Monthly Archives: August 2012

Little boys, hard drugs and Sam Baldock

When we were young: Sam Baldock reminded us of former glories

When we were young: Sam Baldock reminded us of former glories

The received wisdom is many cocaine users spend their subsequent time (and money) attempting to recreate their first hit. That may or may not be true but I’m convinced nothing will ever match the excitement of my drug of choice – watching West Ham. The smell of stewed onions, cheap aftershave and tobacco, the sound of 40,000 fans clearing their throats, the billiard board green of the Upton Park pitch under floodlights all burn brightly in my consciousness over 40 years later. Football’s appeal is allowing grown men to act, think and dream like the little boys they once were. Just like that cocaine junkie aiming to recreate their first experience with a low-grade mix of amphetamine, powdered milk and vague trace of coca product, each time I visit the Boleyn ground I’m attempting to relive that initial fix. I’m sure I’m not alone.

A longitudinal study carried out for the Premier League by the Sir Norman Chester centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester puts the median age of West Ham season ticket holders at a little over 50-years-old. That means a lot of us grew up enjoying the third-placed team of 1985-86, the club’s highest finish in its 117-year history. In particular we loved watching the lightning play of twin-strikers Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie as they shredded opposition defences scoring 46 goals between them.

Which brings us to Sam Baldock, the striker who has departed West Ham for Bristol City barely a year after joining the club for a fee £500,000 less than the £2million received by Milton Keynes Dons on 26th August last year. I believe the Bedford-born attacker received an often ludicrously disproportionate rating among some West Ham fans not because of his talents but because he reminded us of a golden age of strikers long past. He hasn’t scored in a competitive game since Guy Fawkes Night last year and has only attracted buyers from the lower reaches of the Championship yet was all but revered by many.

Most obviously lacking in Little Sam’s play was the quality admirers would often hail as a strength – movement. With a short stride Baldock looked “busy” around the pitch even if an ability to receive a pass and/or get into a scoring position was poor. A lack of bulk could have been an advantage – just look at the career Pippo Inzaghi made playing off the last defender’s shoulder – but the No7’s runs seemed too often an attempt to get behind defenders rather than the more orthodox lateral run across the back four. I imagine most opponents would enjoy playing Baldock, especially as he favoured his right foot and didn’t have the blinding pace required to stand up good players.
The old-fashioned “fox in the box” of the 70s and 80s is all but obsolete now with managers insisting attackers possess more than one attribute in their locker. As mentioned a frail stature (5ft 7in and 10st 8lb) meant Baldock could be bullied by big centre-backs – add a not particularly good first touch and he couldn’t able to hold the ball up or play with his back to goal. Unlike say, Jermain Defoe who also possessed these characteristics, Baldock posed little threat from distance.

One of the effects of the Bosman ruling and greater freedom of movement means current players largely play at their appropriate level . (Compare and contrast with the West Ham team of the 60s who spent much of the second half of that decade fighting relegation with three World Cup winners in the side). With all due deference to Kevin Nolan, a Premier League quality midfielder who turned out in the claret and blue in the Championship last season, the Hammers haven’t possessed a “star” since Paolo Di Canio left the club nine years ago. Little boys love heroes, or failing that footballers who can excite – and with his dynamic manner Baldock looked as though he might fit the bill.

So why did Sam Allardyce, a manager known for some shrewd dealings in the transfer market, buy Little Sam? Positionally Baldock was a square peg attempting to fit in West Ham’s round holes. It wouldn’t take much of a football genius (or even Christian Dailly) to appreciate the Ed Miliband lookalike was best employed playing off a targetman in a 4-4-2 formation. His two stand out performances (and the basis for much of the adoration) came against Blackpool and Leicester where he played with John Carew in a big man/little man combination. Unfortunately Baldock could only function within that setup. Although given a lone role up front for MK Dons, that was never going to happen at a West Ham “blessed” with Carew, Carlton Cole and Freddie Piquionne.

Allardyce toyed with a role on the right of a front three but it was soon obvious the player is a finisher not creator and couldn’t piece together the further requirements of the position. Take away goals and Baldock offered little. Perhaps a bit of context is appropriate here. Having been relegated under the stewardship of Avram Grant, the playing staff Allardyce inherited were a hotchpotch of a few quality players, some promising youngsters and lets be honest, a fair amount of dross. The squad were particularly thin at both ends of the pitch so it was no surprise the new boss’s first couple of buys were Abdoulaye Faye, a centre-back to replace Matthew Upson along with Kevin Nolan, a goalscoring midfielder and natural captain. Up top veteran striker John Carew was recruited in an attempt to bring the best from Carlton Cole and Freddie Piquionne, all of them targetmen able to hold the ball up but none natural scorers.

The received wisdom is while defenders can win matches, goals win titles – and despite the obvious quality it was hard to see where they would come from. One by one goalscorers including Craig Mackail-Smith, Andy Johnson, Jordan Rhodes and Billy Sharpe were either rejected, turned West Ham down or had prohibitive price tags attached. That left Allardyce scrapping around the bargain basement for goals, and a punt on a relatively untried youngster from MK Dons. Sadly the lad never looked like making it with West Ham and faces new challenges elsewhere. A big part of management is admitting when you have made a mistake – and Big Sam has done just that by flogging Baldock. Eyebrows were raised when Junior Stanislas and Zavon Hines were dumped on Burnley but they needn’t have been. Neither player has thrived and Hines has moved further down the football ladder to League Two Bradford.

For all their enthusiasm and fun young lads are notoriously poor judges of ability – sometimes wiser counsel is required – and five goals in a season of football really isn’t the stuff of legends.

My London 2012: A new beginning or fleeting moment?

Park life: The Orbit and Olympic Stadium: Pic: Terry Land

Park life: The Orbit and Olympic Stadium: Pic: Terry Land

All my Olympics misgivings were reinforced by the torch relays across the country. Invented for the 1936 Olympics by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis PR man, the present incarnation did its best to live up to its unpleasant cultural roots. A nasty emphasis on security by the Metropolitan Police’s grey-clad compliance-bots resulted in a young lad being dragged off his BMX bike just down the road from me in Haverhill in a ridiculously disproportionate security operation. This lack of sensitivity was repeated during the actual games when Mark Worsfold, a former soldier suffering from Parkinson’s was arrested for “not smiling” during a cycle race.

My direct experience  was little better even if it was lovely seeing families enjoying parties in their front gardens  as I walked to some friends to watch it together. A rather bemused-looking middle-aged woman waited torch aloft for the oncoming circus. And circus it was, the Coca-Cola bus threw small bottles of their product at us and the Samsung bus dispensed clappers while screaming exhortations through a loudspeaker (they might have been shouting, Consume! Consume! but I couldn’t be sure). The Lloyds Bank bus as is popular with their trade, did nothing but demand our attention. On my return home the families were thankfully still there and in true British style supping beer and sipping tea.

If the narrative of the torch was a grubby disconnect from real people with individual enjoyment and the avaricious desires of corporation at odds with one another, then the pre-Games behaviour of the Olympic organising committee LOCOG was even worse. Their role seemed to be as henchmen for corporations scouring the country for the smallest signs of deviation from semiotic monopoly. Infamous and ridiculous in equal measure a butcher in Weymouth with the temerity to display sausages in the shape of the five rings was subject to their attention as was a café offering a “Flaming Torch Baguette”.

With private company G4S making such a massive Horlicks of security provision the British Army needed to cover the shortfall with 4,500 troops the run-up to the events themselves suggested a re-run of the 1996 Atlanta Games blighted by corporate prominence and logistical incompetence.  Then everything changed. Somehow a chippy yet chipper Lancastrian of working-class Irish Catholic stock had been allowed to direct the Opening Ceremony just as he had his grimy classics Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. I believe Danny Boyle began the process of a fortnight of reinventing what it is to be British and reclaiming the Union Flag from the far right.

Wild things: Flowers in bloom on the Park pic: Terry Land

Wild things: Flowers in bloom on the Park. Pic: Terry Land

In the space of 24 hours my Olympics opinion was turned 180 degrees from cynicism to strong attachment. I’ve never been a fan of Games ceremonies consisting as they do of either expressions of totalitarian regiment or state ideas of what represents “entertainment” and would not have watched the opening extravaganza had I not been at work. Boyle gloriously redefined the genre by eschewing the traditional model and focusing instead on a social history of modernism in Britain through the industrial revolution until the present.

People were represented doing what they do; working, playing, sharing relationships and caring for each other. It was a cultural performance only this country of world nations could have managed to pull off either in concept or execution. Most significantly he didn’t forget a Great British tradition – taking the piss out of ourselves. Inserting internationally known icons James Bond and Mr Bean into the show was genius, as was getting the reigning monarch to participate in the joke – even if that appeared the limit of her engagement.

In contrast my engagement was growing by the hour. The next morning I had tickets for the Olympic Park along with a trip up the Orbit, the red steel tower designed by artist Anish Kapoor. Along with partner Jane and a couple of friends we spent four happy hours marvelling at the facilities and enjoying the atmosphere. Particularly impressive were the swathes of landscaping covered not on manicured grass but meadows of wild flowers in bloom. Access was easy, soldiers friendly, volunteers helpful and other visitors chatty – an underestimated virtue in London. Even if the catering facilities were poorly stocked, of doubtful quality yet expensively priced the four of us exited the park enthused.

Table-topping: Picnic benches as seen from The Orbit. Pic: Terry Land

Table-topping: Picnic benches as seen from The Orbit. Pic: Terry Land

That excitement grew over the next week as the British team collected medal after medal culminating in Day Eight, nicknamed Super Saturday, which included a haul of six golds including a celebratory evening of track and field success. Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon, Greg Rutherford the Long Jump and Mo Farah the 10,000 metres to prompt the Twitter joke, “A mixed-race woman, ginger man and Islamic refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink!” For those of us who find multiculturalism a thing to be enjoyed not feared it was a triumph. In contrast Tory MP Aidan Burley’s Tweets following the Opening Ceremony seemed to sum up another Britain; the churlish and out-dated attitudes of the Little Englander. Never mind, he was probably worth a medal for his subsequent performance in the 1,500 metres backpedalling.

Work was a joy as I watched, wrote up and live-blogged ordinary people performing extraordinary feats. In contrast to the usual diet of saturation reality shows and soaps on television here was a different narrative. Style had been replaced by substance as the BBC joined the mood, put aside the soaked-to-the-bone misery of the Diamond Jubilee and provided some stunning reporting and punditry. Gabby Logan, Clare Balding and Michael Johnson were interesting, knowledgeable and professional – attitudes we seldom think of in connection with football coverage – and the true to form lazy efforts of Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson shouldn’t detract from the overall stellar level.

Politically the big losers were the Conservative party even if London Mayor Boris Johnson’s star continues to rise. The success of Team GB (a term I loathe by the way) was a reverse of the current fashion for austerity and proved just how useful public spending is in promoting excellence. The lamentable efforts of private corporation G4S to provide a service stood in contrast. In particular Prime Minister David Cameron took a hiding. From an Opening Ceremony that hailed the NHS, an organisation currently being dismembered by his coalition, to a series of public appearances that coincided with GB sporting failure and a magnificently ill-timed announcement the government were to scrap the compulsory two hours a week of PE in schools the Tories took a hit. No wonder the PM’s exasperated and anxious advisors recommended he stay away from events.

Sadly the Olympics feeling appears to be evaporating as quickly as it grew with the Closing Ceremony a return to pre-Games cynicism. The “Now That’s What I Call 90s” extravaganza shared no narrative and offered little promise beyond stultifying Saturday nights in front of the TV being “entertained” by talentless celebrities re-hashing past moments of vague achievement. From Jessica Ennis to Jessie J at the twitch of a remote control. Beyond all reason I hope the metaphorical Olympic flame stays lit in our consciousness beyond the actual tournament. More prosaically I wonder if the last fortnight is doomed to be another Princess Di moment; a huge emotional jolt to our collective psyche at the time but forgotten in a blink.