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Always believe in…

Joe Cole: West Ham and England

Homecoming: Joe Cole

A year to the day before World Trade Centre bombings on September 11th, 2001 and most of Britain was queuing at petrol stations as fuel duty protests from a few north Wales farmers spread across the nation. Yet I was engaging my own vigil along with 4,000 other Hammers as we trooped over to White Hart Lane for a night game with a view to showing our hated (and I do mean hated) north London rivals what supporting your football team is all about.

Never mind us being outnumbered ten to one or Sol Campbell scoring the only goal of the game with a thumping header from a corner, we had a new terrace chant – and it was very good indeed. To the tune of Spandau Ballet’s Gold we belted out, “Joey Cole, COLE! Always believe in your soul, You got the power to know, You’re indestructible, Always believe in…”

Go back a couple of years and it is my duty to make you aware as a middle-aged man with no children and a vasectomy I am extremely unlikely to have any grandchildren. In light of that probability I feel I must reveal to you, I was at Upton Park the day Joe Cole signed his first professional contract. Although Matchday Announcer Jeremy Nicholas has maintained a fine tradition of cringeworthy exclamations over his many years in the job this particular embarrassment prior to a drab goalless draw with Chelsea barely registers in a top ten.

It was the 7th of November, 1999, the day before Cole’s 18th birthday. I was also there when Cole made his first-team début as a substitute against Swansea in the FA Cup, for his Premier League début at Old Trafford, his first start – against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, first goal – at St Andrews in the League Cup and first league goal – in a 5-4 thriller against Bradford at The Boleyn.

I mention all this not to establish any über-fan credentials but to emphasise just what an exciting period it was being a West Ham supporter. The club had broken into Europe (albeit through the dubious pathway of the Intertoto Cup) and even if Frank Lampard was a leaden obstacle clogging up midfield he did score goals as Paolo Di Canio thrilled us up front, Trevor Sinclair added pace and skill to the right flank and Rio Ferdinand strolled about at the back.

Cole’s play was a metaphor for that of the club. Gifted with an exceptional touch and quick feet the boy from Camden could and did beat players with ease – before looking up and … nothing. After finishing fifth in season 98-99, the team slumped to 9th and 15th upon Cole’s arrival. The player seldom scored goals, having a Stuart Slater-like ability to scuff the ball and even more rarely made them – a bigger disappointment as manager Harry Redknapp’s 3-5-2 formation was designed to give him just that role. A final ball is often the last thing to develop in a player (Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs were both criticised early career for such a lack) but nonetheless, Cole didn’t seem to have a ruthless streak.

Of course, the lack of personality weakness should be never taken as a criticism (even if there was a half story involving Joe, a Page 3 girl, a black eye and half naked dash around south London during his Chelsea days) and the No26 was loved by those in claret and blue as much for his enthusiasm as skill, even if much of it seemed puppyish rather than proficient. Or to put it another way, Joe was such a lovely bloke it was very difficult to dislike him. A perceived lack of football nous – emphasised by a slack-jawed demeanour while in play – endeared rather than repelled. Joe’s cause was not helped by a manager in Redknapp who could see no role other than playmaker despite meagre returns but was also happy to criticise him for perceived lack of professionalism – a rant following a quarter-final FA Cup loss to Spurs seemed designed to belittle.

Harry departed the club a game or so later to usher in Glenn Roeder, an outsider in the race for the job and an opposite to his predecessor in almost every respect. Upstanding of character and blessed with a strong football brain from his days as a ball playing centre-back, the ex-Newcastle and QPR man was as uncomfortable in front of the press as “Good Old ‘Arry” welcomed the headlines. Out went the luxury player and for the first time Cole was asked to play the more disciplined wide position that would these days be considered his home.

The second season under Roeder was by far Joe’s best. Given the captaincy and a midfield water-carrier role he broke tackles and drove at opponents to great effect. Unfortunately the metaphor continued, a missed tackle on Jay-Jay Okocha proved costly as the Bolton man ran on to score for Sam Allardyce’s side and West Ham’s more pragmatic play resulted in relegation despite the 42 points gained. We all knew the player was off and he went to Chelsea with our best wishes.

Roman Abramovich’s revolution at Stamford Bridge didn’t help Cole, and especially not when Claudio Ranieri lost out to Jose Mourinho, a manager who despite amassing a ferocious pool of talent appears to have a near pathological fear of playing flair players. Avram Grant, Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink as well as injury niggles came and went until Roy Hodgson grabbed Cole on a free transfer to Liverpool after seven mostly wasted years at The Blues. Once again the curse struck as the now England coach was replaced by first Kenny Dalglish and then Brendan Rodgers. Cole’s career seems blighted by a series of managers who either indulged or ignored him.

My first reaction when I heard Cole might be returning to Upton Park was weary resignation – another washed-up player with his best years behind him and ruined by managerial incompetence. Maybe I’m not paying enough credit to Allardyce, a boss with a track record of finding something from apparently over-the-hill professionals. If there is a manager in the business capable of nurturing the best from Cole it’s Big Sam. And let’s be honest, no player deserves it more.

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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.

West Ham United: loud, proud and … wrong

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

An ex-colleague for whom I have the highest regard is a strongly active member of the Labour Party and I read her Tweets with great interest. Not so much for details of her personal life – as amusing as they often are – but for the clinical precision with which she will dissect the latest idiocy coming from either Parliamentary or grassroots members. I empathise with her undoubted frustration at believing in a cause so strongly yet being hampered at every turn by disunity, arrogance or stupidity. As trite as it may appear her travails as a political animal mirror mine as a football follower. You see, the truth is I often struggle not to despise people who would no doubt call themselves fellow West Ham supporters.

According to a longitudinal study by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester West Ham season ticket holders are some of the wealthiest around (probably a function of the smallish ground and high demand which has led to relatively expensive ticket prices) yet at the same time among the poorest educated with a low proportion having attended tertiary education compared to other clubs.

As many other fans observe, Hammers are a bit “chavvy” – or to put it another way, working class-made-good. Living as I do in Suffolk the obvious comparison to make is with Ipswich whose supporters tend to be polite, respectful and a lot less raucous. Few self-respecting Irons would be seen dead wearing facepaint or many other symbols of the Sky corporate definition of what it is to follow “footy” even if replica shirts now abound. Town fans are much more volatile in their support – full of bravado when they win the same people disappear upon defeat. Most of all I don’t notice any shared sense of what it is to be a Tractor Boy.

To be West Ham is to be loud, proud and obnoxious. It’s no coincidence one of the most enduring chants over the years has been, “Same old West Ham, taking the piss” Throughout the 70s and 80s the feared ICF (Inter City Firm) came to define the support. Although a mate of mine who ran with them denies any tactical command, “We weren’t organised, we just set our clocks early” there is little doubt the proud boast “30 years undefeated” has some substance.

Contemporary football hooliganism has been all but eradicated but that legacy survives. Unfortunately with a median age over 50 it’s clear the same season ticket holders are still attending with a lost generation of 25-40 year-olds having missed out. Equally regrettably the previous aggression and sense of pride has been turned inwards into a sulky blanket disapproval of easy targets, principally the players and coaching staff. Meaningful protest has been forgotten as fans starved of considered media comment fail to make any connection between events on and off the pitch.

I strongly maintain the best thing about supporting a team, my team, are the people I meet and interact with – they’re the reason I keep going. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the club West Ham supporters seem to invariably choose the wrong option.

Former manager Harry Redknapp was adored by fans despite tactical illiteracy and a hold over then Chairman Terence Brown that allowed him to purchase and sell players not in the best interests of the club but for the betterment of  his own bank balance. Admittedly protests were held against Brown – not least during several stormy AGMs. Far more damaging to the club however, were the subsequent Icelandic owners who all but propelled the club into liquidation but were saved any serious disquiet by canny PR. There’s a current revisionist platform that hails Alan Pardew’s reign as manager – particularly as under his stewardship Newcastle are having a good season – but the truth is he was disliked for most of his time at the club too despite taking us to our first domestic final in 25 years.

Although from the same background as the club’s support current co-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold are treated with at best mistrust and worst outright hostility despite being the first owners in the club’s 117 year history to put significant sums of their own money into the club (unfortunately the Icelanders investment turned out to be underwritten by Monopoly money). Current manager Sam Allardyce has the best win record of any manager but appears to be engaging an all-out PR war with his own support.

So it is with unease I view current plans among fan groups to demand a ballot on any proposed move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium in a mirror of the current fashion for TV viewers to ” have their say” in regard to reality shows. Leaving aside arguments over why non-shareholders might believe themselves worthy of representation only the most blinkered could possibly argue against a move on financial grounds. Club revenue will rise and ticket prices drop – hence Orient Chairman Barry Hearn’s antipathy to the move. Players would be more attracted to join the club and the sponsorship profile would rise. For spectators journey times to and from games would be slashed and pre and post-match comfort much improved from the dingy and derelict pubs surrounding Upton Park. Most importantly the increased capacity would enable the club to welcome back the lost fans I speak of.

Objections to the move are ostensibly based on the potential distance from stands to pitch with fans fearful of a diminution of atmosphere. Frankly this is hogwash, the current ground bears no relation to the dark, hostile and intimidating arena I first watched a game from in 1969. I’d suggest the real legitimation – and I’d have a lot more sympathy with this view – is the quite natural fear of change.

Sadly boys and girls, I believe our time is gone and a new generation of support is long overdue. If the club are to maintain traditions perhaps it’s time to ditch ours.

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!”