Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Friday, April 20, 2018

West Ham 1 - 1 Stoke (And Other Ramblings)

"Well, 'round here baby
I've learned you get what you can get"
- Bruce Springsteen, "Tougher Than The Rest"

Not every win comes in the form of a victory. On a night where we had the contemporaneous sense of wild joy at a late equaliser, and coursing disappointment at the failure to truly separate ourselves from the relegation quagmire, it is worth noting that the main success here was what we did to our opposition rather than anything we did for ourselves. 

After this game, we sit with a 3% chance of relegation according to the folks at FiveThirtyEight. Football games aren't played on hard drives, of course, but it's comforting to know that the nerds have trained their gaze elsewhere, even though you do get the sense that a 3% relegation shot could be a very "hold my beer" moment for a kamikaze club such as ourselves. By comforting comparison, however, Stoke have a 93% chance of going down, which is the kind of thing you would generally only write about members of the Trump administration. 


Chicharito wins "Best Gladiator Impression"

But in truth, these are the amnesiac nights of the football season. Consigned almost immediately to the long term memory and only recalled years later when someone reminds you of the time our Vice Chairman once advised everybody to watch her new show on ITV and forgot we were playing at the same time.

These are the least glamorous inches on the mediocre road to safety that we now seem to tread so routinely, with the honourable exception of the 2015-16 season. These are the points that are so necessary for survival and simultaneously so damaging to the notion that this club is going anywhere soon. It's not even that we played that badly, and in fact it might be the opposite; we played reasonably well but still didn't have the guile or craft to put away a side who are deservedly going to be relegated.

It's fine to respect the point, and I doubt that many fans are struggling to see the bigger picture here. Stay above the stragglers and get through to the next transfer window when everything will be magically resolved by the people who messed up the last five. This time next year, Rodders.

But I wonder if there isn't a fatigue setting in among the fanbase. The underwhelmed reaction to this point, and the generally directionless nature of the club has lent the place an air of terminal decline. We will survive this year due to the bottom half of the Premier League being as good as that Robbie Williams Rat Pack album, but it's not fooling anyone anymore. We can only limp along for so long before one day taking a permanent stumble, especially when almost every lower league club is now run better than us.

We are in dire need of a change.

***

"And I know, and you know it too, that a love like ours is terrible news
But that won't stop me cryin', no that won't stop me cryin' over you"
- She and Him, "Thieves"

Which brings me neatly to David Moyes. 

Slaven Bilic took just 9 points from his 11 games this season which would have put him on pace for a 31 point season. That is not good. I looked it up. 

Moyes, meanwhile, has presided over 22 games and swept up 24 points. Over a full season, that would give us 41 points and a nice relegation battle to fret over and ultimately win. This is an imperfect and only minimally useful comparison because of the nuance involved but it does at least highlight that Bilic was woeful this season. It is also unfair on Moyes because Bilic had five transfer windows to build his own team and used them to construct the second oldest squad in the division. Moyes has had one window during which he got drunk, went to Preston with £10m and woke up with Jordan Hugill in his squad. We've all been there. 

I find the nostalgic pining for Bilic baffling on many levels, and I haven't even got into comparing the difficulty of their respective fixtures, but let's just say I think that they almost had to fire Bilic before we went to Man City just to stop us being the first ever Premier League team to concede ten goals. 


Kept it in single figures, lads!

But being better than Bilic isn't really the point here. The question is whether Moyes would actually be a good appointment or not, and that's a more difficult query to answer. I think most fans are starting to wake up to the fact that the biggest issue with the Premier League is not a reliance on foreign managers, but the endless fascination with mediocre British types. This is probably a little unfair on Moyes as he has been demonstrably better than the likes of Pulis, Allardyce and Pardew throughout his career, but that's the perception of him now. A stolid, average manager for middle of the road clubs. Be still our beating hearts. 

And the wider context is that West Ham is currently a febrile, uncertain beast. The board are despised for sins both imagined and real, and while the Directors presumably crave a boring, steady season where we bounce around in eleventh all year, the truth is that they probably need something more to regain some of what has been lost. And Moyes is not that. He would be a Roundhead appointment for what is currently - rightly or wrongly - a Cavalier fanbase. 

Fans want to dream. West Ham is ripe for a generational change and never has a club been more ready for a visionary manager to arrive and sweep all before him. We're sick of looking at Pochettino working the oracle at Spurs, as their impressive new stadium springs up around them, and wondering why it's not us. Here we are with 50,000 season ticket holders, the best catchment area for youth players in the country and an enormous wage bill and yet nobody at the club seems to have any idea how to harness all of that. There is such a person out there for us somewhere, but it requires judgement, knowledge and courage to go and find him, and none of these are qualities possessed by the decision makers at West Ham. 

Thus it comes to pass that Moyes is probably the best appointment for West Ham. He's here, he knows the squad, knows who he needs to keep and who to move on and, perhaps most importantly, seems prepared to take the job despite knowing that he would be working for the worst run club in the country. It's easy to dream on Nagelsmann, Favre, Tedesco and my secret love - hear me out here - Joachim Low, but those are not realistic. We are too badly run, with too tarnished a reputation to get such luminaries through our door. 

So, given such an ultra realistic appraisal I can find no better candidate than Moyes because I don't think anyone better would come. He's probably the best appointment we can make, and yet I strongly doubt he is actually a good choice. There is an outside chance that he might repeat his Everton trick and turn us into something decent over a long period of time, but even that chills the heart a little. We didn't move to this stadium for a rebuilding project. This was supposed be the culmination of a long term plan and instead we arrived at the restaurant for dinner and found out that the chef had forgotten to turn the oven on.

***

"Help me out of the life I lead
Remember the promise that you made"
- Cock Robin, "The Promise You Made"

Having said all that, I think Moyes would probably be a decent choice as Director of Football, except for the fact that this morning David Sullivan revealed he is now planning to renege on his promise to hire anyone for that role. Leaving aside for a moment the blunt force stupidity of allowing a job applicant to set the parameters of their position, it's a fascinating development. Sullivan made the promise under the duress of fan protests and the white hot focus of the national media. Everything he said about the role strongly suggested that he didn't understand it, although that's rather par for the course these days, but to go back on such a promise will only further cement his reputation as a liar.

In fairness to Sullivan his counter argument is that he never actually promised a Director of Football, but instead an "entirely new way of signing players". As far as I can tell this looks very much like the old way, where a Chief Scout - this used to be Tony Henry before he redefined the word "mayhem" - finds players and the manager signs off on them. Brilliant. There is no acknowledgement that a proper Director of Football would bring all sorts of other benefits to the club, because Sullivan doesn't understand what the role should entail.

What's particularly bemusing, is that having spent the season blaming Bilic for assembling this hopeless squad, he is now handing over the reins to allow Moyes the freedom to do exactly the same. If this is true we can all look forward to another squad constructed solely to meet the whim of one person, who is one six game winless run from losing his job, and with Sullivan having further destroyed what little credibility he has left with the fans. Oh well - I suppose that going back on such a well publicised concession to supporters would be a fairly significant "fuck you" to those who have questioned his leadership (ie: everyone), but it's a remarkable piece of backsliding from where we were just two weeks ago. Whatever your thoughts on the fan protests, it should be acknowledged that the toothpaste is well and truly out of that tube if the board are already comfortable enough to start rewriting history.

What's also magnificent about this is the timing, as it comes just days after Sullivan wrote an angry piece in the programme demanding that fans acknowledge that he has sanctioned far higher spending than "the so called experts" would have us believe, and then trotting out the biannual line about strengthening in the next transfer window, which by now should really be the club motto. Sullivan was keen to "dispel a myth" by writing the piece, although he wasn't so keen that he felt the need to include any actual numbers in there. The curious thing about all of this is that he appears not to realise that spending loads of money on a terrible team isn't actually a good thing.

I used to read stuff like this with a rising sense of anger. How could these useless charlatans have taken over my club and why aren't more people angrier about their incompetence? I still have that dull ache at the back of my mind, but it's been replaced somewhat by a more mystified feeling. I watch them now in the same way one watches a hopeless DIY'er. Like viewing a man changing his wiring while standing in a bucket of water, I no longer despair of the idiocy and instead marvel at the ignorance of it all. How are they still alive? Why is that ladder balancing on a beach ball? Why check a gas leak using a match for illumination? Is he really checking to see if that gun is loaded by peering down the barrel?


And David Sullivan did gaze with great pride upon his handiwork

I have said this before, so please excuse the repetition, but the biggest danger this club faces is apathy. Fans speak often about turning our back but that is usually just the post match disappointment talking. Come season ticket renewal time, when the sun is out and the red tops have been laced with false promises, it is never a chore to summon up enough misplaced faith to sign up once more. But this time feels a bit different. It's not so much that the team is bad - and it is very bad - but that there is so little for us to connect to as fans. The club has no vision, Upton Park has gone and been replaced imperfectly, and the people in charge didn't seem to care when fans were being threatened if they protested against them.

It's been a dismal season and I find it hard to believe that David Moyes is the right man to lift us out of that, even if I greatly admire some of what he has done. We need a Director of Football more than any other team around, and appointing one would at last have been a nod to the realities of the modern game and an admission that the era of running the team like we were in a DeLorean and it was 1983, were over. Instead, no. They took the barrel of that gun and aimed it squarely at their own feet.

Godspeed, David. I think you're going to need it.

***

"You say you saw him laughing, I hope it's true
I'd like to see it happen. I hope it's true."
- Belly, "Seal My Fate"

Even as this game was minutes from starting, our Karren was on Twitter urging people to watch her new show starting on ITV at the same time. It's called "Give It A Year" and involves her visiting struggling businesses and then returning a year later to see what progress they have made under her watchful eye. It is powered mainly by irony, presumably.

It sounds delightful because there is hardly anything that needs doing at West Ham and even though she earns just under a million quid a year for her role as Director in Charge of Not Listening To Fans, it's nice that Karren can stave off poverty by adding another string to her bow. I didn't see the show but apparently there is a bakery in Oxford who signed Robert Snodgrass and are now thriving, and a dressmakers in Carlisle who now wave loads of flags around outside their premises and all their issues are fixed, so that's good. If this series goes well it will apparently return next year when Theresa May is going to help Commonwealth countries fix their immigration policies. 


Anyway, for those who resisted the allure of watching Karren destroy the concept of satire, there was a game to watch. And what a game it wasn't, as Caley Graphics shows above.

Stoke arrived with their familiar brand of earthy physicality, elbows and constant fouling and allied that with the late season desperation of a team on Death Row. Moyes countered with his now standard 3-4-3 variant setup and has been slaughtered for such negativity despite the fact it looked pretty similar to the team that beat Southampton so easily.

One major difference between then and now was that Stoke actually brought a defence with them, but also our key players were a little off the boil. Marko Arnautovic huffed and puffed without ever quite hitting the heights of that day, while Edimilson Fernandes wandered around lost and bewildered by what was unfurling around him.

We therefore played nicely but without much urgency, and struggled to break the enormous line of Terracotta Soldiers that Paul Lambert deployed to keep us at bay. Such physicality needs to be played around, but we lacked the necessary invention or guile to do so, and even though Mark Noble probed and prodded intelligently from his deep lying position we were missing too much ahead of him. No Antonio or Lanzini to draw attention from him, and although we passed the ball well enough we couldn't really free a subdued Arthur Masuaku or the Ancient Mariner in our wide positions.

For all their time wasting - Ryan Shawcross apparently ties his boots with stinging nettles - and repetitive fouling that went ludicrously unpunished, Stoke were actually creating some reasonable half chances, and Mame Biram Diouf blazed over the best opportunity of the game in the second half. As it was, they eventually scrambled a lead when Joe Hart Joe Harted a shot from Shaqiri and Twitter personality Peter Crouch popped up with a tap in. I missed the Chelsea game and I'm now wondering if I'm going to go the whole season without seeing Joe Hart play well. He looked like a burst balloon, his confidence whistling out into the night sky.

At this point, Moyes did what he should have done far earlier and threw his reinforcements on. Lanzini arrived and then shortly after, so did Carroll, who was slung into the fray like a fireball catapulted into a medieval battle - with the knowledge that he might just destroy everything but what the fuck, we're losing anyway.

And so it was that just a few minutes later Aaron Cresswell swung over a hopeful cross and the pissed Geordie Wicker Man performed his yearly Chun Li Spinning Bird Kick and rescued us a point with a superb finish. On such nights, it sure is handy to have such a weapon on the bench and this was a near perfect deployment.


Shawcross tying up his shoelaces just out of shot

As it was we could have had a winner just moments later when Chicharito beat an abysmal Jack Butland dive from twenty yards but Carroll was penalised for handball, despite clearly being fouled by Shawcross at the time. In fairness to referee Michael Oliver, he's had a bit of a bad week with last minute penalties.

***

"And now the future's definition is so much higher than it was last year
It's like the images have all become real"
- Father John Misty, "Total Entertainment Forever"

One thought that seems to have been successfully inculcated into the collective groupthink of West Ham fans is that Moyes is somehow misusing Javier Hernandez. The Mexican is now a regular on the bench and was deployed to dramatic effect at Chelsea when his laser precision finish salvaged us an unlikely point.

But for all that, I see him as little more than a luxury that we can ill afford. As a central forward he offers nothing - no link up play, no mobility, no running the channels, no physical presence, nothing except a world class penalty box finishing ability. And that's the rub. How can a team as bad as us pass up any player with that level of skill?

Well, for an answer to that, one has to look at the games we've played where Hernandez was anonymous. Spurs away, Arsenal in the cup - we may as well have played with ten men. For all that it's easy to criticise Moyes and demand that he find a way of playing to suit Hernandez, I can't see what that actually would be. His time at Manchester United and Real Madrid was marked by those teams playing around him and dominating the opposition. The ball was frequently in that penalty area for him to latch on to, and tellingly, he was still a substitute for most of the time.

Fans need to let Hernandez go. A mid table team can't afford the extravagance of sinking £100,000 a week into a player who only plays fifteen minutes a game, and Hernandez shouldn't be doing much more than that. Tactically our best moments this season have come when Arnautovic has been deployed as a striker and freed up from doing any defensive work. Playing Hernandez pushes him deeper, and so too Antonio if he is fit, where their total lack of defensive effort is badly exposed.

This chain reaction through the team is what precipitated the move to three centre backs, as Moyes desperately sought ways to make us a bit more solid while still allowing him room to deploy his attacking players. This, in turn, pushed Zabaleta to a wing back role and badly exposed the fact that our central midfielders are way below average. An interesting thought experiment is to ask yourself which players from this squad you would keep if you were building a team from scratch.

I would take Ogbonna, Rice, Lanzini and Arnautovic. Cresswell and Masuaku are borderline, while Noble and Adrian would be valuable squad members. Beyond that I wouldn't be bothered about keeping any of them particularly and would be willing to load Joe Hart into a wheelbarrow and walk him back to Manchester. Clearly there are young players like Fernandes and Oxford who might mature into decent players in the future, and it's worth remembering that Ogbonna looked a busted flush at the start of the season so one has to ponder the effect of injuries on the likes of Obiang, but I can't see any other particular value in the squad.

Reid, Carroll and Antonio are too injury prone and the rest simply aren't up to it. Every time a West Ham fan demands a contract extension for James Collins a fairy is brutally butchered in the Welsh valleys. So stop it.

It's not much. Moyes has much work to do and not much time in which to do it. He might come to regret not having an experienced Director of Football to help him with a task of this size. If it's true that he has won that argument with the club, then he is taking a huge responsibility on to his shoulders. It might be worth remembering that not every win is a victory. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

West Ham 3 - 0 Southampton (And Other Ramblings)

"Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all led me straight back home to you"
- Gram Parsons, "Return of the Grevious Angel"

It's been a while. 

Since we played. Since we played well. Since we won. Since it felt like it might be safe to look up. Since the most pertinent subject for one of these columns was the action on the pitch rather than off. And it's been nearly six years since we were able to cruise into the relative comfort of a three goal half time lead, having last done it against Fulham in 2012. But, you know, Fulham.


We are the Mark Hughes Appreciation Society

So what an afternoon this was. For all the gloom that hangs over this season like 1930's smog, it can't be denied that this was a beautiful blast of sunshine in the darkness. From the exhilarating start, through the gift of a two goal lead to that glorious third, this was an afternoon to savour. This was a day to make you remember why we do this. Why we throw down our money even when we expect nothing and of how sometimes football can take you and elevate your spirit. 

It is worth remembering that this game was supposed to take place at St Mary's. Our August fixture was switched in order to accommodate the reinstallation of that state of the art scaffolding that now adorns our rented home, and we duly crashed 3-2 on the South Coast to a last minute penalty, because West Ham. 

Who knows what might have happened had we been at home. Maybe we would have won and kickstarted our season and Slaven Bilic might still be here. Perhaps we'd still have been beaten and instead of having this fixture at home, been forced to go on the road in search of points. It matters not now, but to the extent that you think London Stadium fixtures are an advantage then it's worth noting that we are in that stage of the season where it's non negotiable that we start to get results. Losing here was unthinkable. 

And for David Moyes, now was the time to show that all that early praise was warranted. After all, plucky defeats at Manchester City are only useful if you then build upon that foundation. Initially he seemed able to do that, before running into typically West Hamian obstacles such as players having sellotape for hamstrings and selling your top scorer in the transfer window and replacing him with someone called Jordan. 

I didn't especially care that the players went to Miami for warm weather training or that they, gasp, went to the beach when they were there. In fact, I would much rather that the club did a few more things that fans didn't appreciate or understand so long as it was done in service of a wider, broader plan that was designed to take this club forward. Whether we are there yet or not, I don't know, but the opening seventeen minutes of this match were justification enough for the activities of the last fortnight. 

***

"I'm aware you're tired and lost"
- The War on Drugs, "Pain"

If you are facing a life or death struggle, it is generally considered helpful to face a suicidal opponent. Never was this better exemplified than the opening quarter of this match, when Southampton appeared to be wandering around in a cyanide fever dream, desperately trying to find new and exciting ways to gift us goals. 


L.O. Fucking. L

Saints began with all the urgency of a London Stadium ballboy, and never really improved from there. Mario Lemina started things off by getting dispossesed in our half and then chugging back as Cheikhou Kouyate stormed away down the unmanned right hand side. His cross picked out Joao Mario on the edge of the box, and the Portuguese made a difficult, thrilling finish look easy as he took two swift touches and rifled it past the flailing Alex McCarthy. 

This was a David Sullivan wet dream, as any risk of riot or protest was swept away with that goal. One could almost feel the confidence coursing through the stadium as both the home fans and team began to cotton on to the fact that Southampton were absolutely there for the taking. Marko Arnautovic should have made it two nil when Mark Noble slipped him through with a lovely reverse pass, only for the Austrian to skew wide when it really did seem impossible not to score. It proved immaterial as Mario shortly picked him out again with a tremendous cross, and after McCarthy saved his initial header brilliantly, the rebound fell straight to him to tap home and double the lead. Marko then looked up and gave Mark Hughes the crossed Hammers, which I thoroughly approved of as Mark Hughes is such a dickhead you can imagine that he said his wedding vows passive aggressively. 

Even with HammerKiller Charlie Austin up front, Southampton looked about as interested in attacking action as the referee in the Anthony Joshua fight, and with Declan Rice imperious, there seemed little serious threat of a comeback. That was all rendered moot with our third, right on the cusp of half time and a salutary lesson to all those who decided to risk trying to beat the fifteen minute half time toilet queues. 

Arthur Masuaku was freed on the left after some nice interplay between Kouyate and Cresswell. He carried it forward, but rather than take on Soares instead chose to whip a sumptuous crossfield swerving cross in behind the retreating defence, where Arnautovic met it with a glorious cushioned side foot finish. Had it been scored on another day, in another stadium, for another team, we would be hearing about this goal endlessly. Unfurling like an A3 masterpiece rolled out along a workbench, it was the most beautiful "fuck you" that a man could ever give to his former boss. I really don't understand why a club as progressive as Southampton have hired a manager as regressive as Hughes, but for one afternoon only, it made for a lovely picture show. 

I actually have quite a soft spot for Southampton in the post Nigel Adkins era, and have followed their progress closely after we were both promoted together in 2012. They appear well run, with savvy decision makers, a thriving academy and a clear plan for how to progress their club. In short, they are everything West Ham are not. But, for all that, they have declined as we have, and after this result must surely be fearful of the drop. 

In many ways, their situation is the example that should be held up for UEFA and the Premier League as an example of the damage they are doing to the game. Saints have produced Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Callum Chambers, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse. They have also introduced Victor Wanyama, Dejan Lovren, Virgil Van Dijk, Sadio Mane and Mauricio Pochettino to the English game. They also fleeced our idiot chairman of eight million quid for Jose Fonte, but ending up on the right side of a transfer deal with West Ham isn't much of a badge of honour these days.

That they have been cherry picked and deprived of those players by bigger, richer, UEFA funded teams such as Spurs and Liverpool is a grave cause for concern. Quite what has happened to all that money is probably another question, but the broader point is that cash isn't an issue to Champions League clubs because they are given revenue streams that the rest of us cannot access. 

But while all of that is reason to stand in sympathy with our South Coast brethren in the Brotherhood of Lower Half Teams Hoping to Make a Cup Final and Not Get Relegated, it didn't much matter here. Their team were awful. 

***

"Baby baby, sweet baby
You left me hurting' in a real cold way"
- Aretha Franklin, "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)"

Something was different today. For the first time in two months we were able to call upon Arthur Masuaku on the left, and his ability to retain possession while drawing men to him, was vital. While West Ham were superior to Southampton all over the pitch, that ability to carry the ball from deep positions is something we have been sorely lacking in these recent shellackings and was a key difference here. 



I'm not sure that the Caley Graphics xG map is all that useful today as it doesn't tell the tale that the visitors never actually had a shot in anger until after they went three down. In fact the second half of this game was really very Series Two of Heroes, whereby a very promising start just dissipated away completely. Of course, that matters rather less in Premier League matches than it does in network television shows, but I will say that watching Aaron Cresswell nearly volley home an outrageous Mario free kick was more entertaining than anything that Claire the cheerleader did second time around. 

With the visitors forced to commit men to wide areas to stop Masuaku advancing, that ensured the central midfield was a less congested place than usual, and the prime beneficiary was Joao Mario, who flitted around purposefully and ensured that we didn't miss Manuel Lanzini as much as we might. It is true that in heavier duty encounters he might not be a luxury that we can afford but it can't be ignored that his two early contributions were the reason we were two nil up so quickly. 


Just like West Ham, obviously

What was also noticeable in this game was that we looked rock solid defensively. Angelo Ogbonna is my Hammer of the Year so far, having been our best defender, scored a winner at Wembley against Spurs and never once elbowing anybody in the face and getting sent off in the first half of a game, and he was excellent here again. However, the key to our solidity was the teenager Rice, who came off two stellar performances for Ireland in midweek which, my cousins inform me, have already led to him being called Decenbauer in the Emerald Isle. 

What is so impressive about the youngster is that he seems to have such an innate understanding of his own game. His reading of play is outstanding and every time Saints looked like they might be inching into dangerous areas, he appeared to snuff out the danger. We have been dreadful at identifying good young defenders in recent years - primarily because we've only been trying to buy old ones - but perhaps the academy has finally solved a problem for us. The idea of giving James Collins a new contract when you have a talent like this to replace him is crazy. The Welshman has been a faithful servant but it is time to drag our defence out of the dial up era and into the digital age. There is, after all, nothing intrinsically wrong with having mobile players in your team. 

And perhaps the greatest reminder of that came when Edmilson Fernandes was introduced for the now seemingly permanently injured Michail Antonio after just nine minutes. Fernandes played in an old fashioned right half role and was, frankly, everywhere. I've never been completely on board with the idea that all of our problems would magically resolve themselves if everyone just ran about a bit more, but you couldn't deny the impact of a mobile pressing midfielder here. That ability to pressure Saints led to several turnovers, which led to all of our goals, and also led to Mark Hughes suddenly busying himself as Arnautovic was substituted. Schadenfreude really can be quite the laugh. 


Michail and the Hamstring Theory

As for Antonio, he got injured kicking the ball so I don't really know what to make of him anymore. Some say he overtrains, others that he doesn't train enough, but either way hamstring issues for a player of his explosive physicality are very bad news. If they can get a decent amount for him in the summer I would be inclined to take it. Let someone else do the job of patching him up and trying to find a position where his defensive frailties won't matter. On a day of almost unrestrained joy, watching him limp off in tears was a salutary reminder that injuries remain one of our biggest problems. After all, it takes a remarkable turn of events to have a three week break and get to the end of it with fewer fit players than you started with. 

***

"See if you can tick the man go downtown,
Where all you skins and mods you get together, make pretend it's 1969 forever"
- Babyshambles, "Delivery" 

I'm not going to talk much about off field issues this time around. 

Well maybe a little, but sometimes we all just need to take a break from such matters. Now and again it's alright to let one pass by outside the off stump without offering a shot. I could comment upon David Sullivan using the club to avoid tax, Karren Brady giving the most self immolating interview of her career, Sullivan sitting down with WHUISA and agreeing to consider a fan on the board or even the emergency SAB meeting which seemingly operated as a way for the Board to get Trevor Brooking to tell us all to stop whinging. 

But sometimes that stuff has to take a backseat. Occasionally one has to focus on the task at hand, and here today that was picking up a win against a fellow struggler. After all, I have vehemently argued against the notion that going down would in any way be a good thing for the club. Too many innocent people lose their jobs, too much good work is undone and the clock is reset too far. 

So I agree with those who say that the team must come first. 

But it should be noted that there is a lot of momentum to the fan movement just now. In the last three weeks I have been asked to comment on stories for The Independent, Bloomberg and Spiegel, written a piece for The Guardian, declined interviews with Talksport and ITV News, and had my articles quoted without permission in Metro, the Irish Independent and by the Press Association. I say none of that to try and suggest that I am some sort of pre-eminent commentator on West Ham - quite the opposite in fact. Each post on The H List is read by around 2,000 people, of whom about half are outside of the UK, a quarter are related to me and the rest are in prison and have restricted internet access. There is a further readership at KUMB.com and that is it. I highly doubt if this column is anywhere near the top ten most visited fan sites for West Ham supporters. 

But if a tiny blog like this can get some traction then this is a big story. We will probably never again have such a global platform upon which to float our views. There is little doubt that the protests at the Burnley game have stirred an interest far beyond the usual audience for such pieces, because there is a perfect confluence of public interest around the stadium, the highly visible public figures involved, a political slant, the inherent distrust that football fans have for football club owners and, of course, lots and lots of money. 

And so, for those who take the let's-just-survive-now-and-sort-it-out-in-the-summer line, it has to be acknowledged that this is manna from heaven for Sullivan and Gold. They want nothing more than to push all this down the road, and promise to get it fixed in the next transfer window. At this point, after years of saying that exact thing, it is basically their mantra. 

It puts us in an invidious position as fans. Protest and try to affect immediate and necessary change within our club, but with possible devastating side effects on the team. Somehow, there has even be a suggestion from Moyes that the Burnley protests would affect our ability to attract world class players in the summer, to which I say - well, what's been the excuse up until now then?

But let's forget that for now. Because on days like today one has to remember that we do support a football team, after all. I alternate taking my two oldest daughters to games, and for the eldest this was her first win at the London Stadium in two years of trying. And when Masuaku found Arnautovic floating on the back of an errant defender, and he cushioned home that magical third goal, it felt like the wait had been worth it. In that single moment, he demonstrated better than I ever could the glories  that might lie ahead if she was just prepared to persevere through rain and riot and repeated heartbreak. And walking home, through streets that had previously only ever offered up sad, contemplative reflection we were at last able to talk excitedly of goals and victories. We have won eight league games this season, and just six at home. Let's savour this one. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

West Ham 0 - 3 Burnley (And Other Ramblings)

"I long to feel, some beauty in my heart 
As I go searching, right to the start"
- Doves, "Kingdom of Rust"

I often wonder about these articles. What value do they serve, really, beyond allowing me to engage in something I like to do? They have become unrelentingly grim, with gloom painted over them like miserable graffiti and the gallows humour that I promised myself I would always try to thread through them is as long gone as Dimitri Payet.

I have no idea if Karren Brady is aware of The H List, but if she is I strongly suspect that she thinks it's just someone pissing into the tent, and I suppose from her perspective that might be true. Which led me to thinking about what I would do now if I were her. "Resign" is certainly an option there, but I have worked long enough in the City of London to know that people don't generally leave million pound a year jobs for silly little reasons like not being good at them.


Another day, another disaster

Which got me to thinking about my own career and what I would bring to West Ham as a Director. "Not much" is the answer there, but once upon a time I did have a role whereby I helped manage a team of a couple of hundred people. It was as challenging as you might expect, with my responsibility specifically covering personnel issues. I suspect that this was primarily to keep me away from doing any technical work, but in that role I learned a lot about people. And specifically I learned one very valuable life lesson; namely that you don't get to tell others how they feel. 

I lost count of the amount of times I heard junior staff tell their superiors something along the lines of "You make me feel undervalued when you only ever focus on my failings" and then hear a reply that began with the phrase "No, that's not true". See how that goes? You're wrong, you don't feel like that, have another go. 

And I have returned to this again and again this weekend. On some very deep, subterreanean level I do actually feel sympathy for Brady and the Board - they are trying to make a group of people happy who have a completely disparate set of desires. As my fellow Hammers blogger Alex V astutely pointed out, how on earth do you placate a fanbase who want a more modern approach to running the club while simultaneously demanding a return to traditional values? How do you reconcile people like me who think they waste money constantly, with those who sing "where's the money gone?"

But you know what? That's the gig. And it's absolutely the gig when you turn a football club upside down in pursuit of a dream that you sold and then didn't deliver on. Thus, for two years both our elected and unelected representatives have been telling Brady these problems and been repeatedly told that they were wrong. 

You're wrong, you don't feel like that, have another go. 

And this is why they fail. 

They fail because they seem incapable of dealing with us on a basic human level. I appreciate that lots of fans like the London Stadium and are far more concerned with the bloody awful team, but there are also lots of us who feel misled and lied to about the whole thing. And still we hear in the accounts about this wonderful, world class arena that we play in and all I can think about is Alan Partridge pointing out that there was over a thousand miles of very pleasurable cruising before the Titanic hit that iceberg.


They're scum, Karren, sub human scum.

All admissions of failure seem to be couched somehow in terms of the failure of others. Problems with the stadium begin with the landlord, issues with the team seem to swing between the likes of Jose Fonte and Robert Snodgrass, before eventually landing on the head of Slaven Bilic, and if all of that doesn't land then there is always bad luck. The accounts speak of an "unprecedented injury crisis" which is a statement you could only make if you had literally never seen West Ham play before.

Even now, the fans are somehow to blame for the team losing 3-0 to Burnley, and not the fact that this squad was assembled by randomly throwing darts at a 2012 Panini sticker album. 

Karren, I know you don't want my advice, but I shall offer it up anyway because I know no other way to help my club. Treat us like human beings. Hear what we have to say, but also listen to it. Approach discussions with fans with the baseline that the stadium move has not delivered what an awful lot of us wanted. Instead of telling them why they're wrong, let them tell you why you're wrong, and then see if that spirit of cooperation can carry you any further than getting a few flags waving around the edge of the pitch before the match. I actually thought that was a nice touch and inspired an interesting discussion about our history with my daughter, but that's scant consolation when Joe Hart is scrabbling around like a fish on a chessboard, and the temporary scaffolding is bending and warping with the weight of angry protesters.

And when you do all of that, and reach the inevitable conclusion that the rest of us got to some time ago - namely that the stadium simply cannot be fit for purpose as a football ground, because it wasn't designed to be - then you need to march up to David Sullivan and tell him that you're going to publicly admit as much and demand that he therefore better find a way to improve the team post haste.

I get that your entire brand is built around infallibility but none of this is going to disappear like you hope it will. West Ham is the Not OK Corral, and you need to acknowledge your own part in that, if you want to have any hope of moving us forward. As it is, I have never felt so disconnected from my club.

After all, you don't get to tell me how I feel. 

*** 

"There's a place where time is dead, and all things stand still
And always will"
- The Handsome Family, "If The World Should End In Fire"

But let us start at the beginning, before the mercury rose and the citadel was stormed. I went to this game in search of faith. A glimpse of a renewed faith in the game I have spent so much time with, and in those people that I have watched it with. Truthfully, it felt like a blessed relief to be going to a match, and not wondering about marches, fans being attacked by their brethren or what new bombshell was going to be dropped in our collective laps. Even then, we must not forget that there are those of our regimental stripe who couldn't attend this game for fear of their own safety, for shame.

But the sun was out and it truly felt like I hadn't watched West Ham play with the sun on my face for years. And for an hour, whisper it, I thought we were the better team. The side still looked disjointed and hastily thrown together - because they are - but there were things to commend here. We went at Burnley with all the vim and vigour that was missing last week, and duly caused them some problems. Marko Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini and Joao Mario all had chances, but couldn't quite get the perfect look. Such is the nature of Burnley. They are defensive magicians. They are also the most cynical time wasters in the division. Their players spent the entire game feigning head injuries in an attempt to slow the game down and I'd love to say I'd never seen anything like it except they did the exact same thing last year.

Yet for all our flimsy superiority, you always got the sense that - much like a night time stroll in Romford - there was trouble waiting around the corner. Burnley haven't got to their lofty heights by accident. Their success has been built upon a seemingly unsustainable combination of forcing their opponents to miss good chances, and taking their own lesser ones. And falling over a lot. They have almost broken the Expected Goals model, and serve as a salutary reminder that while people like me would reduce the sport to an algorithm, the game itself still remains as gloriously unpredictable as an errant firework. 


West Ham - building character since 1895

And so Dyche introduced Chris Wood after an hour and watched as the Kiwi was immediately involved in two goals within five minutes. The first was offside apparently, but should have been defended better either way. It unfolded like a slow motion replay as Angelo Ogbonna dallied where Wood was purposeful and picked out Ashley Barnes, who took a brief break from throwing himself to the floor to power the ball past Joe Hart's famously vulnerable left hand. The problem with weaknesses is that people will keep exploiting them until you prove they no longer exist. And this one still exists.

There was still time to dream of a renaissance, but by now the gates of Hell had swung open. At one down, against the league's best game killers, we were deep in the mire even before the pitch invasions began. Moyes responded to Dyche outwitting him with a typically late and ineffective substitution. On came Javier Hernandez, and still the visitors kept running straight through the middle of our Papier-mâché midfield. Where have you gone Pedro Obiang? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. 

Hart soon fumbled a long range effort and a third went in. I threw my eyes upwards in search of that long departed sun, or maybe the ghostly silhouette of Alan Pardew being projected on to the night sky as our owners turned on their own version of the Bat signal. Now I think about it, that might constitute gallows humour if it wasn't for the fact that the useless bastards might actually bloody do it.

***

"Oh baby, oh baby
Then it fell apart"
- Moby, "Extreme Ways"

But what of the real story? I wrote a short piece for The Guardian in which I was constrained by a word limit. Some picked me up for only saying that "I cannot condone the violence" so let me say here that I condemn it completely. How could anybody not? The fighting in the seats behind the dugouts was so bad that kids had to be ferried forward to the Burnley benches for shelter. These were, I believe, the £5k a year seats where West Ham fans fought each other over I don't even know what. Hope truly does lie in the proles.

Elsewhere, there were four separate pitch incursions which all ended with some form of physical altercation either with players or in the stands after the invaders had returned. The first guy came on holding an A4 poster. This is like holding up a postage stamp to Neil Armstrong while he walked on the moon - it could have said "Wenger Out" for all I know. Having done all of Cheikhou Kouyate's running all day, Mark Noble then appointed himself Chief Steward as well and roughed the guy up. Some think he was wrong, but what I saw was a frustrated man who knew that once pitch invasions start, the team rarely comes back. And true enough we kept conceding goals as various miscreants made their way on, each showing a surprising amount of stamina to make it all the way to the middle.

I don't blame the fans, but anyone who was there can't deny that as soon as the atmosphere turned, the team simply wanted to get out of Dodge. And for those who remember the Bond Scheme protests of the early Nineties, you'll know what I mean when I say that a decent team can rarely coexist with a poisonous atmosphere. Try as we might, that toxicity drips out on to the pitch - or is carried there atop a corner flag - and infects the players. We must remember that they will be gone after all of this, mercenaries caught in the middle of a blood feud. Instead it is us who will remain, silently watching us lose to Barnsley in the Thunderdome and wondering if relegation was truly a price worth paying to vent our frustrations.

But I am getting ahead of myself, because relegation will assuredly not be the fault of the fans, even if some in the media would wish to say it was. Those who protested had every right to do so. I can't understand the desire to go on the pitch, although I surely recognised the homage to the famous Everton invasion against the Bond Scheme. Once again we were shaking hands with the past, and invisible bridge between eras, with the only constant being that the club is still run by spivs and charlatans.


Shaking hands with the past. It's shit here, they both said

But the real spirit of the protest lay in those those who gathered in front of the Director's Box and confronted the architects of this demise. In reality, the situation was horrible, even if I believe that this was entirely caused by a Board who have insisted on chipping away at the foundations of our club and are now finding that the debris is falling squarely on their own heads.

I will say that I hate that Sullivan's children had to face that. Even if they might be too prominent for their tender years, it is indeed worth remembering that they are just kids who didn't deserve to have objects thrown at them and to hear their father abused. They are fans too, remember. Similarly, David Gold was there with his daughters and grandchildren and reportedly left in tears. None of us should be happy about that, nor can we condone those who threw objects. To do so is to cede the moral high ground. There is no need for it. We are on the side of the angels.

But before you think I've changed my mind, let me say once more that this was brought upon themselves. I have previously described the relationship between the fans and the owners as being like a pressure cooker, and the thing with those is that you need a way to release that pressure before it explodes. West Ham fans have got no traction with the club over our complaints, which ultimately culminated in the threat of a protest march. Only then, with that ludicrously sharp Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, did the board deem our points worthy of an audience. Two years and ten thousand marchers to get some flags around the pitch. It's like Agamemnon sacking Troy for a loaf of bread.

But by organising the cancellation of the march, the club skilfully moved the protest into the stadium, for where else could it go? And now the genie is out of the bottle, he won't be returning. The fans might not know exactly what it is they want, but they can say with certainty that it is not this. And yet, I am not among those who subscribe to the view that relegation might not be a bad thing. It will set the club back years, and destroy our finances. If you're annoyed at the interest payments to the owners now, wait until we're in the Championship and can't borrow against our TV money, meaning we have to get it from Sullivan instead.

I know, deep down, that the only way to affect the regime change that we desperately need is to continue these protests. To tell them how we feel and have the world hear our side of the story. But I fear that the Catch-22 here is that doing so will be terminal to our hopes of staying up.

The team are bereft of ideas and confidence and that brief flirtation with solidity under Moyes has long since departed. In the last week, our goal difference has taken an even bigger battering than David Sullivan's ego. The protest is entirely necessary for us, because without it we will never get the better team we need to avoid being in these relegation scraps all the time, but it is distracting for the players and may contribute to sending us down. Pick the bones out of that, Yossarian.

We need three wins from somewhere and you'd say that if they aren't taken from Southampton, Stoke and Everton then we won't be long for this world. In effect, I'm asking an unruly mob to strike a balance between protest and lung bursting support. I think I might be being a touch optimistic.

***

"I am now a central part of your mind's landscape, 
Whether you care or do not"
- Morrissey, "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get"

But this is where we are now. Without those protests on Saturday, would the full wattage of the media currently be shining with such force on our corner of the footballing world? Probably not. We have seen Miguel Delaney, Jacob Steinberg, Sam Wallace, Ken Early and John Dillon scratch the surface of our situation and find interesting stuff beneath their fingernails. With protests planned before the Southampton game, the best option open to the club now would probably be to allow them to proceed in the hope that supporters can exorcise their revolutionary spirit in the morning and concentrate on the match in the afternoon.

Which brings me back to the owners. I have wavered on their continuing stewardship because I fear the path taken by Coventry, Blackpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and so many other former contemporaries. I have previously written that a bad manager can set a club back years, while bad owners can hamstring you for a generation. But the moment these guys chose not to intervene when they knew their own supporters were being threatened was the moment I wanted them gone. I'll take my chances in the lawless bandit country that is football ownership, if it means that we can go to games without worrying about our own safety.

But leaving that aside for the moment, for such a departure is not imminent, the crucial thing for them to decide now is whether they are in this as fans or businessmen. They currently flit between the two, alienating everyone as they go. I have no objection to owners who lend the club money at high interest rates, but then they don't get to turn around and claim that they are exempt from fan protest because they are "custodians" and not owners, and they damn well ought to be competent enough on an individual level to know exactly what role they are performing for the club. As it is, Sullivan denied being Director of Football in December, sandwiched in between two sets of accounts that explicitly identified him as performing that role. That is not indicative of good corporate governance.


They did well to get that in

And how grimly I laughed as Sullivan bemoaned the failure of the minimum wage stewards to put themselves between him and an angry mob, considering that he couldn't have cared less when they did the exact thing same last season but it was our kids who were bearing the brunt of it all. I say again - they fail because there is no human face to the club, and apparently not even a scintilla of empathy around that boardroom table. I found it telling that Sir Trevor Brooking stayed in his seat and faced down the mob on Saturday, while others disappeared to the safety of the hospitality suites. A rare glimpse of dignity amidst the turmoil.

I hope we don't go down, because the repercussions of that go far beyond the boardroom and the playing staff. The wider club is diminished and the clock is once agin reset to "rebuilding", a mindset that has felt like our default for nearly two decades now. We operate in the face of a permanent storm front. We are reducing to being a walking "hold my beer" meme. These people have inflicted great damage upon the name of our club.

Forget those media critics who helicopter in for a quick look around the Director's Box and then leave, baffled at the level of anger among fans. I follow the Danny Baker code over people like Jim White and Jason Burt - ask yourself when the last time was that they ever paid to go to a game and if it wasn't any time recently then you can discount their opinion. Proper journalists are examining our club and finding what we have long known to be true; that there is a deep malaise afflicting the soul of West Ham. And whether we like it or not, it's very possible that the spark that reignited the fire in our belly was the sight of those fans confronting our owners. It may be jagged and edgy and hard and rough but in many ways, that is West Ham.

I don't know where we go from here, but I do know that there is no going back.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Swansea 4 - 1 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

"Sometimes I fantasise, when the streets are cold and lonely 
And the cars they burn below me"
- The Stone Roses, "Made of Stone"

I've spent the last two days in my loft. Shuffling boxes to my garden shed in preparation for a loft conversion, morosely staring into the gloom and pondering a great many things. Predominant amongst them is a question that boomerangs around my consciousness. What, I ask aloud, has happened to my club?


Early entry for that new club crest

I ponder my youth and the first time my dad took me to a game at Upton Park in 1986. Ipswich under the lights. An electric dreamland. We went behind and I nearly started crying. We came back to win and I think I did start crying. We were going to win the league and my football supporting life was going to be spent in the Elysian fields, watching a style of play from another world. You can keep your archangels, for I have seen Alan Devonshire. I pitied my school friends who supported Arsenal. What did they know of life or love? I had seen Valhalla and it was claret and blue. Plus Geoff Pike was there, oddly.

My cousin was with me that night, and now we sit next to each other each week with our own children. A gift passed through the ages from generation to generation, repeated everywhere through the stadium. I often think the gift that football gives us is not the game itself, but the time we get to spend with our loved ones. Our children's experiences don't yet match ours, but they have the great gift of youthful optimism to tide them over. They think their day will come and who am I to deny them such a dream.

I urge you to find your own similar place of quiet repose. If, like me, you had the stuffing knocked out of you this weekend, then it will help you. At a time when our club seems so devoid of an identity and so bereft of hope, I found it helpful to look inward. For you it might be Trevor Brooking or Pop Robson or perhaps Bobby Moore if you're truly lucky. Those names are echoes in the wind to someone of my age. I settled instead on Ian Bishop, Trevor Sinclair and Scott Parker - each of them a marker on my emotional journey supporting West Ham.

All of this, you might think, is a bit melodramatic for a 4-1 loss at Swansea, especially considering that this result was literally not even the worst 4-1 defeat we have suffered at the hands of Swansea in the last three seasons.

But that's not the cause of my malaise. I'm down here in the gutter because I feel like I lost something this weekend. I can take your 4-1 defeat and raise you a 6-0 FA Cup slaughter at Old Trafford, a 3-0 disaster at Notts County that sparked the first sit down anti Board protest, or even a 9-0 aggregate League Cup semi final defeat to Manchester City where I think I saw a football team declare for the first time ever. We all knew the drill when we signed up - if you wanted to win every week, go somewhere else. But this was something different. Something much deeper.

***

"See the lonely boy, out on the weekend, trying to make it pay
Can't relate to joy, he tries to speak, and can't begin to say"
Neil Young, "Out on the Weekend"

So even as Winston Reid threw himself at a Swansea attack like a walrus falling off a glacier and knocked himself unconscious, and the home side swept into a two nil lead before our makeshift backline had even woken up, nobody was really batting an eyelid. It turns out that David Moyes has achieved the exact same results as Slaven Bilic in their last eighteen matches in charge. Plus ca change, perhaps.

I think that's probably a bit unfair as Moyes has had tougher fixtures, and didn't get the benefit of that soft looking start that Bilic wasted, but it's undeniable that any gains are being measured in inches and not in miles. I think we look better organised, fitter and more structured under the Scot, but here we are, deep in a relegation battle with a squad that isn't remotely fit for the task. Like I said, now might be a good time to close your eyes and think of Metz.

After the Reid injury, Moyes probably should have found a way to get Antonio on to the pitch given our very obvious lack of pace, but instead brought on Sam Byram and shifted Zabaleta infield, and somehow now we were playing five defenders and the only one who was a natural central half isn't old enough to drink on the end of season beano to Vegas. West Ham, baby - next level. 


I used to be quite enamoured of Swansea, as I felt that they were at least a side with a distinctive pattern of play that made them entertaining for neutrals. Now, rather like us, they are in that indistinguishable pot of lower half teams who look alright when they win and very Mrs Brown's Boys when they lose. Here, they battered us by pressing with energy and drive and taking their chances, which mostly arose as a result of comedic West Ham defending. They are in the ascendancy while we are hurtling down like a lead lined corpse in a river.

After a rousing half time team talk from Moyes, the team emerged as if in that upside down dream sequence from Inception, and immediately conceded a third when Adrian palmed a corner directly into Javier Hernandez's face, and watched as it dropped perfectly for Andy King to score against us. That was King's fifth goal in seven games against us. Imagine Andy King being your nemesis. Close your eyes. Payet. Old Trafford. Breathe.


That half time team talk

After that, everyone went to sleep and Cheik Kouyate fouled Andre Ayew to concede a penalty, before Antonio popped up with a late consolation. Prior to this, Marko Arnautovic should have opened our account when put through by Manuel Lanzini but took far too long and eventually dithered for so long that even Theresa May started mocking him. I wonder if Jordan Hugill should be introduced? What of £39 million pound man and European Champion, Joao Mario? And then I wonder if the passengers on the Titanic thought umbrellas would save them.

And thus the team wandered off, humiliated and having repaid absolutely nothing of the efforts shown by the travelling fans to make the trip through the springtime snow. I think we'll escape relegation because I think Moyes has the nous to navigate his way through the icebergs, but then again I once thought Paul Jewell would make a good West Ham manager. You can't trust me.

As you left Wales, I hope some of you were able to gaze fondly towards Cardiff and dream a little dream of Bobby Zamora in the hazy sunlight of a Play Off final. You deserved it.

***

"Outside, I'm masquerading
Inside, my hope is fading"
- Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, "Tracks of My Tears"

But as I sit here now, writing and rewriting this piece, I can't shake the nagging feeling that is eating away at me. What happened on the pitch on Saturday was shambolic, but it was just football.

What happened off the pitch disturbed me far more.

Most of you will be aware that a variety of fans groups had banded together under the moniker of West Ham Groups United with a view to engaging the club on a variety of points. The lead focus of this was the Real West Ham Fans (RWHF), an organisation put together at staggeringly short notice just before Christmas, with a large Facebook following and an ability to organise numbers in a way that I don't recall seeing before at West Ham. The lead men were former ICF faces, but were at pains to distance themselves from that era.

Other groups joined them - KUMB, WHUISA, Hammers Chat among them - and before long they had an audience with Karren Brady. I thought the demands that were made of the club were curiously low level, but accepted that a stratagem of starting slowly and building was more likely to succeed than simply demanding the owners sell up.

Before long, that wasn't moving swiftly enough and RWHF announced a march. Again, I thought that was strange as it seemed to be an over the top response, but again indicative of the pressure cooker atmosphere among fans, as the team stumbled along with a typically enormous injury list and an even more typically useless January transfer window.

So, with me being in the very small minority who didn't fancy a march, huge numbers were mobilised for a protest on 10th March. Whatever I might have thought of the tactics I couldn't argue with the effectiveness of it all. Kids, women, disabled fans and all comers were welcome. I might not have been flying the plane, but it didn't mean I wasn't keen on the destination.



And then, talks proceeded and suddenly, RWHF cancelled the march. Leaving aside what impact that might have on future attempts to galvanise West Ham fans into public action, it left a gaping hole. Fans wanted to march, and the concessions seemingly drawn from Karren Brady didn't seem to amount to much more than asking the landlord we routinely sue to uphold his agreement with us for a few favours. It was, in short, baffling.

Now, I wasn't in the meetings and have only read the same notes as all of you. Who knows what really happened but one point to note is that the Club will be making a contribution to the fund for cancer patient, Isla Caton, a cause dear to the West Ham heart and something that surely transcends club badges and retractable seating and half time beer queues. Before you quibble about that, and the ethical element of the club making that offer is highly fucking questionable, it's probably worth asking how easy it would be to look her family in the eye and tell them you turned down that money.

But that doesn't excuse what happened next.

Fans still wanted to march, and as the group with the best links to the council, Football Supporters Federation and the Police, WHUISA stepped into the breach. The feeling was that the march would still happen, with the RWHF group stepping aside to pursue their apparent links to the Board, and others putting forth their objections on the streets.

And then, on Saturday night the RWHF Facebook page went fully hallucinogenic. It was announced that the group was now under the control of the ICF, and that anybody marching would be met with violence. Suddenly, the march was apparently under the control of Antifa activists and would now be political in nature, and would thus be forcibly stopped from entering Stratford. This was news to the thousands of West Ham fans still planning to march, but in this instance the lie was twice around the world before the truth even knew there was a race to be run.

Leaving aside for a moment the concept of Antifa being used in a pejorative sense, the entire episode was odd because it amounted to the organisers of a march threatening anyone who then wanted to go on it. Eventually, today, it was cancelled on the grounds of safety. Go find your happy place. Brooking. Wembley. A white Admiral kit.

More sinisterly, the chair of WHUISA, a guy called Mark Walker, was being described as a political activist with links to Sadiq Khan. The evidence for this seems to have amounted to Walker once working for the Labour Party and having the temerity to vote for Khan in the Mayoral election.

Unable to process any of what was happening, and finding myself distressed like the liberal snowflake I am by the sight of West Ham fans being threatened by West Ham fans, I decided to ask around. First up I messaged Walker and asked about the notion that he was a lefty activist. He explained that after the meetings with Brady he had taken her public comments and fact checked them with the landlord. I'm pretty sure that sounds like the kind of thing an Independent Supporters Association is supposed to do. When you're in a negotiation you don't take the word of the other party at face value. You robustly check it. Other people have told me that Brady isn't especially happy that WHUISA have been doing this. Good.

I also asked Walker how he was. He replied that he had been physically threatened and wasn't sleeping. An away season ticket holder, he doesn't think he'll ever attend another game. Just process that for a moment.

I understand the allure of the RWHF group and I can see the progress they have made. But this is reprehensible. I can't in good conscience support it and I don't know how anyone else can. If our fan representatives are just going to threaten us when public opinion moves in a different direction to their own then I struggle to see how that is representation. I was told I could take my daughters on that march, and then suddenly we were at risk if we were marching with WHUISA. Well, I would have been under their banner, and that is terrifying. And suddenly that thought boomerangs back again, and no FA Cup win over Everton or three goal Wembley comeback at Spurs can shake it from my mind. What has happened to my club?

When you next make that little list of West Ham heroes, you should probably add Mark Walker to it.

***

"Shake your fist at him, tell him it's alright
Say it's alright"
- The Flying Burrito Brothers, "Down in the Churchyard"

As a kid, one of the single most thrilling sporting events I can remember watching was the World Athletics 4x400m relay in Tokyo.


Watch this. You will stand a little taller in your shoes (if you're British).

But what was especially thrilling to the twelve year old me, was that the hero of the British team - Kriss Akabussi - was a West Ham fan. And there it was. That indelible connection. An invisible rope between us. That feeling that if ever we were to meet I would be able to look at him and he at me and we would have a shared bond that only a few could understand. And in the end, isn't that what football is supposed to give you? An entrance to an exclusive club that only the privileged few get to see? When I say Oldham, Valentines Day - you all know what that means. It's a link forged without us even knowing.

I think of the friends that West Ham and this blog have made for me. The Princeton graduate, the soldiers, the writers, the taxi drivers, the comedians, the accountants, the ones who have jobs with consultant in them that I don't really understand. And above it all. Claret and blue. West Ham.

I've never met Mark Walker and yet when I hear about a West Ham fan being threatened by others it runs completely contrary to all of that. It doesn't just break a code, it smashes it. I was never in thrall to the ICF as a kid because I was too young for it, but I understand why others are. There is a mythology to that time, and when there seems to be so little of our club left, I get why people look backwards. Hell, I suggested it myself at the top of this article.

But this can't happen. Marches can't be cancelled because of threats of violence. I once climbed a huge hill in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand and got to the top to find the only other human being within a five mile radius was a West Ham fan from Manor Park. I don't want to have to wonder if he is with "us" or "them". I just want to nod and say "Joey Beauchamp, eh?" and leave it at that.

I doubt that the Tory commentator Iain Dale and I will ever agree on anything politically but I respect his love for the club, respect his opinions and would be proud to stand next to him at a game. His politics don't matter to me, and I doubt mine do to him, when we're both stood at the ground wondering exactly how Liverpool managed to score from our corner.

I want West Ham to be the most inclusive club in the country. I want to see more women in the ground, more ethnic minorities to better reflect our natural catchment area, I want to be the most welcoming place for those in the LGBT community and above all a safe place to watch football for anyone. And I don't give a shit if that makes me that liberal snowflake again.

As someone who supported the move I've done a lot of soul searching over the last couple of months and I can't help but feel that I failed West Ham by not doing a better job of interrogating the specifics of the new stadium. Not that my opinion carries any weight but more in the sense that each of us should now be asking ourselves that question. I still believe that moving could and should have been the springboard to a new era but it is becoming increasingly clear that moving under these owners and to this stadium has damaged the club, possibly irrevocably.

As I look down at the club crest on my shirt I keep returning to a single thought - "I didn't do enough". It's not a great feeling to say out loud that you have failed, but there is no doubt that I have. I certainly failed to heed those who didn't want to move. I believed them to be dinosaurs unable to see obvious progress when it stared them in the face. To you, I apologise.

I believed the hype, believed that modernity and progress were more important than tradition, and could not possibly be mismanaged, and for that we have paid the highest possible price. While West Ham is run as it currently is, the soulless husk of a football club that is currently traipsing around the country will be our weekly reminder of that solipsism. I can't speak for any of you, but I should have done better by this football club I have loved my entire life.

And that is the great danger of all this. Something changed for me on Saturday. I'm not sure I will ever view my club in the same way again. The owners might be delighted that the march is off, and the divide and conquer approach has worked, but there is a cost to all of these things. While they remain, I will view West Ham like a lost love. After all, this isn't the club I fell for all those years ago.

I'm devastated tonight.

Julian Dicks. Forest away. The free kick into the top corner. Pandemonium.

What the hell has happened to my club?

***

Oh yeah, and if you agree with any of that, then you too should join WHUISA today. Sometimes it's not enough to just nod your head and murmur agreement. They need your numbers so that they can keep holding the club to account. Help them.