"You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast"
- Bob Dylan, "It's All Over Now Baby Blue"
Ostensibly this is supposed to be a match report about a game that took place between Wigan Athletic and West Ham United in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. For any of you who had the good fortune not to see this match, I want you to have in mind the image of a penguin and a great white shark fighting. Who do you think would win that particular match up?
Your first thought would be the shark, naturally, given all of his inbuilt advantages and everything that your experience tells you about the combatants, except that you forgot to ask me where the fight was taking place. And when I tell you it's taking place on land you'll understand why the shark had no ability to hurt the penguin, much less defeat him. Eventually the shark just...died.
And now you understand what happened to West Ham at Wigan. We just...died.
When is enough enough?
I intend no disrespect to Wigan when I say that, by the way, as they not only won this game, but won it comfortably. The 2-0 margin of victory could have been more, and while they did benefit from as bad a penalty decision as you'll ever see, and from Arthur Masuaku losing control of his cerebrum, they thoroughly deserved to win.
The tone was set before the game when our latest injury crisis meant that Wigan were favourites with most bookies. And the sad truth is that with them flying high in League One and us still waist deep in the relegation mire, it's entirely possible that we might be in the same division next year.
But that's not what we were faced with here. Instead this was a game against a team two leagues below us and whose annual wage bill will be less than what we pay Andy Carroll to put together his equivalent of the Zagat guide for London hospitals. There is no situation in which we should ever be the underdogs for this fixture and yet there was a sense of impending doom about this from the moment the team had to leave the Bournemouth game via MEDEVAC.
I would honestly rather we bought one of these than Daniel Sturridge
And it's because of that sense of inevitability that something snapped inside me when I watched this shit unfold. I've been somewhat prepared to defend the ownership of David Gold and David Sullivan because I felt that their greatest failing was not one of avarice, malevolence or indifference but a misplaced sense of their own competence. If they would just get out of the way and let qualified people make the decisions, I'd be fine with them as owners. But here we are, eight years from their purchase of the club and they have steadfastly refused to do that. So perhaps it is time to ask ourselves - how much has really changed? When is enough enough?
Financially there is no doubt that the club is an awful lot healthier than it was back then when we were being run by the creditors of our former Icelandic owners, and the players had to wash their own kit, but as I've mentioned several times before, nobody supports a balance sheet.
So having all this extra money might be the result of some shrewd financial management, and razor sharp economic brilliance or maybe it's the result of grabbing a seat at the table when the astronomical TV deals started dropping right in the middle of the central trough. But either way, having all that money hasn't actually made us any better. We continue to be the same as we've always been; a well supported side who can never manage to arrange all of our ducks in a row at the same time to enable us to achieve anything. So when our youth system is good our transfer policy will let us down. And when our first team is decent the squad will be found wanting. And so it goes until our sights are gradually lowered all the way down to be fixed on survival and little else.
But here's the thing. You can do that when you take over a club if that is a reasonable expectation for fans. Dare I say it, if you take over Swansea or Bournemouth, with their small fanbases and stadiums and their low starting point, then dragging them to the lower echelons of the Premier League is a significant achievement. But if you take over West Ham in a relegation struggle and relegate them and then get them promoted and then move stadium and change the club badge and charge us more than fans at Manchester City to watch the team, then you'd damn sure better have your sights set higher than being Bournemouth.
So, when is enough enough?
Right. Fucking. Now.
"What are we waiting for?
Tell me, what are waiting for?"
- Matthew and Me, "Figure"
Here are our league finishes in the eight seasons prior to Gold and Sullivan taking over:
2001-02 : 7th
2002-03: 18th (R)
2003-04: 4th Championship
2004-05: 6th Championship (P)
2010-11: 20th (R)
2011-12: 3rd Championship (P)
If you look closely you can probably see a difference between these periods in time, namely that the former features four top half finishes and a typically Shakespearean relegation. Not that I'm going to eulogise over the ownership of either Terry Brown or Eggert Magnusson but that's kind of the point isn't it? When our current owners arrived, they were supposed to be bringing the new broom that swept all this inconsistency and rank amateurism aside and yet as Will Grigg headed in a goal here after just seven minutes, I genuinely found myself wondering whether anything about my club has changed for the better in the last eight years.
True, we had that magical season in 2015-16 when the Boleyn got the fitting send off she deserved, as we gloriously failed to make the Champions League. Nothing screams West Ham quite like the sense of a tantalising missed opportunity, after all. But what else have we had beyond a litany of failed promises to move the club forward, a traumatic and botched stadium move and the almost immediate failure of any plan implemented to improve the team?
Those season tickets that cost the same as the Etihad don't come with quite the same cast iron guarantee of entertainment or success do they? And while I understand full well the inherent unfairness of the league we play in, I am also fully cognisant that we have spent these eight seasons fighting with one hand behind our back, such is the amateurish leadership and the total lack of an overall plan for this club.
Will Grigg's on fire, Joe Hart's not actually off the ground
Thus it was that Wigan took a deserved lead, and then played better football than us and nullified us so thoroughly that we finished this game without registering a shot on goal. And behind Joe Hart's goal stood four thousand West Ham fans, who were forced to watch as their side offered nothing even as noteworthy as a decent tackle as we exited as meekly and quietly as David Walliams at a male only charity gala.
And this is the crux of everything. I didn't even think we should have played a team this strong at Wigan. With our league position so precarious and our injury list so long, I simply didn't think we could afford the risk, with Palace to follow just 72 hours later. But whether you feel that we should prioritise the FA Cup or not - and I accept that many disagree with my view - it is absolutely unforgivable that we are forced to make that distinction in the first place.
How can it be that a club this wealthy, with these resources and ludicrously unfair advantages over the likes of Wigan can be reduced to scrambling around like this to field a team? And come to think of it, how can it be that even after we have to scratch about we can still field a starting eleven with 247 international caps and look like a team of people who won a charity auction to play this game?
In the end we neither went for it nor gave up on the tie. We played the same guys who have been playing every fixtures for weeks (Ogbonna, Obiang and Masuaku) and supplemented them with those vaunted youth prospects who spent ninety minutes proving that just because fans say "there must be someone decent in the youth setup" doesn't make it true.
And now Obiang is probably done for the season and Masuaku is deservedly banned for six games for the despicable act of spitting at an opponent and our list of absentees continues to lengthen. And we're out of the Cup, with a tangibly negative effect on our league season. To those who believed that we could attack the FA Cup with no impact on the league campaign, that fantasy has now been well and truly shattered.
But whatever your position on this game as a fan, that's all just hot air. It doesn't matter. We don't actually impact anything. This is a professional football team with the thirteenth highest wage bill in Europe and as fans we are entitled - yes ENTITLED - to expect our team to be competitive against anyone, let alone a team with a quarter of our resources.
So how can we possibly be so poorly run that we are forced to shelve games against teams two divisions below us because we can't compete with them? Why is our squad so badly constructed that this team was the best we could muster here? Why is our fitness record so bad that we once again have a crisis where we struggle to name a fit eleven players? Why is our wage bill so huge that we can't comfortably add players without first needing to ship some out? Why does our Academy fail to produce any first team players, while our local neighbours are selling theirs for £20m? Why is our manager once again being undermined by a media whispering campaign as well placed leaks start to lay the blame for the lack of transfer activity at his door? And most pertinently of all, why are the people who have presided over all of this for eight years still the ones who are making the decisions that keep this whole clown car on the road?
I am done. I am so done. In fact I am so done that I have now started talking like an YouTube food vlogger. Give me quinoa over the need to play Quina, I suppose.
This can't go on. I can't take another transfer window that has no purpose beyond fixing the mistakes of the previous one. I can't take the slow undermining of another manager from a Board who are desperate to hire an expensive, big name coach and yet fail to understand that it is they who might be the single biggest barrier to hiring such a person. I can't take another Karren Brady column in The Sun that further embarrasses the club with needless, unwanted commentary on our affairs. I can't take any more nepotism. I can't take it. I can't.
Right. Fucking. Now.
"It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will"
- Sam Cooke, "A Change is Gonna Come"
The obvious answer to all of my questions in this piece is straightforward. Why all these things are happening is because the club is not being run properly and the people responsible aren't going to fire themselves. There is no obvious decision making structure, and so the owners, the chief scout, the manager and apparently the owner's sons all participate in the process. I have argued many, many times for a Director of Football and while I fear I may be getting tedious in my repetition, I would like to think that you will all agree that there are warranted grounds for such circular arguments.
This current transfer window is a perfect example of our failure of process. A manager who isn't guaranteed to be here in six months is assessing players with a mindset entirely consistent with that short term timeframe. At the same time, an owner who swears he isn't involved with transfers unless they are successful has released a statement saying that he is working "night and day" with the manager to bring in new players. And all the while, it's screamingly obvious that what the club needs is someone to hit the reset button. We need younger players. We need fitter players. We need cheaper players. We need better players. And this structure hasn't been able to identify them with any consistency for years.
For example, how many injury crises is too many before we stop blaming it on bad luck and start wondering about other factors? What about that dirt cheap training ground that doesn't have any indoor facilities? How about Gary Lewin being recruited from Arsenal with much fanfare about the fact he was a West Ham fan, and far less noise about the chronic hamstring injuries Arsenal had dealt with for years? Or indeed how many players with poor injury records did we have to buy before acknowledging that perhaps it was unrealistic to expect them to suddenly transform their bodies after two weeks in a rubbish bin filled with ice, in Rush Green?
Andy has always been good on crosses
And if you think that I'm reacting rather exaggeratedly to a few injuries, perhaps it would be worth revisiting what some of our previous managers have had to say on the topic:
Alan Curbishley in 2007
Alan Curbishley in 2008
Gianfranco Zola in 2009
Avram Grant in 2010
Sam Allardyce in 2011
Sam Allardyce in 2012
Sam Allardyce in 2013
Sam Allardyce in 2014
Sam Allardyce in 2015
Slaven Bilic in 2015
Slaven Bilic in 2016
Slaven Bilic in 2017
At this point it boggles my mind that West Ham aren't the biggest spenders on injury prevention and training facilities in Europe.
And as I watched Josh Cullen struggle to imprint himself on this game, and Reece Oxford regress before my very eyes, and Antonio Martinez look every inch a player destined to play in the lower leagues it brought home starkly how useless our Academy has been for the past decade. I believe in Declan Rice, I think Reece Burke has something and I refuse to give up on Oxford but it shouldn't be this hard. In an age when young players have such huge value because of what you don't have to spend to get them, it says so much that we seem determined to use other clubs to develop our youngsters and then pick them up when they are let go at 19 or 20.
Once again I must repeat myself - when you are doing things that nobody else in your industry is doing then you are either miles ahead of the competition or miles behind. I'll let you decide which we are.
"Forty eight thousand seats bleats
And roars for my memories of you"
- Alt-J, "Something Good"
By the time that Reece Burke was ludicrously punished for having his hands by his sides when Grigg flicked the ball on to his right arm, the jig was up. Grigg duly scored the penalty to make it 2-0 but so anaemic was our attack that it felt a little bit like they were rubbing it in. Which in itself is like getting mugged by a kid with a water pistol.
By then Masuaku was long gone, having responded to some sort of provocation by spitting. Whatever was said, it's no excuse, as you can't do that, and now we lose him for six games. His bete noir was Nick Powell, the former Manchester United midfielder, who had been the best player on the pitch. Some of that was due to the fact that Pedro Obiang had been stretchered off after a poor tackle from Max Power, which went unpunished and gave an interesting juxtaposition between how football deals with bad tackles by comparison to actions that don't end players seasons but are largely unpalatable.
We later saw new arrival Joao Mario enter the fray, and immediately take up a position out wide in search of some reception so he could call his agent and fire him. From Milan to Wigan and a ten man West Ham side is quite the journey, after all. My initial impression was that he will need to increase the pace of his play by about 300% if he wants to survive, but this wasn't a day for judging newly arrived foreign imports. His time will come again on Tuesday, and one hopes he has the ability to adapt and justify the typically astronomical wages and loan fee that we have shelled out. These are exactly the kinds of cost that fans don't see and don't factor into why we won't have any money to spend in the summer.
And thus we limp on to Palace and Tuesday and if ever the London Stadium needed to be jumping it's for this one. I can't even really fathom what kind of team we might play, but it will be a tough old slog. And while I apologise for presenting such a bleak and pessimistic H List, I also have to acknowledge that this is truly how I feel about West Ham right now.
It is time for a change at the top.
Perhaps not in so drastic a sense as selling up, because calling for that is nonsense unless there are people actively seeking to buy the club, but in terms of decision making and structure. We have surely reached the end of the House of Sullivan. It may not be tomorrow or this year or even this decade, but I've turned that page now. Sullivan is not capable of doing the job he insists upon doing and the time has come to gracefully stand aside. Or at least I'm flexible on the graceful bit but the standing aside is non negotiable, and it's not acceptable either to hand the role to a teenager.
Up to a point I think he's done some good things but the hubris of taking on an enterprise such as this and repeatedly failing to acknowledge your own shortcomings is simply not acceptable. His greatest crime has been to treat each season as a rehearsal, with a default position that once it all goes wrong it can be fixed in January, and then they'll have another crack in the summer. And with every failed attempt, the game has advanced further without us as we remain stuck in some Nineteen Seventies timewarp where the chairman owned a local van hire company and the manager dealt with the petty cash.
So let me address David Sullivan directly for a moment.
Nope David, these are real live games and those are real live fans, and the money they shelled out on Saturday was hard earned and they deserved better than to see such a pitiful display. You've had a go, and I don't doubt that you've done your best but this can't carry on. We can't continue to be a patient in need of life saving surgery. Please, for the good for the club - get somebody in who has a track record of delivering the kind of success you purport to want the club to have. Because, and I say this with respect, you have never managed that. You have never qualified for the Champions League, you have never overseen a team that regularly finishes in the top eight and challenges for honours. You have never attracted a top class manager to work for you. You had never overseen a stadium move and that's gone roughly as well as your forays into the world of film making.
West Ham is not a plaything. We deserve better.
And if a final example is needed then consider the recent President's Ball. That scandal blew up and I didn't think it would be possible for it to be embarrassing for West Ham and yet somehow it was. It turns out that David Sullivan is a patron of that event. And similarly, his teenage son Jack was on the guest list. Let's leave aside for the moment whether Jack should be attending such an event at his age and just focus on the fact that he is the Chairman of West Ham Ladies Football Club. If ever an incident highlighted the nonsense of how we run our club this was it. I don't know if Jack Sullivan took up his invitation, but he was on the guest list, and that alone shows a lack of judgement.
I am so tired of this. Of feeling so endlessly negative about the club because all we ever seem to do is stumble from one crisis to another. I want a plan. I want a vision. I want hope. I want to see a decision I don't understand and be able to think "Let's give them the benefit of the doubt as they know what they're doing" rather than "Christ, what nonsense is this now?".
I don't want this to be so obviously and painfully hilarious.
Moyes at the Sullivan mansion, patiently pleading for a player under 30. pic.twitter.com/NCkDgspdPz— MC (@LeBigHouse) January 28, 2018
Right. Fucking. Now.