…on West Ham’s rapidly disintegrating season
If it’s squeaky-bum time in the Championship, it would seem that West Ham have already followed through. Topping the table in February, a dry run of form has befallen West Ham at exactly the wrong time. An eleven-game unbeaten run would ordinarily be something to shout about but with seven draws, five of which on the bounce, West Ham are now four adrift of second-placed Reading, who ended said streak with a 4-2 win at the Boleyn Ground. Early in the season, manager Sam Allardyce was full of 10-game targets and gusto, now he’s fallen back on his favourite trick; turning on the fans.
It’s easy to forget that West Ham were humiliatingly relegated last season, noses rubbed in it by a beautifully-timed banner flown overhead from Millwall website House of Fun. However, all was supposed to change when the club’s majority owners announced they would underwrite a promotion push and they hired Sam Allardyce, arguably the most impressive managerial appointee in the club’s history. This wasn’t Arsenal’s unproven assistant manager or the club’s experienced assistant manager, this was a bonafide top division manager and, I guess, this has sown the seeds for the current predicament that the club finds itself in. A team with no form that needs to find wins is chasing two teams in excellent form.
Superficially, all seems well. Players were brought in, others were dispatched. Only Demba Ba and Scott Parker were considered keepers from the bunch that left and there was no choice in Ba’s case. With a little help from the hapless Liverpool, the entire backroom staff was cleared out with the exception of Wally Downes. However, scratch even an inch below the veneer and it’s clear the club are lucky to even be in third.
When appointed, Allardyce said he’d try to play the “West Ham way”, though his subsequent adversarial relationship with the fans has seen him question said way even exists and accusing fans of being deluded. Part of the problem isn’t necessarily that West Ham fans want the ball on the floor, it’s that the aerial ball isn’t working. Tactical inflexibilities and deficiences in the transfer policy has meant that for a large chunk of the season centre-back James Tomkins has been anchoring the midfield and it’s so easy to shut down, everybody has tried it. Given the injured-Pape Bouba Diop was both breaking up play and bringing it out from the back, it’s easy to see why even neutrals would describe West Ham as “gruelling to watch”.
And therein lies the problem. The haphazard recruitment in both the summer and winter transfer windows has led to a disjointed squad with holes that now cannot be filled. Summer recruits were largely Premier League players on the wane or who are trying to recapture their top form. Winter recruits were “obvious” signings who’d been doing it for their current clubs. Players like Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock, signed for a combined £5m, don’t thrive on the high ball into the mixer, they need it on the floor. Even Ricardo Vaz Te, the only one of the winter signings which has worked out thus far, could be so much more if he just got the ball where he needed it. Supposedly the negative reaction is coming from a minority of fans but even the most myopically pro-regime Hammer would admit that the club has had very little cutting edge this season and has scraped through a number of games. When you’re lucky to come away with home draws to relegation candidates Bristol City and Doncaster, you hardly have cause to complain when the fans get on your back, even if you disingenuously suggest the opposition have “parked the bus”.
The Championship season is very long and very arduous. November was a long time ago and it’s clear to everybody watching that West Ham have been worked out by the opposition. The sluggish managerial reaction to this has exacerbated the problem and cost the club a lot of points. Rather than blame the fans and blame the opposition for supposedly-defensive tactics, the manager needs to sit down with his coaches and look at the stats that matter. The last six games at home read five draws and a loss. Three teams have worse home records, two of them are in a relegation battle. The fans knew this sort of form was coming and they told the management but the management didn’t want to listen.
Unlike the West Ham fans, who seemingly won’t accept the party line when the truth’s in front of them, it gives an excuse to West Ham haters in the media to trot out Allardyce’s excuses. The only reply to that is 6,000 fans at a midweek game in Peterborough. West Ham are a big club, much bigger than those outside East London and those who look at the average attendance might think, and the fans aren’t delusional. If your club was relegated and the deep-pocketed owners said they’d make sure the club would bounce back, you’d expect more than a team that has moved in ever-decreasing circles as the season has progressed. At least when everything has been superficially done so right.
Throughout the reign of David Gold and David Sullivan, there has been a desperate short-termism to everything. “Save our season” games, temporary drops in ticket prices, panic buys, moving to the Olympic Stadium to fix the club’s long-term woes despite it not being viable. With a two year deal and an instant rebound brief, Sam Allardyce has become a part of that short-termism. Until the top of the club is settled and stable and thinking long-term, it seems unfortunate that this pattern will continue. Even if promotion does come this season, the prospects for next season would seem to be another battle with relegation.