Play Fair 4: Increasing Fairness and Attractiveness

Part 4 of the series takes a look at the IFAB proposals designed to produce a fairer and more attractive game.

This is the fourth of my series of articles looking at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and looks at their ideas for increasing fairness and attractiveness. My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.” The third article looked at “Increasing playing time”.

The aim of this final strategy is to make the game fairer and more enjoyable to watch, play, coach and referee. This may involve challenging aspects of football which have been traditionally accepted but which some believe can cause minor irritation and spoil the game. The following are the points raised:

A different order of kickers for penalty kicks in a penalty shoot-out

Statistics show that the team that takes the first kick in a shoot-out has an advantage because of greater mental pressure on the second kicker in each round, who may face instant elimination if they miss their kick, especially once the first four kicks have been taken by each side. They propose a system similar to the tie-break in a game of tennis, whereby one team takes just one kick, and then the second team then take two consecutive penalties. The first team then takes two kicks and so on, each team taking two kicks at a time, until one team wins. By doing this, if each kick is successfully converted, then as you move on to the subsequent penalties after each team has taken their five penalties, the “mental pressure” alternates between the teams, rather than one team always being ahead. This sounds a fairer way of doing things to me, and I believe it should be introduced as soon as possible.

Goal kicks and defending free kicks in the penalty area

Under the current rule the ball must be played outside the area before another player can touch it. If it is played before leaving the area the kick is re-taken, and this could be seen as a time-wasting tactic. I’m not sure I understand the reasoning behind this current rule which does not apply anywhere else on the pitch, where a short kick can be taken. The proposal is to allow defending players or the goalkeeper to play the ball inside the area once the goal / free kick has been taken. But I cannot understand why they propose only defending players to be able to play the ball next. Why not the attacking players as would be the case in any other area of the pitch, as long as they are outside the area when the kick is actually taken? The reasoning behind the proposal is that it can speed up the game, stop time-wasting, and they believe it may lead to a more constructive and controlled re-start rather than the current long kick.

Handball

This is one of the most contentious issues in the game, especially when it occurs in the penalty area. Questions arise as to whether the handball is deliberate, if it is hand to ball or ball to hand, and pundits and referees seem to question whether the arms / hands are in a natural or un-natural position. This requires judgement by the officials which many perceive to be incorrect on many occasions. Clearly the game would benefit from a clearer and more consistent definition and interpretation of handball.

One school of thought is that if it hits the hand or arm (deliberate or not) then an offence is committed, taking the subjective judgement out of the hands of the referee. The alternative view is that the referee must be absolutely certain that it is deliberate to blow his whistle. In the penalty area, too many penalties are awarded in my opinion when the action is not a deliberate one. This usually leads to a goal from the penalty spot, when in many instances the goal was not being threatened by the ball being played by the hand or arm. Clearly this is one issue that requires further debate and clarification and needs to be addressed but this document does not really do so. How about this for a solution? If the ball hits the hand and denies a goal scoring opportunity then a penalty is awarded, otherwise a free-kick. Ignore whether or not the “offence” occurs in the penalty area, and take the intent out of the equation.

They do have some proposals, however, that they believe could make the game fairer. These include sending off a player who deliberately scores a goal with his hand, in the same way that a defender who prevents a goal in this way is punished. Personally I do not like to see players sent off which potentially spoils the game for spectators. Perhaps a more radical solution would be for the team of the attacking player who scores a goal in this way to concede a penalty themselves, even though the offence took place at the other end of the pitch.

A further proposal is that a goalkeeper who handles a deliberate pass or throw-in from a team mate should be penalised by a penalty kick awarded against him rather than an indirect free-kick which is currently the case. I like this idea.

Their final proposal in respect of handball is that the referee should be able to award a goal if a defender stops a goal being scored by handling the ball, an idea which is similar to the penalty try in the game of rugby. Again, I believe a sound proposal.

Half-time and full-time whistle only blown when the ball is out of play

This is another proposal borrowed from the game of rugby and, again I believe to be a good one. Sometimes the referee blows his whistle for half / full time just as a shot is going into the goal, or a team has a promising attack or scoring opportunity. The introduction of this change would eliminate any controversy and potentially create more excitement as a team tries to keep the ball in play.

The penalty kick – hit or miss

Their final proposal in this area aims to stop encroachment by defenders or attackers when a penalty is being taken. They propose that a penalty kick is either scored or missed / saved. If the kick is not successful, then the referee would stop play and award a goal kick, thus discouraging all the nonsense as players crowd the edge of the penalty area when a kick is taken. Once again, a proposal that would seem to be a promising idea.

Play Fair 3: Increasing Playing Time

Part three of the IFAB rule change proposals considers how to increase Playing Time.

This is the third of my articles looking at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and looks at their ideas for increasing playing time in a game of football. My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.”

The concept of increasing playing time is one of my hobby horses that I wrote about in my introduction to the Play Fair document, having first written about it in 2015. The document begins this section with the comment that many people are very frustrated that a typical 90 minute game of football has fewer than 60 minutes of effective or actual playing time, i.e. when the ball is in play. Their key strategy which could be implemented without any law changes is a stricter calculation of additional time. They state that referees should be required to be much stricter in calculating additional time, by stopping their watch as follows:

  • From the time a penalty kick is awarded until the kick has been taken
  • From when a goal is scored until the kick- off is taken
  • From the time play stops for an injury until play restarts
  • From the time a card is shown until play restarts
  • From a substitution signal until the game restarts
  • From the award of a free kick until the kick is taken – this is especially important when pacing out is carried out.

You would be amazed how much time this would add on compared to what happens now. If you don’t believe me then use the stopwatch on your watch / smartphone every time one of these situations arises in a game. At the moment we typically find that referees add on 1-2 minutes at the end of the first half, and usually somewhere between 3-5 minutes in the second half. This bears little relation to the actual time when no football is being played.

We all remember when Tony Pulis used to bring his Stoke City side to play at Upton Park, and apart from a number of other dubious time wasting tactics, they would try to force throw-ins in our half. Rory Delap had an excellent long throw, but he would take an interminable amount of time drying the ball, waving players into position etc. It could take up to a minute for each throw-in to be taken and incensed the crowd.

I would go further than the initial suggestions in the Play Fair document for adding on time and propose stopping time whenever the ball goes out of play, especially when kicked into the stands, or when the ball goes behind the goal. I believe that the clock should only be restarted at the point a corner, or goal kick, or throw-in is actually taken.

In their points for discussion the document brings up the subject of stadium clocks, and they want to link this to the referees watch. Again, I would suggest going further and take timekeeping totally out of the hands of the referee when there is a clock in the stadium. The officials have enough to think about without worrying about timekeeping. How simple would it be for a clock controller in the stand to stop and start the clock as necessary and only have the clock running when the ball is in actual play? To me this is so easy that I cannot comprehend why it doesn’t get introduced at once. It would totally eliminate the concept of timewasting. It would be necessary to consider how long each half should last, and suggest 30 minutes in each half of actual playing time. You could even have 4 periods of 15 minutes actual playing time, with a 15 minute interval at the end of the second period. This would lead to more playing time than we see at the moment, and time wasting would become a redundant exercise with no benefit.

They do make some other suggestions for increasing playing time, but to me they would have minimal impact, especially if the actual playing time guided by the stadium clock is introduced. These suggestions include, referees to apply the 6 seconds rule for goalkeepers strictly, self-passing at a free kick, corner kick or goal kick, allowing a moving ball at a goal kick, insisting a goal kick is taken at the side where the ball goes out, and substitutions taking place, or players leaving the field when injured at the nearest touchline. All of these would speed up the game to some extent, but the key one regarding the stadium clock is the most important to my mind.

The reasoning behind the “self-passing” proposal is a sound one in the case of free kicks, as it would allow the fouled player to effectively play the ball to himself. The game already allows quick free kicks, but would it be even better, and perhaps encourage speedier attacking play, if the player who has been fouled could (if he wanted to) stop the ball and then immediately continue their dribble or attacking move, thus speeding up the game? Perhaps this could be trialled?

I’m uncertain as to how West Ham would benefit from this change unless we took a different approach to free kicks. On many occasions we already take them very quickly, but without a great deal of thought. How many times last season did we have a free kick in the opponent’s half, only for us to take it straight away, frequently sideways and backwards, with the ball ending up with our keeper? The advantage of having a free kick is lost when we do this.

Play Fair Part 2: Player Behaviour and Respect

In Part 2 of the series the IFAB Play Fair Document proposals to ‘Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.’

In my previous article I introduced the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Today I will look at the first of the three crucial areas where they believe potential changes could be made to improve the game, that of improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Over the years there have been many attempts to try to get players to improve their behaviour. Of course the main sanction is the issue of yellow and red cards, but how much effect does this have? In many instances the correct issue of both types of card is a subjective one and provokes much controversy.

Some of the ways in which IFAB believe that behaviour of players and team officials can be improved make some sense, whilst I don’t believe that others will have any real impact at all. The changes that could be implemented immediately without a change in the Law are fairly obvious ones but have no real clout:

  1. The captain must become the main point of communication with the referee.
  2. The captain must be the only player allowed to approach the referee when there is controversy.
  3. The captain must help the referee to calm flashpoint situations.

These are all sensible enough, but can you see it realistically happening unless there are meaningful sanctions in place when they don’t?  Some captains in recent years, and we all know who they are, would be less equipped to help the referee to calm down their players in flashpoint situations.

We all know what happens in reality. Players don’t like a decision, either because the officials have got it wrong, or because they feel that if they make a significant protest when they are in the wrong the referee will be sufficiently intimidated not to give decisions against the team in the future. Some teams in recent years have turned mobbing the referee into an art form, and unfortunately with weak referees it works. Is it a coincidence that teams noted for this type of protest appear to have more than their fair share of contentious decisions go in their favour?

The mobbing or surrounding of match officials is a problem that has existed for as long as I can remember but has, perhaps, escalated in recent times. For me the reason is clear. The officials do nothing about it. How many times do you see players around the referee or one of his assistants, and the referee keeps trying to wave them away? Do they go away? No. And what are the sanctions? None.

IFAB believe that the following sanctions could be tested out to solve the problem.

  1. “Referees should deal more strongly with players who mob the referee or linesman by the use of yellow cards.” Personally, I thought that they already had this power but are too weak to use it in the majority of cases. And an increase in yellow cards would lead to an increase in red cards, which then leads to more games without the full complement of players on the pitch. I hate to see this. I don’t understand the cheering when a player gets sent off. It leads to a changed, and usually, duller game, where the team with fewer players brings everyone back behind the ball, thus ruining the entertainment.
  2. “Only the captain can approach the referee to discuss a controversial decision.” They call this a sanction! It is not and will be totally ignored without anything meaningful happening.
  3. “Fines or points deduction for a team guilty of mobbing.” Now they are beginning to get somewhere, although fines are a total waste of time with the money around at the top level of the game. The only meaningful sanction that I can see working is that of points deduction. We now have panels that review all kinds of incidents retrospectively, and if a team surrounds the referee in a game then, in my opinion, something like two points (perhaps even three) should be deducted from their total if found guilty of this offence. This may seem harsh, but if they seriously want to put an end to it then this is what they must do. Managers will soon drum it into their players that the consequences of this kind of action would be harmful to the team and I’m sure it would soon cease.

I have an alternative suggestion, too. In addition to the potential retrospective action of points deductions, a penalty would be awarded against the team who are mobbing. And if they continue with their protests then the penalty is taken without a goalkeeper allowed in the goal. And if the protests continue a second penalty is awarded and so on until the protests stop. Clubs will soon understand the consequences of surrounding a referee and this type of protest will be consigned to history. Unless there are meaningful sanctions then nothing will change.

IFABs other suggestions for improving player behaviour and increasing respect will, I believe have little impact. They want to test red and yellow cards for coaches and team officials, and discuss a pre-match handshake between the referee and two coaches in the technical area, and a plan to reduce the number of substitutes a team can use if a substitute is sent off. The last one baffles me. What is the point of that? There are so many things they could look at I think this is just tinkering at the edges. Perhaps the game can learn something from rugby where officials are respected, and players tend to refer to the referee as “sir”? Can you see this happening in football? Unless the sanctions for mobbing that I refer to are strong enough then I feel that all of their proposals in part 1 of the Play Fair document will have little impact upon improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Play Fair: Taking A Hammer To The Rules of The Game

An introduction to the document produced by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) looking to make changes to game of football.

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to attempting to improve the game of football. One side of the argument suggests that the game is fine as it is. Many believe that it is already the best and most popular game in the world and should be left alone. An alternative view is that you cannot stand still and it is prudent to make changes from time to time when there is an opportunity to make improvements for players and spectators alike.

I come down on the side of the latter view, and believe it is necessary to make alterations to the Laws to move with changes in the way that the game is played. If you look back to the late 1950s at video footage of games played at that time, you will realise that it has changed since then, and some amendments are necessary to keep the game up to date. As a regular columnist on the best West Ham fanzine ever, Over Land and Sea, as a co-author of this blog, and in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I have frequently suggested changes that I believed would improve the game.

Within the book I made regular calls for the introduction of video technology, and devoted more than one chapter to this as it is something I am very much in favour of, as long as it is introduced in the right way and doesn’t alter the flow of the game. I am pleased to say that this is something that is now well on the way to becoming part and parcel of the professional game at the top level. In my prelude to our game against Stoke City in April 2015 I explained how I believed it should work, and future chapters on the topic reinforced my reasoning, especially resulting from some of the poor refereeing decisions that went against us in the 2015-16 season.

We had a batch of games in the second half of the season; away at Manchester United in the cup, away at Chelsea and Leicester in the league, and at home to Palace and Arsenal, all five of which resulted in draws. With a video assistant referee, all five would probably have resulted in victories, which would have seen progression into the semi-final of the cup, and eight more points in the league, which would have given us a Champions League place. Some will argue that these incorrect decisions balance themselves out over a season, but in reality they do not. I cannot recall a single instance where we benefitted from a contentious decision that later proved to be wrong in that season.

In my book I also unleashed another big bugbear of mine, the question of timekeeping, and timewasting. In a later article for Over Land and Sea, and also within the book after the home game had been played against West Brom on 29 November 2015, I went to town on this topic, and also re-watched the whole game on Sky with a stopwatch, and bemoaned the fact that less than 25 minutes of football was actually played in the second half of the game.

On 23 January 2016, after the game against Manchester City on that date, I wrote a chapter entitled Crime and Punishment. In this I pushed for changes in respect of the awarding of penalty kicks, questioned the need for having a penalty area, introduced my reservations about the offside law, questioned the concept of deliberate handball, and even made suggestions about increasing pitch sizes and goals by around 10% to allow for increases in sizes and performance of the human body since the original sizes were brought in 150 years ago.

The Laws of the game haven’t changed drastically in my lifetime (I’ve been following since 1958) but there have been some developments and amendments to the laws, and changes to rules of competitions. Some will say they have been beneficial, others will say that tinkering sometimes confuses the issue. So, for example, one of the most controversial laws in the game is the offside rule. This provokes a lot of debate, and was introduced initially to prevent “goal-hanging”. But quite how a player could be accused of “goal-hanging” when just inside his opponent’s half is beyond me. One change I would like to see is that a player can only be offside in the final eighteen yards of the pitch, but I reckon that change is a long way off. But it shouldn’t be.

The offside rule used to include “interfering with play” and there are a number of famous quotes surrounding this along the lines of “if he’s not interfering with play, or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?” I haven’t quoted it exactly I’m sure, as there are contradicting views as to who first said it, but many attribute it to Bill Shankly. Nowadays they talk about first phase, second phase, active play etc. Anybody with any doubt as to the complexity of this rule should look up Law 11 in the Laws of the Game. It is a minefield, and almost impossible to explain.

Other changes in the last fifty years or so include the introduction of substitutes (many younger people will not remember a time when substitutes were not part of the game), the back pass rule, goalkeepers now being allowed to run with the ball without bouncing it (look up some old footage of the game to see this), the six second rule for keepers (but how often is this broken without being penalised?), three points for a win (it used to be two), and penalty shoot-outs. I am old enough to remember European ties ending all square and progression to the next round of the competition being decided by the toss of a coin. Many will believe that these changes have benefitted the game, although of course there are always detractors.

Recent innovations which are gaining momentum but still give rise to controversy in their initial trial stages include experimentation with video assistant referees, and changes to the sanctions for denial of obvious goalscoring opportunities. Now the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the independent guardians of the rules of the game, have issued a discussion document entitled “Play Fair”. I was looking forward to reading their proposals. The main aims are to develop the Laws to promote integrity and fairness, improve accessibility, and use technology to benefit the game. The three-pronged strategy within the document is a kind of five-year-plan to improve player behaviour and increase respect, increase playing time, and increase fairness and attractiveness. For each of these three areas they have three sub-divisions: “no law change needed – could be implemented immediately”, “ready for testing / experiments”, and “for discussion”

I will look at each part of the strategy in turn and consider its merits, and spread my writing over five articles on consecutive days, starting with this one. Many are sound ideas, (and even include areas that I have previously touched upon) that would improve the game in my opinion, but are they tackling all of the real issues that give rise to controversy? They don’t have any proposals for changes to the offside rule, the awarding of penalty kicks when the goal is not really being threatened, and they don’t really tackle the handball situation. Nevertheless some of their ideas are sound ones and I will describe them in some detail in following articles.

West Ham Transfer Roundup: The Window To Watch

With little action to report we dwell on the gossip, rumour, blather and insinuation of the transfer window.

With less than seven weeks to go before the season opener, and with the imminent start of pre-season training, my confidence for the new campaign has descended to lower basement level along with the old paint pots, spare lawn mower parts and unopened gym equipment.  Any hopeful notions that West Ham would pull off a succession of inspired signings and get them on board for a full pre-season have rapidly evaporated.  Had the requirement been for cosmetic changes to a mostly functioning squad rather than a much needed overhaul of playing staff then the lack of early activity might not be so worrisome.  No news, in this case, is certainly not good news.

Mostly probably the scarcity of news is making me paranoid as, to date, the transfer window has been dominated by big talk of huge transfers rather than actual deals being struck.  Moreover, if some of the numbers being quoted are to be believed then you won’t be getting much for less than £20 million this year as the full effect of the new TV deal kicks in with a vengeance.  The most significant news of the past week has been the appointment of Mauricio Pellegrino at Southampton and the impending appointment of Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace.  Both are ambitious moves and throw in big spending Everton, a determined Leicester and newly promoted Newcastle and my sense is that, unless something unexpected happens, any thoughts of a top half finish next season are little more than a daydream.

So who are the rumoured signings that can return my glass to its half-full status?

The issue around buyback clauses continues to complicate any deal for in demand striker Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City.  A number of clubs are said to be interested including West Ham, Leicester and Palace.  Iheanacho has an impressive scoring record for City coming on as a substitute and tucking away chances created by de Bruyne and Silva against shell-shocked opponents.  Whether he would be as prolific left up front on his own at the London Stadium remains to be seen; but it seems fairly certain that he will end up with whichever Premier League club is willing to accept City’s terms.

It has been reported that Henry Onyekuru is now in possession of a shiny new UK work permit and is weighing up the various options presented to him by Arsenal, West Ham and Birmingham.  I always understood that work permit application came after a job offer but maybe footballers now have different rules.  Unless Onyekuru is prioritising the opportunity of regular starts over all else then he is most probably Emirates bound.

It is said the Gunners are also keen to bring in Alexandre Lacazette, and that such a move that will prompt the departure of Oliver Giroud with West Ham an oft mentioned potential destination, although Lyon are also rumoured to be showing an interest.  Giroud is a player with a proven Premier League goal-scoring record but, for me, I can’t get past the fact that he will be thirty –one years old at the end of September.  With an already ageing squad and an apparent reluctance to blood youngsters elsewhere in the side this is not a forward looking strategy.

It seems that Arsenal cast-offs are all the rage at the moment and expect to hear about the return of Carl Jenkinson anytime soon.  Until that happens we will have to make do with speculation about battling it out with Huddersfield for Jack Wilshere and a bold swoop for wayward wallflower Theo Walcott.  I have, in the past, been an admirer of the Hammers-supporting Wilshere but don’t believe that yet another injury prone midfielder is exactly what is needed right now, unless the club needs to fulfil an obscure diversity target as part of the London Stadium deal.  Winger-cum-striker Walcott is something of a luxury lightweight, the type of player who regularly does well playing against West Ham rather than for them.  In any case his reported salary is likely well out of our league without causing massive disruption to existing wage structures.  It is wages, more than transfer fees, that sets the big boys apart from the pack and is the very reason why Tottenham will eventually struggle to hold on to their most prized assets.

The Daniel Sturrdige rumours blow hot and cold which is highly appropriately for the player himself.  Lots of talent but hampered by a sulky attitude.  Not ideal when what is required is a team prepared to work their socks off for each other.

Another name to hit the West Ham transfer headlines this week is Yann Karamoh, a teenage striker currently strutting his stuff with Ligue 1 side Caen.  On the face of it, given the current regime’s nervousness with young players, this seems an improbable signing unless seen solely as ‘one for the future’.    With cash rich Champion’s League qualifiers RB Leipzig also said to be in the hunt any interest may be largely academic anyway.

One very creative report I read claimed that West Ham had missed out on a player who, from what I could make out, we were never interested in.  This was former Arsenal defender Johan Djourou who has just moved from Hamburg to Montpelier.  I am not sure whether we are in the market for new defenders (apart from Carl Jenkinson – you heard it here first!) although there have also been mutterings about Nathan Ake from Chelsea.  Ake has had impressive loan spells with both Watford and Bournemouth and now looks set to be yet another profitable sale from the Stamford Bridge trading academy.  If we are actually in the market for a versatile defender then Ake would be a great option.

I have still yet to understand how Reece Oxford is good enough to play for a mid-table Bundesliga side but not a mid-table Premier League side with an ageing back-line.  Add to this the further speculation that Reece Burke will now be sent out on loan for the third season running and the club’s commitment to young players is concerning.   I would much rather see the better academy players developed by gradual introduction into our own first team.  Anyone who thinks that the departure of Havard Nordtveit will open the door for Josh Cullen next season has a very trusting and optimistic nature.

It looks like we will say farewell to Enner Valencia very soon.  I had high hopes for him on his arrival after the 2014 World Cup but he wasn’t really cut out for the demands of English football.  Despite that he would have been far more value at West Ham during last season than the hapless Jonathan Calleri.

Who Will Strike When The Irons Are Hot?

The search for the elusive West Ham striker seems stuck in a Groundhog Day!

Every football club is consistently on the look-out for a top striker.  This is the second successive summer where the pursuit of a regular goal-scorer has been the transfer priority for West Ham.  A hat-full of names have come and gone from the radar without success.  The failure of last year’s recruitment is now history while this time around the same names have been bandied around for several weeks but with no tangible progress and few clues coming from the club.  It is early in the window but we seem to be stuck in a stale striker loop of Batshuayi, Iheanacho, Onyekuru, Giroud and (occasionally) Sturridge.  Now that  Wenger has carved “Arsene ❤ Oliver” on the Emirate’s dressing room door that list may now have become shorter still.  I cannot be alone in wanting to hear news of more enterprising links or, better still, of completed transfer swoops.  Yet even the normally resourceful  ‘In-The-Knows’ have become increasingly desperate in their struggle to bring crumbs of  transfer comfort to the anxious ears of troubled supporters.

There are two main possible scenarios as I see it:

The club have a clear idea of their preferred transfer targets and are working diligently and discreetly behind the scenes to put together the proverbial deals that will turn those targets into signed-up West Ham players.  Such deals may or may not be contingent on the domino effect of other transfers being finalised;

The club are adopting the more commonplace and indiscriminate scatter-gun approach in their search for anyone who might, or has in the past, scored a few goals.  Such targets are weighing up the potential wages, attraction of playing in London against any other better offers that could come their way.

Whichever of these two scenarios (or somewhere between the two) is closer to the truth, the twenty goals per season striker looks just as elusive as ever.  Of course, this is a feat not yet achieved by a West Ham player in a Premier League season where Paolo Di Canio’s sixteen in the 1999/2000 season remains the record to beat.  You have to go back over ten years to find a season where a Hammer scored more than ten league goals in a Premier League season; and back to 1986/87 for the last time a West Ham player scored twenty top flight league goals (Tony Cottee, 22).

It is true that goals are not as easy to come by as they once were, and there are now not as many games in which to score them, but despite this, the twenty goal barrier has been breached seventy times in Premier League history.  Admittedly the top six clubs feature most frequently in the hit list but there are also entrants from the likes of Newcastle, QPR, Sunderland, Blackburn, Norwich, Southampton and Nottingham Forest.

The absence of a top notch striker may not necessarily be such an issue where goals are freely distributed around the team.  Last season, for instance, West Ham netted a creditable sixty-five times in the league (equal fourth highest overall) without any individual hitting double figures.  However, almost all successful teams have at least one prolific goal-scorer.  Then there are forwards who have other attributes in their game and are adept at creating chances for others; players, such as Sanchez at Arsenal, and I’m sure if assists were counted back in 1999/2000 then Paolo would have had earned a fair few to sit alongside his already impressive goal tally.

The undoubted advantage of the clinical striker is evident in those circumstances where chances are few and far between; you will find them converting that breakaway to snatch victory in tight away matches or snaffling the half chance at home against unambitious bus-parking opposition.  Of course, it’s great and makes more headlines for a player to nab a hat-trick in a 5-0 romp but the true value of the best strikers is in nicking points from positions where they looked unlikely.  I have always thought this was where Frank McAvennie just edged out Tony Cottee during the famous ’86 season.  How we would dream to have such a thrilling partnership again nowadays but I guess one striker is a big enough ask and two is just being greedy.

One Man, One Goal, One Transfer Vision?

As the rumours continue to fly in from every direction what is the summer transfer strategy at West Ham?

Ten days into the transfer window and fifty four days to the big kick-off and it’s ‘quiet, too quiet, out there‘. Well, it’s not really so quiet if you continue to follow the hundreds of rumours circulating on the internet but it is in terms of actual done deals. According to the Premier League website only seventeen deals have been completed so far this window with Brighton leading the charge with three in-comings followed by Everton, Leicester and Manchester City with two each. West Ham are one of eight clubs to boast a single new recruit to date.  We are all expecting more activity but other than knowing that new players are needed, particularly in the striker department, is there a coherent plan being out together at the London Stadium?

The early business conducted by Everton and Leicester is interesting given that these are two clubs who, along with the Hammers, will have their sights set on leading the mid-table mini-league that exists below the top six. Both clubs will potentially have high profile departures (Lukaku, Barkley, Mahrez) during the summer and appear to be targeting younger, lesser-known talent as replacements and to bolster their squads. Everton, who have the added distraction of a Europa League campaign (provided they are not outwitted by eastern European opposition in the third qualifying round) have already invested heavily and can thank a ‘buy low sell high‘ transfer policy in the past which has seen big money roll in when selling players such as Fellaini and Stones, in addition to this year’s probable transfers-out income. Over the last five years the gross transfer spending of both Everton and Southampton has outstripped the Hammers significantly and yet West Ham’s net spending is greater than those two clubs combined. It is a real concern that history will once again repeat itself with the club treading water in survival mode through a safety first approach of ageing players of proven Premier League ability.

Nobody likes to think of their team as a selling club but the reality of modern football is that if you have an outstanding talent, either one brought through an academy system or picked up from a lower league, then they are unlikely to hang around for long once the top clubs come calling. Good seasons for Manuel Lanzini or Pedro Obiang next term could well turn out to be their last at West Ham. It is an unfortunate fact of footballing life but one that can be turned into a positive through an effective scouting setup that reinvests the proceeds wisely.

Naturally there is no guarantee that buying young players will result in saleable assets but, as the saying goes, you have to speculate to accumulate. Only time will tell whether Leicester’s purchases of Harry Maguire from Hull and Sam Hughes from Chester turn out to be as inspired as the signing of Vardy.   My assumption is that West Ham do have a scouting network which monitors players in the lower leagues despite the limited success over the years.  My sense is that where any risks are taken it is on young overseas players introduced by agents rather than as a result of those unearthed by our own scouting.  West Ham have had some recent success with the capture of Antonio and Cresswell from the Championship after they had become established players but I can’t believe there are not more gems to be found for those looking hard enough.

The same names remain in the frame as far as the desperate striker search and most don’t come across as particularly promising. Michy Batshuayi doesn’t sound too keen to end his exile on the Chelsea bench by moving across London, the buy-back fee suggested by Manchester City in the Kelechi Iheanacho transfer hasn’t been well received in east London and Henry Onyekuru may struggle to get past immigration. The default option could, therefore, end up as Oliver Giroud and although he is undoubtedly better than what we have now, is he exactly what we need?  I see Giroud as a short term fix to a long term problem, at best, with no sell on value.

Possibly Bilic does have his own vision, reminiscent of the Croatia national team style, where Giroud is nodding and stroking home the numerous chances served up by a speedy wing merchant such as Adama Traore. While Traore clearly showed tremendous energy and potential against an obliging West Ham defence very little finally resulted from it.  His contributions at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa were a largely disappointing and sporadic style over substance. His signing would be a major gamble and there have to be questions as whether West Ham have the patience and wherewithal to develop such a player in a scenario where we have been reluctant to provide opportunities to our own academy players.

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Lamine Kone

In what I can only assume are mischievous fabrications we have also be linked with a number of central defenders, most notably Chris Smalling and Lamine Kone. Last I heard West Ham were planning to send exciting young defenders out on baffling season long loans to Germany for the very reason that we are already well stocked with experienced centre-backs.  Some reports claim that the Hammers are in pole position to sign the Sunderland defender but the only Kone I would want to see at Rush Green is the one that players dribble around in training.

As well as no significant change to playing personnel it also remains as you were elsewhere in the club hierarchy. David Sullivan continues in his role as self-styled Director of Football while Slaven Bilic is still at the helm of team affairs, along with the same coaching staff who struggled to deploy a fit, disciplined and organised outfit for the majority of last season. What was it that Einstein is supposed to have said about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? The one change that I am aware of is Gary Lewin replacing Stijn Vandenbroucke as Head of Medical Services; good luck with that very demanding role, Gary!

Interestingly, a very different approach to pre-season has been announced with the focus on training camps rather than a magical mystery tour of exhibition games; apart, that is, from a proposed morale sapping drubbing by Manchester City in Iceland the week before the season opens. As the rationale for the training camps is to provide team bonding then it would be highly preferable to get any new signings on board in advance. You are only as good as your last training camp and memories are still fresh with the Dubai jolly last February which preceded a five game losing streak. With a clutch of players recovering from injury it is not difficult to imagine a slow start to the 2017/18 season.

Let’s hope that there is a plan out there somewhere and that we will end up delighted with both West Ham’s transfer business and a storming start to the season.