Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Football, Family And The Link To Lincoln

I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm straying a little off the West Ham garden path this week. Instead I'm going to go back in time a little.


In the summer of 1986, after Diego Maradona had knocked England out of the World Cup, I decided to go to my next football training session wearing an Argentina shirt. If nothing else, that should probably give you an appreciation of the job my parents had to do back in my formative years. In retrospect I don’t really know why I did it, beyond a childish desire to be awkward, nor indeed where I got the shirt in the first place, but wear it I did and with predictable results.

My team was Gidea Park Rangers and, if you’ll excuse the pomposity for a moment, we were a pretty serious outfit. Even at the age of eight we were good, and much better than the under ten Gidea Park team that we trained with. I think it was chastening for the older boys to constantly be made to look silly by the younger group, and so they were never shy of sorting us out. That night, as I waited to do some drill or other I suddenly got hit in the head by about four balls simultaneously thrown by the bigger kids. As my face burned and my eyes watered it occurred to me that maybe my dad had probably been on to something when he said “Wear it if you want – you’ll learn”, a laissez-faire approach to parenting he would only abandon when I nearly topped myself riding a bike down the side of a ravine a year later in Italy.

Somehow, invoking this didn't go down very well in 1980's England

But my coach wasn’t having any of that. He pulled the kids out, dressed them down and told them – “You don’t pick on your own team. You show people respect at all times and you don’t turn on your own”. It was a valuable lesson for me of both what it felt like to have someone stand up for you, and the pressure you can place on other people when you’re deliberately being a wind up merchant.

That coach was a gentleman called Steve Cowley and on Saturday his two sons, Danny and Nicky, steered Lincoln City into the quarter finals of the FA Cup.


Certain things get better with age. Fine wine, Swiss watches, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Salma Hayek. But on a more prosaic level, to this list should also be added – “How good middle aged men think they were at sport when they were younger”.

You all know the type. The guy who marked Wayne Rooney as a boy and didn’t think he was all that. The kid who faced Jimmy Anderson and sniffily reckons he faced quicker elsewhere. The bloke who fought Lennox Lewis as an amateur and only lost because he’d been away on holiday the week before. All these men exist somewhere, and are united in their belief that they too could have achieved sporting greatness but for the vagaries of fortune, or their own lack of desire. Pick a pub in Britain and sit at the bar on 9pm on a Friday night. Eventually one will turn up.

I try not to be one of those men, but as I watched Lincoln defeat Burnley on Saturday I couldn't help but bask a little in the reflected glory as Steve’s son and my former team mate, Danny, outwitted Sean Dyche to etch his name into FA Cup folklore. Now, Sean Dyche thinks that all Klopp and Guardiola have done to make their teams better is to encourage them to run further, so maybe outwitting him doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but it really really is. What the Cowley brothers have done and are doing is both amazing and wonderful. Not that you should need an excuse to cheer for Lincoln, but I can also tell you that the Cowley family are all West Ham fans too.

It should be said that for the first time in 103 years a non-league team has made the FA Cup quarter finals and it’s actually possible that you were largely unaware of their heroics. This is because the BBC have somehow managed to let that happen without broadcasting a single one of their fixtures. They did, however, manage to screen Man Utd v Wigan, which might have been the single most boring 90 minutes of my life, beating even the solitary occasion I agreed to watch a Christmas episode of Call The Midwife. Also the fault of the BBC. Shame on them. (*)

But, I digress.


I first joined Gidea Park Rangers at the age of five. I liked football but had no idea what I was doing, so my mum asked around and Rangers were just up the road from Harold Hill where we lived, and had a good reputation. Some young kid at Arsenal called Tony Adams had played for them a few years before and he hadn’t even been sent to prison yet, so it ticked all the right boxes.  

At the first training session someone’s grandfather held a ball up off the ground and encouraged us to run in and try to head it. That was pretty much all we did for most of it, and I was a bit unsure, being five years old and a bit of a fucking know-it-all apparently. My mum and dad, however, encouraged me to go back and so I did. The next session was taken by a tall, dark haired, friendly but brilliant coach by the name of Steve Cowley and my life would never be the same again, not to be too melodramatic (whilst being quite melodramatic) about it.

Suddenly football was fun and exciting. We practiced our turns, our kick ups, our dribbling and our skills, all in the name of playing good football. Steve wanted us to play like West Ham but, you know, be successful. Nobody went long, nobody stuck it in the mixer and we never Pulised anybody. 

For the next ten years, we would play in the famous Echo League in Essex and won pretty much everything in our age group, including beating the representative sides of Arsenal and Spurs. The league produced professionals by the boatload. Frank Lampard, Luke Young, Bobby Zamora, John Terry and Paul Konchesky were just some who made it to the Premier League. Plenty made the lower divisions too – less heralded names like Joe Keith, Lee Goodwin, Freddie Sears and Leon Knight. Whenever I hear the phrase “hotbed of British football” applied to the North East of England, I roll my eyes. There is more talent on the most easterly four stops of the District Line than there is in Sunderland and Newcastle combined.

Our best player was a quick footed blonde kid called Mark Gower. He was a brilliant central midfielder who would later go on to play for Spurs, Barnet, Southend and then in the Premier League for Swansea. By the time we reached the age of fourteen the entire squad was signed with professional teams, Mark was playing for England schoolboys and the team was disbanded because of the demands on everyone’s time. Mark went on to be a professional, Danny went on to be manager of Lincoln, and a wiry kid in our midfield by the name of Jeff Brazier went on to present television programmes and appear on the front of Hello! magazine. It sort of puts that time I got retweeted by David Gold into perspective.

Mark Gower - better than me, stunningly

I was devastated at the end of it all. As the weakest player in the team I had the most to lose, I suppose, although I still think it’s better to be the worst player on the best team than the other way around. I played for Queens Park Rangers for a bit, but I wasn’t good enough to last and their youth coach was a lunatic, and eventually I drifted on playing Sunday League stuff until one day at twenty six I tore my cruciate ligament and that was the end of that. I had no regrets. I really did try my best to become a professional footballer but I didn’t have the innate talent. It does make it all the more difficult to watch Michael Dawson and know that the same is true of him, but there you go. It’s a funny old business.

None of which is terribly interesting, but it occurred to me recently that I never reflect on that time at all. I just park it in a corner of my mind marked “Childhood football - happy memories” and that’s it. Alongside it sit other unopened mental boxes like “Childhood violin lessons – bad memories”, “Childhood swimming lessons, lost my trousers in the changing room – never speak of it again” or “That time Dad wanted us to go on holiday to Auschwitz – What the fuck was that about?”. It’s only when events come along like Lincoln’s FA Cup run that we look inwards and start to explore those memories, and truly appreciate the impact of certain life events upon us as people.


It’s probably hard to imagine now but back in 1987, Britain was run by an unfeeling female Tory Prime Minister, the US was run by a celebrity and the FA Cup was worth watching. In that year’s final Keith Houchen scored a famous diving header to help Coventry defeat Spurs 3-2, and inspired kids up and down the country to break their arms trying to recreate it. We were no different, and at training that week Steve laid out mats on the gym floor and we practiced diving headers.

Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and after a third failed attempt the ball passed by me like an intellectual joke going over Piers Morgan’s head. Once again the big kids had a laugh with that, and so Steve took me aside and told me we were going to do one-on-one drills and that nobody would get past me. He knew the older kids were a bit crap, but he was right and I walked out feeling like I’d have run through a wall from him. Thankfully that saying wasn’t in vogue then or I’d have probably done it too, given my apparent predilection for stupid decision making as a child.

1987 - "Who needs matching shirts" said Spurs

He knew me pretty well by then. I was always more prone to cry if I got injured than the other boys, or self-immolating when I made a mistake, and so I think he looked out for me. No player at Gidea Park Rangers ever got a public dressing down for a mistake or playing poorly, thank fuck, as I was apparently ahead of my time by basing my game on Malky Mackay in those days. We were encouraged to think about the game, to try and work out why we’d made mistakes and learn from them. We even used to have a debrief session every week at the end of training where we discussed the previous game, if you want to psychoanalyse the very existence of this blog.

Parents weren’t allowed to scream at the kids, only encourage, and absolutely nobody was allowed to question or intimidate referees. All of that might seem like the bare minimum one might expect from a children’s football team, but for those of you who played or have kids that play now, you’ll appreciate that it isn’t.

It was only when I really thought about it that I realised how important that time was in my life. The values that my parents were instilling in me were being reinforced by somebody I respected away from home. Most kids listen to their parents up to a point and then it becomes white noise, like the music of Sting or the sound of Nigel Farage talking.

But I was having those same messages that my parents were giving me followed up every week. Work hard, don't let yourself down through a lack of effort, don't make excuses, lose or win graciously without exception, be respectful of yourself, your opponent and your teammates at all times. I'm not suggesting I managed all of those things but I know they are worth striving for.

Those life lessons would serve me well for years, and were more important even than the time that Steve patiently took me aside one day and said "James - if in doubt, kick it out" in an attempt to stem the flow of misjudged Cruyff turns on the edge of our box that I was debuting at the time.


By the early 2000's there was a vast increase in the number of asylum seekers flowing into Barking and Dagenham from Eastern Europe and beyond. My mum was a social worker then and I still remember the night she came home in tears having had to turn away women and children from the temporary council shelter through lack of space. 

As the government got organised, things improved and with financial support from Leyton Orient, my mum even got so far as to establish a football team for the kids who were new into the borough and had nothing else to do. They played on Sundays and she set it all up. The trouble was that she had no coach for the team. 

I would have done it but I was already committed to play for a team, and we were that group that had ten players each week and used to scratch around for ringers every Saturday night. "You're playing left back, if you get booked your name is Tzarkzowski, don't fuck up the spelling or we'll all be in the shit" - that kind of thing. 

Also, I'd be a terrible coach. I gave my girls a fascinating 45 minute PowerPoint last week on Expected Goals and shooting locations and they barely listened. You can't help some people. 

So my Mum looked up our old friend Steve Cowley, who happened to work for the same council and he suggested Danny and Nicky take the job. And they did, even though they were still just kids really and neither had finished their degrees at that stage.

It was a decent and brave thing to do. Asylum seekers were no more popular a concept in Britain then than they are now, and matches were regularly being abandoned due to the kids being racially abused by opponents and fights breaking out, but they took it on and they helped those kids integrate to England. Young teenagers from Kosovo and all over Africa were given the gift of playing football. It doesn't seem like much but when your homeland gets torn apart by a civil war, even Central Park in Dagenham can seem appealing.

I meant to come down and say hello and watch a game or two, but life took over and I never did and before I knew it they'd moved on to the FitzWimarc School, Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and now Lincoln City.


I went to watch my daughter play a game of football for her school a couple of weeks ago. She is a dedicated ice skater and hardly plays football, but she wanted me to go and I wanted to go, so I took the day off work and put on my winter coat with something approaching excitement.

Before the game started, I noticed that the opposition coach was warming his team up by practising corner routines. He would drill hard, head high crosses into the box and then yell something about "No desire!" at the group of ten year old girls who understandably weren’t showing any interest in trying to head the ball. After the game, which my daughter’s school won 5-1 and during which they conceded no corners, the same guy had his team sit on the ground and yelled at them some more about a lack of passion or some other bullshit. Like a shit Phil Brown, if you will. And in that moment, a group of ten year old girls who don’t play the game probably decided they still didn’t want to play the game.

He does this all the time” muttered another dad, who shared my view that the best moment of the game was when three of the girls stopped to have a chat about ponytails while the ball was up the other end, causing Coach Yeller to turn a curious shade of lilac on the touchline. 

In that moment I was so grateful for what I'd had as a kid. It's taken me nearly thirty years to fully realise it but the sacrifices that people make for the grassroots game are huge. The Thursday night work drinks that have to be missed so that training can go ahead, the Saturday nights out that have to be curtailed to ensure you can get up to take the team on Sunday morning, the summer holidays that have to be arranged around pre-season training. It's like listening to Spurs fans go on about glory - never ending and unrewarding.

Shit, even my sister had to go on tours to Bognor Regis and Prestatyn Sands one year, and that's never been anyone's idea of fun.

Danny, Steve and Nicky Cowley - the look on Steve's face here is fairly reminiscent of the time I told him I should be playing up front


So, why am I boring you with all this nostalgic reminiscing that could only possibly be interesting to about twelve people? Because without Lincoln City there would be no West Ham United. And without Concord Rangers there would be no Lincoln City. And without Gidea Park Rangers there would be no Concord Rangers. And without men and women like Steve and Gill Cowley, my mum and dad and my sister there would be nothing at all.

These are the silent stanchions of the English game, selflessly giving of themselves to allow people like me to breeze through a childhood of extraordinary privilege. By my rough estimate I easily played over 350 games for Gidea Park Rangers and even as I sit here now I cannot tell you if I ever scored a goal for them. I was like a less dangerous version of Steve Potts, I think. And yet I remember those training session incidents vividly, because they shaped me.

Years later when, God help them, I started to manage staff of my own I was surprised at how many of those lessons could be transferred over. Respect each other, support each other, work hard, give your best, treat people fairly, don't lose your man at corners....it all works.

I remember Danny wandering over to me during a game once and putting his arm around me and telling me to keep my head up after yet another error leading to a goal. I remember him congratulating me when I made the Havering district schools team and he didn't, even though he was much better than me. I haven't seen him in twenty years, but I remember him as a kind, decent, hard working and loyal kid and when that ball scraped barely over the Turf Moor goalline on Saturday I couldn't help but think of Steve and Gill and all those hours of sacrifice to get to that point, and the heart bursting pride they must have been feeling.


But in truth, I wrote this column as a love letter to everyone who volunteers to help junior football in this country. Even Coach Yeller, who doesn't appreciate his kids discussing Zoella's latest Vlog on the halfway line as the opposition break away and score. Without him, and all those other thousands of coaches, referees, officials, parents and siblings who give up their time, none of it could happen.

If you do not know who this person is, I envy you

If I have any advice, it would be to channel Steve Cowley. Make everything fun. Winning will come eventually, but how you treat those kids now will stick with them forever. Use that opportunity wisely. It wasn't in Steve's gift to make me a brilliant footballer, but he gave me a brilliant footballing education and I've always been grateful to him for that.

So I can't wait to see Lincoln go to Arsenal, and I hope Nicky and Danny keep rising up the leagues until maybe one day they even manage West Ham, because when you're dreaming you might as well dream as big as you can.

Oh, and if in doubt - kick it out.


(*) It's been pointed out to me that the Lincoln vs Ipswich replay was shown on the BBC. My apologies for the error. I still hate Call the Midwife though. 

It's also been pointed out to me (by my Mum) that it was Leyton Orient which funded the team for young asylum seekers and not the local council as this article originally stated. She also says I shouldn't swear so much. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

West Ham 2 - 2 West Brom (And Other Ramblings)

1. Institutional Memory

Music is a funny thing. It is entirely subjective and I think most people understand that, yet if you don't get an artist it is unlikely that you will ever be objective enough to consider changing your mind.

As an example, I cannot even remotely understand the attraction of Muse and yet will look at you with great incredulity if you suggest that The Stone Roses debut album is anything other than a work of staggering genius. Subjectivity and all that.

And so I come, reluctantly, to Tony Pulis and West Brom. At home. In the freezing cold. With no fit strikers. In February. I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be abroad.

Nothing can convince me that Tony Pulis is good for football. I have seen too many games involving his teams, and had too many days ruined by the grim fare he offers up in the name of pragmatism. As such, I accept that this was a ninety minute exercise in confirmation bias, and I also have to accept that - in this regard alone - Tony Pulis is my Muse.

Anti-football, thy name is Pulis

Whilst it might be true that not all superheroes wear capes, it's also equally true that not all supervillains wear a tracksuit, white trainers, baseball cap and look like an angry British tourist on a Mediterranean cruise complaining to the purser that he can't get his Only Fools and Horses DVD's to work on the TV in his cabin. BUT SOME DO.

2. Posse Comitatus

If playing against a Pulis side is torture, then playing against them when they've taken an early lead is positively horrific. Just two games had passed since we chose not to recruit a right back or centre forward in the transfer window, and the footballing gods decided that was quite enough of that and thus we started this game with both Andy Carroll and Sam Byram missing from the starting line up, in a development as predictable as that new Pirates of the Caribbean film being shit.

We actually started this game fairly brightly but that all turned to shit when, on five minutes, Noble needlessly played Feghouli into trouble outside the box. The Algerian went down far too easily, although he was probably fouled, and the resulting loose ball was picked up by Nacer Chadli, who skipped past a static Kouyate and fired the visitors ahead.

It was a dreadful goal to concede in every sense, and condemned us to the most fruitless hour of attacking since Piers Morgan took on JK Rowling on Twitter and got roasted like a Jersey Royal. There was no lack of effort but we resembled a wave trying to crest a sea wall as we tried repeatedly to broach the huge line of Northern Irish Goliaths that Pulis strung across his penalty area like lighthouses.

The primary requirement to play for West Brom isn't really to have any football skill, but if you can't enter a Tube carriage without ducking then you're in. Having taken the lead, the Baggies made no noticeable attempt to add to their lead, which made it all the more galling when Salomon Rondon nearly did exactly that by crashing a fine twenty yard volley against the bar.

Pulis was so infuriated by Rondon needlessly getting himself into such an advanced position that he immediately withdrew his other "attacking" players and had them stand on the half way line pointing and laughing as the Venezuelan fruitlessly chased after the myriad long balls aimlessly booted over his head for the rest of the afternoon.

As the xG map above from @11tegen11 shows, we created plenty of chances and on another day could have won this game comfortably, but that is not how football works. The best chance of all doesn't even appear here, when Antonio challenged Ben Foster for a goal line header and when the ball fell at his feet, Foster abandoned all pretence at being a footballer and executed a Stone Cold Stunner to make Steve Austin proud. Like everything else in this game, the decision didn't go our way.

For all our bluster, we never looked like getting anywhere until the match turned in the 53rd minute. Chadli made the mistake of attempting to get the ball into the box, which was quite enough for Pulis who hauled him off immediately and replaced him with centre half Jonny Evans, and getting closer to his life long dream of fielding a 1-10-0 formation.

With all pretence at attacking now abandoned by West Brom, we flooded forwarded with no fear of retaliation. With Cresswell having gone off at half time, we were nominally playing 3-5-2, but it was much closer to 2-4-3-1 as Fonte and Reid minded the store while everyone else charged forward.

Thus, with an hour gone Lanzini thumped a long range effort goalward, which Foster brilliantly tipped on to the bar, and God finally revealed himself to have a sense of decency as the rebound was tucked in by Feghouli. On the touchline Pulis fell to his knees, crestfallen at not having enough central defenders on the pitch.

We continued to attack but without the necessary guile to open up a well drilled and, frankly, enormous West Brom back four. At this stage I couldn't stop my mind wandering to the exotic port of Marseille, but before I could yearn too lustily, Lanzini was at it again as he cut inside and smashed a swirling left footer past a static Foster from outside the box, with only three minutes remaining. The keeper didn't move a muscle because - and this is so glorious it gets it's own line -

he was unsighted by all the fucking centre halves on the edge of his box. 

But it's not that kind of season for us, and having lollygagged from the 6th minute West Brom got the point they didn't deserve when Evans outjumped everyone to head in a 95th minute corner, in time added on due to West Brom timewasting. And Pulis turned to me and gave me the wanker sign, because he might be the death of football but if you can't defend a corner then he'll kill you all the same.

3. Guns Not Butter

On the point of time wasting, I read an interesting suggestion the other day that matches should last only 60 minutes, but that the ball must be in play for the entirety of that period. Thus, when the ball goes out of play the clock is simply stopped and even if the keeper from - and let's just pick a team at fucking random here - oooooh, let's say West Brom, decides to retie his boots, adjust his socks, scrape non existent mud off his studs, ring his wife to check he has locked the back door and have a shave, before taking a goal kick it would make no difference.

I especially enjoyed the moment after Lanzini's goal when a disconsolate Foster wandered to his post and scraped some mud off his boots like a footballing Wall-E. Unable to process what had just happened, he simply reverted to his core programming and did something he hoped would waste some time.

West Brom did this shit all day, and whilst I accept and appreciate a bit of professionalism I actually felt that referee Michael Oliver's biggest failing on the day was to do nothing about it. Foster should have been booked in the first half, as could any of the back four, including right back Allan Nyom who didn't even bother doing it properly, instead just standing inert with the ball at throw ins until Oliver was forced to blow the whistle to hurry him up.

Now, you probably shudder at the idea of a 60 minute game, but a 2013 study by Soccermetrics found that the ball was effectively in play during the 2011/12 season for only 55 minutes per game. This will have moved about a bit, but I have yet to see any study putting that figure above an hour. And fair enough too - modern players are being asked to gegenpress their little hearts out and in game recovery is vital. By the way, that study found Stoke to be the Premier League team with the lowest average. See if you can remember who their manager was in 2012.

I may sound like I'm being ungracious, so I should say that the West Brom team carried out their managers instructions to a tee. No opportunity was passed up to waste time, disrupt play, and generally chisel out a tiny portion of the still barely beating heart of modern football. And their fans no doubt love it, riding high as they are in eighth place.

Fair play to them, but there is a price to pay for this bullshit. It eats away at your soul. There is that horrible feeling of being in that famous Mitchell and Webb sketch where they suddenly see the skulls and Nazi memorabilia and realise they might be the bad guys.

Yes, you fucking are lads

Alternatively, this feels like a Dorian Gray situation. Somewhere in Adrian Chiles's loft there is a slowly decaying portrait of West Brom, crumbling with every feigned injury and delayed throw in. I've read that book, and I'm telling you now that I cannot fucking wait for the end of this particular version.

4. Game On

We attempted 28 crosses in this game, completing just 7 of them, and never really looking dangerous in doing so. This is partially because the West Brom defence is populated by Easter Island statues, but also because crosses aren't a particularly effective way of scoring goals. A study by Liverpool blogger Bass Tuned To Red showed that when teams amass lots of crosses, it is generally as a result of being behind and falling into a desperate pattern attempting to recover the game. You should read the piece, but a relevant couple of quotes are shown here:

"What is clear when reviewing the matches in question is that there has often been an air of desperation about the team doing all the crossing.....if your team is struggling in a match and sending in a truck load of crosses, don’t be too surprised if they fail to win."

What was clear in the second half especially, was how West Brom were happy to let us shovel the ball out wide. Our two most frequent pass combinations were Fonte to Kouyate, and Kouyate to Feghouli, which accorded with my recollection of us attacking frequently down the right to little avail.

On another day, when Andy Carroll was on the pitch and Jonathan Calleri was on the beach, we might have capitalised but as it was, cross after cross bounced off the Blackpool Towers in the middle and we had to rely on Lanzini for inspiration.

This is actually a little unfair on Calleri, who I thought showed flickers of decency in his cameo. The trouble is that he is on a loan-to-buy arrangement and won't have the time or opportunity to prove himself (Does that sound familiar, folks?). He'll be good somewhere, but it won't be here. You know it, I know it, he knows it. Just brace yourself - he's going to be that guy that your mates ask you about in a year or two and say "Hang on a minute - didn't he used to play for you?".

5. Evidence Of Things Not Seen

Seeing the line up for this game had me wondering about Bilic. This was a Redknappian selection, where players were crowbarred into positions they weren't suited for simply to get them in the team. Steve Lomas at right back, Trevor Sinclair in central midfield, Ian Pearce at right wing back. This was Bilic's version of I Am The Resurrection. 

The player most under pressure as a result of all this is Mark Noble, with Pedro Obiang a suddenly consensus pick for Hammer of the Year as a result of scoring and playing well at Southampton. Weirdly, this didn't seem to generate the same credit for Noble who did the exact same thing.

In the event, both did well. Obiang had his passing boots on and was instrumental in slicing open the West Brom rearguard on multiple occasions with pinpoint, searching through balls. Noble did his bit too, attempting more tackles than any other Hammer and generally getting on the ball plenty. There is courage in that, when you are 1-0 down at home to the footballing Antichrist and the fans are getting antsy.

As @11tegen11 shows in his pass map, both Noble and Obiang got on the ball, but neither were as influential as Lanzini, who had a marvellous game and continues to be the new partner giving us all a reason to smile after divorce from our glamorous French spouse. His movement and vision here was several levels above that of his opponents, and many of his team mates.

All up, I haven't really got any complaints about our performance in this game. We dominated West Brom everywhere and when the initial stuff failed, Bilic gave Pulis a massive tactical fuck you and stopped bothering to defend altogether. That overloading of attacking players eventually wore down the resilience of the visiting automatons and should have got us more than a point.

My issue is not with the performance of this team, but whether this is the best team we could have fielded.

6. Internal Displacement

Sam Byram was actually on the bench for this game but Bilic simply avoided the decision around dropping Noble or Obiang by playing his best central midfielder - Kouyate - at right back. If Byram is truly not a better right back than Kouyate then we need to give up on that experiment now and move him on. Alternatively, if Bilic just doesn't want to make a tough decision and drop an established player then maybe it is he who needs to be moved on. That's a nonsense, of course, but man - this selection was a mess.

It's a cliche, and cliches are rarely true, but at present it's unlikely that our best eleven contains our best eleven players. The ludicrously unbalanced nature of our squad means we have lots of midfielders and barely any full back or striking cover, and the comparison isn't just whether Kouyate is a better right back than Byram, but also whether he is a better central midfielder than either Obiang or Noble.

To my mind, the answer to that latter question is demonstrably "Yes" and as such, we are weakening ourselves each week we don't play him there. His five goals last season are more than Obiang and Noble have scored between them so far this year, and with our near constant struggle to get advanced support to Carroll in games against better teams, we badly need his athleticism further up the pitch.

I have no real answer to the dilemma, but playing players out of position eventually always goes wrong. They grow resentful of their lack of opportunity, they hate being exposed for failing to do things they aren't good at - Antonio, Nordtveit and now Kouyate have all given away goals in that area - and it can't be great for Byram to be behind his supposedly temporary replacement, especially as he was found out the first time he had to do any actual defending in this game.

Devoted fans will remember the episode of The Simpsons when the bosses at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant replaced Homer with a chicken, and I might have actually reached the point where I would be fine with us trying this.

7. Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

So, how badly exactly is the lack of a right back costing us this season? I mean, it should be said that the lack of any acting ability has never stopped Sean Bean earning a living. After an, admittedly very brief, analysis I listed the goals conceded that I think were the fault of the temporary right back of the day, and have cost us points. I held myself to a couple of simple rules;

- any game started by Byram is excluded on the grounds of him being a right back
- any game where we got battered is also excluded, as it feels like losing 5-1 at home can't really be blamed on one single player

Chelsea (a) - Antonio - 1 point
Spurs (a) - Antonio/Nordtveit - 3 points
Liverpool (a) - Nordtveit - 2 points
Man Utd (h) - Nordtveit - 1 point
West Brom (h) - Kouyate - 2 points

OK, so let's start with the flaws in this analysis. Nobody can determine with any certainty the impact of a single player, or of one single moment in a game. Well, nobody except Lord Griffiths, Henry Winter and Sheffield United fans, but sadly they weren't available to me as I think they were otherwise occupied posting online abuse of Jessica Ennis-Hill for not wanting to be associated with a rapist.

You can fuck off too, Colin

So, please don't tell me that what I have done here is ludicrous, as I already know that. I'm like the grown men who go on Soccer AM and sit in the "stand". I know I look stupid, but I'm carrying on regardless.

What this excludes is any mistakes made by Byram, as he is human and allowed to make them, and crucially he is actually a right back. It also ignores games like Arsenal and Southampton at home where we gave up goals down our right side, but were getting creamed anyway so I can't say it really cost us any points.

But - and this is tenuous but reasonable - it has cost us something. I've suggested nine points above, which is way too high in reality, but there are points lost this season caused by the ridiculous hubris of thinking we didn't need a full back. I don't know who is to blame for that, but whoever it is needs to look at these numbers and weep. Whatever method you use, and whatever number you come up with, our season would look a whole lot better if we hadn't inflicted ourselves with such a brain numbingly stupid wound entirely of our own making.

8. A Change Is Gonna Come

So Slaven Bilic finally lost his shit today. This has been coming for quite some time, and in fairness, I'm amazed he has lasted this long. We missed out on the Champions League last season at least partially because we had no right back (Jesus fucking Christ, Sullivan) but also due to a run of awful, horrendous decisions in huge late season games.

That continued into this season, with the records now showing that any West Ham player getting sent off these days has a fifty percent chance of having it overturned. All teams feel they are hard done by, and maybe they are - who knows, I don't give a shit about what happens to Leicester or Sunderland or Everton. Well, except for the fact that I wish bad things upon Koeman's whinging thugs, so maybe that's not entirely true.

Anyway, the point is that all football fans see injustice everywhere and we're no different, but I'd be happy to put the officiating of West Ham games in the last two season up against anyone's and see who has lost more points due to incompetence.

Which makes it all the more galling that Bilic chose today to go nuts. Because, there really wasn't that much wrong with the officiating. The Antonio foul was egregious, but that happened right in front of me and I didn't see it until I got home.

I felt for Bilic, as I left the ground feeling most decisions had gone against us, but in the end most were right. Feghouli had a goal disallowed in the first half whilst Craig Dawson lay prone in the box having been floored by his own keeper. I'm pretty sure the linesman flagged for a foul initially, but once Oliver confirmed it wasn't a foul they changed their mind and disallowed it for offside and hoped for the best. Replays proved them correct as Antonio was offside and interfered with Foster as he tried to save the shot. In the end, you have to say that was a fine decision.

All the while, Dawson lay on the ground and did what any other 6"2 centre half coached by Tony Pulis would do - he feigned injury.

Bilic also got himself in a lather about the throw that led to the corner from which West Brom equalised, but that looked wrong as well. He should have aimed his ire at Obiang who needlessly conceded the corner that West Brom were so desperately seeking and couldn't have scored without.

I feel sorry for Bilic, as by blowing his top so spectacularly will undo his previous 18 months of reasoned pragmatism after games. The truly sad thing is that if he just did it every week no one would pay any attention. In fact, they'd give him a cute nickname like "The Special One", "The Professor" or "Mark Hughes".

9. The Long Goodbye

It is worth noting that Adrian's contract is up this summer, although we have a two year extension option. I sincerely hope they exercise this, if for no other reason than they could get good money for him on the transfer market.

Better yet would be Adrian regaining his place. I have nothing particularly against Darren Randolph who has performed ably since taking over, but I'm not really seeing anything in his performance to explain why he is ahead of the Spaniard. Their league records this season are as follows:

Randolph - Played 14 Goals Against 23 Clean Sheets 3

Adrian - Played 11 Goals Against 20 Clean Sheets 3

This conveniently ignores a couple of Cup spankings for Adrian, but I'm not penalising him for the fact that we played Man Utd away while under hypnosis.

If this is the upper limit of Randolph's ability then the reality is that it is barely better than the form Adrian showed this season which got him dropped. Players deserve a chance and all that, but you also play your best players, and Adrian seems to me to be a visibly better keeper than Randolph.

10. Enemies Foreign And Domestic

Oh do fuck off

Monday, February 06, 2017

Southampton 1 - 3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. The Reversal

Our pissed Geordie octopus done good

Well, that was quite a week. If you've ever heard the Craig David song "7 Days" - imagine the concept of pure banality set to music, if not - then you'll know what I mean when I say:

Sold our best player on Monday
Didn't buy a right back on Tuesday
Got taken to the cleaners on Wednesday
Self flagellated on Thursday and Friday
Spanked the Saints on Saturday
Chilled on Sunday (*)

(*) I fucking hate the word "chilled". Apply it to vegetables or not at all.

My overriding feeling at the end of this particular week is that I'm not sure any other team in the league could make finishing eleventh quite such a rollercoaster ride.

2. A Darkness More Than Night

With the gloom from Wednesday nights mauling at the hands of Manchester City still pervading over everything, we journeyed down to the South coast more in hope than expectation. Southampton has been an unhappy hunting ground for us for ages, with our last win coming back in 2000 when both teams were playing at different grounds and we started with only three defenders and Kaba Diawara up front, whilst Harry Redknapp was presumably smoking some extremely strong weed in the tactics room.

Going into this one it felt that if we were to get anything from the game it would require us to find a way to target the new Southampton centre back pairing of Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida. They had been thrown together after Virgil van Dijk went on the injury list and Jose Fonte fulfilled his life long dream of getting a incredible, huge new contract at the age of 33.

As it turned out, we had no time to do that as we conceded a goal after just twelve minutes to Saints debutant, and recent West Ham transfer target, Manolo Gabbiadini. The Italian, who immediately joins Robert Pattinson and Harry Styles on my list of men who look like they need a good shower, ran on to a through ball and positively bazooka'd a shot high over Randolph into the roof of the net. He looked miles offside, although replays suggested he was only marginally offside, which is still fucking offside, but it was a confident, composed finish and somewhere Simone Zaza looks on and wonders.

At that stage it felt like so far, so Man City, but we responded beautifully as Pedro Obiang sliced open that vulnerable Saints rearguard with a perfectly weighted through ball for Carroll to charge on to, like a pissed Geordie combine harvester with the brake off on a slope, and calmly slot past Forster. Interestingly, in the build up Carroll could clearly be seen yelling at Obiang to pass wide to Snodgrass, which Stephens bought like a sucker and Carroll rolled off and on to the pass - one of only three that we completed in the Saints penalty area all game.

Thereafter things were pretty even as Saints kept getting shots away without really taking them from decent areas, and it wasn't that much of a surprise when Obiang rifled home a twenty yard drive just before the break. It looked to take a little deflection on the way through but who the fuck cares, and we had the look of a team about to turn around a deficit for the first time this season.

We sealed things up just after the break when a (not very good) Noble free kick was deflected past Forster at his near post by a crestfallen Steven Davis and we took a 3-1 lead we would never relinquish. After that we took Carroll off because we can't play him too much in case he gets injured, but we can play him enough to not have to worry about getting any back up for him, and thus we saw out the victory like a proper professional team with defenders and matching kit and everything.

For the first time this season I feel like we have won a game where it doesn't have to be qualified by saying "Yeah, but we were only playing...".

3. The Narrows

This game marked the full debut of Robert Snodgrass, who came in over the flu hit Manuel Lanzini. Ostensibly bought to replace Dimitri Payet, the Scotsman had a fantastic game and gave us a proper glimpse into how a post-Payet West Ham might be successful.

Contrary to expectations he didn't play as an out and out winger, and instead operated mostly in the old inside left channel. On the other side Sofiane Feghouli did pretty much the same thing, and with that narrow, constricted formation we choked the life out of Southampton.

Former Hammer David Connolly wrote an excellent pre match piece for The West Ham Way which highlighted both the weakness of the Stephens/Yoshida partnership, but also the attacking threat of the Saints full backs. By flooding into midfield it seemed like we restricted the typical Southampton passing patterns that look to open up space for their full backs to push into and negated their customary wide options.

As you can see from this @11tegen11 passing network, we kept to our compact formation all day and  even though Feghouli offered little in attack, he stuck diligently to his duties and was important in disrupting play.

On the other side Cresswell was able to burst forward again with some of his old joie de vivre, ironically once his French buddy had disappeared. With Payet refusing to do any defensive work, Cresswell had struggled to impact games going forward, but Snodgrass put in a Herculean shift and on several occasions he slipped Cresswell in by drifting inside to free up space on the touchline. Best of all, when the score was 3-1 and we were playing the last twenty minutes without a striker because Bilic was trolling Claude Puel, Snodgrass just ran and ran and ran some more to make up for it. I think his signing was a panicky, poorly judged decision but I'll happily admit that for today and for the short term future, Snodgrass looks a great fit.

It remains to be seen generally if this formation will work against the top 6, who will have better defences and functional, mobile goalkeepers, but this was a timely reminder that when Bilic does his homework, he has just as much ability to impact games as any other manager.

4. The Drop

What will be interesting is what Bilic does next week, when Lanzini will presumably be fit, and Feghouli, Snodgrass and Antonio will be battling it out for two places.

Intuitively it feels like Antonio would revert to a wide right role, and Lanzini would go into the hole behind Carroll and last years 4-2-3-1 would be the way forward. The thing about that, however, is that Antonio has essentially been playing in a 4-4-2 as a second striker and doing a good job of it. Carroll doesn't have the mobility to do the role on his own, so Antonio has helped him in every sense by doubling up his pressing and getting closer to Carroll to pick up flick ons and second balls.

Indeed, look at the map above and it shows Antonio was our most advanced player as he repeatedly foraged beyond Carroll. Sticking him back out wide asks him to do defensive work, which is like asking Piers Morgan to research something, and also deprives us of a central goal threat. It also forces Lanzini to play a role that doesn't really suit him, as he doesn't have Antonio's pace to get beyond Carroll, and instead is utilised much better as a late arriving runner as demonstrated in the Palace and Middlesbrough games recently.

"I'm organising a march for men's rights unless no one signs up, in which case it's a joke"

Having said all of that, I'd probably leave things as they are and bring Lanzini in to partner Obiang, giving us two mobile passers to try and play through the pressing we will face from better teams. Noble was good today, but Obiang was better and the truth is that we need support for Carroll (all we have is Antonio), two wide players (all we have is Snodgrass and Feghouli) and Lanzini should always be in the team. I don't like calling for Noble to sit out, but we need our best players playing.

5. The Burning Room

What's really interesting about that is that completely ignores our best midfielder - Cheikhou Kouyate - who was seen here being totally wasted at right back. He was forced into that emergency role as a result of Sam Byram getting injured on the same day that we decided not to get any cover for him. This was only slightly less teeth grindingly predictable than Donald Trump waking up and tweeting about some batshit crazy thing he saw on Fox News ten minutes before, every morning.

I can expend no more energy on the Olympic sized fuck up that has been our transfer policy lately, but once again the issue is less with the position itself - as Kouyate did his customary good job there -but the fact that we have to keep weakening the team elsewhere in order to cover up the lack of options.

If indeed Byram is fit next week then Kouyate must go straight back into midfield and Obiang must play, which leaves some interesting decisions about Noble, Lanzini and Antonio. Still, better having too many players available than giving game time to the likes of Arbeloa and Tore because it looks like we only have 9 men and all the lads are ringing round their mates to see if anyone is up for game. 

6. The Crossing

Talking of our crazy transfer policy, take a bow Jose Fonte, who played with poise and command to bring a startlingly organised look to our back four. Even more so than Snodgrass, Fonte is a signing for the short term, with a huge premium being paid to get good performances now, before the juju starts to dissipate and his hamstrings acclimatise to West Ham and turn into spaghetti.

He has a serenity about his play that sits nicely next to the slightly frenetic, permanently angry Reid - who plays these days with the demeanour of a furious Maths teacher - and between them they did a decent job of restricting Southampton to some low quality chances.

As you can see here, Saints had tons of chances, but none as good as Carroll's and mostly we did a good job of blocking them or forcing snatched shots. Gabbiadini should have done better when presented with a decent second half chance, but he blazed it over from the six yard line and frankly still could do with a shave and a shampoo as he's looking a bit like Sean Connery at the beginning of The Rock.

I still don't see Fonte as a sensible signing in the long run, but on days like today when we go and win at a difficult opponent, where we never win, with no right back, one fit striker and from a goal down, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the huge part he played.

Over the next few weeks our aim should be to start reducing the volume of chances on our goal, and then to push those chances further from goal reducing their likelihood of going in. As you see here, we give up plenty of chances and are ranked on a par with Bournemouth who just let in six at Everton having taken the bold step of playing the second half with an unusual 0-6-4 formation.

Of course, stopping opposition teams from getting good chances is easier said than done, but blocking more shots, preventing successful passes into our box and generally saving more shots on target are all fairly obvious ways to reduce the threat. I see Fonte as being crucial to the first of those, and if Kouyate goes back into the centre then I would expect to see him impact on the second point.

7. The Poet 

How could I have got all this way into this article without mentioning Pedro Obiang? Against a good team, and with a goal deficit, he stepped up and took control of this game like John Terry at a Champions League trophy presentation.

The pass to Carroll was superbly weighted, his goal was fucking hammered and he trailed only Kouyate in blocks and tackles. When he plays like this it is easy to forget he is just 24, and still adapting to the English game. He gave a fascinating interview to Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian before Christmas in which it was easy to detect his more cerebral approach to both life and football.

My Hammer of the Year is Antonio so this photo makes no sense

I have no idea how the political science degree fits in when the lads are planning their latest trip to Aspers Casino, but he has become a key part of our season as he gives us a mobility, intelligence in possession and physicality that is otherwise lacking. 

I saw lots of debate over the weekend about Obiang's case for Hammer of the Year, which really does feel like the Best Editing Oscar in a season like this, but I don't think Pedro is quite there yet. Antonio has played everywhere, uncomplainingly and while still scoring all our goals and starring in about twenty highly amusing YouTube clips. That said, a few more games like this and Obiang is certainly in the mix. 

8. The Black Echo

Now feels like a reasonable time to ask - has this been a good season or not? By reading this blog you'd have said "possibly" after last Saturday and "Christ, no" after Wednesday. That's kind of the point; that The H List is supposed to be an in-the-moment assessment of each game, reflecting the immediacy of the many rich and varying emotions that come with losing 4-2 at home to Watford and then following that up with a 4-2 shit sandwich at West Brom the following week.

We currently sit in ninth, eight points down on the same stage as last year and twelve points down when comparing results to the same fixtures from 2015-16. But still in the top half, and just five points behind next opponents West Brom. Only Leicester are worse in this year on year comparison, as the devil has apparently come calling on that Faustian pact they signed to turn into a good team last season.

If we look more closely at our record, there is some telling detail in dividing our home and away form. We have played a far weaker schedule at home, and yet possess only the 15th best home record in the Premier League. By contrast, away from home we've had a gruelling slog of fixtures and yet have returned the 8th best outcome. This despite picking up more points at home (17) than away (14).

Putting all of those things together seems to explain how deeply unsatisfactory it all feels. We've been mediocre at home, when more fans go to games and more fans get to moan about the loss of the Boleyn. By contrast, away games are obviously seen by fewer supporters and we've still lost half of those games. Welcome to the Premier League - where not many teams win away but where the Bilic counterattacking style is perfectly suited.

I think it would be easier to feel a sense of optimism if we had beaten Man City and lost this game. Swap the win at Palace for a win at Spurs and suddenly the 9th place contains a couple of big scalps, which in turn allows fans to dream a little. The very specific problem that I see right now is that our home games against good teams have been so one sided that there is nothing for us to cling on to. 1-5 v Arsenal, 0-5 vs Man City, 0-3 vs Southampton and 0-4 vs Man City. West Ham away used to be the kind of game that defined title winners, but this year it has come to define whether you are a bottom half team or not.

I think what this season really needs is a big scalp at home, in a game that matters, against a full strength opposition. We need to be convinced that we are able to punch our weight at that level again, and to do so with a bit of brio. Truthfully, what we really need is to be able to play like an away team at home, in the manner that has been suiting us so well on our travels recently. Get a win like that, and suddenly we would be taking steps to turn our new house into a home.

9. Lost Light

Here's an interesting fact - West Ham and Southampton have exactly the same size pitch (105m x 68m). The problem is that the Saints stadium allows fans to sit within a javelin throw of the touchline whereas when the ball goes in the crowd at London Stadium it has to be couriered back.

I don't think our problems at home are arising due to a bigger pitch, but instead because we're not playing very well. Teams come, frustrate us and wait for the inevitable defensive mistake and the crowd exodus. It's been a trustworthy recipe all season and never better exploited than by Man City this week. Smaller pitches like the Boleyn Ground are sometimes easier to play on as it's possible to pen teams in and not let them out, but at the same time with a larger playing area there is the possibility of stretching teams with width and pace.

In fairness, the evidence so far suggests that this is much easier with David Silva and Gabriel Jesus than it is with Gokhan Tore and Simone Zaza, and transitioning is going to take a while.

10. The Wrong Side Of Goodbye

Last time out, I linked to this JustGiving page for Amos Nasha, a former West Ham youth team player who is on the verge of being made homeless. The aim was to raise £1,000 to allow Amos and his younger brother a chance to get back on feet.

At the last time I checked, the fund had risen to over £6,000 and donations had been made by fans, players and the chairman, David Sullivan.

It's easy to write pisstakes of our stadium, our defending and that time Mike Marsh left because he was homesick for Liverpool and then went to Turkey before coming back to Southend. But there are lots of marvellous things about supporting West Ham too and it's nice to be reminded of it.

Friday, February 03, 2017

West Ham 0 - 4 Man City (And Other Ramblings)

1. Bad Dreams

My poor Dad.

February 1st is his birthday, and as a treat I decided to take him to a West Ham game. I actually bought him a ticket to the Man Utd fixture as his present, but as that was just ninety minutes of tedious Mourinhoan pedagogy I felt guilty and bought him another one for this game.

This brings me on nicely to the definition of insanity. Albert Einstein is credited as describing this as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". But Albert Einstein never watched West Ham, and therefore had no meaningful grasp on the concept of despair, or mental degradation.

"We're going to absolutely destroy you"

The actual definition of insanity is buying a ticket to watch West Ham play Man City in the FA Cup, watching them lose 5-0 and then buying a ticket to watch the same fixture in the league three weeks later even when you know the outcome will be the same.

As my Dad said on the way out - "I'll be fine with a book next year, thanks".

2. Game Day

This truly was a shitshow. A perfect Piers Morgan of a performance as most of the team took to the field without a spine, and were duly humiliated once again by a team who can't defend and have conceded four goals against both Leicester and Everton.

But none of that truly captures the abject, insipid, utterly limp nature of this display. This was fucking awful. Most distressingly of all, it was almost a note for note reproduction of the cup game, right down to the 3-0 half time score, the shitty penalty award, the funereal atmosphere and the overarching feeling of being in a cable car that has just got to the crest of a mountain but instead of going forward, has suddenly, inexplicably started falling back down the slope at a dizzying speed.

If you have ever played football at a certain level you will have experience of being screamed at by an angry coach over "in balls". These are passes from full backs to central midfielders which are cut out and are described by The Secret Footballer as being responsible for 40% of all goals conceded from open play. Angry English youth coaches generally prefer you to "stick it in the fuckin' mixer" rather than attempt them.

Anyway, even now I can picture you all nodding along as you think of Aaron Cresswell and Pedro Obiang paying homage to the art form last night with two beauties of the genre. The reason that these passes are so dangerous is that players intercepting them are almost always facing forward, advancing at pace on to a back pedaling defence, and crucially with no holding midfielders to worry about. City's first and third goals came from these mistakes and whilst they were beautifully constructed and finished, there was the familiar air of self inflicted wounds to the whole affair.

In between this, Leroy Sane had ghosted past debutant Jose Fonte almost as though he were an ageing thirty three year old rather than the key to all our defensive problems, before crossing for David Silva to score from about two yards out. As I said, a note for note remake of the cup game. A bit like when Gus van Sant recreated Psycho shot for shot, except that this was actually terrifying to watch and didn't feature Vince Vaughn.

All that this horror show was missing

Half time came and went with no discernible difference apart from the fact that the stadium was emptying quicker than a broken hourglass. Raheem Sterling capped off a fine display with a superb two stage dive as he jinked past Fonte. As we know from the cup game a lack of contact is no impediment to City players falling over but Toure duly squeezed the penalty home anyway and, with that, everybody stopped bothering. City stopped trying, the supporters started to gauge when they needed to leave to best utilise the world class transport facilities and Guardiola brought on Fabian Delph after presumably losing a bet to someone.

3. The Detail

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the xG concept. This looks at the type and location of the chances created by teams and assigns them an "expected goal" value. It's a useful tool for reminding ourselves that whenever somebody (usually Alan Shearer) says "he has to score from there" it is invariably bullshit.

What's remarkable about this game is how little threat we posed. As you can see here, using the superb xG Maps at @11tegen11, our xG in this game was 0.43 compared to City's 2.07. This feels about right as we generally carried the same level of threat as the Swiss navy, and this now marks 180 minutes of complete offensive ineptitude against a team playing John Stones at centre half like that's a professionally acceptable thing to do.

If you're looking for a comparison, Hull generated chances worth 0.51 and restricted Man Utd to 1.45 in their game last night. A-fucking-hem.

Our only chance fell to Cresswell, who was beautifully found in acres of space by Andy Carroll, but was so surprised by this turn of events that he promptly forgot how to use his legs. His resulting shot was ballooned miles over the bar and was so overhit that it almost made it into the seats behind the goal.

Our wide man Sofiane Feghouli was so useless that the only player to complete fewer passes in the final third of the pitch was City keeper, Willy Caballero which, if you're following along at home, means that he managed less completions than Darren Randolph. That - as the kids say - is fucked up.

Aside from this, or perhaps because of it, we looked completely clueless as to how we were ever going to score. I recall a game against Man City back in October 2010 when we lost 3-1 and spent the first hour looking totally inept. This was during the Allardici "no striker" period when Allardyce played with six midfielders and just said "we won 3-0 at Spurs" when anyone pointed out that this meant we had stopped scoring. Even that night, when we had no fucking strikers, we still eventually scored and had a bit of a go.

Everyone has a different tolerance for losing games, and I'd like to think mine is pretty high but at the very least I expect my team to have a vague idea of how they intend to win the match. It is my fearless prediction that these constant surrenders at home to any team with even a semblance of something about them, will eventually cost Bilic his job.

4. The Lessons

What was very evident from the first whistle tonight was that there was no coherence to our defensive play. Forget for a moment the lack of attacking intent and ponder instead the failure to get even remotely close to City after they scored their first.

In contrast to the visitors there was no pressure on the ball, and if you don't press then you must be compact and difficult to break down and we weren't doing that either. Instead the team operated in some sort of strange hinterland where nobody marked and nobody hassled and David Silva strolled around majestically in a Hawaiian shirt and a flip flops like he was playing on a beach in Brazil. I'm going to be so excited when Sullivan tries to sign him in five years.

Much of this confusion stems from our formation which, having watched the game both live and in highlight form, I still can't really fathom out. Carroll definitely played up front and behind him we had some sort of interpretive dance movement whereby Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini fluttered around like Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream whilst Feghouli stood motionless on the wing as if traumatised by the whole thing.

It's easy to say that the big pitch or our slow players aren't well suited to pressing but I think this misses the point. It's our defensive structure that isn't working. Pressing needs to be done at the right time, in the right situation and with a co-ordinated plan where players aren't too isolated when they make the decision to go and challenge the ball. What we currently have is a mishmash, where the immobile Carroll can't really do it against good ball playing defenders, and as a result our midfielders are getting pulled all over the place. In turn, when we do manage to break we can't transition with any pace because players aren't where they need to be, and generally we're fucking clueless on the ball unless Lanzini has it. So against crap teams we can get away with it, and against good teams we keep getting skewered.

This is born out by the fact that in matches against the current bottom half we have a record of P11 W7 D1 L3 but against the top ten it reads P12 W1 D3 L8. Yowzers. We have become a team for the small occasion, and the only reason we have a win against a "good" team is because Burnley have somehow snuck into tenth.

What this tells me is that we have a method which works against weak teams, and have been unusually clinical in finishing them off, but we have nothing to offer against anyone half decent. This can't continue - I understand that we're going to lose more often than not to teams like Man City given the huge advantages they enjoy, but we've just played them twice in a month and got schooled both times. We're not getting any closer, we're getting further away and that, more than anything, is a cause for concern.

5. Corner Boys

Having gone into the transfer window needing a right back and a centre forward, we bought a winger and a centre half. This is genius stuff from the Board who have sensibly realised that the way to win football games is to do what your opponents least expect. Centre halves when you need full backs, play a lion in goal, have everybody in the ticket office type using their weaker hand, sell drones instead of food at concession stands. That kind of thing.

So, for the second consecutive window we failed to get a right back, leaving Sam Byram a free run at the position for the rest of the season. In truth I'm not opposed to that, given that this season is a slowly smouldering bonfire and we are playing for nothing other than prize money, which will only be wasted on agents fees anyway.

So Byram gets a 15 match audition in which to state his case, and if he gets injured then we'll be back to asking people to do jobs they aren't qualified for, which sort of seems normal now that Donald Trump is President of America.

On the other side, Cresswell is having the worst season of his West Ham career. He was injured to start the campaign and it's entirely possible that rushing him back hasn't helped. I have seen a few calls for Arthur Masuaku to be given a run in his stead, but the last time I saw him he was moving like he was on smack, so I don't see how that would be an improvement. Cresswell would probably benefit from having a genuine wide player in front of him which I suppose Robert Snodgrass is, even if Bilic played him on the right when he brought him on, because anything else would have been stupid.

The overarching theme is that without functioning full backs, teams can't survive in modern football. Look at Spurs and Chelsea, who use their wide defenders in different systems but to very similar effect. Cresswell did that superbly last season and if he could get back to that form again, and Byram can start to develop into the player we hope he can be, then we would have something on which to base the massive summer overhaul that is required. The genuinely worrying thing is that we have been searching for additional right sided cover for two windows and Sullivan hasn't been able to unearth anybody. I suspect I may return to this point.

6. All Due Respect

The only home player to really emerge with much credit from tonight was Antonio who played in his odd new position, flitting between the wing and the second striker role, and worked gamely in the most lost of causes.

Emmanuel Emenike sighting, folks

I would love to say something positive about Reid and Fonte, who at least kept working until the and but we conceded four goals in a defensive clusterfuck that would have been startling if it wasn't for the fact that this was the sixth time we've conceded at least four this season, and the fourth time at home. At some point we might need to accept that shuffling keepers, recruiting new centre halves and praying to St Christopher might not be the answer to our problems. Our defensive structure isn't working but it would probably also help us immensely if our back four could tackle.

7. The Buys

Alright, you knew this was coming. I'm about to go off on one about our January transfer window. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before.

How to assess our January work, then? Well, in isolation the players we brought in will probably improve the team. Snodgrass is not a patch on Payet, but the latter wanted out so he will probably provide better results than the uninterested Frenchman would have done. Likewise Fonte will replace the injured Ogbonna and is undoubtably a better player than the alternative, James Collins.

But, between them they set us back £18m and will stay on the payroll for the next three seasons despite Fonte being 33 and Snodgrass being 29. My apologies if you follow me on Twitter and saw me rant about this last week but I think it bears repeating. I did a little research and decided to compare our transfer policy to Southampton and Spurs.

Both are loosely similar to us in that they don't win much but have some money, are well established Premier League teams and are looking to break into the upper echelons of the league. Spurs have surged ahead in this latter regard, but these were the gaps that the stadium move was supposed to help bridge.

Well, here's how many players that each of them have signed in the last four years who are as old as either Snodgrass or Fonte:

Spurs - none
Southampton - none

One has to go back to 2012 to find Spurs signing outfield players as old as 29 (Clint Dempsey) or 33 (Ryan Nelson). For Southampton it's 2011 (Hooiveld) and 2009 (Jaidi) respectively.

Those statistics don't have to mean anything, but they do. Our competitors do not make signings of this type anymore, and instead we've made three this season alone. I actually don't mind the idea that we might be doing something contrary to popular thinking if I thought it was because our brains trust had hit upon some market inefficiency that others had yet to exploit. But of course that's not what this is - it's a case of David Sullivan getting the life scared out of him by our summer disasters and instantly reverting back to a market he thinks he knows. And lo and behold, two wildly over the top transfer fees later, we have two ageing players we may not need beyond the end of this season and around £30m committed to buying and paying them.

You know how there is always a team around that everybody else just points at, laughs and wonders what on earth they're doing? Congratulations - you support them.

And those are the intimate details of the Reece Oxford deal, don't mention them on the radio or anything will you, good lad

Sullivan then followed up his latest masterstrokes with the quote "Robert is British and is proven in the Premier League and I must say we'd like to sign a few more British players". 

This makes perfect sense to me having watched multiple World Cups, European Championships, Champions Leagues and Europa Leagues the overriding feeling that I am always left with is that British players are by some distance the best on the planet.

Sure, the only world class one plays in Spain but if you get the opportunity to snap up a guy who has played for Leeds, Norwich and Hull then you bloody well take it.

I despair. I despair of the short sightedness of this bullshit policy that Sullivan is now espousing. Being British and having Premier League experience wasn't required for Kouyate or Payet. They were good buys because they were good players. Alli, Arnatouvic, Van Dijk, Tadic, Rondon - all were brought into the Premier League from elsewhere and all hit the ground running. Each of them were affordable and would have improved our team.

That said, tragically, he actually had it right for a couple of years when he let Tony Henry have free reign and we signed players from overseas and the lower leagues and largely steered clear of paying over the odds for domestic players. That all changed this summer when our recruitment went awry and Andre Ayew was signed in a deadline beating frenzy for a mystifying £20.5m and has now been supplemented by these new buys. £40m on Ayew, Snodgrass and Fonte, two of whom play in the same position. You have to get up pretty early to outsmart Sullivan, yessiree.

Rather than look at their recruitment process and decide that the thinking was right, but the execution was poor we have now instead reverted back to the old Sullivan Birmingham mantra. New signings have a huge whiff of "Ooh, I've heard of him" about them and as a result we're getting screwed on fees. Consequently we're getting older, slower and more expensive just as everyone else is getting younger, fitter and cheaper.

If you're doing something different to everybody else in your field then you're either leading it or you are trailing behind. I know where I think we are.

8. Moral Midgetry

This is horrendously inappropriate and just confirms the long held suspicion that we are a joke club. It may have got four thousand likes from the Megabantz crowd but it's an awful reflection on our club. I'll say no more - I already feel like a bully.

9. Storm Warnings

Er, let's just back the fuck up here a minute shall we?

We sold our soul for this. I'm not getting into the rights or wrongs of the move, but nobody can deny the irrevocable change that has been visited upon our club. We gave up our spiritual home, our history and our distinct home pitch advantage to come to the London Stadium.

Somehow there seems to be this misconception that because we've got this bright new stadium and a huge digital wrap, and 60,000 seats that now it's time to pay our side of the bargain. The board gave us a new house - and now we have to turn up and make it a home.

Well, I'm sorry, but that's the wrong way round. We allowed them to move us and now they need to repay us with a team worthy of that sacrifice. The house might be bigger but it's an athletics stadium, and it comes with a lot of problems. As I took twenty minutes to walk from one side of the ground to the other last night due to the bottlenecks, as I saw the biblical queues for the concessions stand, as I sat on the broken down, ancient TFL train at Stratford, the very furthest thing from my mind was the phrase "world class".

However, I'd accept all of that if I saw progress. If I saw cutting edge, industry leading thinking that was putting a young, dynamic, fearless team on the pitch. I'd accept the shit food, the crap acoustics and the lousy view if only I could see the team was actually taking that mythical next step.

But I don't. I see a board that haven't got the self awareness to see their own failings on the football side of the business, doomed to continue repeating them, wasting millions as they go.

And losing 5-1 at home to Arsenal and now 5-0 and 4-0 to City is shameful. We were risible in those games, and the thought of what Spurs and Liverpool will do to us at season end terrifies me.

The only way this stadium move will work is if the team takes a step forward. If we're just going to meekly roll over for the bigger boys and just point to their annual turnover when asked why, then we might as well have stayed put. At least Upton Park had an atmosphere.

The board might not be prepared to accept this, but I see a lot of fans as still being in "wait and see" mode. This is a dead season, so they had better be planning for the summer with the intention of looking to drastically improve rather than just supplement this team.

And this weeks peerless setting up of Bilic has been incredibly obvious too. Everything was publicly declared to be the choice of the manager. No striker, no right back, no turning down the ear splitting PA? All down to Bilic. Keep an eye on Rafa Benitez at Newcastle - there is previous, he's unhappy and they're targeting Bilic. I wonder.....

10. The Wire

You might recall that last week I (correctly) pointed out that the second series of seminal US crime drama The Wire was the best in the run. Indeed, the eagle eyed among you may have recognised the theme for this weeks article as a result. In any case, several people disagreed with me, leading me to run a poll on Twitter to establish once and for all that I was correct the will of the people.

As you can see from the embedded tweet above, it's impossible to tell how many people voted, but I gotta tell you folks it looked like maybe a million, a million and a half took part. And as you can see, the correct answer is Season 2.

And that, is the nearest I have come to a victory in the last week.


A Plea

I don't usually do this sort of thing as it's fraught with danger but I saw something while researching this article and thought West Ham fans would want to know. Former youth team player Amos Nasha faces being made homeless as a result of losing both his parents.

Details are here and there is a JustGiving page here if you wanted to donate anything to the cause.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Middlesbrough 1 - 3 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

1. One Day Like This

Well, that was quite a weekend for the human race. It's somewhat ironic that as we discovered that time travel indeed is an impossibility - as a Fascist took control of the free world with nobody coming back to stop him - West Ham turned the clock back a year and produced the sort of performance that propelled us into the upper reaches of the league last year.

And don't pretend you don't come here for that kind of seamless transition between biting political comment and fairly obvious footballing observation.

Andy Carroll now out for six weeks with crucifixion-like injuries

Tenuous links aside, this did rather feel like a return to last season as we set up with Bilic's preferred 4-2-3-1 and an honest to goodness right back, in Sam Byram. We rode our luck at times, but our fluid counter attacking ability was evident from start to finish, and we defended stoutly enough to repel Middlesbrough when the need arose. 

It is also worth noting that this win took place on the icy tundras of the frozen North, where so many previous West Ham sides have been rent asunder. In reality, Middlesbrough aren't a great team but they are difficult to beat, and certainly difficult to score against and any way you cut it, this was an excellent win. 

2. First Steps

We started this game with unusual brio and could have been ahead after a couple of minutes when Cresswell and Lanzini combined dreamily down the left, but Antonio could only flick the formers' fizzing cross wide.

It mattered not as Andy Carroll soon rose to meet a Lanzini corner with a thunderous header to make it 1-0. Custom dictates that I refer to it as a "towering header" but that doesn't really do it justice. This was a skyscraper of a header, an Empire State, a Burj Khalifa, a Shard of a header. It was fucking magnificent. If you haven't seen it, try and picture a Sherman tank cresting a Normandy hedgerow in 1944 and rolling over a Middlesbrough shirted Wehrmacht division in the process. That's what it was like.

Andy Carroll scores his first

If his goal last week was a thing of technical beauty, then this was a great example to young kids of how sheer bloody minded determination goes a long way. Nothing was going to stop him crashing Lanzini's cross in, and who can blame him having waited all season for a corner that actually cleared the first man.

In fairness to Middlesbrough, they fought back gamely and their equaliser was marvellous. Christhian Stuani is a footballing broken clock, useful only twice a season and sadly both of those times have been against us. Here he slotted home a Calum Chambers cross after a brilliant, sweeping eight man move, and deservedly drew the home side level. It should be noted that at the time he scored, our two centre backs were arguing on the halfway line about which is the best series of The Wire (which is mental because it's clearly season 2) but I digress - it was a cracking goal.

Rather than fold, however, we regained a foothold and right on half time our pissed Geordie llama was on hand to slam home the rebound after a long range Antonio shot was parried.

So far, so good, and despite injuries to Noble and Carroll, we held on for the win and even found time to break away and snatch a third. In fairness to the lads they made things interesting by trying every conceivable method of fucking it up before, eventually, Lanzini picked out Jonathan Calleri whose deflected shot sealed the points.

I've been critical of Calleri's signing, and one deflected shot doesn't amount to much, but if this goal gives him the confidence to show us what he can truly do, rather than the pale imitation of his talent that we've seen so far, then that would be a very good thing indeed.

3. High Ideals

After this game, the Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka took the unusual step of slagging off the home crowd, apparently for demanding that his team play long balls. I strongly suspect that this wasn't what was irking the home fans but I'll leave that for better qualified folks than me to determine.

What is clear is that criticising his own fans doesn't detract from the fact that we created far better chances than his team, and that 3-1 wasn't a particularly flattering scoreline. Aside from the shot map shown below, created by the excellent @11tegen11 , there was also a fairly clear penalty claim for a clumsy first half challenge on Sofiane Feghouli that should really have been given.

What is noticeable about this map is that it shows how we have started to create good chances in the opposition box again. The three goals all had decent xG ratings, the aforementioned Antonio chance was also a good one and Lanzini burst into the box early in the second half and fluffed his lines with just the keeper to beat. I'm not about to suggest that we don't miss Payet, but if we can replicate this level of performance against teams better than Palace and Middlesbrough then there is cause for cautious optimism.

None of which is to suggest that the home side didn't have their chances, as they certainly did. Randolph pulled off an excellent second half save from Stuani, and Cresswell somehow managed to casually flick a dangerous cross on to Stuani and then the bar from all of about 4 yards out. I described Cresswell as "misplacing both a pass and his cerebrum" during my column the Hull game, and to be honest I'm not sure he's found it yet. Christ only knows how this one stayed out, but stay out it did and Middlesbrough gradually faded into the night.

It was that kind of day - some heroically stoic defending, allied to some luck at last. I'll take it - we've been due some for a while.

4. The Fix

So is Sam Byram the answer at right back? I thought he played reasonably well today, and looked a bit more comfortable against the fearsome pace of Adama Traore than Cresswell. The Middlesbrough man is reportedly set to join Chelsea and it's easy to see why, as his speed and trickery caused us headaches all day. Byram had his own struggles but he did enough to hold things together, and just the increased solidity of having a natural right back injected some structure into our play.

No longer was our right side a desolate wasteland of conservative decision making and poor passing. Here, Byram held his position well and got forward in support of Feghouli on a number of occasions. He's not Cafu reborn, and I'd still buy another right back as soon as possible, but the difference between him and the willing likes of Nordtveit and Antonio is night and day.

I see a couple of problems that need to be addressed, however. One is that he gets booked constantly. He has 8 in 15 appearances for us, or put another way it's easier to book Sam Byram than a Bruce Springsteen tribute band for a presidential inauguration. If he carries on at that rate he would pick up about 20 bookings a season, which is ludicrous.

Problem two is that he struggles to stay fit, and that's why I would like to see us pick up an alternative. Staying healthy is a skill for footballers, and Byram hasn't shown much of it so far. I like the fact that he is young, and I would hope to see him improve defensively as he ages and gets exposed to, theoretically, better coaching but he has to be able to make it on to the pitch more often than he currently does.

5. The Bones Of You

Speaking of people who have their own MRI units reserved for them, Andy Carroll was superb in this game. Say what you will about his mobility or his fitness, but when Carroll is in the mood and we are playing to his strengths he is hard to resist.

There was a nice fluidity about our formation here as Antonio frequently pushed up alongside him to turn our 4-2-3-1 into more of a 4-4-2, and in the first half they combined on a number of occasions to advance the play. I've already mentioned his goals but Carroll's hold up play was also excellent, and his ability to retain possession and bring support runners into the game was crucial to us regaining the ascendancy.

It's also noticeable, however, that Carroll has a tendency to drop deep when we are under pressure. Maybe it's frustration at being isolated, maybe it's a willingness to help out when things are tough but it was on display here again. I applaud his desire to help his team but it seems slightly circular for a centre forward to drop back to relieve pressure when the reality is that without an outlet up the pitch it's hard to get back on the front foot.

Naturally, with Carroll being Carroll he was an injury doubt going into this game having suffered whiplash whilst scoring his overhead kick last week. This might actually be the single most ridiculous injury of all time, beating even the occasion that Alec Stepney dislocated his jaw yelling at his defenders, but Carroll still played until pulling up with an almost disappointingly prosaic "tight groin" in the second half.

I remain unconvinced about how successful Carroll will be against the better teams in the division, especially given the way that he meandered around for 90 minutes against Man City looking about as useful as a sundial in Scotland.

On days like today, however, when the opposition aren't so good and we can flood runners forward to support him, then Carroll remains a remarkably potent striking option. I'd still be buying a striker in this window, given that he remains unlikely to stay fit for extended periods, but these last two weeks have shown exactly why Bilic is so enamoured of his pissed Geordie threshing machine.

6. My Sad Captains

With Cheikou Kouyate off laughing for Senegal for the month, it fell to Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang to marshal our midfield. Noble is clearly our on field leader, whilst Obiang was revealed this week as the administrator of the teams WhatsApp chat, and therefore is the de facto dressing room boss as far as I'm concerned.

I ain't adding you to shit, Dimitri

Here they were asked to do double duty as they had to frequently scamper over to the wings to try and double up on the rocket fuelled Traore and whilst it wasn't pretty, they sort of managed it. In truth it was Obiang who did most of the hard yards, but Noble did his bit too, and it was noticeable that we seemed to lose some direction when he was forced off injured after a shitty challenge from Bernardo.

Edmilson Fernandes is a good young player and will eventually cement a place in this team but he sometimes gets lost in games like these, looking as out of place as decent match in the BBC's FA Cup live schedule.

What Noble brings is control and a better understanding of the role than Fernandes. What the young Swiss offers is the legs to get up and support the forwards, as he showed with his part in the third goal. What Kouyate offers is the combination of both, and the reality is that once he gets back from Gabon, he and Obiang should be given the chance to build a partnership in the middle of the park.

7. Charge

Whisper it quietly but we might actually be in form. It's hard to think that, given that we are two weeks removed from being pancaked 5-0 at home by Man City, and we haven't signed anybody in the transfer window to fix our two most pressing needs, but still I think we might actually be in form. We've won five of our last seven league games and going into the the second half of the season, most projection systems give us around a 2% chance of being relegated. Or, put another way, roughly the same percentage chance that the new Fifty Shades Darker film will be watchable.

At least part of the problem with this is that two of those wins were the abominations against Hull and Burnley, whilst we've subsequently thumped Swansea, Palace and now Middlesbrough, who make up five of the current bottom eight.

What would really get me excited would be if we could beat somebody good. We're not alone in struggling against the top six, as they've been walloping everyone all year, but the curious nature of our fixture list does throw up an intriguing second half of the season. With the odd exception we are basically playing the top half of the division at home, and the bottom half away. That is exactly how you would draw it up if you had the choice, and if we could ever return to something resembling our home form last year we would actually have a good chance to press up the league.

That is easier said than done, of course, as we've been largely abysmal at home all year but perhaps the removal of Payet, or the general acclimatisation to the new digs, or the sense of freedom of mid table mediocrity, or perhaps all three, will galvanise us into some better home performances. With the exception of a trip to the Emirates there are no remaining away games to put fear into the soul and, without wishing to get too carried away by a win at Middlesbrough, for the first time in ages I can actually see glimpses of a structure to our play that makes sense. The caveats about Carroll apply, and better teams won't let him run uncontested through their box to head in corners, but let's not get too wrapped up in logic. We're seventh in the Premier League form table after all.

8. Any Day Now

I could have written the entire H List about the signing of Jose Fonte from Southampton, as it's so interesting. With twenty days of the transfer window gone I was beginning to get concerned at the lack of stupid moves, but thankfully with a mere ten days to go we pulled it out of the bag. In came 33 year old Fonte for £8m on a two and a half year deal worth a reported 70k a week, with a potential further £1m potentially payable and the player holding an option for an extra year.

Alien ship lands on the London Stadium pitch, two miles behind Jose Fonte

So if you're keeping track at home that's £8m up front, a further £1m down the line, potentially £13m in wages, another £1.7m in employers NIC if we're going to be picky, and agents fees because there are always fucking agents fees with Sullivan. So all up then, about £24m. For a 33 year old.

Don't get me wrong when I say that Fonte is an excellent player. I mean that - he really is. If you were going to put together a side from outside the traditional big teams in the Premier League it would be either him or Reid partnering Alderweireld in the centre half berths. To have them both together is going to be sweet, for about six months. He was also part of the triumphant Portuguese side last summer at Euro 2016, a leader, an experienced Premier League player and generally there's not much about him that won't improve us.

But he's 33 years old. So even though we're now going to have him around for the next couple of years he's probably not going to be any use to us after about a year. We're not even buying the last bit of his prime before he starts to decline - we're buying the decline phase of his decline phase. It's a fucking mental purchase.

Subsequent to Fonte arriving, it was revealed that Angelo Ogbonna is going to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, which at least explained why we'd signed a centre half when we so evidently need help elsewhere first. But even that pisses me off. In a normal club, the scenario would play out something like this:

Medic: "Angelo Ogbonna has hurt his knee and will miss the rest of the season"
Bilic: "Hasn't he been playing with a knee injury for ages? That seems fucking stupi-"
Medic: (Softly presses fingers to Bilic's lips) - "Hush now Slav. Let's go and see the chairman"
Bilic: "Why? He's the Chairman, not the Director of Fo-"
Medic: "Not how it works, Slav. You know that."
(They enter David Sullivan's office)
Bilic: "Boss we need a new centre half"
David Sullivan: "Well, that's nothing to do with me lads. Get down the corridor to see our shit hot new Director of Football so I can concentrate on tasks more commonly associated with club chairmen"
Bilic: (to the Medic) "I told you. Dickhead"
(They enter the Director of Football's office)
Bilic: "Boss, we need a new centre half"
Director of Football: (opens up an impressive database) "Here you go Slav. That's my list of all the best young players in Europe in each position. I have them ranked into categories such as "Now", "12 months", "36 months" and so on, to indicate when I estimate they could be ready for our first team. We have tactical, technical and psychological reports on each of them, and they are filtered to show which ones I think would best fit our playing style. There's video analysis of all of them too, in case you want to take a look".
Bilic: "Blimey, that's impressive. You must've had some help from a few agents or Jack Sullivan's YouTube collection to pull all that together, did you?"
Director of Football: (looks perplexed) "What? No. I used scouts and high level data analysis like every other leading professional football club in the world. What are you on about?"
Bilic: "Do you at least have their Championship Manager ratings?"
Director of Football: "I knew I should have joined Swindon"

But of course that didn't happen here. With a 2% chance of being relegated, this is the absolute perfect season in which to take a punt, either on Reece Oxford or a new young player brought in from outside. Instead, Sullivan reverted to what he does best. He rang up some agents and paid way over the odds for a player he'd heard of before, saddling us with a contract that will be an albatross a year from now.

This is what drives me mad about our current setup. Sullivan looked at the disasters of the summer and decided he wanted to get in players with Premier League experience rather than risk yet more unproven foreigners. But that is flawed thinking of the worst kind, and the sort of shit that he wouldn't get away with if anyone was holding him to account. It shifts the blame for poor decisions away from those who made the decisions and on to the process. See folks, it's not my judgement that is to blame - I was just shopping in the wrong market.

So here we are, trying to buy players from English clubs, which is universally known as the least economic way to do business imaginable. I cannot understand how the Club couldn't identify a younger centre half to buy with that money. If you want to know why other Clubs have suddenly surged ahead of us, here is your answer. We are never prepared, even though players can get whiplash, get malaria, require season ending knee surgery or go on strike at any time. In fairness, for most clubs that would be a years worth of injuries whereas for us that just the last week, but it only adds to the point - why aren't we ready for it given it happens so often?

This bullshit, this lack of intellectual clout, this failure of management, this lack of analytic, agile thinking is why we are falling further behind our rivals. You will never, ever see teams like Spurs or Liverpool making moves like this and whilst I know I'm going to be grateful for Fonte when we play Manchester City in a week, I'm also know I'm going to stare at him in bewilderment for a long time afterward. Like some statue in honour of the all encompassing stupidity of our decision making.

I don't know how to say this any more. FOOTBALL GET DIRECTOR OF FUCKING A.

9. Magnificent (She Says)

So you may have read this week that Karren Brady hosted a meeting of prominent West Ham bloggers, websites and video bloggers. I wasn't invited, quite reasonably, as I have a readership that could fit in a canoe and I really only care about three off the field issues:

a) the bullshit Plus 2 scheme;
b) the fact that certain seats at the London Stadium are closer to the Upton Park pitch than this one; and
c) that, and I don't mention this very often, we don't have a competent Director of Football.

None of these things are within Brady's gift to do anything about. She can't reverse time, change the laws of physics or fire her boss, so it would be pointless to discuss them.

So I get why I wasn't there, and although I would have enjoyed the opportunity to have heard the conversation, I also understand why the Club chose to engage with the biggest sites to reach the highest number of people possible.

As most of you know, The H List is now effectively syndicated at KUMB, and so I'm a little biased when I say that I think Graeme did a good job of going to the meeting prepared. He had a thread running on the forum for a while, which generated a lot of responses and seems to have been a framework for the discussion, although others who were actually there may disagree. The KUMB summary is here and from what I understand Brady has already begun addressing some of the points raised. Say what you will about Brady, and plenty do, but I really do struggle to see why some dislike her quite so vehemently. If this isn't an example of her engaging with fans then I don't really know what is.

Amusingly, apparently the genesis of the meeting was a discussion between Jack Sullivan and the Clubs's PR manager. The most shocking part of that being not that our owners teenage son is brokering fan engagement, but that the Club actually employ a PR manager.

One observation I would raise is that it's slightly dangerous ground to start assuming that simply because people write blogs or make videos about West Ham, that they are automatically representative of fans. The last video I saw that purported to represent me was that bullshit open letter  to the board which seemed to be premised around the Club never attempting to win anything. Cheers guys, thanks very much for that. If only we were worse.

This, of course, is the great democracy of the internet. Everybody has a say, everybody has a voice, and if it's your thing to watch one hour videos on YouTube of people discussing West Ham then that is now available to you. A couple of these videos have been produced in respect of this meeting, and you can doubtless find them if you want them. Honestly, I can't link to them here as I found them unwatchable, but if that's your thing then they're out there.

All of which brings me on to something connected to this. If those sites (and this one) aren't really the voice of the fans then who is? Well, in recent weeks a group of fans have set up an independent West Ham supporters association. I've been watching from a distance so I'm not best placed to comment but I'm led to understand that we are the last Premier League team without such an organisation. You can visit them here or here and read more about it. What appeals to me is that they're saying it will be a democratic organisation aimed at representing the fans.

That said, one issue that concerns me is that WHUISA haven't really told us what they want to do yet, or given examples of those ambitions. Purporting to "represent the aims of the fans" is fine, but it's opaque enough that it does lead to the minute possibility that you could pay your £5 subs and turn up to the next game to find a load of "No blacks, No Irish" leaflets having been handed out. Now that might actually be the only way we'll ever feasibly beat Everton again, but it's not something that any West Ham fan is going to want to be associated with.

But let's assume that the people in question aren't attempting to invoke Oswald Moseley and instead simply want to represent the ordinary fan. They have a paradoxical situation right now where they want to represent their members aims but are still trying to gain members and understand their aims,  so I can see why they might be a little light on detail.

My hope is that they have an election (some female candidates would be good), gather the thoughts of their members and take them to the Supporters Advisory Board (*), which I believe is scheduled for next week. It may not seem like it's relevant to you, but if there ever comes a time when you're banned for standing in the wrong place, or your disabled relative is left sitting in the rain waiting for a bus, or your child is left inside the ground while your malfunctioning ticket keeps you outside, then I can see that a Supporters Group with access to the Club would be a powerful ally.

I haven't paid yet - I want to know what the aims are in more specific detail - so I'm not suggesting anybody sign up or do anything other than read a bit and find out more. I don't say any of this in the spirit of creating an organisation to go to war with the Club, in fact quite the opposite. I suspect that a proper voice for fans would help the Club a great deal, and after all, that's what we all want.

The next two years, after all, could feel be the most important in the our history. We have a small window now, before Spurs and Chelsea move into stadia that are better then ours to branch out and establish ourselves as a bigger club than we currently are. As soon as the new White Hart Lane is open with it's huge stands, steep rake to the pitch, bakeries and 86 metre bars, I think it's going to be very uncomfortable for the board to explain away quite why they thought the London Stadium was good for football.

I'm not sure why Spurs think they need a bakery in a football ground, but then again they spent £30m on Moussa Sissoko so who knows why they do anything.

(*) I accept that maybe the SAB is supposed to do all this anyway, but I still have no idea what they do.

10. The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

I'm going to make you sing Salt'N'Pepa.