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.