dominated most aspects of the match, although in fairness to Watford that is largely because they simply stopped attempting to attack after they scored. This actually happened in the second minute of the game after Cheikhou Kouyate ran straight into the back of Mauro Zarate in the style of a dog who hadn't seen this owner in about three months, and gave away a penalty that Troy Deeney stuck away with aplomb.

At this stage you might expect me to make a sarcastic comment about our ongoing determination to play an entire season without a right back, but I have decided to engage myself in less frustrating endeavours such as arguing global macroeconomic policy and UK interventionism with Sue's husband Roy on Facebook. 

Of course, Kouyate is a professional footballer and therefore it might be reasonable to expect him to make a better fist of tackling than he did, but for the second game running we were behind to an early goal as a result of our porous right sided defence. 

For the remainder of the first half we huffed and puffed ineffectually, with our sole threat coming whenever Michail Antonio got into the inside left channel and sliced through the Watford backline. As Bilic said after the game, "Antonio was our best player but he can't get the ball, run down the wing and cross it to himself. Well maybe someday, but not today". 

At this point I'm almost tempted to suggest that perhaps a good idea might have been to therefore give Antonio someone to cross to, but I'm not sure that would have fitted Bilic's preferred option of picking seven midfielders and playing them all out of position. 

So after a fruitless forty five minutes spent creating opportunities for us to create opportunities without actually managing to create any opportunities, we simply steamrollered them for much of the second half. Lanzini, pointlessly marooned out on the left again in the first half, was moved inside to great effect after the break. Flitting in between the lines, he was a constant menace and finally provided a bit of worthy support to Antonio, who by this stage was looking like John McClane in Die Hard, wondering when a bit of help might turn up. 

In the end it was these two who created the equaliser, as Watford made the fatal mistake of looking vaguely offensive for a moment, and Lanzini burgled a midfield ball to release Antonio one on one with Younes Kaboul. That's like leaving Sam Allardyce alone with a pie, and Antonio duly gave him the full Yippee Ki-yay before somehow hitting both posts with quite possibly the most West Ham shot of all time, and briefly convincing me that this weeks article was going to consist of only two words. Thankfully the ball rebounded to Andre Ayew, in one of his brief appearances on our plane of existence, who cushioned it nicely back in for a thoroughly deserved equaliser. 

This seemed to remind Watford that it was possible to venture past the halfway line and the closing quarter was a duly helter skelter period. Both teams had chances to win, and despite our superiority in the overall statistical analysis, it's hard to say that a draw wasn't a fair result. Watford sub Isaac Success went especially close as he barely failed to nudge in a winner with the last kick of the game, after some set piece defending that came straight out of Aliens.



Some nice looking shot locations here, courtesy of @11tegen11, with the most glaring miss being Antonio's second half header from a glorious Cresswell cross, that really should have got us back on terms. Watford, meanwhile, didn't manage an attempt on target apart from their penalty. Jose Fonte Baby. 

3. Come Back To What You Know

I have no issue with the team going away for four days of warm weather training in Dubai. In true West Ham fashion, they didn't actually get any warm weather but the principles were sound. Get away, bond, train more frequently and use the opportunity to reenergise for the run in to the season.

All of that is logical, which makes it even more bonkers that upon returning we went straight back to the system which had failed us in the first half against West Brom. Lanzini was stuck uselessly out on the left like an Argentine Jeremy Corbyn, Snodgrass looked lost in the middle and Kouyate was once again wasted at right back because Bilic seems to prefer that to choosing between his three central midfielders.

Putting Lanzini out wide is particularly egregious as his footwork and ability to take on and beat a player is invaluable against pressing teams. In this game alone he successfully did this on seven out of eight attempts which was as many as the Watford team combined, and he led the game with twelve ball recoveries. In short, the Jewel is now our leading player and the odd decision to play him wide of Snodgrass deprived us of his proper influence in the first half.

What was brutally apparent, however, was that our attacking options are criminally limited at present. With Carroll and Sakho absent once again, it fell to Antonio to strive manfully on his own up front. Whilst he did a good job, his best position seems to me to quite clearly be as the wide player in a front three, joining at the back post to win headers and bully full backs. As Bilic alluded to, he frequently got into positions to put dangerous balls into the box and found no targets to aim for. It seems a little curious that Calleri isn't being used more frequently for no other reason than we ought to be finding out what we have with him, before he goes back.

He was actually due to come on in place of Noble just as Ayew equalised which suggests that, if nothing else, Bilic knows which of his three central midfielders is most vulnerable should he ever choose to make a change. As it was, the skipper stayed on as Bilic looked to protect a point that means we have now lost just one of our last seven away league games.

So, in short, it was a half decent performance with lots of nice things about it and at the same time lots of frustrating nonsense, far too much of which is being caused by a steadfast refusal from Bilic to stand up and pick a team of players in their correct positions. 

4. Gravity

The day when Bilic addresses this may come as soon as next week, as Antonio was latterly sent off for a brainless handball and will now miss the Chelsea game. In truth, he'd been on thin ice for a while as he totted up fouls all over the place. I have no complaints about his dismissal, although I can barely believe that M'Baye Niang didn't join him as he did exactly the same thing all night and somehow managed to not even pick up a yellow card.

Referee Craig Pawson seemed predisposed to trying to allow the game to flow, but Watford are managed by an Italian and pulled off a masterclass in professional fouling. I haven't seen a team so cute at breaking up play since Ranieri's Leicester, who also adopted a "Thou shall not pass" approach to defending that one rarely sees outside of Serie A.

I'm not entirely convinced that Pawson was going to book Antonio immediately for the handball - if you squinted your eyes you could (wrongly) argue it was accidental - but Tom Cleverley didn't play all those years at Man Utd without learning a thing or two about shithousery. He was straight on to the ref as if Jose Mourinho was whispering in his ear, and out came the yellow and we'll now have to face the league leaders without a fit striker. If only there was some way we could have anticipated this and potentially planned for it, but sadly that sort of thing is just impossible.

Where Pawson did screw us was in not giving us at least one of two decent penalty shouts. Kouyate was wrestled to the ground by Niang in the second half in what seemed to be a fairly clear instance of foul play. Pawson simply waved it away rather than make a decision, although Bilic can't complain about that as he currently doing the same thing with his midfield.

Earlier, Antonio had got on the wrong side of Britos who thudded into him from the side. Had he fallen it would have been a strong shout, but instead he stayed on his feet and Gomes saved smartly. I'm really unclear as to how we're supposed to eradicate diving if players never get awarded fouls unless they fall over. I mean - we're all agreed that Joey Barton is in the wrong here, yes?

5. Happiness Will Get You In The End

You might remember that after our defeat in the reverse fixture in September, noted moral philosopher Troy Deeney declared that he felt "West Ham were trying to mug Watford off", which duly inspired their marvellous second half comeback.

He was especially aggrieved about the Rabona cross which Payet put in for Antonio to score his second. Now you and I might think that a Rabona is a particularly good bit of skill, but Troy informs me that it is in fact an attempt to mug someone off, and therefore cannot be allowed.

Let's look at Payet here:


This painting by Raphael is called "Zaza the Optimist"

I am not entirely clear that I know what "mugging off" really entails but I think the general gist is that you shouldn't be attempting to embarrass your fellow professionals, which I think is a reasonable stance to take, but is perhaps fraught with danger. For instance, someone like me, who is not as attuned to the Byzantine rules of "mugging off", might think that mimicking the dance move of a fellow professional could be construed as a bit of mugging, and indeed, offing. 

Here is Troy Deeney doing exactly that to Paul Pogba a week after that very same game. 


This is definitely not mugging someone off

Now you probably don't care about that, because a footballer having his own dance move is just about the worst thing in the world, but I'm really more interested in the elusive understanding of what truly constitutes a proper "mugging off". I'm concerned that I'm missing something, if I'm honest with you.

I could also point out that in 2012, Troy Deeney was sentenced to jail for ten months for kicking someone in the head during a brawl, and maybe his idea of what constitutes the appropriate way to play football is really a bit fucking redundant. But I won't. I might be mugging him off.

6. Even Smaller Stones

With twelve games to go, we have no chance of going any higher than our current ninth position and no risk of being dragged in the relegation battle. The remainder of our season is like a Robbie Wiliams album - pointless, but unavoidable.

One would think that in that scenario, there would be quite a lot of licence for Bilic to experiment with his squad and give a nice ten game trial to some players he needs to know a little more about.

Sam Byram is the obvious example here, but instead he sits marooned on the bench as all of our midfield, two wingers and three lads from the ticket office get a game in front of him. I'm not convinced that Byram is the answer, but it concerns me more that Bilic isn't even asking the question.

I say again - these games don't fucking matter.

On a similar note, the Club have decided to loan out some of our more promising youngsters. Reece Oxford has gone to Reading, Reece Burke and Marcus Browne went to Wigan and Toni Martinez is at Oxford.

As part of the Gang of Four who were involved in the Tevez affair, we should never be lending Wigan players, but both of them have been injured so my hope is that they are having to subsidise the wages of two squad members who won't play for them again. We'll get that £20m back somehow.

Reece Oxford is in the most frustrating situation of all, as he is just sitting on the bench at Reading, although Toni Martinez is getting a fair bit of playing time.

I'm not actually in favour of throwing youngsters straight into the first team, which is the usual default position of certain fans whenever results take a turn for the worse. Premier League managers aren't in the habit of leaving out players who could make their team better, so if a youngster isn't in the squad it's because he hasn't proven himself yet. Loans to lower league teams are a much better idea as they bridge the gap between youth and senior football much quicker than a season of five minute substitute appearances.

All of our golden generation bar Joe Cole went out on loan and came back better for it. Ferdinand and Defoe went to Bournemouth, Lampard went to Swansea, Johnson survived a stint at Millwall and Carrick was at both Swindon and Birmingham. These loans are a good idea, but only if they play. Truthfully, if Jaap Stam can't risk Oxford because he's in the play off hunt that's fair enough, but then the Club should recall him and either get him some first team games with us, or arrange another loan.

I'll admit that I don't know if another loan is allowable under the rules. I'm as familiar with them as I am with those of "mugging off". The broader point here is that if Oxford is indeed a miniature John Stones, destined to be a ball playing centre half, then he is going to make a few mistakes and we'll have to suck that up. I'd rather we started that education now, when the stakes are low, but I accept with Fonte having arrived that is now a dead duck. All of which combines to leave our brightest prospect playing no football. This seems...sub-optimal. 

7. Higher Sights

Having said that about the meaningless nature of this season it seems reasonable to ask what exactly we are looking to achieve between now and May. What are we aiming for?

Of course everyone will pay lip service to finishing as high up the league as possible, but we have no chance of making up the seven point gap to West Brom, which is just about the most depressing sentence I've ever had to type.

So, if we aren't going to use these games to work toward next year I suppose it's fair to say that we'll have to look at what we have. Look out for Cresswell, who improved dramatically in this game, which was perhaps not unrelated to Masuaku being back on the bench. Andre Ayew got some games at the AFCON and looked a bit sharper last night - understanding what position we are going to use him in would be a big help.

All of that is fairly prosaic though. I'm thinking it's been a while since we've done anything barmy. Sure, we're currently playing all our midfielders out of position but that's small beer. I think we have us in it to do something properly bananas. Enter Wayne Rooney, England captain.


Let's be honest - he'll fit right in

I think we're going to try and sign Rooney in the summer. I have absolutely no sources telling me this and this is purely a theory, but stick with it for a minute.

This would, of course, be a terrible idea which sadly increases the likelihood of it happening by about 800%. Unfortunately, the Manchester United all time leading goalscorer is like an angry, balding Scouse Christmas present for David Sullivan. He's in decline, he's famous, he's waaaaaay overpaid and he'll be literally useless in two years time.

If one assumes that Rooney isn't going to China because they don't do big enough lollipops, then that doesn't leave too many options. I don't see him playing in another European league, which leaves the MLS or a fucking lunatic team in England. Do you see where I'm going with this?

No proper teams will be interested, which means we start to get into mid table teams with money. With Payet off the books and Sullivan desperate for a marquee signing, there is some wiggle room for wages at West Ham just now. I'm not sure that Everton could afford it or are that stupid, although I suppose that Rooney might offer them a small discount to go home. No other mid table team fits either financially or in any other sense.

Most likely of all is that he goes to LA Galaxy and fades into irrelevance there, thank Christ, but do not be surprised if we are heavily linked once the silly season begins. 

8. Fireworks 

Watching Slaven Bilic on the touchline during this game was to see a man on the edge of madness. He looked like I do when I write these articles on my Mac and then after I've posted it, I notice all the various little improvements that Steve Jobs' gang of lunatics have made to my prose. Bilic has become Billie, Lanzini becomes Lansing and hearsay becomes heresy which is at least quite clever I suppose.

Anyway, after a year of keeping his cool under remarkable provocation, Bilic has suddenly become incredibly animated on the touchline. I wonder if there is a little link here to the story which emerged in The Sun, the Sullivan organ of choice for formal leaks, stating that Bilic was history unless he managed a top eight finish. Once the board start briefing against a manager it's very hard for him to turn it around, albeit Bilic is a far more popular incumbent than the previous victims.

All of this is hearsay and speculation, but it is a quite remarkable change in demeanour for a manager who has never previously got too involved with commenting on referees. Maybe it's nothing, maybe he's completely on edge at the prospect of getting the chop or maybe he doesn't subscribe to my line of thinking that these games are essentially meaningless. He seems a bit....different to me though.


Airborne microphone just about to land on the lino's head


9. All You Good Good People

If you would allow me a moment of self indulgence, I would like to thank all of you who read, shared or commented on the piece I wrote last week about my old youth team coach, Steve Cowley, and his sons Danny and Nicky - currently plotting to defeat Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter finals with Lincoln. I was greatly touched by all the kind words, and the lovely feedback.

As an addendum, I thought you might like to know that I received a really nice message from Nicky, sent at 3am after he just got back from a game at North Ferriby, thanking me for writing the piece. Given that he and his brother are currently being inundated from all sides for interviews and comments, I am well aware that he didn't need to do that and indeed scarcely had time to do that. A measure of the family, I think.

I also made a couple of comments in the piece about my own playing ability. Three people got in touch to tell me I'd been too harsh on myself - Steve, Danny's wife Kate, and my sister. I think that sort of proved my point.

10. One Big Family

Last week I was a guest of Phil and Jim at the Stop! HammerTime podcast. We chatted about the West Brom game, the late lamented and brilliant Fortunes Always Hiding fanzine and Donald Trump sorting out our right sided issues. Phil forgot to introduce me so the first five minutes are sharkless, a bit like Deep Blue Sea, but with less Saffron Burrows.

The podcast can currently be found here and on iTunes here.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Football, Family And The Link To Lincoln

I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm straying a little off the West Ham garden path this week. Instead I'm going to go back in time a little.

***

In the summer of 1986, after Diego Maradona had knocked England out of the World Cup, I decided to go to my next football training session wearing an Argentina shirt. If nothing else, that should probably give you an appreciation of the job my parents had to do back in my formative years. In retrospect I don’t really know why I did it, beyond a childish desire to be awkward, nor indeed where I got the shirt in the first place, but wear it I did and with predictable results.

My team was Gidea Park Rangers and, if you’ll excuse the pomposity for a moment, we were a pretty serious outfit. Even at the age of eight we were good, and much better than the under ten Gidea Park team that we trained with. I think it was chastening for the older boys to constantly be made to look silly by the younger group, and so they were never shy of sorting us out. That night, as I waited to do some drill or other I suddenly got hit in the head by about four balls simultaneously thrown by the bigger kids. As my face burned and my eyes watered it occurred to me that maybe my dad had probably been on to something when he said “Wear it if you want – you’ll learn”, a laissez-faire approach to parenting he would only abandon when I nearly topped myself riding a bike down the side of a ravine a year later in Italy.


Somehow, invoking this didn't go down very well in 1980's England

But my coach wasn’t having any of that. He pulled the kids out, dressed them down and told them – “You don’t pick on your own team. You show people respect at all times and you don’t turn on your own”. It was a valuable lesson for me of both what it felt like to have someone stand up for you, and the pressure you can place on other people when you’re deliberately being a wind up merchant.

That coach was a gentleman called Steve Cowley and on Saturday his two sons, Danny and Nicky, steered Lincoln City into the quarter finals of the FA Cup.

***

Certain things get better with age. Fine wine, Swiss watches, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Salma Hayek. But on a more prosaic level, to this list should also be added – “How good middle aged men think they were at sport when they were younger”.

You all know the type. The guy who marked Wayne Rooney as a boy and didn’t think he was all that. The kid who faced Jimmy Anderson and sniffily reckons he faced quicker elsewhere. The bloke who fought Lennox Lewis as an amateur and only lost because he’d been away on holiday the week before. All these men exist somewhere, and are united in their belief that they too could have achieved sporting greatness but for the vagaries of fortune, or their own lack of desire. Pick a pub in Britain and sit at the bar on 9pm on a Friday night. Eventually one will turn up.

I try not to be one of those men, but as I watched Lincoln defeat Burnley on Saturday I couldn't help but bask a little in the reflected glory as Steve’s son and my former team mate, Danny, outwitted Sean Dyche to etch his name into FA Cup folklore. Now, Sean Dyche thinks that all Klopp and Guardiola have done to make their teams better is to encourage them to run further, so maybe outwitting him doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but it really really is. What the Cowley brothers have done and are doing is both amazing and wonderful. Not that you should need an excuse to cheer for Lincoln, but I can also tell you that the Cowley family are all West Ham fans too.

It should be said that for the first time in 103 years a non-league team has made the FA Cup quarter finals and it’s actually possible that you were largely unaware of their heroics. This is because the BBC have somehow managed to let that happen without broadcasting a single one of their fixtures. They did, however, manage to screen Man Utd v Wigan, which might have been the single most boring 90 minutes of my life, beating even the solitary occasion I agreed to watch a Christmas episode of Call The Midwife. Also the fault of the BBC. Shame on them. (*)

But, I digress.

***

I first joined Gidea Park Rangers at the age of five. I liked football but had no idea what I was doing, so my mum asked around and Rangers were just up the road from Harold Hill where we lived, and had a good reputation. Some young kid at Arsenal called Tony Adams had played for them a few years before and he hadn’t even been sent to prison yet, so it ticked all the right boxes.  

At the first training session someone’s grandfather held a ball up off the ground and encouraged us to run in and try to head it. That was pretty much all we did for most of it, and I was a bit unsure, being five years old and a bit of a fucking know-it-all apparently. My mum and dad, however, encouraged me to go back and so I did. The next session was taken by a tall, dark haired, friendly but brilliant coach by the name of Steve Cowley and my life would never be the same again, not to be too melodramatic (whilst being quite melodramatic) about it.

Suddenly football was fun and exciting. We practiced our turns, our kick ups, our dribbling and our skills, all in the name of playing good football. Steve wanted us to play like West Ham but, you know, be successful. Nobody went long, nobody stuck it in the mixer and we never Pulised anybody. 

For the next ten years, we would play in the famous Echo League in Essex and won pretty much everything in our age group, including beating the representative sides of Arsenal and Spurs. The league produced professionals by the boatload. Frank Lampard, Luke Young, Bobby Zamora, John Terry and Paul Konchesky were just some who made it to the Premier League. Plenty made the lower divisions too – less heralded names like Joe Keith, Lee Goodwin, Freddie Sears and Leon Knight. Whenever I hear the phrase “hotbed of British football” applied to the North East of England, I roll my eyes. There is more talent on the most easterly four stops of the District Line than there is in Sunderland and Newcastle combined.

Our best player was a quick footed blonde kid called Mark Gower. He was a brilliant central midfielder who would later go on to play for Spurs, Barnet, Southend and then in the Premier League for Swansea. By the time we reached the age of fourteen the entire squad was signed with professional teams, Mark was playing for England schoolboys and the team was disbanded because of the demands on everyone’s time. Mark went on to be a professional, Danny went on to be manager of Lincoln, and a wiry kid in our midfield by the name of Jeff Brazier went on to present television programmes and appear on the front of Hello! magazine. It sort of puts that time I got retweeted by David Gold into perspective.


Mark Gower - better than me, stunningly

I was devastated at the end of it all. As the weakest player in the team I had the most to lose, I suppose, although I still think it’s better to be the worst player on the best team than the other way around. I played for Queens Park Rangers for a bit, but I wasn’t good enough to last and their youth coach was a lunatic, and eventually I drifted on playing Sunday League stuff until one day at twenty six I tore my cruciate ligament and that was the end of that. I had no regrets. I really did try my best to become a professional footballer but I didn’t have the innate talent. It does make it all the more difficult to watch Michael Dawson and know that the same is true of him, but there you go. It’s a funny old business.

None of which is terribly interesting, but it occurred to me recently that I never reflect on that time at all. I just park it in a corner of my mind marked “Childhood football - happy memories” and that’s it. Alongside it sit other unopened mental boxes like “Childhood violin lessons – bad memories”, “Childhood swimming lessons, lost my trousers in the changing room – never speak of it again” or “That time Dad wanted us to go on holiday to Auschwitz – What the fuck was that about?”. It’s only when events come along like Lincoln’s FA Cup run that we look inwards and start to explore those memories, and truly appreciate the impact of certain life events upon us as people.

***

It’s probably hard to imagine now but back in 1987, Britain was run by an unfeeling female Tory Prime Minister, the US was run by a celebrity and the FA Cup was worth watching. In that year’s final Keith Houchen scored a famous diving header to help Coventry defeat Spurs 3-2, and inspired kids up and down the country to break their arms trying to recreate it. We were no different, and at training that week Steve laid out mats on the gym floor and we practiced diving headers.

Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and after a third failed attempt the ball passed by me like an intellectual joke going over Piers Morgan’s head. Once again the big kids had a laugh with that, and so Steve took me aside and told me we were going to do one-on-one drills and that nobody would get past me. He knew the older kids were a bit crap, but he was right and I walked out feeling like I’d have run through a wall for him. Thankfully that saying wasn’t in vogue then or I’d have probably done it too, given my apparent predilection for stupid decision making as a child.


1987 - "Who needs matching shirts" said Spurs

He knew me pretty well by then. I was always more prone to cry if I got injured than the other boys, or self-immolating when I made a mistake, and so I think he looked out for me. No player at Gidea Park Rangers ever got a public dressing down for a mistake or playing poorly, thank fuck, as I was apparently ahead of my time by basing my game on Malky Mackay in those days. We were encouraged to think about the game, to try and work out why we’d made mistakes and learn from them. We even used to have a debrief session every week at the end of training where we discussed the previous game, if you want to psychoanalyse the very existence of this blog.

Parents weren’t allowed to scream at the kids, only encourage, and absolutely nobody was allowed to question or intimidate referees. All of that might seem like the bare minimum one might expect from a children’s football team, but for those of you who played or have kids that play now, you’ll appreciate that it isn’t.

It was only when I really thought about it that I realised how important that time was in my life. The values that my parents were instilling in me were being reinforced by somebody I respected away from home. Most kids listen to their parents up to a point and then it becomes white noise, like the music of Sting or the sound of Nigel Farage talking.

But I was having those same messages that my parents were giving me followed up every week. Work hard, don't let yourself down through a lack of effort, don't make excuses, lose or win graciously without exception, be respectful of yourself, your opponent and your teammates at all times. I'm not suggesting I managed all of those things but I know they are worth striving for.

Those life lessons would serve me well for years, and were more important even than the time that Steve patiently took me aside one day and said "James - if in doubt, kick it out" in an attempt to stem the flow of misjudged Cruyff turns on the edge of our box that I was debuting at the time.

***

By the early 2000's there was a vast increase in the number of asylum seekers flowing into Barking and Dagenham from Eastern Europe and beyond. My mum was a social worker then and I still remember the night she came home in tears having had to turn away women and children from the temporary council shelter through lack of space. 

As the government got organised, things improved and with financial support from Leyton Orient, my mum even got so far as to establish a football team for the kids who were new into the borough and had nothing else to do. They played on Sundays and she set it all up. The trouble was that she had no coach for the team. 

I would have done it but I was already committed to play for a team, and we were that group that had ten players each week and used to scratch around for ringers every Saturday night. "You're playing left back, if you get booked your name is Tzarkzowski, don't fuck up the spelling or we'll all be in the shit" - that kind of thing. 

Also, I'd be a terrible coach. I gave my girls a fascinating 45 minute PowerPoint last week on Expected Goals and shooting locations and they barely listened. You can't help some people. 

So my Mum looked up our old friend Steve Cowley, who happened to work for the same council and he suggested Danny and Nicky take the job. And they did, even though they were still just kids really and neither had finished their degrees at that stage.

It was a decent and brave thing to do. Asylum seekers were no more popular a concept in Britain then than they are now, and matches were regularly being abandoned due to the kids being racially abused by opponents and fights breaking out, but they took it on and they helped those kids integrate to England. Young teenagers from Kosovo and all over Africa were given the gift of playing football. It doesn't seem like much but when your homeland gets torn apart by a civil war, even Central Park in Dagenham can seem appealing.

I meant to come down and say hello and watch a game or two, but life took over and I never did and before I knew it they'd moved on to the FitzWimarc School, Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and now Lincoln City.

***

I went to watch my daughter play a game of football for her school a couple of weeks ago. She is a dedicated ice skater and hardly plays football, but she wanted me to go and I wanted to go, so I took the day off work and put on my winter coat with something approaching excitement.

Before the game started, I noticed that the opposition coach was warming his team up by practising corner routines. He would drill hard, head high crosses into the box and then yell something about "No desire!" at the group of ten year old girls who understandably weren’t showing any interest in trying to head the ball. After the game, which my daughter’s school won 5-1 and during which they conceded no corners, the same guy had his team sit on the ground and yelled at them some more about a lack of passion or some other bullshit. Like a shit Phil Brown, if you will. And in that moment, a group of ten year old girls who don’t play the game probably decided they still didn’t want to play the game.

He does this all the time” muttered another dad, who shared my view that the best moment of the game was when three of the girls stopped to have a chat about ponytails while the ball was up the other end, causing Coach Yeller to turn a curious shade of lilac on the touchline. 

In that moment I was so grateful for what I'd had as a kid. It's taken me nearly thirty years to fully realise it but the sacrifices that people make for the grassroots game are huge. The Thursday night work drinks that have to be missed so that training can go ahead, the Saturday nights out that have to be curtailed to ensure you can get up to take the team on Sunday morning, the summer holidays that have to be arranged around pre-season training. It's like listening to Spurs fans go on about glory - never ending and unrewarding.

Shit, even my sister had to go on tours to Bognor Regis and Prestatyn Sands one year, and that's never been anyone's idea of fun.


Danny, Steve and Nicky Cowley - the look on Steve's face here is fairly reminiscent of the time I told him I should be playing up front

***

So, why am I boring you with all this nostalgic reminiscing that could only possibly be interesting to about twelve people? Because without Lincoln City there would be no West Ham United. And without Concord Rangers there would be no Lincoln City. And without Gidea Park Rangers there would be no Concord Rangers. And without men and women like Steve and Gill Cowley, my mum and dad and my sister there would be nothing at all.

These are the silent stanchions of the English game, selflessly giving of themselves to allow people like me to breeze through a childhood of extraordinary privilege. By my rough estimate I easily played over 350 games for Gidea Park Rangers and even as I sit here now I cannot tell you if I ever scored a goal for them. I was like a less dangerous version of Steve Potts, I think. And yet I remember those training session incidents vividly, because they shaped me.

Years later when, God help them, I started to manage staff of my own I was surprised at how many of those lessons could be transferred over. Respect each other, support each other, work hard, give your best, treat people fairly, don't lose your man at corners....it all works.

I remember Danny wandering over to me during a game once and putting his arm around me and telling me to keep my head up after yet another error leading to a goal. I remember him congratulating me when I made the Havering district schools team and he didn't, even though he was much better than me. I haven't seen him in twenty years, but I remember him as a kind, decent, hard working and loyal kid and when that ball scraped barely over the Turf Moor goalline on Saturday I couldn't help but think of Steve and Gill and all those hours of sacrifice to get to that point, and the heart bursting pride they must have been feeling.

***

But in truth, I wrote this column as a love letter to everyone who volunteers to help junior football in this country. Even Coach Yeller, who doesn't appreciate his kids discussing Zoella's latest Vlog on the halfway line as the opposition break away and score. Without him, and all those other thousands of coaches, referees, officials, parents and siblings who give up their time, none of it could happen.


If you do not know who this person is, I envy you

If I have any advice, it would be to channel Steve Cowley. Make everything fun. Winning will come eventually, but how you treat those kids now will stick with them forever. Use that opportunity wisely. It wasn't in Steve's gift to make me a brilliant footballer, but he gave me a brilliant footballing education and I've always been grateful to him for that.

So I can't wait to see Lincoln go to Arsenal, and I hope Nicky and Danny keep rising up the leagues until maybe one day they even manage West Ham, because when you're dreaming you might as well dream as big as you can.

Oh, and if in doubt - kick it out.

***

(*) It's been pointed out to me that the Lincoln vs Ipswich replay was shown on the BBC. My apologies for the error. I still hate Call the Midwife though. 

It's also been pointed out to me (by my Mum) that it was Leyton Orient which funded the team for young asylum seekers and not the local council as this article originally stated. She also says I shouldn't swear so much. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

West Ham 2 - 2 West Brom (And Other Ramblings)

1. Institutional Memory

Music is a funny thing. It is entirely subjective and I think most people understand that, yet if you don't get an artist it is unlikely that you will ever be objective enough to consider changing your mind.

As an example, I cannot even remotely understand the attraction of Muse and yet will look at you with great incredulity if you suggest that The Stone Roses debut album is anything other than a work of staggering genius. Subjectivity and all that.

And so I come, reluctantly, to Tony Pulis and West Brom. At home. In the freezing cold. With no fit strikers. In February. I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be abroad.

Nothing can convince me that Tony Pulis is good for football. I have seen too many games involving his teams, and had too many days ruined by the grim fare he offers up in the name of pragmatism. As such, I accept that this was a ninety minute exercise in confirmation bias, and I also have to accept that - in this regard alone - Tony Pulis is my Muse.


Anti-football, thy name is Pulis

Whilst it might be true that not all superheroes wear capes, it's also equally true that not all supervillains wear a tracksuit, white trainers, baseball cap and look like an angry British tourist on a Mediterranean cruise complaining to the purser that he can't get his Only Fools and Horses DVD's to work on the TV in his cabin. BUT SOME DO.

2. Posse Comitatus

If playing against a Pulis side is torture, then playing against them when they've taken an early lead is positively horrific. Just two games had passed since we chose not to recruit a right back or centre forward in the transfer window, and the footballing gods decided that was quite enough of that and thus we started this game with both Andy Carroll and Sam Byram missing from the starting line up, in a development as predictable as that new Pirates of the Caribbean film being shit.

We actually started this game fairly brightly but that all turned to shit when, on five minutes, Noble needlessly played Feghouli into trouble outside the box. The Algerian went down far too easily, although he was probably fouled, and the resulting loose ball was picked up by Nacer Chadli, who skipped past a static Kouyate and fired the visitors ahead.

It was a dreadful goal to concede in every sense, and condemned us to the most fruitless hour of attacking since Piers Morgan took on JK Rowling on Twitter and got roasted like a Jersey Royal. There was no lack of effort but we resembled a wave trying to crest a sea wall as we tried repeatedly to broach the huge line of Northern Irish Goliaths that Pulis strung across his penalty area like lighthouses.

The primary requirement to play for West Brom isn't really to have any football skill, but if you can't enter a Tube carriage without ducking then you're in. Having taken the lead, the Baggies made no noticeable attempt to add to their lead, which made it all the more galling when Salomon Rondon nearly did exactly that by crashing a fine twenty yard volley against the bar.

Pulis was so infuriated by Rondon needlessly getting himself into such an advanced position that he immediately withdrew his other "attacking" players and had them stand on the half way line pointing and laughing as the Venezuelan fruitlessly chased after the myriad long balls aimlessly booted over his head for the rest of the afternoon.


As the xG map above from @11tegen11 shows, we created plenty of chances and on another day could have won this game comfortably, but that is not how football works. The best chance of all doesn't even appear here, when Antonio challenged Ben Foster for a goal line header and when the ball fell at his feet, Foster abandoned all pretence at being a footballer and executed a Stone Cold Stunner to make Steve Austin proud. Like everything else in this game, the decision didn't go our way.

For all our bluster, we never looked like getting anywhere until the match turned in the 53rd minute. Chadli made the mistake of attempting to get the ball into the box, which was quite enough for Pulis who hauled him off immediately and replaced him with centre half Jonny Evans, and getting closer to his life long dream of fielding a 1-10-0 formation.

With all pretence at attacking now abandoned by West Brom, we flooded forwarded with no fear of retaliation. With Cresswell having gone off at half time, we were nominally playing 3-5-2, but it was much closer to 2-4-3-1 as Fonte and Reid minded the store while everyone else charged forward.

Thus, with an hour gone Lanzini thumped a long range effort goalward, which Foster brilliantly tipped on to the bar, and God finally revealed himself to have a sense of decency as the rebound was tucked in by Feghouli. On the touchline Pulis fell to his knees, crestfallen at not having enough central defenders on the pitch.

We continued to attack but without the necessary guile to open up a well drilled and, frankly, enormous West Brom back four. At this stage I couldn't stop my mind wandering to the exotic port of Marseille, but before I could yearn too lustily, Lanzini was at it again as he cut inside and smashed a swirling left footer past a static Foster from outside the box, with only three minutes remaining. The keeper didn't move a muscle because - and this is so glorious it gets it's own line -

he was unsighted by all the fucking centre halves on the edge of his box. 

But it's not that kind of season for us, and having lollygagged from the 6th minute West Brom got the point they didn't deserve when Evans outjumped everyone to head in a 95th minute corner, in time added on due to West Brom timewasting. And Pulis turned to me and gave me the wanker sign, because he might be the death of football but if you can't defend a corner then he'll kill you all the same.

3. Guns Not Butter

On the point of time wasting, I read an interesting suggestion the other day that matches should last only 60 minutes, but that the ball must be in play for the entirety of that period. Thus, when the ball goes out of play the clock is simply stopped and even if the keeper from - and let's just pick a team at fucking random here - oooooh, let's say West Brom, decides to retie his boots, adjust his socks, scrape non existent mud off his studs, ring his wife to check he has locked the back door and have a shave, before taking a goal kick it would make no difference.

I especially enjoyed the moment after Lanzini's goal when a disconsolate Foster wandered to his post and scraped some mud off his boots like a footballing Wall-E. Unable to process what had just happened, he simply reverted to his core programming and did something he hoped would waste some time.

West Brom did this shit all day, and whilst I accept and appreciate a bit of professionalism I actually felt that referee Michael Oliver's biggest failing on the day was to do nothing about it. Foster should have been booked in the first half, as could any of the back four, including right back Allan Nyom who didn't even bother doing it properly, instead just standing inert with the ball at throw ins until Oliver was forced to blow the whistle to hurry him up.

Now, you probably shudder at the idea of a 60 minute game, but a 2013 study by Soccermetrics found that the ball was effectively in play during the 2011/12 season for only 55 minutes per game. This will have moved about a bit, but I have yet to see any study putting that figure above an hour. And fair enough too - modern players are being asked to gegenpress their little hearts out and in game recovery is vital. By the way, that study found Stoke to be the Premier League team with the lowest average. See if you can remember who their manager was in 2012.

I may sound like I'm being ungracious, so I should say that the West Brom team carried out their managers instructions to a tee. No opportunity was passed up to waste time, disrupt play, and generally chisel out a tiny portion of the still barely beating heart of modern football. And their fans no doubt love it, riding high as they are in eighth place.

Fair play to them, but there is a price to pay for this bullshit. It eats away at your soul. There is that horrible feeling of being in that famous Mitchell and Webb sketch where they suddenly see the skulls and Nazi memorabilia and realise they might be the bad guys.


Yes, you fucking are lads

Alternatively, this feels like a Dorian Gray situation. Somewhere in Adrian Chiles's loft there is a slowly decaying portrait of West Brom, crumbling with every feigned injury and delayed throw in. I've read that book, and I'm telling you now that I cannot fucking wait for the end of this particular version.

4. Game On

We attempted 28 crosses in this game, completing just 7 of them, and never really looking dangerous in doing so. This is partially because the West Brom defence is populated by Easter Island statues, but also because crosses aren't a particularly effective way of scoring goals. A study by Liverpool blogger Bass Tuned To Red showed that when teams amass lots of crosses, it is generally as a result of being behind and falling into a desperate pattern attempting to recover the game. You should read the piece, but a relevant couple of quotes are shown here:

"What is clear when reviewing the matches in question is that there has often been an air of desperation about the team doing all the crossing.....if your team is struggling in a match and sending in a truck load of crosses, don’t be too surprised if they fail to win."

What was clear in the second half especially, was how West Brom were happy to let us shovel the ball out wide. Our two most frequent pass combinations were Fonte to Kouyate, and Kouyate to Feghouli, which accorded with my recollection of us attacking frequently down the right to little avail.

On another day, when Andy Carroll was on the pitch and Jonathan Calleri was on the beach, we might have capitalised but as it was, cross after cross bounced off the Blackpool Towers in the middle and we had to rely on Lanzini for inspiration.

This is actually a little unfair on Calleri, who I thought showed flickers of decency in his cameo. The trouble is that he is on a loan-to-buy arrangement and won't have the time or opportunity to prove himself (Does that sound familiar, folks?). He'll be good somewhere, but it won't be here. You know it, I know it, he knows it. Just brace yourself - he's going to be that guy that your mates ask you about in a year or two and say "Hang on a minute - didn't he used to play for you?".

5. Evidence Of Things Not Seen

Seeing the line up for this game had me wondering about Bilic. This was a Redknappian selection, where players were crowbarred into positions they weren't suited for simply to get them in the team. Steve Lomas at right back, Trevor Sinclair in central midfield, Ian Pearce at right wing back. This was Bilic's version of I Am The Resurrection. 

The player most under pressure as a result of all this is Mark Noble, with Pedro Obiang a suddenly consensus pick for Hammer of the Year as a result of scoring and playing well at Southampton. Weirdly, this didn't seem to generate the same credit for Noble who did the exact same thing.

In the event, both did well. Obiang had his passing boots on and was instrumental in slicing open the West Brom rearguard on multiple occasions with pinpoint, searching through balls. Noble did his bit too, attempting more tackles than any other Hammer and generally getting on the ball plenty. There is courage in that, when you are 1-0 down at home to the footballing Antichrist and the fans are getting antsy.



As @11tegen11 shows in his pass map, both Noble and Obiang got on the ball, but neither were as influential as Lanzini, who had a marvellous game and continues to be the new partner giving us all a reason to smile after divorce from our glamorous French spouse. His movement and vision here was several levels above that of his opponents, and many of his team mates.

All up, I haven't really got any complaints about our performance in this game. We dominated West Brom everywhere and when the initial stuff failed, Bilic gave Pulis a massive tactical fuck you and stopped bothering to defend altogether. That overloading of attacking players eventually wore down the resilience of the visiting automatons and should have got us more than a point.

My issue is not with the performance of this team, but whether this is the best team we could have fielded.

6. Internal Displacement

Sam Byram was actually on the bench for this game but Bilic simply avoided the decision around dropping Noble or Obiang by playing his best central midfielder - Kouyate - at right back. If Byram is truly not a better right back than Kouyate then we need to give up on that experiment now and move him on. Alternatively, if Bilic just doesn't want to make a tough decision and drop an established player then maybe it is he who needs to be moved on. That's a nonsense, of course, but man - this selection was a mess.

It's a cliche, and cliches are rarely true, but at present it's unlikely that our best eleven contains our best eleven players. The ludicrously unbalanced nature of our squad means we have lots of midfielders and barely any full back or striking cover, and the comparison isn't just whether Kouyate is a better right back than Byram, but also whether he is a better central midfielder than either Obiang or Noble.

To my mind, the answer to that latter question is demonstrably "Yes" and as such, we are weakening ourselves each week we don't play him there. His five goals last season are more than Obiang and Noble have scored between them so far this year, and with our near constant struggle to get advanced support to Carroll in games against better teams, we badly need his athleticism further up the pitch.

I have no real answer to the dilemma, but playing players out of position eventually always goes wrong. They grow resentful of their lack of opportunity, they hate being exposed for failing to do things they aren't good at - Antonio, Nordtveit and now Kouyate have all given away goals in that area - and it can't be great for Byram to be behind his supposedly temporary replacement, especially as he was found out the first time he had to do any actual defending in this game.

Devoted fans will remember the episode of The Simpsons when the bosses at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant replaced Homer with a chicken, and I might have actually reached the point where I would be fine with us trying this.

7. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

So, how badly exactly is the lack of a right back costing us this season? I mean, it should be said that the lack of any acting ability has never stopped Sean Bean earning a living. After an, admittedly very brief, analysis I listed the goals conceded that I think were the fault of the temporary right back of the day, and have cost us points. I held myself to a couple of simple rules;

- any game started by Byram is excluded on the grounds of him being a right back
- any game where we got battered is also excluded, as it feels like losing 5-1 at home can't really be blamed on one single player

Chelsea (a) - Antonio - 1 point
Spurs (a) - Antonio/Nordtveit - 3 points
Liverpool (a) - Nordtveit - 2 points
Man Utd (h) - Nordtveit - 1 point
West Brom (h) - Kouyate - 2 points

OK, so let's start with the flaws in this analysis. Nobody can determine with any certainty the impact of a single player, or of one single moment in a game. Well, nobody except Lord Griffiths, Henry Winter and Sheffield United fans, but sadly they weren't available to me as I think they were otherwise occupied posting online abuse of Jessica Ennis-Hill for not wanting to be associated with a rapist.


You can fuck off too, Colin

So, please don't tell me that what I have done here is ludicrous, as I already know that. I'm like the grown men who go on Soccer AM and sit in the "stand". I know I look stupid, but I'm carrying on regardless.

What this excludes is any mistakes made by Byram, as he is human and allowed to make them, and crucially he is actually a right back. It also ignores games like Arsenal and Southampton at home where we gave up goals down our right side, but were getting creamed anyway so I can't say it really cost us any points.

But - and this is tenuous but reasonable - it has cost us something. I've suggested nine points above, which is way too high in reality, but there are points lost this season caused by the ridiculous hubris of thinking we didn't need a full back. I don't know who is to blame for that, but whoever it is needs to look at these numbers and weep. Whatever method you use, and whatever number you come up with, our season would look a whole lot better if we hadn't inflicted ourselves with such a brain numbingly stupid wound entirely of our own making.

8. A Change Is Gonna Come

So Slaven Bilic finally lost his shit today. This has been coming for quite some time, and in fairness, I'm amazed he has lasted this long. We missed out on the Champions League last season at least partially because we had no right back (Jesus fucking Christ, Sullivan) but also due to a run of awful, horrendous decisions in huge late season games.

That continued into this season, with the records now showing that any West Ham player getting sent off these days has a fifty percent chance of having it overturned. All teams feel they are hard done by, and maybe they are - who knows, I don't give a shit about what happens to Leicester or Sunderland or Everton. Well, except for the fact that I wish bad things upon Koeman's whinging thugs, so maybe that's not entirely true.

Anyway, the point is that all football fans see injustice everywhere and we're no different, but I'd be happy to put the officiating of West Ham games in the last two season up against anyone's and see who has lost more points due to incompetence.

Which makes it all the more galling that Bilic chose today to go nuts. Because, there really wasn't that much wrong with the officiating. The Antonio foul was egregious, but that happened right in front of me and I didn't see it until I got home.

I felt for Bilic, as I left the ground feeling most decisions had gone against us, but in the end most were right. Feghouli had a goal disallowed in the first half whilst Craig Dawson lay prone in the box having been floored by his own keeper. I'm pretty sure the linesman flagged for a foul initially, but once Oliver confirmed it wasn't a foul they changed their mind and disallowed it for offside and hoped for the best. Replays proved them correct as Antonio was offside and interfered with Foster as he tried to save the shot. In the end, you have to say that was a fine decision.

All the while, Dawson lay on the ground and did what any other 6"2 centre half coached by Tony Pulis would do - he feigned injury.

Bilic also got himself in a lather about the throw that led to the corner from which West Brom equalised, but that looked wrong as well. He should have aimed his ire at Obiang who needlessly conceded the corner that West Brom were so desperately seeking and couldn't have scored without.

I feel sorry for Bilic, as by blowing his top so spectacularly will undo his previous 18 months of reasoned pragmatism after games. The truly sad thing is that if he just did it every week no one would pay any attention. In fact, they'd give him a cute nickname like "The Special One", "The Professor" or "Mark Hughes".

9. The Long Goodbye

It is worth noting that Adrian's contract is up this summer, although we have a two year extension option. I sincerely hope they exercise this, if for no other reason than they could get good money for him on the transfer market.

Better yet would be Adrian regaining his place. I have nothing particularly against Darren Randolph who has performed ably since taking over, but I'm not really seeing anything in his performance to explain why he is ahead of the Spaniard. Their league records this season are as follows:

Randolph - Played 14 Goals Against 23 Clean Sheets 3

Adrian - Played 11 Goals Against 20 Clean Sheets 3

This conveniently ignores a couple of Cup spankings for Adrian, but I'm not penalising him for the fact that we played Man Utd away while under hypnosis.

If this is the upper limit of Randolph's ability then the reality is that it is barely better than the form Adrian showed this season which got him dropped. Players deserve a chance and all that, but you also play your best players, and Adrian seems to me to be a visibly better keeper than Randolph.

10. Enemies Foreign And Domestic




Oh do fuck off

Monday, February 06, 2017

Southampton 1 - 3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. The Reversal


Our pissed Geordie octopus done good

Well, that was quite a week. If you've ever heard the Craig David song "7 Days" - imagine the concept of pure banality set to music, if not - then you'll know what I mean when I say:

Sold our best player on Monday
Didn't buy a right back on Tuesday
Got taken to the cleaners on Wednesday
Self flagellated on Thursday and Friday
Spanked the Saints on Saturday
Chilled on Sunday (*)

(*) I fucking hate the word "chilled". Apply it to vegetables or not at all.

My overriding feeling at the end of this particular week is that I'm not sure any other team in the league could make finishing eleventh quite such a rollercoaster ride.

2. A Darkness More Than Night

With the gloom from Wednesday nights mauling at the hands of Manchester City still pervading over everything, we journeyed down to the South coast more in hope than expectation. Southampton has been an unhappy hunting ground for us for ages, with our last win coming back in 2000 when both teams were playing at different grounds and we started with only three defenders and Kaba Diawara up front, whilst Harry Redknapp was presumably smoking some extremely strong weed in the tactics room.

Going into this one it felt that if we were to get anything from the game it would require us to find a way to target the new Southampton centre back pairing of Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida. They had been thrown together after Virgil van Dijk went on the injury list and Jose Fonte fulfilled his life long dream of getting a incredible, huge new contract at the age of 33.

As it turned out, we had no time to do that as we conceded a goal after just twelve minutes to Saints debutant, and recent West Ham transfer target, Manolo Gabbiadini. The Italian, who immediately joins Robert Pattinson and Harry Styles on my list of men who look like they need a good shower, ran on to a through ball and positively bazooka'd a shot high over Randolph into the roof of the net. He looked miles offside, although replays suggested he was only marginally offside, which is still fucking offside, but it was a confident, composed finish and somewhere Simone Zaza looks on and wonders.

At that stage it felt like so far, so Man City, but we responded beautifully as Pedro Obiang sliced open that vulnerable Saints rearguard with a perfectly weighted through ball for Carroll to charge on to, like a pissed Geordie combine harvester with the brake off on a slope, and calmly slot past Forster. Interestingly, in the build up Carroll could clearly be seen yelling at Obiang to pass wide to Snodgrass, which Stephens bought like a sucker and Carroll rolled off and on to the pass - one of only three that we completed in the Saints penalty area all game.

Thereafter things were pretty even as Saints kept getting shots away without really taking them from decent areas, and it wasn't that much of a surprise when Obiang rifled home a twenty yard drive just before the break. It looked to take a little deflection on the way through but who the fuck cares, and we had the look of a team about to turn around a deficit for the first time this season.

We sealed things up just after the break when a (not very good) Noble free kick was deflected past Forster at his near post by a crestfallen Steven Davis and we took a 3-1 lead we would never relinquish. After that we took Carroll off because we can't play him too much in case he gets injured, but we can play him enough to not have to worry about getting any back up for him, and thus we saw out the victory like a proper professional team with defenders and matching kit and everything.

For the first time this season I feel like we have won a game where it doesn't have to be qualified by saying "Yeah, but we were only playing...".

3. The Narrows

This game marked the full debut of Robert Snodgrass, who came in over the flu hit Manuel Lanzini. Ostensibly bought to replace Dimitri Payet, the Scotsman had a fantastic game and gave us a proper glimpse into how a post-Payet West Ham might be successful.

Contrary to expectations he didn't play as an out and out winger, and instead operated mostly in the old inside left channel. On the other side Sofiane Feghouli did pretty much the same thing, and with that narrow, constricted formation we choked the life out of Southampton.

Former Hammer David Connolly wrote an excellent pre match piece for The West Ham Way which highlighted both the weakness of the Stephens/Yoshida partnership, but also the attacking threat of the Saints full backs. By flooding into midfield it seemed like we restricted the typical Southampton passing patterns that look to open up space for their full backs to push into and negated their customary wide options.

As you can see from this @11tegen11 passing network, we kept to our compact formation all day and  even though Feghouli offered little in attack, he stuck diligently to his duties and was important in disrupting play.


On the other side Cresswell was able to burst forward again with some of his old joie de vivre, ironically once his French buddy had disappeared. With Payet refusing to do any defensive work, Cresswell had struggled to impact games going forward, but Snodgrass put in a Herculean shift and on several occasions he slipped Cresswell in by drifting inside to free up space on the touchline. Best of all, when the score was 3-1 and we were playing the last twenty minutes without a striker because Bilic was trolling Claude Puel, Snodgrass just ran and ran and ran some more to make up for it. I think his signing was a panicky, poorly judged decision but I'll happily admit that for today and for the short term future, Snodgrass looks a great fit.

It remains to be seen generally if this formation will work against the top 6, who will have better defences and functional, mobile goalkeepers, but this was a timely reminder that when Bilic does his homework, he has just as much ability to impact games as any other manager.

4. The Drop

What will be interesting is what Bilic does next week, when Lanzini will presumably be fit, and Feghouli, Snodgrass and Antonio will be battling it out for two places.

Intuitively it feels like Antonio would revert to a wide right role, and Lanzini would go into the hole behind Carroll and last years 4-2-3-1 would be the way forward. The thing about that, however, is that Antonio has essentially been playing in a 4-4-2 as a second striker and doing a good job of it. Carroll doesn't have the mobility to do the role on his own, so Antonio has helped him in every sense by doubling up his pressing and getting closer to Carroll to pick up flick ons and second balls.

Indeed, look at the map above and it shows Antonio was our most advanced player as he repeatedly foraged beyond Carroll. Sticking him back out wide asks him to do defensive work, which is like asking Piers Morgan to research something, and also deprives us of a central goal threat. It also forces Lanzini to play a role that doesn't really suit him, as he doesn't have Antonio's pace to get beyond Carroll, and instead is utilised much better as a late arriving runner as demonstrated in the Palace and Middlesbrough games recently.


"I'm organising a march for men's rights unless no one signs up, in which case it's a joke"

Having said all of that, I'd probably leave things as they are and bring Lanzini in to partner Obiang, giving us two mobile passers to try and play through the pressing we will face from better teams. Noble was good today, but Obiang was better and the truth is that we need support for Carroll (all we have is Antonio), two wide players (all we have is Snodgrass and Feghouli) and Lanzini should always be in the team. I don't like calling for Noble to sit out, but we need our best players playing.

5. The Burning Room

What's really interesting about that is that completely ignores our best midfielder - Cheikhou Kouyate - who was seen here being totally wasted at right back. He was forced into that emergency role as a result of Sam Byram getting injured on the same day that we decided not to get any cover for him. This was only slightly less teeth grindingly predictable than Donald Trump waking up and tweeting about some batshit crazy thing he saw on Fox News ten minutes before, every morning.

I can expend no more energy on the Olympic sized fuck up that has been our transfer policy lately, but once again the issue is less with the position itself - as Kouyate did his customary good job there -but the fact that we have to keep weakening the team elsewhere in order to cover up the lack of options.

If indeed Byram is fit next week then Kouyate must go straight back into midfield and Obiang must play, which leaves some interesting decisions about Noble, Lanzini and Antonio. Still, better having too many players available than giving game time to the likes of Arbeloa and Tore because it looks like we only have 9 men and all the lads are ringing round their mates to see if anyone is up for game. 

6. The Crossing

Talking of our crazy transfer policy, take a bow Jose Fonte, who played with poise and command to bring a startlingly organised look to our back four. Even more so than Snodgrass, Fonte is a signing for the short term, with a huge premium being paid to get good performances now, before the juju starts to dissipate and his hamstrings acclimatise to West Ham and turn into spaghetti.

He has a serenity about his play that sits nicely next to the slightly frenetic, permanently angry Reid - who plays these days with the demeanour of a furious Maths teacher - and between them they did a decent job of restricting Southampton to some low quality chances.


As you can see here, Saints had tons of chances, but none as good as Carroll's and mostly we did a good job of blocking them or forcing snatched shots. Gabbiadini should have done better when presented with a decent second half chance, but he blazed it over from the six yard line and frankly still could do with a shave and a shampoo as he's looking a bit like Sean Connery at the beginning of The Rock.

I still don't see Fonte as a sensible signing in the long run, but on days like today when we go and win at a difficult opponent, where we never win, with no right back, one fit striker and from a goal down, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the huge part he played.


Over the next few weeks our aim should be to start reducing the volume of chances on our goal, and then to push those chances further from goal reducing their likelihood of going in. As you see here, we give up plenty of chances and are ranked on a par with Bournemouth who just let in six at Everton having taken the bold step of playing the second half with an unusual 0-6-4 formation.

Of course, stopping opposition teams from getting good chances is easier said than done, but blocking more shots, preventing successful passes into our box and generally saving more shots on target are all fairly obvious ways to reduce the threat. I see Fonte as being crucial to the first of those, and if Kouyate goes back into the centre then I would expect to see him impact on the second point.

7. The Poet 

How could I have got all this way into this article without mentioning Pedro Obiang? Against a good team, and with a goal deficit, he stepped up and took control of this game like John Terry at a Champions League trophy presentation.

The pass to Carroll was superbly weighted, his goal was fucking hammered and he trailed only Kouyate in blocks and tackles. When he plays like this it is easy to forget he is just 24, and still adapting to the English game. He gave a fascinating interview to Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian before Christmas in which it was easy to detect his more cerebral approach to both life and football.


My Hammer of the Year is Antonio so this photo makes no sense

I have no idea how the political science degree fits in when the lads are planning their latest trip to Aspers Casino, but he has become a key part of our season as he gives us a mobility, intelligence in possession and physicality that is otherwise lacking. 

I saw lots of debate over the weekend about Obiang's case for Hammer of the Year, which really does feel like the Best Editing Oscar in a season like this, but I don't think Pedro is quite there yet. Antonio has played everywhere, uncomplainingly and while still scoring all our goals and starring in about twenty highly amusing YouTube clips. That said, a few more games like this and Obiang is certainly in the mix. 

8. The Black Echo

Now feels like a reasonable time to ask - has this been a good season or not? By reading this blog you'd have said "possibly" after last Saturday and "Christ, no" after Wednesday. That's kind of the point; that The H List is supposed to be an in-the-moment assessment of each game, reflecting the immediacy of the many rich and varying emotions that come with losing 4-2 at home to Watford and then following that up with a 4-2 shit sandwich at West Brom the following week.

We currently sit in ninth, eight points down on the same stage as last year and twelve points down when comparing results to the same fixtures from 2015-16. But still in the top half, and just five points behind next opponents West Brom. Only Leicester are worse in this year on year comparison, as the devil has apparently come calling on that Faustian pact they signed to turn into a good team last season.

If we look more closely at our record, there is some telling detail in dividing our home and away form. We have played a far weaker schedule at home, and yet possess only the 15th best home record in the Premier League. By contrast, away from home we've had a gruelling slog of fixtures and yet have returned the 8th best outcome. This despite picking up more points at home (17) than away (14).

Putting all of those things together seems to explain how deeply unsatisfactory it all feels. We've been mediocre at home, when more fans go to games and more fans get to moan about the loss of the Boleyn. By contrast, away games are obviously seen by fewer supporters and we've still lost half of those games. Welcome to the Premier League - where not many teams win away but where the Bilic counterattacking style is perfectly suited.

I think it would be easier to feel a sense of optimism if we had beaten Man City and lost this game. Swap the win at Palace for a win at Spurs and suddenly the 9th place contains a couple of big scalps, which in turn allows fans to dream a little. The very specific problem that I see right now is that our home games against good teams have been so one sided that there is nothing for us to cling on to. 1-5 v Arsenal, 0-5 vs Man City, 0-3 vs Southampton and 0-4 vs Man City. West Ham away used to be the kind of game that defined title winners, but this year it has come to define whether you are a bottom half team or not.

I think what this season really needs is a big scalp at home, in a game that matters, against a full strength opposition. We need to be convinced that we are able to punch our weight at that level again, and to do so with a bit of brio. Truthfully, what we really need is to be able to play like an away team at home, in the manner that has been suiting us so well on our travels recently. Get a win like that, and suddenly we would be taking steps to turn our new house into a home.

9. Lost Light

Here's an interesting fact - West Ham and Southampton have exactly the same size pitch (105m x 68m). The problem is that the Saints stadium allows fans to sit within a javelin throw of the touchline whereas when the ball goes in the crowd at London Stadium it has to be couriered back.

I don't think our problems at home are arising due to a bigger pitch, but instead because we're not playing very well. Teams come, frustrate us and wait for the inevitable defensive mistake and the crowd exodus. It's been a trustworthy recipe all season and never better exploited than by Man City this week. Smaller pitches like the Boleyn Ground are sometimes easier to play on as it's possible to pen teams in and not let them out, but at the same time with a larger playing area there is the possibility of stretching teams with width and pace.

In fairness, the evidence so far suggests that this is much easier with David Silva and Gabriel Jesus than it is with Gokhan Tore and Simone Zaza, and transitioning is going to take a while.

10. The Wrong Side Of Goodbye

Last time out, I linked to this JustGiving page for Amos Nasha, a former West Ham youth team player who is on the verge of being made homeless. The aim was to raise £1,000 to allow Amos and his younger brother a chance to get back on feet.

At the last time I checked, the fund had risen to over £6,000 and donations had been made by fans, players and the chairman, David Sullivan.

It's easy to write pisstakes of our stadium, our defending and that time Mike Marsh left because he was homesick for Liverpool and then went to Turkey before coming back to Southend. But there are lots of marvellous things about supporting West Ham too and it's nice to be reminded of it.