Barthes? Wasn’t he that bald keeper for the Mancs…

Roland Barthes relaxes at home

Roland Barthes relaxes at home

Surveys have long suggested men enjoy watching football as it is one of the few predominantly masculine pastimes that allows males to display a range of feelings otherwise deemed inappropriate. In particular it’s said men can bond at games and share a more gentle side. Admittedly I wasn’t looking all that hard – but I didn’t spot any psychologists at the 1-1 draw between West Ham and Middlesbrough on Tuesday evening. A good thing too; as Dorothy Parker unkindly said of Katharine Hepburn, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” And so it was at the Boleyn Ground with attitudes as extreme as Angst-ridden discontent all the way through to Blazing fury. For the real men at Upton Park you see, it’s all about anger.

Despite a campaign during which the Hammers have seldom been out of contention for a promotion place the team have slipped to third in the table albeit by just two points and with a game in hand over second-placed Reading. That blip is largely as a result of a consecutive streak of five draws at home. No matter the team are on a nine-game unbeaten run and haven’t lost since a freezing January night at Ipswich, the levels of expectation are such this isn’t considered good enough.

Opposing clubs come to the East End fully briefed to “park the bus”, slow the game down as much as officials will allow and defend for their life in the knowledge home “supporters” will soon be bellowing abuse at their own side. The fans want to watch a winning side so they scream at their own players making them nervous, edgy and therefore less likely to emerge victorious. I decided to challenge such a strange set of behaviours and engaged with two of the disaffected seated near to me during the half-time interval.

I started off with a polite enquiry by asking them if they’d played much football. The reply came back in the negative so I suggested (as somebody who has) one of the most important aspects of all team games is confidence – players need to be in a state as Mike Brearley put it of “relaxed concentration” to perform at their peak. No reply was forthcoming to this so I pressed the point and asked why they continually criticise the team despite it clearly having an adverse effect on the players. (Our away performances this season where the more committed supporters have a well-deserved reputation for both turning out in numbers and getting behind the team eclipse our efforts in London).

Here we reached the nub of the matter. “Our football”, I was told, “is shit”. My new friends went on to inform me they had “Never seen such dire football in 30 years of coming here”, before adding “We want some entertainment”. We finished on good terms and with handshakes all round despite their clear puzzlement at my advice that should they require entertaining perhaps Robbie Williams would be a better use of their finances. So far this season West Ham have played 37 games and won 19, over half. Last term we won seven from 38 and the preceding campaign just eight from the same amount. So I’m sorry boys – but you’re talking garbage. And especially when it’s exactly your behaviour that results in opponents doing everything they can to prevent us playing. The parallels with historic and self-destructive working class attitudes towards the workplace, politics and politicians are not difficult to draw.

The common narrative is manager Sam Allardyce produces “boring” football and relies on “long-ball” tactics to win games. Neither is true. While at Bolton Big Sam allied his strong organisational skills and love of statistics to the use of flair players such as Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka. Anybody who has seen the Route One football of teams such as Wimbledon under Dave Bassett, Cambridge with John Beck at the helm or Lincoln under Graham Taylor would be shocked to watch Mark Noble take a free-kick on the half-way line and tap it short to a colleague. Even Stoke in the Premier League would lump it.

Post-match and very disappointed at the result I turned for solace to my old sociology mucker and the inventor of semiotics Roland Barthes. While not smoking himself to death the Frenchman spent much of his too-short life writing about myth and mythology. Not a flowing-haired virgin astride a unicorn plunging through a starlit forest you understand, but a study of how relatively common place objects can attain in public consciousness qualities over and above their actual form as ruling classes establish its values. Pertinently for us Barthes spoke of professional wrestling; believing it not a “real” sport but an acting out of universal themes such as life, death good and evil in a stage-managed “pantomime” where the protagonists project clichéd versions of human weakness.

I’m not for a second going to suggest professional footballers bear any relation to the manufactured “personalities” of wrestling, nor do I believe match-fixing to be anything but the smallest of fringe activities within the sport. But look to our mass media and it’s pretty clear where their priorities lie. Sky Sports routinely talk up matches beyond any reasonable expectation. Newspapers sell by means of fuelling perceived vendettas between managers and players, while live coverage will often concentrate on “issues” surrounding the game as much as the football itself. Style above substance, myth before reality.

Put in that light it is West Ham’s misfortune to possess a highly gifted manager portrayed as academic and dull while at the same time lacking in flair. Perhaps I should not have been alarmed to have heard choruses of “We want Di Canio” towards the conclusion of the match. Massively talented as a player, while at West Ham the now Swindon manager was prone to repeated fits of ill-discipline, notoriously disliked by team-mates and often invented injuries to get out of playing games (particularly up north) if he thought we’d get beaten. Paolo Di Canio’s egomania is considered evidence of a talented individual who despite hailing from Rome is “one of us” while Big Sam’s supreme confidence a negative from “the Northern fat-head.”

As they (too often) say around East 13, “That’s a terrible myth!”

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About Terry Land

West Ham supporter, freelance journalist, photographer, gardener and in possession of pink/green political values. Wedded to the idea health and happiness are best enhanced by the consumption of industrial quantities of curry and chocolate...

Posted on March 22, 2012, in West Ham United and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. As a West Ham supporter of many years, I want to see a team that plays with some flair, some guile, some style and some passion. I don’t even mind if they don’t win a lot.And I’m seeing very little of that. There’s been a few instances of it (Blackpool 4-1, Southampton at home, some of Cardiff away) but not a lot.
    It was obvious on Tuesday, that any defender or midfielder who was in space, looked up to see who was on, to hit it long to. Not as a last resort, but as a first. But because the forward movement was so limited, there was no-one. Hence, lots of short passes until there *was* someone it could be hit to. Which was cut out, and it came back, and the cycle started again.
    The squad that Allardyce has should easily be capable of turning in performances like Grant’s did against Liverpool and Stoke at home, and Manchester United in the Carling Cup. But it isn’t, and that because Sam has set them up to not lose, rather than to win.

  2. You seem to confuse winning with entertainment, just because you win does not mean you’ve been entertained. Some victories at home, forest springs to mind and Coventry, and away, Brighton for one have been rather fortunate. Supporting west ham for many is not about just winning, it’s about the way we play the game as well, effort, style of football etc etc.
    Why and how you became a hammers fan I have no idea but if it was to watch us churn out victories or bore draws with 1 dimensional tactics then I can imagine why your so happy this season.

  3. Del: I dispute your assertion we hit it long as a first resort – we didn’t. More often than not defenders were looking to Mark Noble as their out ball. I would also dispute anybody who claims they don’t mind if we don’t win – for instance I didn’t hear a single person say anything to that effect over the previous two seasons.

    mywhufc: I don’t confuse winning with entertainment. Most winning sides entertain, and most entertaining sides win. I would also dispute the victories you mention were “fortunate”. They weren’t, they were the result of a thoughtful gameplan executed well. Who is it who determines what supporting West Ham is? I first went with my father in the late 1960s and quickly grew to hate glorious defeats – a feature of the Ron Greenwood teams I saw packed with quality yet regularly turned over through lack of defensive organisation.

    Both: I wonder if you’ve rather missed the point of the piece – which focuses on the idea of mythology. In response you seem very quick to trot out the mythologised version of what it is to support West Ham. You’ll be telling me next the North-East is a football hotbed and southern sides are all soft.

  4. It’s not mythology though, as a boy growing up in e13 it was impressed on to me that as a west ham fan that the way the football was played and our appreciation of it was what set us apart from everyone else. I go week in week out and no matter the result or performance I will continue to do so, win loose or bore draw. Allardyces football is only acceptable to most if it is winning games, but when it isn’t the club must face the consequences of the fans actions, for me even when it’s winning football it’s a hollow victory as in turning to him, the club, the so called academy of football, turned its back on a major piece of what made this club so great, and that is, we will always strive to play a certain way and wont compromise that way in the pursuit of cheap victories.

  5. Surely passage through generations are how myths are sustained? Certainly there was no talk of any attractive West Ham tradition prior to the late 1950s. My contention is this myth was foisted on fans by successive boardrooms eager to justify a lack of investment and seized on by fans who wanted to argue back to followers of other teams after the latest humiliation. Certainly I haven’t noticed any tradition over the past 25 years or so beyond failure.

  6. I don’t mind if they don’t win a lot, IF they have some flair, some guile, some style and some passion.
    And not hitting long as a first resort? Every game I have watched this season, when we have kicked off (either half), the ball has gone back to a central midfielder, out to a full-back, and then launched down the line. It took five seconds for Joey O’Brien to do that on Tuesday.
    Why are we not building patiently from the back?Watch the 1980 Cup Final. Almost every time Phil Parkes played the ball out, it went short to the full-backs.

  7. Perhaps you might write to Mr Allardyce letting him know which games he can lose as well as those he must win? Seriously though, for any professional sportsman winning is everything.

    Instead of comparing a game this week with a totally different one 25-30 years ago, why don’t we look just three years back. Rob Green threw the ball out all the time under Zola. Parker, Behrami and Noble would pass it about a bit until we lost first possession then the game. Compare and contrast with the game at Brighton when they attempted the same only for Nolan to nick it and score the winner…

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