At the stroke of midnight on Wednesday 31st of August many West Ham fans might have breathed a sigh of relief with the close of the transfer window. Despite nagging rumours to the contrary Dimitri Payet stayed at the club, 10 new first-teamers had signed and only a couple of players departed. However, doubts remain – following successful summer business the previous two seasons this window felt less than spectacular with questions being raised regarding the overall strength of the squad.
Before going any further three things need to be acknowledged in mitigation; firstly the inflation in transfer fees brought about by the most recent TV deals – when a striker as limited as Christian Benteke is fetching a £32million transfer fee it’s not easy find value in the market. Likewise the threat of Britain leaving the EU has resulted in sterling (no, not Raheem) taking a bit of a buffeting on the international markets, effectively making foreign transfers around 10 per cent more expensive. And finally the club could not have anticipated the second successive early elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Romanian side Astra Giurgiu – with a potentially long campaign in the offing it was easy to see how volume in player trading may have taken precedence over quality.
Once manager Slaven Bilic’s tactics are examined it becomes even more difficult to detect a unity or coherence around summer purchases and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what sort of team the Croat’s West Ham are. Lacking resilience at the back the squad lacks the pace in midfield and quality at full-back to play a counter-attacking style. A quick glance at match statistics would dispel any thoughts of them being a possession side either. In conclusion, the Hammers seem little more than a Payet side (with a sideways nod to the abilities of Manuel Lanzini). Take those two out of the team, as has been the case so far this season, and the first XI looks decidedly average.
Other sides have bought well, meaning it will be difficult to better last year’s seventh place especially if the results against the better sides (as they already appear to be) dry up. A feature of Bilic’s side is how seldom they dominate inferior opponents and just two wins against the bottom three last season points to some potential banana skins this term.
The area of least concern is between the sticks. Despite the occasional histrionics and a weakness off his line Adrian has proved himself a good quality goalkeeper and has deservedly been handed a call-up into the Spanish squad. Darren Randolph is a competent if not brilliant deputy and currently an Ireland regular. Likewise, at left-back Arthur Makuasu appears to offer the injured Aaron Cresswell real competition and the team greater defensive solidity in an area hitherto lacking both.
At centre-back James Tomkins has left his boyhood club for a very reasonable £10m – especially bearing in mind he was a fourth choice behind Angelo Ogbonna, Winston Reid and James Collins. However, Reid hasn’t yet returned to his pre-injury form of last season and is looking hurried and out of touch. The signing on a free from Mönchengladbach of Håvard Nordtveit as a utility defender/holding midfielder is an expression of the foolhardiness of aiming for a bigger squad at the expense of quality. Although technically good, two-footed and decent in the air the Norwegian international lacks the pace for a midfield spot and the defending ability to challenge the regular centre-halves. Unkind comparisons with former Hammer Radoslav Kováč won’t be long coming.
The situation up front has been some way less than ideal. Enner Valencia lost form and confidence and has been shipped off to Everton on a season’s loan. Although the Ecuadorian never for a moment stopped giving his all, his pace and fierce shot never made up for a lack of footballing nous. Diafra Sakho has embarked on a huge strop and can be considered persona non grata. A real shame as his form when first at the club alongside Valencia and supported by Stewart Downing was nothing short of sensational. One way or another Bilic has rid the club of all three – on the face of it an odd judgement.
Andy Carroll is a limited player despite an underrated left foot. But his lack of link-up play doesn’t suit Bilic at all. And yet another in a seemingly endless run of injuries could be a positive as it pushed the club into the market. Nothing sums up the transfer window better than Chairman David Sullivan’s earlier pledge to buy a £30m striker before finding nobody wanted to play for The Irons and finally paying Swansea £20m for a right winger-cum-forward only for André Ayew to rupture a thigh muscle half an hour into his debut. A reciprocal axiom to the one about fortune favouring the brave?
Jonathan “Julian” Calleri seems a punt for the future and little can be read into his form. Yet the signing of Simone Zaza from Juventus on a loan-to-buy move for £28m if not a full-scale panic buy certainly displayed signs of the jitters. Despite being a full Italian international Zaza only scores at a rate of one in three, lacks blinding pace, isn’t dominant in the air but works hard. Sound familiar? Yes, if it wasn’t for the £20m plus disparity in transfer fee it’s difficult to distinguish him from Sakho.
Perhaps the brightest signings are Swiss midfielder Edmilson Fernandes from Sion and French-born Algerian international Sofiane Feghouli from Valencia. Although a relative unknown Fernandes is expected to go straight into the side to supplement the attacking strength of Payet and Lanzini. Feghouli is lightning quick, has a good touch and as proved against FK Domžale an eye for goal from wide.
Which brings us to the most vexing area of the pitch, the right side. Following injuries to on-loan Carl Jenkinson and young signing Sam Byram last season the right-back position was filled by Michail Antonio, a natural winger. Even the least educated football brain could see the former Forest player was positionally all over the place in defence. All except Bilic who insisted he could convert the player and concentrated on filling the squad with right wingers. Some sympathy should be extended to the manager – it is one of the less appealing traits of the Premier League players are bought and sold as seen, with little attempt at development.
Meanwhile Fegholi was followed by both Ayew and perplexingly the woeful Gökhan Töre – the squad began to resemble a Theresa May cabinet so full was it of right-wingers. The Turk wasn’t bought but arrived on loan due to Bilic being the only person in the club to rate his former player. Three league games into the season and the penny dropped for Bilic as a series of poor defensive performances from Antonio culminated in the acquisition of Alvaro Arbeloa from Real Madrid. So there we are, one inexperienced and one over-the-hill right back, four right-wingers.
This all taps into the abrasive personality of Bilic. Ever the idealist he doesn’t appear able to tolerate deficiencies in his players even if they are of his own creation. Antonio and Ogbonna have been ruthlessly and humiliatingly withdrawn during games (the latter before half-time on his full debut) while Morgan Amalfitano and Sakho have suffered from off-field fallings-out. Each may be acceptable but taken together they appear less the acts of a manager and more of a dictator.
Let’s hope our manager turns out more Josip Tito than Slobodan Milošević.
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.