Extracts of Blagg's football blogs as he follows West Ham United and England through the usual series of near disasters.

Featuring links to the Annual Billy Blagg Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs.

Also featuring guest appearances by 'Captain Olympic'.

Monday, 14 April 2014

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Barbados 2014

The Allardyce Conundrum

Sam Allardyce

It would be too grandiose to say that there is a battle for the soul of West Ham going on -- that one was fought when Terence Brown introduced the Bond Scheme during the tenure of Billy Bonds -- but there is at least a definite movement in place; one that would appear to the outsider to be something of an oddity.

Fans are often turning on the board and the manager -- there's nothing strange about that and, in fact, a rather high-flying example is going on right now over in the North-west of England -- but the one at Upton Park is something of a curiosity to anyone not involved in the club.

Hammers fans, many of whom have never seen any major success bar a cup final runners-up place and a couple of nail-biting Play-off victories, are striking out at a manager who has the temerity to bring them something fans of many other clubs have hankered after for a long time: Premier league mid-table tedium. Sound harsh? Perhaps, but let's look at the real facts.

West Ham United are a club built around a foundation laid in the late 1950s. Promotion under Ted Fenton in 1958 and the Academy ideals under the coaching of Malcolm Allison -- including the mentoring of a young defender named Bobby Moore -- led to the revolutionary ideas of a forward-thinking manager called Ron Greenwood. When the Hammers won the 1964 Cup final and the 1965 Cup Winners Cup -- the latter playing an entirely new brand of football -- they were part of the zeitgeist, even before they provided the backbone of the 1966 World Cup team.

Only the second team after Spurs to win a European competition, West Ham were at the forefront of a new social phenomena, where working-class kids suddenly become celebrities, role models, men to be admired and feted. With it came advertising, sponsorship and world-wide fame. The Sixties was a defining decade and West Ham were its glamour club.

The football though, strained through the beliefs of Fenton, Allison, Greenwood and then John Lyall, provided a legacy that generations of east Londoners have never forgotten. Although that first line of heroes eventually retired, the likes of Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire simply took up the mantle and later came Tony Cottee and Alvin Martin, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole. The idea of the Academy legacy became so ingrained that even neutrals would speak of imports like Trevor Sinclair, Paolo di Canio and even Carlos Tevez as being 'West Ham players' playing 'the right way'.

The long-term league table

Yet the Hammers have no real league success to speak of. In a league table of clubs who have played the most seasons in the top division, West Ham sit 22nd with 56. Almost out on their own in many ways, they loiter just below Nottingham Forest (European and League winners under Brian Clough), who they will overtake next season. The Hammers closest rivals in this table are teams like Birmingham (20th - 57) and Stoke (19th - 58), winners of a League Cup or so but nothing else. Bolton in 12th are the only club with comparable cup success but no league title -- and they have never won a European competition.

But it's at the other end of this scale where things get interesting. Leeds United (24th - 50), Aston Villa (2nd - 103), and Manchester City (6th - 85) are all clubs that have won the league, a European trophy and have lost their top tier status relatively recently. In fact, all have sunk even further.

When the Hammers have dropped out of the top flight they have always returned in a couple of seasons, always in the running for a quick reinstatement to 'where they belong' even when they have fallen short. They've never dropped into the third tier, never even come close. It depends how you measure your success, of course -- supporters of some clubs may snicker behind their hands here -- but West Ham have been moderately successful for a long time.

But how would some from outside the club view this? Someone from Chelsea or Newcastle or even Bolton, for example? Would they see West Ham as a 'big and successful' club ? Or a middleweight club that once punched above its weight? Of course it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, and there's an excellent argument that says West Ham have suffered historically from poor decisions at the very top and chronic under-investment elsewhere -- they could and should be bigger than they actually are. But the truth is that West Ham's real status is very much what they can expect from their board and manager. Let's not forget that financially, Upton Park is still very much in the pocket of the bank.

Allardyce's motives

I'd argue that as it stands the Hammers are a mid-table team -- comfortably so with the right manager in charge -- and the board are only asking one thing of that man. The remit here is pretty simple. West Ham United are leaving their home of the last century and are moving into a smart new pad down the road. Some want to go, some don't -- but that's another argument. What is certain, though, is that the Hammers need to go into their new stadium in Stratford as a Premier League club and to do that they need to avoid the type of seasons that occurred only too recently under Glenn Roeder and Avram Grant. And if Roeder can claim he was unlucky to be at the helm when the club were relegated with a record 42 points -- just pipped ironically by Sam Allardyce's Bolton -- then Gianfranco Zola might have to admit he grabbed some of that luck back by surviving with 35 points. When you factor in Alan Curbishley’s Tevez-led Great Escape, you have to admit there's something of a trend here.

Sam Allardyce was bought in to get the Hammers back to the Premiership -- something he achieved at the first time of asking albeit via a Play-off -- and to make sure they stay there. Allardyce is a pragmatist who plays a percentage game. He's always looking to make sure his teams score more points than games played because he knows 40 odd points normally secures safety. If his team are 2-1 up with five minutes to play, he will not want his players chasing a third to make sure -- something West Ham fans of all ages would have grown up with -- he knows that under his coaching his team should be able to defend for that time and that almost guarantees three points.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and in fact it's something any successful manager would instil into his players. It's also the reason I have more time for Big Sam than some. I like to see a side defend well and I'm wearied by years of watching good positions thrown away in a kamikaze attempt to blitz opponents off the pitch with superior skill and tactics -- not because I wouldn't want to see that, you understand -- but rather because West Ham have rarely had the players to do it.

So if Sam has instilled a sound defensive mentality, what is everyone complaining about? Well, the problem is that the defensive aspect seems to have overridden everything else. The Hammers only route forward seems to be a high ball and there were times against 10-man Hull on Wednesday night when it looked as if the home side were the team a man down. Hull found men in forward space frequently, West Ham only looked behind them.

In fact, some players seem utterly incapable of finding someone with a forward pass and it's awful to see. The fans decided to show their displeasure at the end of the Hull game and, though I can understand Sam's shock at the reception, I'd never deny any fan the right to show what they think. Too many people forget that the only people who actually pay in football are the supporters, and managers, board and players would do well to remember it.

Is the alternative worse?

But is dull, 'successful' (bearing in mind what I've said above) football good enough? What do West Ham fans want? Well, surprisingly, it's not European football. Everyone knows the club is not capable of achieving or sustaining that. Rather I suspect most supporters are casting their eyes just a few places further up the division at Southampton, who have very much become the old-style West Ham equivalent; attractive flowing football, young players coming through the ranks and a forward-thinking manager.

But let's not forget that in the years after the Dell closed and the Saints moved to St Mary's, third-tier football was the order of the day on the south coast -- and that's the very thing West Ham are trying to avoid. If the club continue in mid-table -- dull football or not -- and are still there a couple of years after moving to the Olympic Park, then I think the fans can look at Southampton and think 'at least we didn't have to sink that low to rise up'.

A headline in a London newspaper perhaps unwittingly summed up West Ham’s plight: 'Can the Hammers sack Allardyce and survive?' Notice that -- it's not sack and prosper, but survive. Because survival is what it is all about, and I simply don't understand anyone who wants to see relegation in order to get 'better football'.

Firstly, who says it will come? Really, apart from the 2006 season under Alan Pardew, have West Ham played much 'Academy football' since Harry Redknapp was sacked? And secondly -- and this is an important point -- how is losing football entertaining or better? I was frustrated on Wednesday night, but if I could replay that game in some type of X-box style world, would I have felt worse if West Ham had drawn or lost? I sure would have.

So when Sam Allardyce says "But we won!", I'm fully behind him because I've seen a lot of the rest and it's no fun either. Anyone who thinks Hammers teams of the past would have torn Hull apart haven't been watching the same side I've seen season after season.

So is there a way out of this conundrum? I believe there is, because, though Allardyce will always build his teams around a solid, defensive base, I genuinely don't believe he wants to see the type of inability to get forward he saw in mid-week. He knew Hull couldn't score from 20-30 yards out, but he also knows that given enough space at that distance a killer ball is likely to find its way in, and the pragmatist in him won't want that. It's also painfully obvious that -- cupped ear aside -- Allardyce has been extremely annoyed this season at his side's inability to get forward.

So I believe the two David's will stick with Sam. Allardyce protects their investment and it's simply good business sense. But money will be made available for the manager to buy a couple of players who can use the ball in those situations. Despite what some fans seem to think, wholesale changes aren't required. I believe a forward with some pace and midfield player comfortable on the ball would make all the difference to the side that struggled so woefully against Hull. Even two wing-backs who could break up play and get forward would stop the type of thing we saw in mid-week.

There will be many then who will disagree, but my argument for sticking with Sam Allardyce is pretty much the same as it was when he was appointed. He's not a West Ham man and he doesn't play Academy football, but no-one else has played it either since Paolo last threw a strop. So if I get angry, frustrated, and want to show my dissatisfaction about the poor return for my financial outlay -- and that's my prerogative -- I'm at least doing it against a man who is likely to get results, however unpalatable.

When West Ham are ensconced in the Budweiser Bobby Moore Stadium and Pep Guardiola is playing the new-style Academy football, then I might look back at dear old Samuel and laugh. Right now, though, I believe -- ironically, it seems -- Sam Allardyce is the only way forward.

The Golden Fleecing

It's been a quiet week for West Ham with Hull's efforts in the FA Cup meaning the Hammers have a break they would probably rather have done without. Doubtless though, in a World Cup year, there will be talk of burn-out and winter breaks and all the other things that seem to go hand-in-hand with the Champions League and Premier League, even though several clubs will have players sitting around twiddling their thumbs for the best part of 10 days.

It's made me think -- not for the first time I hasten to add -- just what a bizarre package 21st century football is. A game that wouldn't exist but for the paying customers (i.e., you and me), but a sport that forces those who watch it to shell out eye-watering amounts of money to watch club or country every week, either through the turnstiles or via Sky-high (pun fully intended) TV subscriptions; a game that couldn't survive without us either in terms of finance or support, yet one that, week in and week out, royally dumps on those it professes to exist for.

Javier Garrido TV cameran Norwich vs Arsenal
PA Photos Matches are routinely moved for TV with little thought for the fans.

Take the tedious England game at Wembley. Surely everyone knew a midweek international game in the middle of the serious part of the season wouldn't provide much in the way of entertainment or excitement? None of those players who took part in the 1-0 win over Denmark would have wanted to expend much energy or get injured in the club run-in. So why didn't the FA take the opportunity to pack Wembley by making cheap 10 pound tickets available? Perhaps get the kids in for a fiver and try to instil some passion for future generations? I mean these are the people enabling Wayne Rooney to get a ridiculous 300,000 pounds a week, is it really too much to ask the game to give us something back?

But of course we can never do that. We live in a football world akin to the fairy tale of the emperor's new clothes. Nobody wants to point out the emperor is naked lest we appear foolish. We'll pretend then; pretend that the midweek international no-one wants is a really big test for Roy Hodgson and anyone wanting to see it needs to shell out the best part of 50-plus pounds for the dubious privilege.

In a big FA Cup weekend, Charlton supporters wanting to see their team's game at Bramall Lane would have had to stay in Sheffield overnight. The reason? The FA had moved the tie for TV purposes to a noon kickoff, the early start ensuring there would be no trains arriving from London until after the match had started. What other form of entertainment would treat its paying customers in this way? Can you imagine any other sport, a theatre or a cinema only opening when no one can get there?

I'm reminded of the old joke about the fan who is supporting a struggling club, ringing the ground to ask what time the game starts: "When can you get here?" comes the reply. That joke would have no meaning now unless the supporter says: "Ohhh how about 3 p.m. on Saturday?" To which the club official would probably say: "OK we'll start at 1 p.m. then"

The fascinating thing is that every season the red flag is raised whenever a team is in danger of being relegated. Two seasons in the Championship can almost be a death knell for some clubs if we read the chairman's statements correctly; the amount of money lost in TV revenue alone is enough to bring tears to the eyes of most accountants. Yet every time a team has been relegated and is fighting to return quickly -- usually via the playoffs -- figures of 90 million plus pounds (there is usually a 30 million pound variance depending on what paper you read) are bandied about as the prize for the club that runs out victorious. This money never seems to be reflected the following season, though; few sides spend that in transfers or wages, yet if the club is relatively successful and stays in the Premier League, the successive 90 million pounds never seem to equate to lower ticket prices or even special benefits for fans.

Let's be clear, though: This isn't a complaint particularly aimed at Europe or the bloated Premier League. In fact, football has always treated its fans this way. Through the 1960s and into the 1980s, supporters were herded about like cattle and treated like scum by most everybody.

The Taylor Report, which came out following the Hillsborough tragedy, highlighted this. Obviously the revolution that the report engendered isn't a bad thing; in terms of safety, comfort, crowd control and, for the most part anyway, the authorities respect for the fans, things have improved beyond measure, but as far as treatment of the supporters goes in general terms, fans are still being used and abused -- it's just that this time it's not being done with a snarling face and a truncheon but rather an avaristic grin and bank vault with a black hole at its centre.

The fascinating thing for the football fan though is that this wholesale fleecing of the paying customer is carried out in a style that would have Bill Sykes' pick-pockets purring with pleasure. Every season the supporter is told we have more choice, more matches to watch, more goals to see, more channels and more media to catch it on yet -- in an style of "doublespeak" that George Orwell would recognise -- we're steadily getting worse off. As the ability to communicate becomes easier and cheaper elsewhere, in football it becomes ever more expensive.

Perhaps it's too altruistic to say that supporters should now be getting their football fare for free, but it is fascinating to think that the costs for the football fan rise more and more every year, yet every season the needs of the paying supporter are ignored exponentially. But should we be surprised? The rich have always exploited the poor and the nouveau riche are the worst of all.