Curbing Our Enthusiasm at The London Stadium

Hope generally trumps expectation but is it time to forget the promises of next levels and accept our role as Premier League also-rans?

The story behind the naming of the hit TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm is that it was a reaction by creator, Larry David, against the many people who lived their lives projecting false enthusiasm and also to urge viewers not to raise their expectations too high.  Regrettably there is no connection to former Hammer’s manager Alan Curbishley!  False enthusiasm and the managing expectations do, however, play a large part in the current undercurrent of discontent that continues to surround West Ham and the London Stadium.

My personal view about the current board is reasonably ambivalent.  It makes no difference to me how our owners originally made their money; suffice to say that they have been successful business people which allowed them to take control of the club at a very uncertain time of it’s history.  Nevertheless, they cannot dine out on their reputation as the club’s saviours forever.  I do not subscribe to the view that their tenure has been synonymous with penny pinching yet do not feel that they have spent their money wisely; the value of their asset has undoubtedly increased but on the back of the money pouring into the game rather than as a result of their own efforts in develop the footballing side of the club.

Expectation management is the biggest concern in particular the misleading naming of high profile transfer targets where we have little hope of persuading the player or deep enough pockets to meet the demands of his current employers.  Supporters often focus only on net transfer spend but in reality there is no such thing as a separate transfer budget.  Clubs will focus on total expenditure (against revenues) which includes transfers, wages and agents fees.  That West Ham were ranked sixth in agent fees paid last season and have several players (with limited re-sale value) earning more than anyone at Tottenham just doesn’t seem to make any long term sense.

Many of us were no doubt carried away a little by the prospect of a new golden era of prosperity following the move to the new stadium even if there were differences of opinion as to how many years this would take.  Fine talk of regular European football and an assault on eventual Champion’s League qualification is a commendable dream (and there is nothing wrong with having a dream) but a dream without a plan is nothing more than a wish.   The structure of the club in terms of footballing direction, scouting, coaching, fitness, youth development and training facilities are way behind other Premier League clubs and leaves the impression of muddling for the sake of survival rather than with any loftier ambitions.  To borrow from The Waterboys, the Owners had promised us ‘the whole of the moon’ but have, so far, we have only seen ‘the crescent’.

It will be no surprise when the end of season Premier League table is almost identical to the amount of money that each club rakes in.  The outlier my well be ourselves in finishing well below the 7th or 8th position that our revenues would suggest.  Despite the Leicester blip, money has increasingly become the determining factor to league position.  As I see it, there is even a split in terms of financial muscle in the so-called big six with the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea now well ahead of the remainder.  Large external investment is the only way to get onto the top table on a regular basis.  Arguably the Premier League is more competitive than other European leagues where one or two horse races have become the norm.  The dilemma for top Premier League clubs is does this relative greater competition diminish their chance of Champion’s League success.

As TV and commercial revenues become far more dominant to the wealth of clubs it is impossible to see how a next level can be achieved simply by year on year incremental and organic growth.  If Gold and Sullivan intend to pass on ownership of the club to their families there can be and never will be a new promised land in east London football.  Perhaps we should just accept our place in the scheme of things to make up the numbers.  An occasional tilt at a Europa league place or a domestic cup every few decades is, maybe, the best a West Ham man can get.

The status quo leaves West Ham in a difficult position leaving the club as it does as the fourth largest in London.  I have long wondered whether it is this factor of geography that makes a large contribution to our recurrent under achievement.  Proximity creates far greater competition for the signature of the brightest and best youth players; and from clubs with better facilities, as evidenced by the poor productivity from the academy over the last ten years or so.  On the other hand established players signing for a London team, with the attraction and distraction of the bright city lights, may well become complacent big-time Charlies now that they have made the big time; without the need for the hard work that a more competitive squad would require.

An interesting blog from When Saturday Comes published in the Guardian by a Swansea supporter questioned whether, for teams with limited resources, perennial struggle in the Premier League was better or worse than being reasonably successful in the Championship.  Certainly the allure of the Premier League is great but does it wear thin after a while It is an intriguing dilemma for supporters as to whether the chance to see world famous footballers in live action makes up for the disappointment of regular defeat.  (For me, the article was spoilt by the cheap, needless and irrelevant swipe at the London Stadium – it is fine for own support to slag off the club but others should keep their unsolicited views to themselves; particularly where it is not pertinent to the point in hand.)  As the Premier League becomes more polarised around money there should be no circumstances where mid ranking clubs such as West Ham or Newcastle ever get relegated and even to flirt with it is a sure sign of mismanagement.

We have the worst of all worlds at West Ham at the moment.  A manager who, with no chance of a new contract, few tactical ideas, regularly prepares teams with questionable fitness and deployed with no overall system or plan, is limping along from week to week in an attempt to scrape together enough points to avoid the sack.  It is a sorry state of affairs. At least the team will not this time have a hangover from a warm weather break in Dubai to disadvantage them when Premier League action resumes at the weekend.

The highlight of the international break was seeing Iceland qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time.  With a population of around 330,000 (just a few thousand less than the borough of Newham), this is some achievement and a great example of producing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Perhaps part-time manager (and dentist) Heimir Hallgrímsson could do a job at West Ham even if it is only filling in until the end of the season!

The Enduring Problem With West Ham

The long term lack of professionalism that continues to frustrate at West Ham both on and off the pitch.

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.

A Very West Ham Muddle

Are West Ham sleepwalking to disaster as indecision rules the day?

Having apparently received an overwhelming Vote of Procrastination from the West Ham Board it now looks like manager Slaven Bilic is effectively on a one day at a time rolling contract to save his job.  If reports are to be believed he has until the next international break to prove his mettle as the man to take the club forward; or at least until his contract expires – unless, that is, we lose to Huddersfield in which case he could be straight out of the door.

It is interesting to consider for a moment what would constitute a successful return from those next four games (at home to Huddersfield, Tottenham and Swansea and away to West Brom).  Would a couple of wins giving us six points from seven games be enough to appease the doubters or are our sights no more ambitious these days than getting carried away by victory over Tottenham?  The notion that a manager, who has struggled to organise, prepare and motivate a squad for the last eighteen months, will be able to turn things around over the course of a month has a sense of wide-eyed wishful thinking about it.  Perhaps the Board see it as loyalty but it looks more like recklessness to me.  I can’t believe, as some have suggested, that they “don’t have the balls” to sack him as nobody becomes a multi-millionaire businessman without making difficult decisions.  Surely they must have learned something from the Avram Grant episode.

The uncertainty also casts a shadow over the remaining days of the transfer window as a move to the London Stadium becoming an even less attractive option than it was before.  We are unlikely to hear a player telling us how he was unsure about the move until he was convinced by the manager’s vision for the club; not with Slaven’s current dejected air of calamity.  Furthermore would the Owners, prudent with their money at the best of times, be inclined to back the manager’s judgement to any sizeable degree given his recent track record and our current predicament?

A consequence of having a confused game plan/ style of play is that it makes buying players to suit it very difficult.  Maybe Slaven does have an idea somewhere in his head but it has clearly not been communicated to the players.  The game is not simply about announcing a formation but how those relevant parts interact with each other; full backs supporting attacks, central defenders covering for full-backs, defensive midfielders slotting into defence to fill gaps, wide midfielders tracking back to assist full backs, attacking midfielders supporting the striker. These things are not learned on a white board but must be drilled into players over and over again on the training ground.  I see no evidence of this having taken place with our set of strangers.

Bilic has said that the club will not be buying more players for the sake of it but I wonder if he really knows what is wanted.  Previously it has been said that the club were not looking for defenders or midfield players; but then that all changed with the apparent pursuit of William Carvalho.  It seems very obvious to most that pace and athleticism in central midfield and defence should be at the top of the priorities if we are to compete.  Without that the struggles are set to continue.

For me the jury is still out on the success or otherwise of our transfer dealings to date.  Hart and Zabaleta have yet to cover themselves in glory, Arnautovic has only confirmed that he may be the moody individual that everyone predicted he would be, and Hernandez, although definitely a class act, will find it tough to prosper in the role of unsupported isolated lone striker.

The club’s transfer business has been presented to us as a pragmatic purchase of proven Premier League performers (but then so were Ayew, Fonte and Snodgrass) when in fact it is no more than a short term survival strategy.  Any idea that a new bigger stadium, by itself, was the gateway to success is now clearly an old man’s pipe-dream.  The long established amateurish West Ham ways need urgent reform or we can never fit the apparent ambition of the surroundings; and will end up as just another Sunderland.  With our current set up we fit in the top echelons of Premier League football about as well as the Clampetts did when moving into Beverley Hills (if anyone remembers that).  Perhaps that should be the Pudding Mill-billies!

If I ever come across a genie who grants me three wishes for West Ham they would be: a progressive and disciplined manager, a proper football person to sit between the Board and manager; and investment in fit-for-purpose training facilities.  Without these improvements our seasons will be stuck on repeat for ever.

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.

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.

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.