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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Southampton 3 - 2 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

It's impossible, it feels to me, to be able to accurately convey the feeling of being a West Ham fan to other people. We can try, certainly, but the reality is that all football fans are convinced they are on a rollercoaster journey of zeniths and nadirs that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. There are Manchester United fans who will genuinely look you in the eye and tell you without irony that it is agony supporting their team, despite the fact that the entire sport is geared towards making sure they win. That's just the essence of being a fan. We all need to feel it's a glorious test of loyalty.


A look that just screams "experienced, error free defending"

But this game... this game might just be the very essence of supporting West Ham. The perfect distillation of agony and ecstasy, bravery and incompetence, Hernandez and Fonte, stupid David Sullivan decisions and even stupider David Sullivan decisions. I want you to pull up a chair, sit down there, pull on your Robert Snodgrass replica top and let me tell you about the day that West Ham went to St Mary's and West Hammed the absolute almighty fuck out of this game of football. 

***

The story begins months ago, in March 2015, when Winston Reid signed a new six and a half year deal with the club. This would have taken him to his age 33 season which everybody knows is when centre backs are just about to hit their prime. Because of this our genius Director of Football, Professor David Sullivan, decided that we also needed to buy out another two years of Reid's career meaning that on the cusp of this game he signed yet another contract extension. This pointless endeavour now means that we get to pay Reid right the way up until he is 35 years old. Remember gang, long term planning is for wusses. 

The way you can tell this is a good idea, by the way, is simply by checking how many 35 year old centre backs started in the Premier League this weekend. None. Boy, it feels great to be a trailblazer. West Ham, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, flush with his new contract Reid promptly got injured in the warm up for this game because of course he fucking did. There is nothing more West Ham in the universe than new signings getting stretchered off, even when they're just contract extensions.

Into the team came Angelo Ogbonna, himself a recent recipient of a long term extension whilst recovering from an operation, who had been dropped after doing a passable impersonation of a kindly doorman at Old Trafford last week - "None shall pass! Except you! And you! Oh go on then, you too!". So one game into the season, half of the back four who had presumably been training together all pre season were out. We were rapidly approaching peak West Ham and the game hadn't even bloody started. 

***

It's been a bad week for statues in the South. In the US they are wanting to pull down these unmoving, rigid monuments to another time, and replace them with something more appropriate. At West Ham we just buy them from Southampton for £8m. And so it was that Jose Fonte had a first half here that could have been painted by Hieronymous Bosch, so hellish was it. 


Jose Fonte marks Manolo Gabbiadini for the opening goal

Despite having stocked up on cod liver oil before the start, Jose looked miles off the pace. Saints hadn't scored at home since April, but if doctors were going to prescribe treatment for such ailments this West Ham team would be at the top of the list. As such it took all of eleven minutes for Manolo Gabbiadini to run in behind the Portuguese and score the exact same goal he scored against us in February. On another day I might have questioned Joe Hart's positioning but until he plays with an actual back four in front of him there's no point making any judgements. 

Things somehow got worse from there as we looked hopelessly ineffective going forward and totally disorganised defensively. Southampton could have had a second before Marko Arnautovic - another of Professor Sullivan's new arrivals - decided that the only possible way to improve things was to elbow Jack Stephens in the face. It led to a deserved red card, and in reality is the kind of incident where the perpetrator can consider himself lucky to only get a three match ban. On a day when our new signings seemed to forget they were no longer at their previous clubs, the Austrian went full Stoke at the moment we least needed it. 

Arnautovic's lapse was so brainless that it would almost four minutes before any other West Ham player did something so stupid. This time, Fonte got himself the wrong side of Steven Davis and made up for it by dragging him down by the neck. It was a blatant penalty and even though Dusan Tadic - the worst penalty taker in the universe - took the kick it deflected off Hart and in. 

***

The first thirty eight minutes of this game were a painful dagger to the notion that this West Ham team is going to be different. On a day when the sun was broiling, and the heat was like a character in the action that needed to be acknowledged and factored into the plot, this was supposed to be the day our season started. Many fans were content to write off the opening day debacle at Old Trafford - you can't expect to win there, they said. If we can't expect to win there with a team bought and constructed with the sole purpose of winning right now then we'll never win there, I thought, but that's an argument for another day.

The weather was glorious. Players were returning. Hope was rising. This was the start. 

It should have been a home game, of course. If it had, you rather fancy things might have turned out differently. It's rare for teams to concede two penalties and have a player sent off in a home match, even in a stadium as sterile as ours. On another day, in our postcode, it is possible Tadic wouldn't have even been on the pitch to take his penalty. His early mistimed lunge at Hernandez might have returned a different colour card if fifty thousand home fans had been able to give their opinion on it. As it was, referee Lee Mason waved a yellow and cultivated the sense of injustice that seemingly led Arnautovic to remove his cerebrum. 

At 2-0 and a man down, it was impossible to see a way back. Only proper teams fight back from such situations. Teams who are organised, pacey and motivated can face such odds and defy them. This just isn't in the West Ham DNA, to be honest. In my thirty years of watching, such comebacks can be counted on one hand, like the number of actual jokes in the entire run of The Big Bang Theory. True West Ham fans were hunkering down, preparing for the worst. Maybe keep it to 4-0 against this team who haven't scored in 500 minutes and that won't be a bad result. We'll go again next week. We always do well at Newcastle, don't we?

And then, hope. 

***

Let's face it, if the first half of this game was everything shit about supporting West Ham, then the second was the reason we all go. This was a reason to believe. This was life affirming.

Michail Antonio has been out for months. He started this game, somewhat surprisingly but then between injuries and the failure of Professor Sullivan's January arrival - Snodgrass - we're a bit light on wide players. Antonio eased his way into the action, but when we needed him most he stood up like Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society. "Oh captain, my captain. I'll do your running". A man light, he simply took on the work of two men and began to carry the ball through the weak looking home midfield with energy and purpose. 


West Ham's second half. Fuckin' A

Our first came on the cusp of half time, when Antonio had no right to turn or shoot but managed to do both, and Fraser Forster parried weakly for Hernandez to score the kind of unremarkable but entirely necessary goal that it feels we have been doing without for years. 

At 2-1 down, there wasn't much more reason to believe than the simple fact that that's what we're supposed to do, but the second half was different in almost every way. Where we lacked cohesiveness and purpose we now had unity and ambition. Antonio was doing yeoman labour, but Hernandez was covering himself in glory too. Shifted to an unfamiliar left sided position he dutifully did his defensive work and when the time came, made slamming home the equaliser look far easier than it was.

The truth of that second half is that we were as good then as we were inept in the first. Young Declan Rice and Mark Noble held the midfield and Cresswell and Zabaleta coped manfully with the twin Southampton creative threats of Redmond and Tadic. Indeed, it was only when James Ward-Prowse joined the fray that the home side looked like being an attacking threat again. There was no pace to our play particularly - there can't be with such a slow team - but through repeated and persistent knocking on the door Cresswell and Sakho prised it open just enough for the Little Pea to slip through and give us hope. A comeback from absolutely nowhere, the kind to have you belting out "Bubbles" long into the night, and falling headfirst back in love with everything you believed when you first fell in love with football.

West Ham, ladies and gentlemen. 

***

Remember though, we're telling the story of West Ham here, a walking Greek tragedy of a football team. Whilst it's easy to blame the late lapse on some sort of lifelong gypsy hex, the reality is the team were exhausted by their efforts with ten men and a pre season fitness regime that seems to have produced a team in the image of Dawn French. It's almost as though playing German third division teams isn't great preparation for the Premier League. 


West Ham are about to salvage a point, you say?

And so it came to pass that a long, searching Ward-Prowse pass arced into our area with just seconds to go. The target was home centre back Maya Yoshida, who would have needed to have been Spiderman to have actually done anything with it. At that precise moment, it was possible to see why Professor Sullivan was so keen to sign 32 year old Zabaleta. The Argentine used all his experience to usher the ball out of play and shepherd us to an unlikely, but season launching point. Except he didn't. Of course he fucking didn't. 

I can see Zabaleta's point of view. He's been making that challenge for years at Manchester City and not getting pinged for it. Had he been playing for Manchester City in this game it wouldn't have been given. It was a marginal call, and when in doubt Premier League referees will always err on the side of a decision that won't be analysed for twenty minutes on Monday Night Football, or require a column from Jeff Winter in a newspaper. The problem is that games between West Ham and Southampton don't attract that kind of attention, so referees will just make normal, regular decisions. He's lost the protection of the Abu Dhabi millions. 

To call Lee Mason a cheat for awarding a penalty is to fundamentally misunderstand referees. They don't care who wins so long as they get an easy life. They're humans and so they act like humans. They get most things right, some things wrong and every now and again they can be influenced by large crowds. That's not cheating.

Would that penalty have been given for Southampton against Manchester City? No. Would it have been given at the Olympic Stadium? Less likely, but possibly. Would I have wanted it if it had been up the other end? You bet your life I would. We can't complain - Zabaleta just needs to remember who he's playing for now. It's the entire bloody reason we signed him, after all. 

After that, the penalty was taken by a player that Professor Sullivan publicly insulted last season, who promptly scored his first goal in nine months after our captain convinced him to put it the other side because Joe Hart knew what way he was going. West Ham, ladies and gentlemen. 

***

So what are we supposed to make of all this? I guess it depends upon how you choose to view results so far. If last season is a single, discrete event that you have wrapped up and parked on a shelf then I guess it is too early to make judgements. One away game against the best looking, most expensive team in the league and another where we played the majority of the game with ten men are no barometer of anything. Equally, our best player has yet to appear and as is customary at this time of year, we have plenty of injuries. Other teams hit the opening weeks at full speed, whereas we use them to get our players fit. It's little wonder we get off to such routinely awful starts.

But for those who see Bilic's reign through the longer lens, then this is all just the continuation of the same old stuff. Since we were last at St Mary's we've played 16 games and won 3. That's the sort of nonsense that got Allardyce fired, and he never had the kind of financial backing that Bilic is getting. More tellingly is that fact that we've kept only four clean sheets in that time, despite him playing three different goalkeepers, and at least seven different defensive set ups that I can remember. 


Guys, why is nobody defending?

Some of you will scream about injuries, as though this is somehow new or unique. Injuries are so endemic to West Ham that it is time to stop thinking of them as an unusual circumstance and instead accept that they are a simple fact for West Ham managers. Bilic will always have someone injured and so he needs to develop a way of playing that is less dependent upon individuals and more built towards the strengths of the group. I despised Allardyce's style of play, but I accept that he fashioned a system that meant players could come and go and not be confused by what they were supposed to be doing. Does anybody think our current system amounts to much more than "Oh well, Lanzini will be back soon"?

Having watched Bilic's teams for two seasons I have no idea how he wants to play. He asked for pace in his team this summer and got none, so now I don't know if he's a shill for the board or if he's changed his mind and he is happy having a side this pedestrian. We are lacking depth in the centre of midfield and yet Reece Oxford is off playing in the Bundesliga for reasons I cannot fathom. He doesn't seem to think either of his left backs are any good and signed a goalkeeper when he had a perfectly good one already. Perhaps the most obvious example of the totally disjointed thinking surrounding the club was spending £10m on Robert Snodgrass to replace Payet, replacing him with £24m Marko Arnautovic six months later and then banishing him from the squad altogether when he might have been very useful on a day like this one. He is currently being hawked round Championship sides with Professor Sullivan apparently bemused that his value has dropped so much in six months. Someone please explain to the Professor that perhaps the problem is he overpaid unnecessarily to start with. 

It's worth remembering all of that when you read about the board quibbling over a £5.5m gap in the valuation of William Carvalho with Sporting Lisbon. Perhaps if someone at the club - ANYONE - had more of an idea about squad building and transfers, we wouldn't have to worry about such a relatively small amount. 

***

In the end, I've landed here. I'm terrified about the parallels to 2002/03, but it's far too early to judge this particular team. If nothing else, Bilic is still clearly able to motivate his team to play for him, and that is certainly worth something. I think you have to give them ten games, the return of Lanzini and (I guess?) Carroll before making any firm pronouncements. 

But equally, saying "It's just two games" is disingenuous bullshit.  None of these problems are new  - none of them. Read what Rich Sprent had to say about all of this after the game on Saturday. The facts are dismal reading - 92 goals conceded in the last 50 league games played! How is that sustainable? £20m on Andre Ayew and still no obvious answer to where he should be playing? A sudden drop in net spend after years spent wasting it like a wedding planner? It's not really a surprise that the team play so incoherently when all around them is chaos.

I've been off the Bilic bandwagon for a while now, despairing of those many gutless surrenders against the top teams last season, but I'm not seeing any reason to jump back on it here. When he does eventually go, it will because of a myriad of reasons. A failure to stand up to the Board when needed, a misplaced belief that he could build a system around a player as unreliable as Carroll and probably the Payet thing too. But in the end, it will boil down to the simple fact that his teams have never, ever been able to defend. It's incredible considering his playing career, but there it is. A team managed by a centre half, that can look glorious going forward and like Gloria Hunniford defending. 

West Ham, ladies and gentlemen. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

In Retro - Trevor Sinclair

If the early Nineties was a test of faith for West Ham fans, then the second half of the decade was as near as we ever got to the promised land.

As I wrote here, Ian Bishop was the heartbeat of that earlier team, and while they undeniably afforded us many great moments it was the later squad who would actually climb back to the rarefied heights of the top echelons of the Premier League, and allow us the small satisfaction of being on the first page of the table when Match of the Day eventually bothered to sling it up on screen after 50 minutes of punditry on Manchester United and Liverpool.

For me, as a young teenager gradually becoming a young twenty-something, the nature of my football viewing was also changing. I still went to home games with my dad, but away games often involved friends and overnight stays in far off towns and cities. By 1998 I had left school, had my first job in the city, had disposable income and my first serious girlfriend. It was the best of times, and, really all I needed was for West Ham to finally give me something to repay my faith in them.

***

It is an oft overlooked point, but on the watch of despised chairman Terry Brown the club improved gradually from the wreckage of relegation in 1993 to being an established Premier League side. This was marked by incremental improvement everywhere we looked. Billy Bonds was replaced by Harry Redknapp, the North and South Banks were replaced by the odd looking but much needed Moore and Brooking stands, and on the pitch there was a noticeable upturn in the quality of players arriving.

The improvement had been gradual, and far more to do with Harry Redknapp and the riches of the new Premier League than the work of Terry Brown, but it was undeniable and particularly gratifying to this youngster who had spent the better part of my childhood being whisked off to the Goldstone Ground and Vale Park while staring wistfully at Highbury and wondering if we might ever one day compete there on a more equal footing. A look at our league finishes in this time tells a tale:

1990/91 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1991/92 - 22nd (Relegated to Div 2)
1992/93 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1993/94 - 13th
1994/95 - 14th
1995/96 - 10th
1996/97 - 14th

The club had begun the process of solidifying themselves as a fixture in the Premier League without ever truly suggesting that our existence would ever be anything other than a struggle. The Grim Reaper of relegation (he looks like Neil Warnock if you're interested) was a constant visitor, and was so comfortable at Upton Park that he had his own seat in the corner, next to Mr Moon.

For West Ham to progress there needed to be an upgrade to better players. With money flowing into the game through the new league and Sky riches, we had to shift our self image to a more upwardly mobile vision of ourselves. For me that moment came in January of 1998 when we signed Trevor Sinclair from QPR.


The Cockney Feghouli

As far as I was concerned, he was the one who changed everything.

***

The process of improvement began before this point, to be sure. Harry Redknapp might resent the "wheeler-dealer" tag but he was an astute enough manager to realise that he needed to change the type of player he had at the club. And so it was that Trevor Morley became an ageing Tony Cottee and then John Hartson. Colin Foster begat Marc Rieper who in turn gave way to Rio Ferdinand while Martin Allen morphed eventually into Frank Lampard. These were the early indications that we were taking steps beyond our stride.


The Nineties - when the Academy produced footballers

If the authorities couldn't convict Harry Redknapp for having a bank account in the name of his dog, they should have at least been able to get something on him for the Sinclair deal. The winger arrived in a swap for the genuine but limited Northern Irish duo of Iain Dowie and Keith Rowland and a couple of million. It was a stunning signing and a blatant robbery of QPR, indicative of the increased ambition at the club under Redknapp and a textbook example of how to improve your side and clear up squad space in one swoop.

Sinclair had achieved national fame with an incredible overhead kick for QPR a few years earlier, but had stalled somewhat as their star had waned. By the time he arrived at Upton Park he was 24 and desperate to restart a career of much early promise. His debut was at home to Everton and couldn't have gone much better if he'd found the Templar Treasure in the Chicken Run. He started up front - the beginning of a long career with us spent moving around the pitch to cover up holes in the squad - and scored twice. The first was a springing header from a corner, and the second a nicely composed finish after a powerful burst into the box. We didn't win, naturally, but a new West Ham star had joined the firmament.


The highlights of that game are here and feature a couple of notable elements. Firstly, Slaven Bilic is playing for Everton which seems like a rarity, and the Everton equaliser is scored by an extra from Game of Thrones.

The most noticeable immediate thing about Sinclair was his sheer physicality. Short, but stocky and powerful, he moved like a middleweight boxer. The Boleyn Beluga reckoned he had the biggest arse he'd ever seen on a professional footballer, but I think that ignored the explosive power of the man. At a time when better pitches and improved fitness were making inroads to the game, Sinclair was the first of a new type of player at West Ham. He was a pure, highly skilled athlete.

***

Sinclair exploded into the consciousness of West Ham fans by scoring 5 goals in his first 6 games. By now I was giddy with excitement. I had loved the team of Bishop, Dicks and Slater and believed fervently in the Hartson, Kitson and Potts group but to my mind Sinclair was in the vanguard of a giant leap forward.

A couple of years prior, our Academy had finally sprung into life after a decade long slumber and suddenly we had Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand to supplement our outside purchases. To my mind, however, Sinclair was a symbol - a message to other players, agents and clubs. We're not messing about anymore, this is the type of player we sign now.

Those first few games of his were instructive - Everton (H) 2-2, Newcastle (A) 1-0, Bolton (A) 1-1, Arsenal (H) 0-0, Man Utd (H) 1-1, Chelsea (H) 2-1, Leeds (H) 3-0. To West Ham fans of that era, this was a remarkable run. I'm not sure I'd have fancied us to win a single one of those games and yet we went undefeated. It was a moment of era defining change. That little run was a slaying of historic dragons and a public exorcism of old ghosts. Yep, to the 19 year old me, this was the call to arms I'd waited years to hear.

There was a metaphoric passing of a baton too, as Bishop played his last West Ham game in that 2-1 win over Chelsea. This was the only game I can find a record of the two playing together for West Ham, but I rather like the idea that there is even the most tenuous link between them and me.

From there, we surged forward to a fifth placed finish in 1998/99 as Ian Wright and Neil Ruddock joined the party to bring experience and, I don't know, a better class of goal celebration to the club. That team was bonkers, finishing that high up the table despite having a negative goal difference. This came about largely because we took some absolute hidings that season courtesy of a wide open playing style that would produce a 4-2 defeat at Charlton one week and a 3-0 victory at Newcastle the next.

That high finish would gain us entry into the Intertoto Cup and an amazing cup run the following season, that culminated in the legendary 3-1 victory at Metz. Sinclair would play his customary full part, scoring in that game and generally being a key cog in the wheel. His finest moment of our finest season since 1985/86 came during the home game with Spurs.


This should have been the start of something.

***

Unfortunately that something was a decline. We would never again crest those heights as that 5th placed finish became the crowning achievement of Redknapp's time rather than the start of his legend. Paolo di Canio arrived at the end of that 1998/99 season and rather than relying on the team first approach that had served us so well up to that point, Redknapp instead began to focus the team around the mad Italian. This worked fine on the days when he was in the mood, and was a millstone on any day we had to go north of Milton Keynes.

Sinclair continued to be instrumental, however, and was displaying a flair for the spectacular. He scored a number of brilliant goals with us, none better than this effort against Derby which has somehow only survived in this 22 pixel Super 8 video recording made by a drunk Match of the Day cameraman on his day off.


The fact that this goal is so unheralded says a lot about the struggle Sinclair had to get noticed at West Ham. None of his rivals for an England place had the athleticism or technical ability to score this goal, and yet to this day few fans outside of the West Ham faithful will have ever seen it. In the meantime, Sven Goran Eriksson was trying anyone from his milkman to Emile Heskey to fill his troublesome left sided position, with the milkman at least having the benefit of being left footed.

Sinclair by this stage had agreed with new manager Glenn Roeder that he would play there in an attempt to force his way into the 2002 World Cup squad. He managed this at the very last minute when Danny Murphy dropped out of the squad, and incredibly was then called upon as an early substitute during the game with Argentina when Owen Hargeaves was injured. I can still recall the groan in the pub as his number was held up, and my own angry response to that. "Fuck you - you'll see" I thought, and see they did. Sinclair was outstanding in a tremendous England 1-0 win - the last good performance by an England side at a World Cup. His England career lasted 686 minutes and included World Cup games against Argentina and Brazil. Not bad, Trev.

***

It's possible that Sinclair should have left after this, his international aims achieved and with West Ham in turmoil. Redknapp had gone and so too had Ferdinand and Lampard, replaced with average, cheaper players in the true West Ham way.

But I like to think that Sinclair was loyal, and that he loved the club too much to abandon us. He certainly played as though he did and I particularly enjoyed his titanic performance at West Brom in that ill fated relegation season of 2002/03 when he scored twice in a seemingly crucial 2-1 win. In writing this series of articles I realise now that my heroes have always been brave players, who never shirked their responsibilities and never gave up the ghost. Sinclair's last game for us was the apocalyptic 2-2 draw at Birmingham on the last day of that 2002/03 season and Sinclair had to be led off the pitch after the game, as despondent as those in the stands. He would join Manchester City soon after, as Bishop had done. I quite liked that as I always had a strange feeling that they were our spiritual cousins in those pre-Dubai days.

When I look back on his time with us I find much to admire about Sinclair. His qualities as a footballer were always self evident, but his qualities as a man were frequently on display too. I think he was the most unselfish player I've ever seen at West Ham, prepared to play anywhere and to uncomplainingly do the work which others would actively seek to avoid. He never backed away from the challenge and never left anything in the tank. Look back at goals from that era and notice how often Sinclair is there celebrating the efforts of others. He was, in a team of egotists, the ultimate team man.



He played all over the pitch too, primarily as a wing back but also during one otherwise unremarkable home game against Everton in 2002 as a makeshift central midfielder. Other wingers would have moaned - Sinclair scored the winner in a 1-0 win.

But perhaps most importantly of all, he was also a man possessed of great joy. I think one thing that drew me to him was his evident delight at playing the game and playing for West Ham. Here was someone living my dream and doing me the credit of giving that dream every ounce of his energy. No football fan can ask anything more than that from their hero. I love that he still seems to cherish his bond with the club, and like Bishop before him, always realised the great privilege he had and played accordingly.

***

It never occurred to me in writing this article that I would end up mentioning the colour of Trevor Sinclair's skin or talking about race. This is primarily because as a then 19 and now 38 year old white guy, I have never had to face any discrimination in my life. I am so privileged that it never even occurred to me that Sinclair's skin colour was of any importance to anyone. 


And now you know where they got the idea for The Adjustment Bureau

And yet, as a kid growing up in multi-cultural Goodmayes, one thing I did notice was how few of my friends of colour followed West Ham. My black mates all seemed to follow Arsenal and my Asian friends all seemed to support Manchester United or Liverpool. This is an observation so unscientific and useless that it might as well have come from a climate change denier, but it speaks to my own personal experience. Until we moved to the new stadium I hardly ever saw West Ham fans of colour at our games, despite our catchment area being among the least white in the country.

I always assumed that this was because when I was a kid fans of colour were only just feeling able to attend games and choose teams to support and that West Ham weren't particularly good. Similarly, due to me having a season ticket in the same place for years I guessed that I'd just fallen into a routine of seeing the same faces all the time and that there were fans of colour all over the rest of the ground. But perhaps there was something else. 

In researching this article I noticed that while West Ham have a rich tradition of black players, and were the first English club to have three black players in their team (not the more heralded West Brom team of ten years later), not many of those players stuck around that long. Sinclair was the 27th black player to turn out for West Ham per this out of date link from Ex magazine, and of those players only four - John Charles, Clyde Best, George Parris and Rio Ferdinand - would make more than 100 appearances for the club. Compare that the outstanding Arsenal team of the time and their core of black players like Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and David Rocastle.

Young people want to look at their icons and feel a connection. It's why my three girls love the new Star Wars movies with their kick ass female leads more than they love Iron Man. I can't blame my teenage black mates from Ilford who identified more with Ian Wright than they did with Frank McAvennie.


This is not Frank McAvennie

Why is this important? Well, it seems to me that Trevor Sinclair, as well as being amongst West Ham's finest ever players, probably has a claim to being our greatest ever black player. Certainly John Charles and Clyde Best blazed a trail that was both terrifying and socially important, and Parris, Bobby Barnes and Leroy Rosenior played at a time of great significance and against a barrage of racist abuse.

By the late Nineties, racism was nowhere near as prevalent as it was then, but it would be foolish to think it didn't and still doesn't exist. Look at the paucity of black managers, coaches and officials. Remember that the England team were racially abused as recently as 2004 in Spain and that UEFA thought a fine of £45,000 was sufficient as punishment. Google Malky Mackay, Luis Aragones and Ron Atkinson. Ask yourself this - who do you think of when you think of players the media routinely describe as not having a football brain? Off the top of my head it conjures up images of Theo Walcott, Emile Heskey, Marlon Harewood and latterly Michail Antonio. Notice anything similar about them?

At the same time, think of the players who you've heard described as having a high footballing intelligence. Wayne Rooney, Lee Bowyer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne all jump out to me. That's right folks, we're living in a world where an erudite, well educated kid like Theo Walcott doesn't have a brain and yet Rooney and Gazza are bright. 


This is what footballing intelligence looks like

I never even noticed this insidious brand of racism until a friend of mine, a father of two mixed race boys, pointed it out to me. I was, in my own clueless way, complicit in it becoming an accepted part of footballing analysis. White players are smart and savvy. Black players are big, strong, fast and dumb.

So what does all of this have to do with Trevor Sinclair? Well, nothing and everything. 

There are obviously arguments that Rio Ferdinand, Ian Wright and David James could have been better West Ham players than him, but I think all enjoyed their peaks away from Upton Park. Sinclair was here for his best years and was outstanding. He was both athletic and intelligent, technical and pacey, smart and savvy. He put the lie to that bullshit all on his own. 

As iconic figures in the black struggle to break into professional football I wish the club would do more to commemorate Best, Ade Coker and John and Clive Charles, but I'm not sure any of them were Sinclair's equal as a player. 

I'm not a black West Ham supporter so I can't say for certain what his impact was on that community, but it in retrospect it looks to me like that team with him, Ferdinand, Hislop, Wright, Foe and others was the first truly multi-cultural team we had. Sinclair played most frequently, had the longest peak and was the longest serving of that team. I also think he was the best. 

I'm aware that I'm writing about something I doubt I fully understand but that's never stopped me in the past, and indeed I hope people see this for what it is intended to be - a celebration of a great player. I would love to hear from those who have any better informed thoughts on the topic, or indeed who saw any of those older players in their primes. Maybe I'm doing them a huge disservice. 

***

Either way, thank you Trevor, for your dedication, your brilliance, your joy and your love for West Ham. For joining at a pivotal time in our history and pushing us forward. For never stopping running, even when the reality of being 7-1 down at Blackburn hit you squarely between the eyes. For those spectacular goals that caused an entire generation of young Hammers to smash their kitchen windows in attempting to emulate them. And lastly, thank you for taking the legacy of those heroic black West Ham players who came before you and driving that forward too, by representing West Ham at the World Cup, taking us to fifth and a European title (of sorts) and making over 200 appearances and still smiling even when they made you play with Lee Bowyer. 

I'm not sure we ever realised how good we had it with you out there, and you probably never realised quite how important you were. Cheers, Trev.

Trevor Sinclair - Appearances 203 (3) Goals 38

I'm going to write a few of these sporadically. I have already got a few suggestions for old match reports but if there are any other players to consider, then please let me know on Twitter (@TheHList). Please bear in mind the age range, mind you...

Monday, August 14, 2017

Manchester United 4 - 0 West Ham (And Other Ramblings)

Yesterday I drove for the best part of twelve hours from Essex to Southern France, which is roughly enough time to get me halfway to Manchester based on some reports I read today, and I'm completely knackered. In fact my back hurts more than Joe Hart's currently does after he spent the afternoon examining the back of the Old Trafford goals.

So this is an abbreviated holiday H List, available only because while I was channelling my inner F. Scott Fitzgerald today, I stumbled across a Dutch satellite feed of this game and decided to waste an hour and a half of my family holiday watching it.

Which was a mistake.


This is what happens when you look directly at a downward spiral

You see, to my mind there is a tacit, unspoken agreement between football fans and players that the opening game of any season is different. It just is. Over the course of the next ten months there are going to be days when the team won't play well, fans will lose faith and players will lose form but the one thing we can agree on is that opening day is non negotiable. No matter who you play, the sunshine will be glorious, the tans haven't yet faded and the team will champing at the bit after pre-season training and will give everything in pursuit of victory. 

The positive line of thinking is that new signings will be desperate to impress, existing players will be playing for their places and new contracts and in that golden, sunlit moment the entire world is pregnant with possibility. And yet watching us play this game I was instead reduced to wondering whether Pedro Obiang was actually pregnant, so immobile and off the pace was he. 

The team didn't uphold their end of the bargain today. 

***

I don't really object to us losing to Manchester United. The question with them is never "Why did we lose to them?", but rather "How can it be that we've ever beaten them?". At £24m Marko Arnautovic is our largest ever signing, and yet he would be 23rd in the equivalent list of transfers for the Red Devils. They spent more on Anderson than we've ever spent on a player, and they bought him a decade ago. 

Their financial superiority is such that we always travel to these games more in hope than expectation. It's how the Premier League is drawn up. Teams like West Ham are supposed to turn up, put up a bit of a fight and then have the good grace to concede a late winner right in front of the advertising hoarding hawking such wares as the official Manchester United tractor, as happened today. 

What was so crushing about this performance was therefore not the content but the style. It was as if the team had been set a ninety minute test by the Oxford English Dictionary to redefine the word "insipid". 


This is literally the best combination produced by two West Ham players today

Looking around the Premier League this weekend was to see hungry teams battling for points everywhere. By all reports ours was the worst, most spineless performance of the lot. No ambition, no organisation, no fight and most alarmingly of all - no change from last year. Here are our results against the current best six teams in the division since the start of last season:

Man Utd 4 - 0 West Ham
West Ham 0 - 4 Liverpool
West Ham 1 - 0 Spurs
Arsenal 3 - 0 West Ham
West Ham 1 - 2 Chelsea
West Ham 0 - 4 Man City
West Ham 0 - 2 Man Utd
Liverpool 2 - 2 West Ham 
West Ham 1 - 5 Arsenal
Man Utd 1 - 1 West Ham 
Spurs 3 - 2 West Ham
Man City 3 - 1 West Ham
Chelsea 2 - 1 West Ham

This also ignores a 5-0 home defeat to Man City in the FA Cup and a 4-1 loss at Old Trafford in the EFL Cup. 

It's easy to brush off games such as this, and consign them to memory. They are kind of like the sequels to The Matrix in that respect: I accept they happened and that I paid money to see them but I refuse to acknowledge their existence in my decision making. 


So, Joe, can you describe how it felt making your West Ham debut?

So we continue to make excuses and continue to look forward. These are the default responses for football fans because it's just how we are wired - there is always something on the horizon that is cause for optimism. There is always another game and always someone coming back from injury to make things right, especially at West Ham. Indeed, we are fans so desperate for something to wish on that we all decided Gary Lewin was our signing of the summer back in July. And then everyone was still injured for the first game.

But these are not the results of a good team. They are not the results of a resolute, well drilled, organised team. They are the results of a group of players who face a gaping gulf in class every time they face this opposition, and have no idea how to traverse it. Sure, an away defeat at Manchester United isn't anything to get too concerned about, given they'll beat most teams at home this year, but I think we're allowed to raise an eyebrow at the manner of it all. If Bilic is able to introduce anything before next Saturday, I would hope it would be some semblance of a backbone. I find it exasperating how rarely these days we can even compete in these fixtures, let alone win them.

So, yes, I understand those who will say that this is just one game. But isn't it the same one game we've seen this team play over and over again for a year?

***

At the end of the calamitous 16/17 season Slaven Bilic identified pace as the single biggest feature lacking from his team. Our summer transfer policy not only ignored this, but somehow appears to have made things worse. I've seen tides come back quicker than our midfield today when we were hit on the counter. This is just one of the many problems when the Chairman buys the players for a manager in the last year of his contract, and with little apparent ability to convince the former of his suitability for an extension. The distance between Bilic's desired type of player and his real ones seems quite hefty.

As such, we today fielded quite possibly the slowest West Ham team I can remember seeing in my lifetime, and I was there when we had Andy Melville at centre back. We were without Lanzini and Antonio, which always made it unlikely we would play well, but the pedestrian nature of it all was a shock. Chicharito looked so isolated he may soon have his nickname changed to "Siberia" and Arnautovic did enough to suggest that he will mix moments of magic and moaning with all the adroitness of the departed Payet. 

But we cannot play at this walking pace in the Premier League and survive. With Feghouli and Snodgrass AWOL, Fernandes was pressed into a number ten role and did a passable impression of a square peg. What brief moments of attacking intent we did have seemed to spring from Noble and yet he was surprisingly replaced instead of the possibly expectant Obiang. The centre of the team is a huge hole that the summer signings don't address, and if the rumours linking us to William Carvalho are true then he can't arrive soon enough. 

But where is the joie de vivre of that 15/16 season? Certainly the league was weaker then, but we never played so shapelessly or with such little belief even once that season. Now it is de rigeur for us to get a hiding, blame it on injuries or new stadiums or disruptive Frenchmen or bad horoscopes or the Boogie and just muddle on with no apparent improvement. My upper lip doesn't seem to be stiff enough for this line of thinking.

***

If one wants to look for positives, I thought Zabaleta battled well, especially as he was up against the quicksilver Rashford and being 54 years old means he usually spends Sundays at his allotment. I also thought Joe Hart did alright considering the relentless barrage he faced. He should perhaps have stopped Pogba's effort - down low to that troublesome left side again - but that wasn't the reason we lost today. If he wants an opportunity to show Gareth Southgate he is still England's best shot stopper then the logic of his move becomes clear very quickly. He's going to get plenty of chance to do it with us. 

Declan Rice made a surprising cameo from the bench and looked pretty decent. Perhaps the logic of that perplexing decision to loan out Reece Oxford is simply that they think Rice is better? I have no idea - divining a strategy in any of our moves these days is like watching toddlers play chess. 

Elsewhere, I don't really have very much to cling on to. It perhaps speaks volumes that having watched the game in its entirety I still have no idea what our gameplan was today. We seem tactically bereft, like one of those early 20th century British army units marching with great gusto toward certain defeat, led by a general with no military ideas beyond a belief that everything will be alright in the end.

We're away next week again, of course, courtesy of the gift that keeps on taking - the athletics stadium with a football pitch on it. This makes it difficult to regroup and difficult to roar back. Maybe we'll win 3-1 again at Southampton, and all of this will just be yet more of that negative whinging so many of you criticise me for, but for now the pessimists are winning, I'm afraid. 

It's early of course, and nothing is won or lost on opening day, but I'm waiting on a sign. I want to see something to tell me that this year will be different to last. Something to encourage me that we are going to be more competitive, more organised, more steely when the going gets tough. Even for those who believe these articles to be too negative must concede that performances like today are a disgrace, just as I will concede that there were some mitigating factors. 


Tomorrowland - are we nearly there yet?

My main overarching issue with the current leadership of the club is the failure to develop and adhere to a cogent overarching strategy to develop the team over time. Instead everything is done reactively, expensively and on such a short term basis that it all has to be ripped down and rebuilt again every couple of years. 

I would happily accept performances like today if I felt it was the necessary cost of progression. But it's not. It's just the result of having an old, slow team, a terrible injury record and the opposition being as rich as Croesus. And Lukaku. Always fucking Lukaku.

If we have to think in such a short term way, then it doesn't seem unreasonable to want some returns on a fairly short term basis. Our next three games are Southampton, Newcastle and Huddersfield - each tricky in their own way but there are points to be taken there. And they'd better be taken. This is Sullivan's borrowed time and therefore it's Bilic's too. We can't keep waiting for tomorrow because at some point we have to win today.

So I've had enough with the injuries and the good young players a couple of years away and the settling into the new stadium and all the other stuff that stops the team playing well. When your Director of Football admits he is implementing a strategy that is "not good for the long term" then you lose the right to bring those things up. It's tough shit. 

We're all about the here and now, so I want some fucking results here and now. I want my back four to look like they've met before. I want my left back to actually leave the ground when he jumps. I want my defence well enough organised that we don't have the smallest member marking Lukaku at free kicks and corners. I want my captain to be so influential he can last ninety minutes. I want an attacking strategy that can actually cause trouble to defenders as average as Phil Jones. I want a net spend bigger than Watford. I want a manager who can find ways to make us competitive against better teams and not one who has us conceding four every time we play anyone half decent.

And most of all I want it today. Not tomorrow. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Retro - Ian Bishop

I'm looking backwards - I can't face the future just yet.

I recently watched the Oasis documentary Supersonic and was struck by how totally and immersively it returned me to my teenage years. I was lucky enough to attend the bands seminal gigs at both Earl's Court and Knebworth, and their music was unquestionably the soundtrack to my journey from youth to young manhood, mostly accompanied by some questionable haircuts and a overly expensive collection of Adidas trainers. My Dad had Neil Young and Bob Dylan, my cousins had acid house and the Stone Roses but I had Oasis. They belonged definitively to me and my generation.


I'm mostly including this for Boneheads hair

As with most good documentaries - Hoop Dreams, Paradise Lost, Southpaw and Inside Job spring to mind - the subject stuck with me for days after until I began to think some more about the other cultural touchpoints of my life. As with any such reminiscing, my thoughts soon turned to West Ham and although my first Upton Park experience was with the famous 1985/86 team, they didn't really belong to me, or at least not in the same way as they belonged to those poor souls who had been following their predecessors around for years.

No, my West Ham experience began properly in 1990 when my Dad began to take me regularly to the North Bank as the club begin to rebuild after the John Lyall era. Lou Macari was in charge at the time and although he didn't last long, he oversaw the arrival of several new players, including Trevor Morley and Ian Bishop from Man City in exchange for Mark Ward. 

Morley was a big, old fashioned, physical centre forward with a surprisingly deft touch in front of goal. Bishop, by contrast, was a more modern kind of midfielder. Adept with both feet, mobile without being quick, trademark long flowing hair and a range of passing that we wouldn't see again from a Scouser until his namesake John Bishop decided to go on Celebrity Mastermind.

***

They arrived in 1989, three years and a million miles removed from the memory of that era defining third placed 85/86 team. By this point, we had again been relegated and were bobbing around in the familiar seas of the middle of Division 2. Old, familiar names were still around - Gale, Martin, McAvennie, Devonshire, Parkes and Parris were still there - but the newer, younger generation of Dicks, Slater, Miklosko, Allen and Keen were slowly materialising to take the club forward.


The Messiah played centre mid

My first experience of that team came on 17th March 1990, when my dad decided to take me to an away game at the league leaders, Leeds. We got there about four hours early, as was his wont, and decided to take a stroll into town because what else would you do in the midst of the hooligan era when you have a child and you're in Leeds. I kept my West Ham top steadfastly hidden beneath my Rucanor shell suit and somehow we ended up on a free bus back from the city centre to Elland Road with a hundred home fans bellowing out "Marching On Together" as we went. At one point I thought the ceiling was going to cave in.

It was all mildly terrifying, but thrilling too, as was the experience of being in a three thousand strong travelling band penned into the corner of the ground. We were surrounded on all sides by rabid Leeds fans, and despite us bringing on Liam Brady we weren't a match for the Gordon Strachan led home team, who did indeed march on to a 3-2 victory.

Amid the general challenge for a 12 year old of trying to see anything in the days of terracing, I came away breathlessly impressed by my new heroes. Stuart Slater seemed like a star in the making, Jimmy Quinn was a tall, natural goalscorer and Ludo seemed the business, yet it was Bishop who drew my attention. I suspect that it was the hair at first, but I think it was also the fact he was up against an impressive Leeds midfield of Strachan, Gary Speed, Vinnie Jones and John Hendrie and he emerged with his head held high and his legs still attached.

In retrospect, I think Bishop seemed almost impossibly otherworldly to me. Had he been named Gianni from Genoa I wonder if we would have viewed him differently. Instead, he was Ian from Liverpool and I always felt that far too many fans focused on what he couldn't do rather than what he could.

He was, however, my new hero.

***

By the 1990-91 season Bishop was central to the new look team being fashioned by Billy Bonds. The relentless grind of the second tier didn't seem to weary him as he played 40 games and drove the team to automatic promotion and an FA Cup Semi Final. His famous passing was in evidence as he combined frequently with wide men Slater and Keen to stretch opposition defences and his work in the centre of the park was enough to drive us to the top of the division for most of the season.

Consider the state of the pitches, the tackling and the refereeing in 1991 and then wonder how any central midfielder could have played that many games. Seemingly, because of his long hair, many Hammers fans dismissed Bishop as lightweight but his record puts the lie to that version of events. Frustrating as he may have sometimes been, Bishop never shirked his duties and as captain he should have lifted the league trophy on the final day of the season. Instead we West Hammed the fuck out of it, losing 2-1 at home to Notts County and somehow lost the trophy to Oldham. Indeed, all of this happened so late in the day that the engraver had allegedly already put our name on the trophy.

My most vivid recollection of that season, in which my Dad and I travelled the length of the country, was of a late Bishop winner at Port Vale. He picked up a pass from the right, cut inside and unleashed a 30 yard left footed swerving, dipping exocet that nestled in the top corner to give us a tense 1-0 win and put us top of the league. At that moment I felt my faith in Bish was being justified.

***
That 1991 season was the culmination of a weirdly semi-successful period for the club. In 1989 we reached the semi finals of the League Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to Luton, after somehow hammering Liverpool 4-1 in the previous round. The following year saw us do the same thing again, this time losing the first leg 6-0 to Oldham before salvaging some pride with a 3-0 win in the return affair. 

In 1991, there was the famous FA Cup run that culminated in a 4-0 semi final defeat to Nottingham Forest and those of a certain vintage will understand the relevance of Tony Gale's red card, Keith Hackett and a half an hour rendition of "Billy Bonds' Claret and Blue Army". Bishop was in the middle of that latter cup run, and my main recollection of that Villa Park defeat to Forest was his manful struggle against the nascent power of Roy Keane.


If you're of a certain age - you know

Indeed, it was in this season that I decided Bishop was the perfect West Ham player. Maddeningly inconsistent at times, but underpinned by a belief in the beauty of the game. He always wanted to play passing football, a blessing and a curse for sure, but still entirely in keeping with our own self image.

 As an impressionable youngster I had yet to take on any of the world weary cynicism that I lug around with me today like a holiday suitcase. Back then I believed fervently in things like the Academy of Football, and the knowledge that at it's very core West Ham was simply the most special club in existence. 

And Bish embodied all of that for me. He wanted to play the game the right way. He wasn't a great goalscorer, but he was a scorer of great goals. Just look at this clip below of his West Ham goals, and I guarantee you will be surprised at the consistent quality you see. Left foot, right foot, header - he could score them all. Just not very often. If Slater was lightning, and Dicks was steel, then Bishop was something else entirely. He was flair



That Port Vale goal is at 1:49, by the way

When Bishop was in form, the world was illuminated for me. His passing was inch perfect and perfectly designed to spring the flat back fours that dominated English football at the time. With his long hair and languid style he seemed almost exotic, and his ability to take a corner from either side encouraged me to spend hours in my back garden, determined to become two footed like him and his batshit crazy new midfield partner, John Moncur. 

It was at the end of that 1991 season that he was on the fringes of England selection too, earning a call up to play for England 'B' along with the likes of Keith Curle, Carlton Palmer and Graeme Le Saux. Looking back, it seems slightly odd to talk of Bishop in those terms but it was then that Graham Taylor was trying to take the national team forward from the Bobby Robson era and plenty of players were given the chance to play at the time. Was he really any less deserving of a chance than Palmer, Andy Gray, Geoff Thomas, Barry Venison or Kevin Richardson?

To address that point, one then has to acknowledge the other elephant in the room when one talks about Ian Bishop - his sexuality.

***
Back in the 1990's, English football had yet to come to terms with the idea of homosexuality and LGBT rights. Indeed, consider that it is 2017 and there is still no openly gay professional footballer in the top flight of the English game and it's probably fair to say we still haven't. 

The backdrop to this is that in March 1991 Trevor Morley was stabbed by his then wife in a near fatal domestic incident. As shocking as that incident was in itself, it soon took on a life of its own as supporters from other clubs were soon gleefully spreading rumours that the reason was due to her finding Bishop and Morley in bed together. 

The pair talk eloquently about it in this clip below, and Bishop also spoke in more detail to the KUMB podcast in 2014. The genesis of the rumour seems to have been that the pair were friends and had long hair and little else. It mattered not that they denied it, as they were hounded up and down the country by opposition fans only too delighted to shower them with abuse, and a salacious media who refused to let the story lie.

The FA seemingly got in on the act too, telling Billy Bonds that Bishop couldn't be considered for England selection due to the rumours, which sounds ludicrous until you remember that they wouldn't pick Julian Dicks due to his haircut and then twenty years later made John Terry their captain. I have no trouble believing the FA made that call. 




What struck me as I read all of the background to this is how little courage it takes to stand in a crowd of thousands and yell homophobic abuse, and how much more courage it takes to be on the receiving end of that and carry on. Consider how two straight men were wildly abused for the crime of being the subject of a rumour, and it's little wonder that gay players still don't feel comfortable in coming out.

As for Bishop, he admitted later that it did affect him but I can't say I ever noticed at the time. I had the team poster (which he refers to in the clip above) where he is holding hands with Julian Dicks and it made me laugh for years. Here was a man being hounded about his sexuality and instead of cowering away, he made light of it and laughed at the barbs and just kept passing them to death. There is great courage in that, and there was a great lesson in there for me as a teenager only just discovering girls and secondary school and books and puberty and all the other shit you go through when you're growing up. None of those things can compare to what Bishop went through, of course, but teenagers aren't very good with perspective.

I hope that when the times comes, my own children find some equally worthy heroes of their own as they enter their teenage years.

***
Bravery is something that defines Bishop's time with us. You need steel to get on the ball and try and pass it when you're playing at Upton Park and are 2-0 down to Norwich on a pitch resembling Ypres, or as Harry Redknapp once memorably put it "You misplace a pass and thirty thousand people go fackin' WERRRRRRR". Bishop never stopped playing, never stopped probing and never said no. I always loved that about him. 

There is physical courage too, in breaking your ribs and carrying on playing because you've already made all your substitutes, as Bishop once did at Luton in 1992. It strikes me that anyone who can do that is probably tougher than any supporter stood on a terrace yelling "poof" behind a wall of other faces.



And it takes greater courage still to be true to yourself in the face of abuse of the sort Ian Bishop received. To keep your hair long, to keep smiling, to keep playing the way you believe and to hold hands with a mate in a team photograph because it's funny and you don't give a shit. When Bishop eventually left West Ham in 1998, he left it far stronger than he found it, and left because of the emergence of another young central midfielder with strength and courage - Frank Lampard - who would go on to become one of the best we've ever produced in this country.

***

So Ian, I salute you. If Oasis became the soundtrack to my youth then you were a huge part of the video that accompanied it. I'll remember your grace on the pitch, your long range goals, your silken passing and your unfair struggle off the pitch. I'll also remember this game at Spurs, the famous 4-1 win in 1994. Every Hammer who is old enough remembers this game, and yet it was only in watching it again this evening that I realised the hand you had in three of the goals. 




It is my hope that when one day West Ham do have a genuine and openly gay player, that we will look back to the abuse suffered by you and Trevor Morley, and further still to Clyde Best and remember what all of that meant. And I believe my club and fellow fans will stand up to be counted when we are needed most. 

As you said, it wasn't your story to tell and yet you were forced to live it anyway. But that's not how I remember you. I remember a central midfielder of grace and elegance who could pass like a dream in the rain or the sun, in London or in Manchester and I'll especially always remember that last minute winner at Birmingham. Cheers, Bish.

Ian Bishop - Appearances 287 (17) Goals 17

I'm gong to write a few of these sporadically. I have already got a few suggestions for old match reports but if there are any other players to consider, then please let me know on Twitter (@TheHList). Please bear in mind the age range, mind you...