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.
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!”