A lot has changed in football since the days when I used to pay two-bob to get into the North Bank and listen to Bill Remfry for an hour or so before kick off. Admission prices have rocketed, booking is essential but you can now turn up with a few minutes to spare. On the pitch the game has lost crunching tackles and sideburns as well as muddy pitches that are devoid of grass after the first frosts of winter. Players have become celebrity multi-millionaires who no longer pop into the local for a light and bitter after the match. Sponsorship is everywhere, ramshackle stadiums have been gentrified (in most cases) and news, gossip, conjecture, analysis appears in a constant stream, twenty four hours a day. For those of us who resist change the crumb of comfort is the knowledge that West Ham, as a club, remain as accident prone and unprofessional as they have always been. If there were an Opta stat for ‘shots into own foot’ then the Hammers would be in a class of their own.
Perhaps it is my memory playing tricks but back then football, although a matter of life or death, was very much a match-day activity. Once the elation or disappointment of Saturday afternoon was out of the way and the Sunday papers had been read there was little to concern yourself with until ‘On The Ball’ was broadcast the following week. The excitement of watching mainly local lads playing for the local team, that all the family supported, made up for any frustration caused by the lack of success. In any case we did have our own mini-golden era with four cups in sixteen years to keep the bubbles blowing. There were excellent West Ham sides in both the mid 1960’s and early 1980’s and yet, even then, a failure to invest and an absence of imagination led to missed opportunities.
West Ham’s record of having only five managers in eighty seven largely barren years up until John Lyall’s departure gave credence to the Hammer’s family club legend. That there have been ten (plus caretakers) in the twenty eight years since, though, tells another story as the clubs make-do-and-mend muddle through strategy has failed to adapt to the cash rich era of modern football. When managers only last an average of three years it is negligent and shortsighted not to have someone separately looking after the football strategy of the club.
I suppose it is possible that disaster has struck other clubs with equal regularity but because I have not be looking out for their news it passes me by. Yet even a cursory trawl of the memory banks throws up enough gaffes and blunders to make a decent mini-series. In no particular order I give you: the Bond scheme, Mannygate, Tevezgate, the treatment of Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds, the Icelandics, Brown sacking Redknapp in a fit of pique, Pardew’s philandering, Curbishley’s constructive dismissal, transfer business conducted by twitter culminating in the unseemly spat with Sporting Lisbon regarding William Carvalho. There are probably some I have missed and it is difficult to imagine anyone matching this hall of shame. If it was any other business than the unconditional devotion of football then the loyal customers would have deserted long ago.
Thankfully, the club has (to date) avoided the type of massive financial meltdown or fall from grace that has been witnessed at clubs such as Leeds, the Sheffield’s and Portsmouth. Arguably we came very close after the Icelandic’s collapse and that we do, in fact, have Gold and Sullivan to thank for saving the day. Those brownie points, however, do not last forever and now is the time for them to demonstrate a better balance between the interests of their pockets and the interests of the club and its supporters. While all West Ham’s owners in my lifetime have demonstrated an absence of true ambition, the current board, somehow, manage to combine this with contrary delusions of grandeur; at least in their public utterances.
It is quite apparent that there can be no next level in the current financial environment of the Premier League without massive external investment. Consolidating as one of the best of the rest should be eminently attainable (for the 15th richest club in the world) if only it were better managed on the footballing side. Brian Clough regularly complained that football chairmen didn’t know what they were doing when it came to football matters and David Sullivan has proved this point perfectly. Of course he is entitled to an opinion (he is signing the cheques after all) but it is time he took a step back, as far as his little legs will allow, from his role as self-styled Director of Football.
I do not pretend to understand how transfers work at West Ham but, from what has been written, it is allegedly a joint effort between Sullivan, Slaven Bilic and Director of Recruitment, Tony Henry. It is said that the players we signed in the summer were all at the top of Bilic’s wish-list which is good (in the sense of due process) but worrying if that is the extent of his vision. I doubt that any of the signings are bad but are they the best a Slav can get, and what about the ones we didn’t sign to fill the obvious deficiencies in pace and athleticism throughout the team?
Having started the season so badly, the self-back-slapping euphoria that followed almost universal approval of a successful transfer window had started to look a little premature, prompting the supposed pursuit of Carvalho. I am sure that some sort of approach was made, whatever Sporting Lisbon may say, but whether it was a serious one is debatable. Would the Chairman who claims to be working sixteen hours a day on transfers really go on holiday for the last days of the window if there was more business to be done? It would not be the first time that a lot of noise has been made about signing a player who is knowingly beyond our budget. The Board had done better up until then in maintaining a lower profile on transfers and so it was disappointing that Sullivan was so thin-skinned when criticism arose that he felt the need to shift the blame to the manager as soon as possible; not a great advert for teamwork or collective responsibility! The excuse about a bid finally being accepted for Carvalho but no time for a medical is pure hogwash.
Carvalho would have been an excellent signing and just the type of player needed to protect a porous defence. Bilic was reported as saying that such a player had been his priority for the last two years but if that was the case why did he persist with his campaign to buy as many wingers as possible instead?
We now have to make do until January, at least, with the named twenty two man squad plus any youngsters that Bilic elects to trust. That this squad includes Doniel Henry and Moses Makasi plus the ever injured Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho leaves little room for manouevre on match-days. With a manager (described in one national newspaper as a tactical dunce) in the last year of his contract he is a dead-man walking and unlikely to command any respect from his players. At a club where players have typically done whatever they please it would take an eternal optimist to expect Bilic to turn this round. Players need to be shown discipline, be at the peak of fitness and be thoroughly drilled in what is expected of them; sadly Bilic (and his coaching pals) are not at all equipped to deliver this.
While the efforts on the pitch reflect badly on the manager, the Board are also implicated. It is they who appointed him in the first place and have overseen the direction he is taking us; this is either nowhere or backwards! They must now act quickly to avoid a repeat of Avram Grant but they must also address the deficiencies that continue to impact the footballing side if any long term change is to be forthcoming. Better training facilities and a dedicated Director of Football to drive strategy are fundamental, not optional, requirements for progression. It is all well and good generating more revenues with slick commercial activities but it will all be for nothing without an overhaul of the factors that cause a lack of professionalism on the pitch.