- ANGRY … West Ham fans rejecting the new commercialisation of the club
Apart from “Rock star dies”, one of the most defining phrases of 2016 must surely be “Populist movement”. Donald Trump, Brexit and to a lesser extent Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum would all have seemed unlikely at best only a couple of years ago yet have characterised the past 12 months. With that in mind it seemed appropriate to discuss a current YouTube clip that has attracted something of a populist following.
My initial impression was of a well presented and professionally edited video, however, the content has led me to believe a good Fisking might be in order.
The clip begins with presumably a father and young daughter singing the Payet song together. So far, so good – supporting West Ham does run down through generations.
Cut to a clip of England’s World Cup win 50 years ago and a portentous Ray Winstone-like voiceover announcing:
“Dear Board of Directors, let me tell you what it means to be a West Ham fan, it’s about East London, Bobby Moore, and playing good football the right way”.
Well, um, cheers for appointing yourself the arbiter of what it is to support my club. Even if there would appear to be a distinct lack of self-awareness, I’m sure you’ve thoroughly researched the following message.
Except you clearly haven’t:
It’s obvious to anybody who’s read Jeff Powell’s biography of Moore that by the time he finally left the club in 1974 the England captain loathed his manager Ron Greenwood and believed that from 1965 onwards his time at Upton Park had been a waste of the best years of his career.
If any fan could convince me what playing “good football, the right way” means other than beating teams I’d love to hear it. By any player or manager’s definition good football means “results” and it’s notable our best football has been enjoyed during relatively successful spells on the pitch. As the ill-punctuated sign erected by Alan Pardew in the Boleyn Ground home changing room pronounced: “Winning its what we are here for”. Oh, hang on a minute…
“But it definitely isn’t about winning”
Oh bugger – when I celebrated FA Cup wins in 75 and 80 I’d got it all wrong? My despair at Cardiff in 2004 and reciprocal joy at Wembley eight years later were inverted? If only the players, managers and coaches had known they could have dispensed with peripherals like hard work, tactics, fitness and formations as we descended into the semi-professional murk Ray-Lite declares our culture insists we inhabit. Likewise, as we fans tramped out of the London Stadium having been rinsed by neighbours Arsenal I should have been cheering our heritage? Odd, because actually I felt pretty miserable. I may be wrong – but it appeared others shared my dismay too.
“In fact failure is part of our identity – it’s even in our song.”
I must admit I’d never considered a song might define a football club. Am I naïve in failing to appreciate Tottenham spend their off-pitch time marching up and down a parade ground? Everton and Watford fans all want to join the Police while Southampton spend their waking time working towards beatification? Liverpool fans only saunter about in groups of two or more and Man City fans will all but die preventing any mortal from suffering the existential crisis of a loveless existence? Perhaps, just perhaps, we might as a club deign to rise above the lyrics of an arbitrarily chosen chant?
“In fact, being a fan transcends triumph and disaster, it’s about something much deeper than that”
Oo goodie – we’re getting to the nub of things now…
“We’re West Ham til we die – and that’ll never change – right?!”
In terms of a big build up leading to anticlimactic finish it’s not far off the Spice Girls banging on and on and on and on about what they really, really, REALLY want before letting us know it’s to, er, “ziggazig ahh”.
We then enjoy some clips detailing the club winning the right to the Olympic Stadium including those
East South London heroes Del Boy and Rodders and Karren Brady asserts:
“That’s our ambition: A world class stadium with a world class team.”
Poor Karren eh? Married to a footballer and been in football administration nearly 30 years yet she still doesn’t understand how the West Ham culture “definitely isn’t about winning”.
Back to Ray:
“But how’s the deal turning out? We want to move with the times – but at what cost?”
Well, band-for-band Season Tickets are cheaper and the club will garner greater revenue – but do carry on…
“It doesn’t feel like our football club any more – not because we’ve changed address but because you’ve turned it into a retail brand … you’re turning fans into consumers.”
Seriously Ray, have you been banged up the last 20-odd years? Done a 30-stretch for that tickle down Tilbury way, remission for good behaviour? Some view the corporatisation of football as beginning with the Premier League and Sky money in 1992, others the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch the same year, yet more England’s road to the Euro semi-finals four years later.
Wake up and smell the (West Ham branded) coffee – you’re running a bit late for kick-off here bruv. It’s not exactly something that’s emerged with the advent of the current Board or the move to the new ground.
“But while we fans are loyal to our graves, consumers are fickle. When your dynamic new product turns out to be crap then these new consumers will switch brands.”
Undoubtedly the only insight of the entire piece – and a good point well made. In their desire/panic to sell season tickets the Board rejected existing West Ham members and embarked on a poorly thought out “Plus Two” plan that placed hordes of new fans above those with a history of support, and in many cases Season Ticket holders too. That new audience will by definition be volatile.
“So how you gonna sell 60,000?”
I rather think you’ve already answered your own question there bud.
“But there is hope. To be a world class club you need to step up and be a world class board.”
Wait up – you said it isn’t about winning, and derided Brady for her “world class” ideals – make your mind up!
“West Ham isn’t just a brand selling a product, West Ham is about the things you can’t buy”
Well, that excludes cups, trophies and titles – just ask Blackburn, Chelsea and Man City, so we’re back to the “not winning stuff” meme again. Honestly, you’re twisting my blood more than an on-form Chris Waddle tormenting David Burrows.
“Identity, togetherness … love. Put the football first, listen to the fans.”
Eh? The board listened to the fans when they said they didn’t want any more of Sam Allardyce – and excuse me – but at least he took the club in an upward trajectory. A mission that Slaven Bilic, after a good final season at the old ground appears to be tearing to the ground.
Do you really want Twitter polls deciding whether we should buy El Hadji-Diouf or Joey Barton? Because here’s a thing – Ebbsfleet attempted just such a scheme, and guess what, it ended with relegation and a frustrated official wearily exclaiming: “Perhaps the idea of being part of a takeover and making decisions was more exciting than the reality.” Who knew football fans don’t know as much as they think they do?
I actually believe the board, and particularly Mr Sullivan, spend far too much time worrying about what fans think and not nearly enough on building a club fit to challenge the top clubs. Don’t believe me? Compare us with Southampton, a team promoted with us, also with a reputation for running a good academy and a loyal fanbase. As much as I hate to say it they are streets ahead of us in terms of an overarching framework for club success.
“Only when you embrace all this will we be West Ham … United.
Embrace all what? A contradictory message about winning and losing that demands little more than “listening” to fans. Well, I’ve listened to you Ray, and largely you make no sense at all.
“Sincerely, a lifelong fan.”
Hang on! You’re now claiming to be one fan, rather than speaking for all of us? Well, I’m just one fan too – and I reckon you’re speaking a load of old nonsense – so my vote cancels out yours…
Last November, a couple of days before my appointment at Westfield to arrange seats and purchase tickets for a group of six of to the “new” stadium, I received a phone call from our advisor with the idea of prepping us before our appointment. I was informed if I wanted a seat similar to my Band D position on the back row of the Bobby Moore Lower I would be forced to upgrade to Band C for the Olympic Stadium. Although not disgruntled I was, as the saying goes, somewhat less than gruntled and asked where we could sit “for atmosphere” and was told the East Stand. “But”, I replied, “They’re the most expensive seats, they won’t be making any noise”. First silence, then a raucous clanging sound came down the line.
Fast forward 10 months and I’m in the London Stadium and watching to my left as a man is ejected from the ground having refused to sit down. He had been asked by spectators behind him, informed by club letter, asked by stewards, then warned by the same that if he didn’t remain seated he would be thrown out. Yet he insisted on continuing his most fruitless and stupid of protests as he was finally bundled out fists flying. Throughout this scene the entire Bobby Moore Lower Stand were on their feet.
Numerous reports on social media spoke of similar events around the ground, poor and inexperienced stewarding and a lack of segregation from away fans. Many drew the conclusion the London Stadium is not a place they would care to take their children again. If these are as the club insists, merely “teething troubles” then they need to be sorted – and bloody quick. High-handed letters to fans informing them they must sit for licensing purposes in order for the club to squeeze in yet more stroppy customers are some way short of what’s required.
For their part the first thing the club need to do is listen to their paying public. Many of these issues were highlighted following the Bournemouth game yet the only visible response was, as mentioned, a letter to fans. Following yesterday’s game the club continued a confrontational approach by reminding us, as if we didn’t already know, we’ll be banned for life for fighting. More forward thinking might include groups set up with fans, within the club and a more conciliatory tone applied. The owners may believe the new ground is the best thing to happen to the club but the reality is many fans don’t – and an understanding of that feeling wouldn’t appear to have permeated the boardroom.
The club also need to get on to the stadium owners immediately and sort the stewarding. Most of the stewards appear poorly trained, many incapable of making basic decisions and some reportedly antagonistic to fans, furthering an already poor situation. Lines of command need to be established and practices reinforced. The decision not to have police present also looks to be of dubious provenance; we’ve been very fortunate so far our visitors have been Watford and Bournemouth not, say, Tottenham and Manchester United.
Most of all the club never seemed to appreciate the London Stadium being, as its name implies, a stadium not a football ground. It contains football supporters with all their differing realities and not a Taylor Swift concert. The Boleyn Ground consisted of informal but nonetheless fairly strict delineations that harked back to the days of mixed standing and seating. For instance, those who sat in the old East Upper wouldn’t want to relocate to Chav Corner, likewise a representative Bobby Moore Lower attendee would not enjoy life in the Family Enclosure. Regrettably, away from the lower stands behind each goal these differentiations were not made apparent by the club during the ticketing process, a lamentable failure that has led to so much of the current bad feeling.
In a smart move the club recruited Directors from Arsenal who had already experienced a move to oversee our migration under the aegis of Vice-Chairman Karren Brady. Yet it appears her and her committee didn’t understand, or seemingly want to understand West Ham draw their fanbase from a different demographic to the Gunners. Despite (or perhaps because of) being married to a footballer and having spent her entire professional career in the sport Brady envisaged only the new post-96 Sky fan filling the seats at the new ground. Such was her confirmation bias she didn’t for a second imagine relatively lower ticket prices would herald a return from the more traditional, shall we say, unreconstructed supporter. But there they all are as the Sunday papers bear witness.
It is way too late now for many of the necessary changes to be implemented to convert the stadium to a football ground. But as a minimum a Family Enclosure must be reinstated and hang the disruption caused by those who will need to move – their discomfort would be nothing to those currently having to protect terrified kids from punch-ups. Further changes could be made at the end of the season.
By the way, if I didn’t explain the noise coming down my phone line at the beginning of this piece I apologise. It wasn’t external, it was in my own head – and was the sound of alarm bells ringing.
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.
Manchester United are one of the top clubs in the world. They’ve won 19 league titles, 11 FA Cups, lifted the European Cup three times and are currently running away with this season’s Premier League title. Last season’s turnover was an eye-watering £320million and they consistently sell out their 76,000 ground at Old Trafford. In contrast, newly promoted West Ham United have won three FA Cups, the now defunct Cup Winners Cup once and er, that’s it. Historically agreed to play “attractive football” they are hoping to move into a bigger financial league with an agreement in place to rent the Olympic Stadium in nearby Stratford.
For all their resources the Reds have a long-standing problem attracting good goalkeepers. The gaps between the eight-year reign of the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel and six-season spell of Dutch Master Edwin van der Sar have been filled by a series of very ordinary replacements. Current No1 David De Gea has put in some excellent performances since signing from Atletico Madrid but it’s patently obvious he struggles to impose himself physically at corners.
On Wednesday night West Ham played Man Utd at the Boleyn Ground with canny manager Sam Allardyce keen to use every advantage at his disposal. Crucially every time the home side won a corner they would set up a screen of Kevin Nolan, Winston Reid and Ricard Vaz Te in front of De Gea, crowding the goal area and restricting his already flimsy attempts at clearing the first ball. Striker Andy Carroll and centre-back James Collins then attacked firmly hit corners as a pair.
The tactic worked well with the visitors looking increasingly panicked on each set piece. So much so that on the stroke of half-time and as Carroll launched himself at a left-wing corner Reds defender and captain Nemanja Vidic felt he had to step across the mid-air attacker, bumping with his hip and sending 6ft 3in of Geordie wrecking ball hurtling into his own keeper who had just flapped a weak fist at the ball. Cue an animated Sir Alex Ferguson haranguing the fourth official as he demanded the striker be sent off. Despite almost no protests from his players the stream of vitriol from the manager continued as the officials walked to the tunnel.
As night follows day, so the next “challenge” from Carroll on De Gea led to a caution for the striker as the keeper managed to wrap his arms with the ball around the torso of West Ham’s No8. Fast-tracked referee Lee Probert has a history with Ferguson and has been heavily criticised by the manager in the past leading to the strong impression he had been “got at” by the red-faced fury over the interval.
Worse followed for West Ham as with less than a quarter of an hour on the clock and the Hammers leading 2-1 Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa’s shot deflected off both uprights into the path of an unmarked and offside Robin van Persie, who equalised.
Post-match both managers were in high dudgeon. Ferguson claimed, “They’re very, very aggressive” and with no apparent sense of irony, “You hope there’s a strong referee — I’m not so sure we got that” before commenting on Carroll’s challenge, “It’s an obvious red card, but the referee’s seen it differently.” For his part Allardyce was as angry with the linesman as Fergie was the ref even if the threat of a Premier League fine ensured he chose his words extremely carefully, “Their job is to give the offside decisions when they appear in front of them. This was a blatant one. There is no excuse. It is not a positioning issue. He is straight across the line on the last defender and can see Van Persie is two yards offside. When it hits the post and comes to him, he should put his flag up but doesn’t. He has taken a famous victory from us. To draw this game by default is a bitter pill to swallow.”
I see two outcomes from the game. First, an assistant referee has denied West Ham two points and gifted the Champions-elect one.
Secondly, it is quite likely over the rest of the season the inability of Manchester United’s keeper to deal with corners and the attendant publicity will lead to free-kicks, yellow cards and possibly worse going against West Ham by referees routinely cowed by the bigger clubs.
As for the “offside” goal? No, I don’t expect any consequence…
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.
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.