West Ham and Football’s Magic Money Tree

Never-ending revenue growth or heading for a crash? What does the financial future hold for football?

Football finances were back in the news this week; firstly, with a report by a company called Vysyble claiming that football was heading for financial disaster and secondly, a contradictory upbeat article in the Evening Standard trumpeting the fact that London was leading the charge in the game’s unstoppable revenue growth.

The Vysyble report, entitled “We’re So Rich It’s Unbelievable! – The Illusion Of Wealth Within Football” uses a very different methodology to most analysis of football accounts by applying a concept known as economic profit.  Usually when clubs are ranked according to wealth (i.e. those lists which put West Ham as somewhere between the 14th and 17th richest club in the world) the metric used is typically revenues received, the amount of cash coming in through the turnstiles, broadcasting rights and commercial activities.  If profits are ever considered then it is usually based on accounting profit; a simple calculation of revenue less total costs during the appropriate accounting period.  In their last financial accounts West Ham showed revenues of £142 m and an operating profit of £31.5 m, a figure that reduced to a modest pre-tax profit £1.2 m once player trading was taken into account.  With these accounts relating to the period before the London Stadium move and the new TV deal kicked in then expect these numbers to increase significantly next year.

I am no accountant but from what I understand the difference between accounting profit and economic profit is that the latter also factors in costs related to lost opportunity had the capital been invested more wisely elsewhere.  For example, could the owners have enjoyed a better return on their money from investing in stocks and bonds, drug smuggling or on the 2:30 at Ascot?

To see all of Vysyble’s workings out you have to buy their report but from an image posted online it suggests that only five Premier League clubs made an economic profit in 2015/16 compared to the fourteen that were in the black if using accounting profit.  West Ham were ranked midway with a loss of around £5m.

The big questions for me, though, is what does this actually mean and does it make sense to attempt to analyse football in the same way that you would a bank or soft drinks company?  Some big numbers were highlighted from the report to illustrate how much money had been collectively lost by Premier League clubs over the past eight years but with over half of this down to two clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea, where there is no pretence to operate as a profitable business, it somewhat detracts from the overall conclusion.

On the other hand, it is clear that it is the actions of the money-no-object teams like Chelsea and Manchester City that are fuelling player wage inflation and the associated jackpot in agent’s fees.  It doesn’t really make a load of sense for clubs to channel most of its new found riches directly into player’s pockets but to compete with the billionaire playthings it is seen as a necessity.  It is just a shame that the TV windfall has not been used to make the match-day experience more affordable and pleasurable for those attending games.

Ironically, there seems to be no shortage of new investors prepared to get involved in the game; not for any expectation of annual profits but because it is largely an ego trip with the opportunity of an endlessly increasing asset at the end of it.   If football really wanted a level playing field then limiting the impact of the billionaire owner is the area that financial fair play should really have addressed rather than entrenching existing inequalities.  Expect regulation to be introduced the moment that West Ham get a sugar daddy of their own.

Usually, I find accountants, like economists, better at hindsight than insight and although I am not convinced by the Vysyble arguments (or at least what was reported of them) I would agree with another of their conclusions that we will, sooner or later, end up with a European Super League.  But I see this happening not as a result of the Premier League hitting a financial wall but because the worldwide broadcasters want it and the bigger clubs will be unable to resist the even greater rewards that this would bring.  The worldwide TV audience is massive and even though we may think West Ham versus Everton could be a thriller it holds little attraction for the overseas viewer who would happily watch the same few teams play each other week-in and week-out.

It is probably a rather pessimistic view of the future but I do sometimes wonder if the domestic English league would be a far more competitive and exciting spectacle if the mega-rich clubs were off playing their European exhibition games elsewhere.  What was once the icing has now become the cake and despite Leicester’s triumph in 2015/16 the current trajectory is for the gap between the bigger clubs and the rest to get even larger in the future.  There is no way that a club like West Ham will ever grow organically to challenge for regular European football.

Of course none of this doom and gloom is any reason for our owners to keep their hands in their pockets during the next few weeks.

Is There Any Plan To West Ham’s Transfer Window?

Still no light at the end of the London Stadium tunnel as West Ham continue to stumble through the transfer window.

The beauty of the transfer window is that it provides an opportunity to get depressed during the summer as well as during the season.  After the shocking effort of the previous two windows I was convinced that the club would pull out all of the stops to secure the three or four game changing players that have been so enthusiastically spoken about.  This is not to be the case, so it seems, as once again the window follows the familiar pattern of temptation without satisfaction.

It is difficult to know precisely who is to blame (board or manager) for the current shambles and our tendency is to direct contempt according to one’s own prejudices.  Are the board penny pinching, is the manager poor at picking players or is West Ham not an attractive proposition?

The recent Iheanacho situation has taken West Ham’s transfer dealings to a new level of absurdity and, for me, illustrates a collective, disconnected incompetence that is almost too ludicrous to grasp.  In what reality would you pursue a player for six weeks, reportedly agree a deal with the selling club, only for the manager to pull the plug at the eleventh hour.  While it is understandable that a manager might see a deal as eating too much into a finite transfer budget shouldn’t such parameters be agreed to beforehand?  The suggestion that Bilic also felt Iheanacho was not sufficiently proven is implausible for the exact same reasons but it also speaks volumes about his mindset with regard to young players.  That the self-proclaimed Academy should have to send young players to Germany to be properly developed is an amazing contradiction.

For all the talk of next levels and increased capacities it is obvious that West Ham is a club without a realistic plan as far as the playing side is concerned.  The impressive level of season ticket renewals together with a nice growing slice of Premier League pie means that revenues continue to grow and serve, for now, to maintain the club’s slot in the world’s top twenty richest clubs.  To focus solely on revenues, though, without an equal focus on playing staff, coaching, youth development and training facilities is a short sighted strategy in the extreme.  Several more seasons like the last one will surely see supporter numbers evaporate rapidly.  A club whose only boast is a big stadium (and a big screen) does not make it a success.  If nothing else is to change then West Ham will become another Sunderland, not a club with stated ambitions to break into the top six.  Words are very cheap and although it is unfair to suggest that the board have not invested they have not spent money wisely; always looking for a great deal rather than the best value.

The reasons ascribed to Henry Onyekuru for choosing Everton over West Ham were also revealing and it is easy to see why a player would such a decision.  Since Farhad Moshiri took a controlling interest at Everton they have become a far more progressive club that saw a disappointing 11th place finish in 2015/16 as a reason to upgrade their manager and a recruitment policy that has invested sensibly in the future.   In comparison the West Ham’s strategy is to do just enough to survive in the Premier League; no matter what the cocky words coming out of the boardroom might be.  Opportunity has come knocking at the London Stadium in the form of the deal of the century but rather than answer the call everyone appears to be hiding behind the sofa.

Turning to the latest speculation, several new names have appeared as each of the old ones are gradually struck off the list.  Prevalent opinion is that the option of old man Giroud is no longer on the table and that the inflated wage demands of Javier Hernandez are likely to preclude any deal from being completed.  Taking their place on the leader board are a pair of 26 year-olds in Columbian Luis Muriel and Frenchman Gregoire Defrel, although more recent reports has them both destined for greener pastures.  Outside of these the striker cupboard continues to look depressingly bare.

The not unsurprising obsession with strikers has in many ways deflected attention away from other areas of desperate need within the squad.  Where the greatest deficiencies lie depends on what the manager’s preferred style of play will be.  Unfortunately, after two years we are no closer to an answer to this conundrum.  If the plan is to mainly rely on three at the back then the ageing back line looks suspect.  If the preference is to be a back then wide midfield players with defensive attributes are required.  If there is an ideato play two strikers then central midfield reinforcements are badly needed.  Other (non-striker) names in the frame over the last week have included Marko Arnautovic (Stoke), Jota (Brentford) and Badou Ndiaye (Osmanlıspor).  I have to admit that the suggestion of recruiting a player from a team that no-one has ever heard of in the Turkish League makes me shudder.  I still believe that Fabian Delph would be a smart move.

The remaining slow burner is the Joe Hart from Manchester City where the stumbling block is reportedly that West Ham are after a season long loan while City want a permanent deal.   Not sure that Hart is a massive upgrade on Adrian but going for a loan would be the typical short-term West Ham manoeuvre that only confirms belief in the survival only strategy.

Less than five weeks to go to the new season and all we have is one used right back addition to bolster the squad.  The players out may soon be supplemented by the departures of Snodgrass and Feghouli and though I won’t be sorry to see either leave replacing them with new deadwood makes no sense.   Starters are required who can fit into the manager’s tactical master plan not an assortment of bargain squad players.  Recruiting these game changers is going to cost big money in today’s inflated market.

At least we now have one extra day to prepare for the new season with the game at Old Trafford having being put back to Sunday.  What sealed the deal for Lukaku in choosing Manchester United over Chelsea was the guarantee of scoring on his Premier League debut and, from where we are right now, I can only look at the match with trepidation.

On the better news front there are new contracts for Pedro Obiang and (hopefully) Manuel Lanzini which will, at least, ensure higher transfer fees when they leave next summer.

Why haven’t West Ham made any signings yet?

Why don’t there seem to be that many irons in the fire of the summer transfer window?

Apart from the signing of a defender (Pablo Zabaleta) West Ham have yet to make any further signings in this transfer window to date. What are the reasons for this?

None of the players that we are allegedly interested in signing want to come to us? Perhaps we have set our sights too high? The very top players only want to sign for a club that will be competing in the Champions League, or at the very least a team that will realistically be challenging for a place in the top four. They don’t see us as a club in that position. Players just below this level with ambition might want to play in the Europa League at least, or be challenging for a place in the top seven, and they don’t see us doing this either.

The top six clubs from last season will almost certainly finish as the top six next season (albeit not necessarily in the same order), and in addition, Everton have the ambition and seem to attract players who believe that they might be the only club who can perhaps break into this elite group. Have you seen the way Everton have gone about their transfer dealing this summer? At the time of writing they already seem to have snapped up at least half a dozen new players in time for them all to gel in pre-season training, with even more to come. They can work on tactics, formations, and playing together so that they can hit the ground running when the season begins. Other mid-table clubs like Leicester and Bournemouth have already wrapped up some new signings too. Even promoted clubs such as Newcastle and Huddersfield have been successful in the market. Compare that to our position.

We don’t have the finances to attract top players in respect of transfer fees or wages? Given our position in the finance league tables that suggest we are among the top twenty richest clubs in Europe, most fans find this hard to believe. Add to this the increased TV revenues, the sale of Payet, Nordtveit etc. and others that we allegedly want to remove from the wage bill, the financially efficient stadium situation with a very low rent, and other factors, you would have to believe that we do have the money if we choose to spend it. Perhaps, despite all the talk of marquee signings, top quality players that will improve the team etc., the owners don’t really have the ambition to attempt to take us to the next level? However many forget that the top clubs generate huge revenues that are a long way ahead of us (even though we are in the top 20), and can afford to pay massive wages that we just cannot compete with.

David Gold has been at the fore on social media and Talk Sport saying “we have got to find the money”. I listened to his interview with Quinn and Brazil and some of the things he said were: “Without strikers, you struggle in the Premier League. You struggle in any division because strikers are your key players. You have to spend your money wisely but it must be on strikers, particularly strikers that have had experience with Premier League football – the very best we can afford.”

“We have tried the route of going overseas to bring in players – that hasn’t worked. We had a very difficult season because players we brought in from Europe didn’t make the grade and we paid the price. We struggled. We were actually flirting for some time with relegation because we couldn’t score goals. That is why we have got to bring in players with Premier League experience and that is what we are working on now. David Sullivan is working day and night in an effort to solve this problem. We have got good midfielders and a good defence ….”

Whilst not disputing that we do need goalscorers, if you look at last season’s league table we were not flirting with relegation purely because of lack of goals. Only a handful of clubs conceded more goals than we did. If you believe that the defence, and to some extent midfielders are responsible for stopping the opposition from scoring, then perhaps our players in those positions are not as good as David Gold thinks they are.

He also gave the impression that the club have little faith in the Academy players coming through. He quoted the case of Reece Oxford playing a couple of times. It is now two years since Oxford made his debut, and he was universally lauded for his performance against Arsenal. So why hasn’t he progressed from that time? What has gone wrong with his development? Why are we loaning him to a German side who believe he is good enough for the Bundesliga but not the Premier League? I don’t believe that that you can just throw in youngsters in big numbers, but few seem to be given the opportunity.

Perhaps potential signings believe there are other problems with West Ham? Our injury record is poor. Why is that? Our training facilities do not match up to those of other clubs – certainly not clubs among the richest in Europe, and many clubs without our finances have far superior facilities in this respect. Perhaps they don’t like our style of play? Perhaps they believe that the manager doesn’t have a strategy? Perhaps they believe he picks his favourites and shoe-horns them into the team without considering the overall picture? Perhaps they are put off in their dealings with the club when considering a move to us?

The Sullivan family have been very quiet so far. Perhaps they have some tricks up their sleeve, and suddenly we will announce some top quality signings, without shouting about them first? Perhaps all the speculation regarding some of the players we are allegedly being linked with is really a red herring to throw others off the scent of our real targets? Perhaps it is all media speculation? How many of the players who we are apparently interested in will be here next season? Is Andre Gray of Burnley really on our radar? Hernandez? Giroud? Iheanacho? Batshuayi? Does our scatter-gun approach put people off? Who knows anything for sure?

But we can all rest easily! David Sullivan is working day and night! Don’t go to bed! I remember the days when we broke world records to sign players. We certainly weren’t a rich club in those days, but players were keen to come here. Now that doesn’t appear to be the case. This transfer window has the same feel as the last summer window. I hope I am wrong. Let’s hope we can tie up our business in the near future with some decent signings, and not resort to transfer deadline day desperation.

Top Six West Ham Hard-Men

Taking a look back at some of the memorable uncompromising and no-nonsense characters in claret and blue.

There was a time that almost every successful team included an enforcer, a player whose job it was to inject that added element of fear and steel into proceedings.  The hard-man culture reached its peak during the 1970’s and early 1980’s although there were still pockets until recent years, when football became much less of a contact sport.  Now they are finally consigned to the footballing scrapheap alongside muddy pitches and the battering ram centre forward.  Notorious hard-men from over the years have included such names as Dave Mackay, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, Billy Bremner, Roy Keane, Graeme Souness, Joe Jordan and Vinnie Jones.

At various stages in West Ham history, there have been managers who would have regarded the more agricultural approach to the beautiful game as a tactic that falls somewhat below that expected at an academy.  However,  that has not prevented a number of notable robust individuals turning out in the claret and blue.  Here I take a look at my top six Hammer’s Hard-men:

5 =    Andy Malcolm and Eddie Bovington

I am cheating a little here by lumping together two players who both fell foul of Ron Greenwood’s reluctance to deploy players with a predominantly destructive or physical element to their game.  Quite possibly, Greenwood’s purist philosophy ultimately restricted the 1960’s West Ham side from achieving as much as they could.

Andy Malcolm was born above a grocer’s shop just around the corner from Upton Park and signed for West Ham in 1948, going on to become the club’s first ever England youth international.  Malcolm made his first team debut in 1953 and developed into a ruthless, tough tackling and tenacious man-marker who was assigned to shadow, shackle and stop opposition star players such Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Johnny Haynes; England captain Haynes would later describe Malcolm as ‘a butcher’.    An important part of Ted Fenton’s promotion winning side of 1957/ 58 (which included the likes of John Bond, Noel Cantwell, Malcolm Allison, John Dick and Vic Keeble) Malcolm’s contribution was recognised when he won the fan;s vote for the first ever Hammer of the Year award.  When Greenwood replaced Fenton in 1961 Malcolm’s abrasive style saw him quickly fall out of favour and he lost his wing-half berth to a young Geoff Hurst.  Malcolm left for Chelsea at the end of 1961, in a swap deal involving Ron Tindall, having played over 320 games.

North Londoner, Eddie Bovington joined the West Ham groundstaff in 1957 and received his first taste of first team football in an end of season encounter at Old Trafford in 1961.  Bovington’s progress at Upton Park was very slow, however, and it was only after the Hammers were thrashed 8-2 at home by Blackburn Rovers on Boxing Day, 1963 that he secured a proper run in the side; Bovington for Peters being the only change for the return fixture two days later which saw a 3-1 win for West Ham.  Bovington’s man marking job on Rover’s Bryan Douglas had made a huge difference and he kept his place for the remainder of the season including the run all the way to Wembley for FA Cup success.  The following season again saw Bovington as a regular starter in his man-marker role but in March 1965 he suffered a bad kneecap injury which kept him out for the remainder of the season, including the concluding games of the European Cup Winners Cup campaign.  Bovington never had a great rapport with manager Greenwood and went on to play just two more seasons before hanging up his boots at aged 26 to join his family’s tailoring business.

4       Tomas Repka

Tomas Repka established a new West Ham record transfer fee when he was signed from Fiorentina by Glenn Roeder in September 2001 to embark on a topsy-turvy career at Upton Park.  Sent-off on his debut at Middlesbrough, Repka then put in a man-of-the-match performance in a 3-0 home win against Alan Shearer and Newcastle before being sent-off again the following week in a 7-1 defeat at Blackburn.  Repka spent much of his West Ham career as part of an accident prone central defensive partnership with Christian Dailly or at right back where his performances were typically commited and uncompromising but with a high probability of a rush of blood at any moment.  He was a regular in the side relegated in 2002/03 (one red card at home to Fulham) but stayed around in the second level for two seasons to help steer the Hammers back to the Premier League (one red card at home to Preston).  Repka played a further half a season back in the Premier League before deciding to return to his homeland for family reasons.  By the time of his final game, at home to Fulham, Repka had turned around the widely held liability status of his early Hammers career into one of cult hero.

3       Martin Allen

Martin Allen or ‘Mad Dog’ was one of the players recruited to the club (from QPR) during Lou Macari’s brief spell as manager in the wake of relegation to Division 2 in 1989.  Allen played through an eventful period of West Ham history as the club endured a string of promotions and relegation either side of the transition to the Premier League, Macari’s resignation, the appointment of Bonds to the manager’s seat and his acrimonious replacement by Redknapp.  Allen has described himself as a destructive player and formed an usually, for West Ham, tough tackling midfield partnership with Peter Butler.  It was a period defined by ill-discipline in the West Ham ranks and Allen was never far away from a yellow card or worse.  He was sent off twice in the claret and blue, once for a two footed lunge at home to Derby and once for a foul on Rufus Brevett of QPR.  In a separate incident he was punished by the club, but not by the referee, for a foul on Carlton Palmer just twenty seconds after entering the field as a substitute.  Aside from his tough tackling reputation, Allen notched a respectable thirty five goals during his two hundred games for the Hammers.

2       Billy Bonds

Six feet two, eyes of blue, Billy Bonds was after you for over twenty seasons as a West Ham player.  Originally signed by Ron Greenwood as an energetic, marauding full-back, Bonds was later moved into midfield to play the role of minder for Trevor Brooking and later still to central defence where he formed long term partnerships with Tommy Taylor and Alvin Martin.  Known to be one of the fittest players ever to wear a West Ham shirt, Bonds was the epitome of hard work and commitment and cultivated a swashbuckling, Viking look to accompany it.  He was quoted as saying that he got as much enjoyment from winning a strong tackle as from a great pass or setting up a goal.  Bonds was known to be a tough opponent and as hard as nails but he was not a nasty or niggly player like some of football’s better known hard-men.    Bonds was sent off just twice in his lengthy Hammer’s career; once for spitting in a League Cup tie away at Hull and once for an all-in fight with Colin Todd of Birmingham.  Following the latter expulsion he was fortunate not to miss the 1980 FA Cup Final but escaped with a one match ban.  Bonds holds the all-time appearance record for West Ham, weighed in with over sixty goals and was even leading scorer in 1973/74.

1        Julian Dicks

The Terminator, Julian Dicks was a four times Hammer of the Year winner from his two spells with the club between 1988 and 1999.  Despite having a sweet left foot and a thunderous shot Dicks is best known in the football world for his poor on-field discipline and his shaven head (which anecdotally prevented him receiving an England call-up).  Dicks was sent off five times as a West Ham player, three of which came in the single 1992/93 promotion season and led to him being stripped of the club captaincy.  He first saw red in the infamous League Cup battle of 1989 against Wimbledon; a match which saw regular scuffles, a series of robust challenges and, at one stage, a seventeen man brawl.  Dicks was finally sent packing for a scything tackle on Dennis Wise.  Offences in the 1992/93 season comprised an elbow in the face of Newcastle’s Franz Carr, a run-in with Steve Bull of Wolves and a pair of reckless challenges on Ted McMinn of Derby.  His final red resulted from two yellows in a game at Highbury in 1995; this was a game played just five days after the alleged but disputed ‘stamp’ on the head of Chelsea’s John Spencer leading to a long running dispute with Sky’s Andy Gray.  Dicks played over three hundred games for the Hammers and contributed sixty five goals.

West Ham’s One Piece At A Time Striker Search

Is there any plan beyond just sign a a proven striker. Do they need to fit into a certain style of play?

Imagine that you have been traipsing around Westfield at Christmas for over three hours and the only present you have bought so far is a box of bath salts for your Auntie Ivy.  By now you regret not writing a list beforehand and have realised that a mental note to not screw up like last year by visiting different shops is not really a plan.

If there a wish list for West Ham’s transfer shopping activity does actually exist it would appear to go no further than stating ‘buy a proven Premier League striker’.  The rationale being that the club are well served in the midfield and defensive departments despite having the sixth worst goals against record last season.  All that is required, apparently, to mount a sustained assault on the top six is that missing person to tuck away the steady stream of chances that the team creates each weekend.

It would be comforting to believe that when Sullivan, Bilic and Henry get together in the Chairman’s hot tub to discuss the latest transfer targets, over a bottle of crème de menthe and a packet of Hamlet cigars, that there is a detailed specification as to exactly the type of player required to complete the tactical jigsaw master plan.  If the list of players linked in the media is anywhere near accurate then this seems rather unlikely.  That the extent of the plan is to find someone, anyone, who has scored goals at some point in their career and then find a way of shoehorning them into the starting eleven.  Perhaps beggars can’t be choosers but it would be encouraging to know that the search went beyond just finding another target man.  What is needed in the modern game are players that offer pace, mobility, athleticism and intelligence; someone who can score goals but is also able to hold the ball up, bring others into play and contribute to a more fluid playing style.

With the July 1st player contract milestone now passed and pre-season training underway several new names have been added to the list of potential targets over the past few days.  Striker speculation stalwarts such as Giroud, Sturridge, Iheanacho and Batshuayi have not yet gone elsewhere but are now allegedly joined on the West Ham radar by the likes of Javier Hernandez, Anthony Modeste, Cedric Bakambu, Andre Gray and Raul Jimenez.  Refreshingly, most of these are under thirty and a few are even in their mid-twenties.  Of the names mentioned, however, only Giroud, Sturridge and, maybe, Hernandez can be said to be the proven Premier League striker that the club has spoken so frequently about.

The other scenario, of course, is that there will be more than one striker arrival at the London Stadium.  Previous experience would suggest that the chances of completing not one but two striker deals would be slim but it could serve to reduce the predictability of our attacking play, particularly against teams more committed to defence.  On the other hand the prospect of playing two strikers, while nostalgically appealing, would ask many questions of a defensively flimsy and out-numbered midfield.  If only we knew what style of football our manager liked to play!

One player crossed off the list in the last week was Henry Onyekuru who chose Everton over a move to the London Stadium and only time will tell whether this was an opportunity missed or a dodged bullet.  Everton are also reportedly in for Giroud, a move that would appear to go against their largely forward looking transfer strategy of buying players with potential sell-on value rather than those searching for a final pay-day, and who would be equally happy with a move to the Chinese Super League.

A potential alternative to Onyekuru to emerge in the week was José Izquierdo, a Columbian also currently playing in the Belgian league.  As with many other targets he looks great on Youtube, where he demonstrates delightful skills as a speedy goal-scoring winger who actually takes a look up before crossing and who has a range of goal celebrations to rival Michail Antonio.  Certainly looks interesting but I imagine that work permit could be an issue with his limited international record.

The transfer news hasn’t all been about strikers, however.  In midfield there has been talk of interest in another Manchester City outcast, Fabian Delph, who I believe would be good value, plus a move for Vicente Iborra from Sevilla.  As we are reportedly battling it out with Watford and West Brom for Iborra I think that is one that is best ignored.

A rumour from last winter’s transfer window has also resurfaced in respect of  Saint Etienne defender Kevin Malcuit .  Malcuit translates to badly cooked in English and, having already signed ourselves a new right back, this has the whiff of a half-baked idea to it, with the player more likely to join Marcelo Bielsa at Lille.

The one done deal of the West Ham week was a new five year contract for 29 year old Angelo Ogbonna.  I am somewhat ambivalent about Ogbonna.  He currently gets my vote ahead of veterans Fonte and Collins but I still feel he is prone to switching off and allowing opponents too much room in dangerous positions.  I can’t see him performing at the top level beyond another two years, making a five year deal worrying, but maybe he gets the benefit of the doubt as a result of last season’s injury.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that West Ham did not pursue an interest in Nathan Ake who has since moved to Bournemouth.

Play Fair 5: Crime and Punishment Under the Hammer

In the final part of the series we go above and beyond the IFAB proposals to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

This is my fifth and final article looking at potential changes to improve the game of football. The first four looked at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). 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”, and the fourth looked at their ideas for “Increasing fairness and attractiveness”. In the previous four I added some of my own views on their proposals, and in this final one I will add some additional thoughts that could be considered by the rule makers but haven’t been.

If you watch any football on TV, how many times do you hear the following question asked every weekend of the football season? “Was he denied a clear goal scoring opportunity?” It is one of those subjective decisions which are based purely on the opinion of the officials, and in particular the referee. And it is one which constantly provokes debate. The West Ham v Manchester City game in January 2016 had two incidents that I will now look at further and try to decide if the punishment fits the crime.

Firstly, take the eighth minute of the game. We were already one up inside the first minute thanks to Valencia, when Aguero burst into our penalty area in a very wide position. Jenkinson clumsily challenged him and referee Craig Pawson didn’t hesitate to point to the spot. From my seat in the stand at that end of the pitch I couldn’t believe it but after seeing the replay on TV later accepted that it was perhaps a foul, and at least a very clumsy challenge. I’ve seen similar challenges penalised sometimes and sometimes not. Based on the statistics of penalty kicks then there was an 85% chance of the penalty becoming a goal. But does the punishment fit the crime? Was Aguero being denied a clear goal scoring opportunity? The answer almost certainly is no. But because the infringement takes place within this arbitrary 18 yard penalty area then a penalty kick is awarded which usually becomes a goal.

Secondly, let us consider an incident after about half an hour of the game. An extraordinary piece of slide tackling and through pass from being on the ground by the once-loved Payet sent Antonio through. His pace was taking him towards goal when Demichelis crudely brought him down and he received a yellow card for his misdemeanour. This meant a free kick to West Ham outside the area allowing City the opportunity to bring their players back and build a wall. Does the punishment fit the crime? Was Antonio denied a clear goal scoring opportunity? Almost certainly yes, although referee Pawson decided that was not the case (to the astonishment of most in the crowd, and many more who saw it later on TV). The rule doesn’t say anything about being a certain goal. A referee shouldn’t think that another player within so many yards means that there was no clear opportunity to score. I don’t think players should necessarily be sent off in these circumstances as I prefer to see 11 playing 11. But the award of a penalty in these circumstances would be enough punishment.

So in the first incident a goal was not really threatened and in the second case it was. But the first incident resulted in a penalty, whereas the second was just a free kick outside the penalty area. The first has a statistical goal likelihood of 85%, whereas the second perhaps about 5% or even less. So is justice being done? No, I believe not.

Older readers will remember a certain Keith Hackett, who in 1991 deemed that Tony Gale was denying Gary Crosby a clear goal scoring opportunity even though he wasn’t really running towards the goal! All West Ham fans of that era hate Mr. Hackett, but many would have liked him in charge in this game when Antonio was brought down!

This brings me nicely to my next question. What is the point of having a penalty area at all (other than determining a specific area where goalkeepers than handle the ball)? Why don’t we have a rule change such that if a foul is committed anywhere on the pitch a free kick is given, but if the referee deems that it denies a clear goal scoring opportunity then he awards a penalty, irrespective of the exact place that the infringement happened? This could happen close to goal, or, as in Antonio’s case, some distance from goal. The award of a penalty kick just because an infringement happened within the penalty area (even if the goal is not really threatened) is nonsense if you think about it. Surely the only consideration should be the denial of a clear opportunity to score a goal?

I’ve got a lot of views about offside and I’ve been reading about the law, FIFA guidance, referee guidance etc. One problem I have is that it has been proven in scientific research that human beings (including linesmen!) physically cannot move their eyes fast enough to take in all the necessary action. To make a correct decision they have to assess the positions of the player passing the ball, the player receiving the ball, and the second from last defender at the exact moment a pass is made, bearing in mind that they could be some distance apart, and possibly moving at speed in opposite directions. Am I the only person who believes that when a slow motion replay of an offside decision is shown on TV, when they draw the line across the pitch it isn’t always simultaneous with the exact moment the ball is played? I believe the offside law needs to be changed.

The rule was introduced many years ago to stop the concept of goal-hanging and this makes sense. But why have the situation where you can be offside in half of the pitch? Can you really be goal-hanging more than fifty yards from goal? Why not change the rule so that you can only be offside in this final 18 yards of the pitch? This would prevent the current condensing of play in the centre of the field and stretch it out further. Assistant referees would only have to consider the issue in a smaller area, and it would surely result in fewer incorrect decisions.

And while we are considering rule changes, what about free kicks? These are meant to be an advantage to the side who get awarded them, and currently the opposition have to retreat 9.15 metres. Why such a small distance? Historical I suppose – ten yards. Why not extend this distance to 15 metres to give a real advantage?

The laws of the game were established over 150 years ago. Since then the average height of human beings has increased by more than 10%, we can run more than 10% faster, and jump more than 10% higher and longer. Perhaps the pitch should now be extended to be 10% longer and 10% wider, and the goals should be 9 feet high and 9 yards across to allow for the increased performance of the human body?

There are very few changes that are ever made to the laws of the game or the interpretation of rules. And the game has moved on considerably from when all the laws were drafted initially by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863. Perhaps the last really significant change was the introduction of the deliberate back pass rule almost 25 years ago. Yes, the offside law is tinkered with from time to time to such an extent that the viewing public and the players themselves get confused by first phase, second phase, interfering or not interfering with play etc.

The game of football is simple and great, but let us not rest on our laurels. In most spheres of life changes are made with the intention of improving something. We can do the same with the beautiful game. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) Play Fair document is a step in the right direction. Historically IFAB have always taken rather a conservative view or attitude towards any proposed changes, and in any event FIFA has 50% of the votes when it comes to considering any amendments. So while FIFA hold such power then I fear nothing much will happen. It will be interesting, however, to see the reaction throughout the world to the proposals made by IFAB which are more radical than we have seen before, and in some instances would bring a definite benefit. But in my opinion they don’t go far enough.