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'.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

West Ham United - End of term report

Intro (what kind of season has it been, expectations vs. reality)

The hearts of generations of adults from the East end  will sink when they recall that old school report that proclaimed the simple message: ‘Could do better’ but that epithet surely applies to West Ham United this season. Managers, players and owners all talk about ‘pushing on’ and that was the expectation of Hammers fans in 2013/14. Most will say there has been a good deal of marching on the spot though, while others may even claim the team has staggered back. The truth is – though it is still unpalatable to some -  is that mid-table is an acceptable position when you consider the club’s bank balance and  the way the Premier league is financially structured and, though this an oft-repeated mantra, that won’t really change until the Hammers move to Stratford. However, for most fans it’s not the table position but how it’s obtained that’s the issue and that is where most of the arguments lie. It still seems bizarre to think of the season’s one bright spot - Ravel Morrison - being loaned to QPR; while Injuries – particularly in the crucial period around New Year – were a major factor in how the season panned out. A lot of issues could be resolved if, against all historical precedent, the team were able to get by on minimal visits to the physio’s room, while some semblance of a return to the long-held Academy ideals might encourage less negativity at home.

Star Pupil (team’s best player)

Mark Noble was voted ‘Hammer of the Year’ at the annual awards ceremony and it is testament to the type of season that West Ham have had that the accolade has gone to a favourite son of the club, someone who has shone at times and been not found wanting at others. For though he’s had a solid season with some highlights, even Noble hasn’t always been outstanding; rather this is a reward for years of selfless service to the claret and blue cause. Injuries to last year’s winner Winston Reid has only highlighted the Hammers’ problems this campaign with high-profile signings like Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Matt Jarvis either not playing enough or simply not performing to the standards expected. James Tomkins – runner-up as HOTY – was really the only other outstanding individual performer and it was good to see another local favourite show that often the best players are those right underneath your nose – something Sam Allardyce would do well to heed.

Detention (the worst)

In much the same way that Mark Noble’s efforts were viewed this season, so If West Ham were a school there would  a large number of surly looking players all standing outside the Headmaster’s study, kicking the walls, looking at each other and muttering under their breath “It’s his fault we've got detention”. Nobody has been truly awful, it’s just no-one seems to have performed at their peak either. There have been some oddities about the season too. Every time Matthew Taylor or George McCartney drop out of the side, terrace experts – and I count myself among them – confidently predict that their span at the club is at an end and it’s time for them to move on.  The team then start to struggle, the players are re-introduced and suddenly things start to tighten up again. The win percentage with Matt Taylor as holding midfielder is quite staggering and likely to earn the player a contract extension if Sam stays; this though is  a player constantly undermined by supporters and one who I suggested should be sold  during the last transfer window. Similarly, although a little closer to the fans’ hearts – George McCartney just plods away doing what he does well and without fuss. Arguments within the Irons faithful still revolve around captain Kevin Nolan’s role, while it often seems that opposing supporters still view the Liverpudlian as the Hammers danger man. West Ham are that kind of confused club currently.

Teachers’ notes (comment on the manager/tactics)

Ah, Sam Allardyce! Where do you begin eh? Never afraid to lapse into hyperbole, I suggested earlier this season that there was some sort of battle going on for the soul of West Ham United and the man at the centre of that fight is surely Big Sam. Love him or hate him – and the recent cross-site opinion poll seemed to suggest the latter – the ex-Bolton boss just keeps doing what he always does. Obdurate at best, plain ornery at worst, if you look up in the dictionary for ‘bluff Northerner’ then Sam surely has his picture there. Football has always enjoyed a fierce north / south divide and the fan / manager relationship at Upton Park is that conundrum writ large. Sam plays the percentages and will never chase a cause if he feels it’s lost but putting out a youth team to get slaughtered at Nottingham Forest in the F.A. cup – a season low - was a major error and one no West Ham fan ever wants to see again. Nevertheless, this blog has broadly supported Allardyce and – although my enthusiasm isn’t shared by others – I enjoy seeing a miserly defensive performance underlined by this season’s 14 clean sheets. Allardyce needs to meet the supporters some way though and a bit of flair and pace for next season, allied to the manager’s undoubted prowess at the art of defending, will surely send the poll results swinging slightly the other way. I’m not sure there will ever be an Allardyce love-in though. Unlike others, I believe the manager knows he needs to win more, can only do that by attacking and being more creative,  and will attempt to do it where possible with the right players. The problem is that Sam hasn’t really proved he is able to either unearth or purchase those right players. Moving forward, much could depend on if the boss can keep and utilise Ravel Morrison. Assuming Sam stays –expect more of the same next season with a bit more pace and an attempt to play some more expansive football when applicable. If Allardyce goes, expect utter confusion and, if some of the names mentioned get the job, relegation

Final grade (A+, F, etc etc – where do they improve next season?)

West Ham’s final league placing leaves the club in almost exactly the same situation as last year and fans will expect some large investment to the squad to improve performance – particularly in the entertainment department – to push the Hammers into a comfortable top ten place as they go into their penultimate season at the Boleyn. Even those outside of the club could tell what is needed at Upton Park  next season and that is some flair and pace to make the team less one-dimensional. It has to be remembered though that if Uncle Sam’s one dimension isn't as popular or as successful as the manager seems to think it should be, it still produces results and the West Brom keeper Ben Foster’s highly-noted comments that ‘you know you will get from West Ham’ doesn't disguise the fact that knowing isn't enough for some sides to be able to do anything about it.

Grading a injury-hit, frustrating, inconsistent but ultimately mid-table season isn't easy but, if the grades are the same as when I went to school – usually from A to F(ail) – then what can be given other than a mid-table C+ (Spurs results, Semi-final cup run, February, clean sheets) or C- (Crystal Palace results, FA Cup 3rd round, January, poor entertainment)

Florid Flores

(East London Guardian - February 2014)

West Ham fans are beside themselves with anger over the 3 match ban handed out to Andy Carroll for his alleged ‘assault’ on Chico Flores in the match against Swansea at Upton Park, and quite rightly so.

It seems astonishing that a governing body that prides itself on ‘Respect’ and ‘Fair Play’ can once again ignore evidence that is  put before it  Even if you accept that Carroll’s training arm was intentionally aimed and struck the head of Chico Flores during the match. Video evidence clearly show the arm brushed the top of Flores’ head and was nowhere near his face, and for the defender to roll on the floor clutching his face is cheating – pure and simple. So ban Andy Carroll – perhaps at a stretch, but to let Flores off with not so much as a reprimand? Appalling! Post-match red cards should be given out as well as rescinded. But why wait till the end of the match anyway?

Of course, the issue here is that football’s governing bodies- either at national or international level- are notoriously slow in accepting new technology as a way of enhancing the rules of the game. In Tennis, Rugby and Cricket – to name just three sports – not only has technology been welcomed, it has been proved to have been extremely beneficial - even to the extent of making the games more exciting as spectators watch replays on a big screen.

In football the (poor) argument is that the game is ‘too fast’ to allow stoppages but, while this may be the case in open play, what difference would it make when the game naturally halts. In an offside decision, for example, the play comes to a standstill as the linesman waves his flag or the team celebrates after a goal is scored. What delay is there in not flagging at all for an offside and letting an independent linesman see moments later if the pass was offside or not?

As a reminder of how slow football can be to accept change, consider the time it took to accept goal-line technology. As FIFA began the slow process of asking companies to tender for the technology to decide if a ball had crossed a white line or not, I recall my own attempts to interest Sepp Blatter in something I had myself devised. My ‘invention’ was something I called ‘Tee-Vee’. It’s a little complicated to explain here, but essentially it consisted of a box made of glass and plastic and it sat in the corner of a room and replayed the moments of any match on something I called a ‘Vee-D-O recorder’. I thought it was pretty successful – after all, when Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ in the 2010  World Cup match with Germany was said not to have crossed the line despite being two yards over, I was able to say with certainty it had before Frank himself had run 30 yards to remonstrate with the referee.

I was astonished when no-one took my invention seriously. Admittedly, my Tee-Vee couldn’t reveal if Geoff Hurst’s goal in the 1966 World Cup final had crossed the line but no technology is 100%.

That's Amore

(February 2014)

It sometimes seems as if whole generations has come and gone without West Ham winning anything. It’s not strictly accurate, of course, but even so it’s a rare week when the Hammers find themselves topping polls and winning awards. This then should be a time for congratulations.

The Manager of the Month Award was deservedly won by Sam Allardyce for his presiding over a four-win February that lifted the Hammers from relegation contenders to the ‘Best of the Rest’ position in 10th place. Although Sam has had – and will probably always continue to have - a rough ride from certain sections of the Upton Park faithful, there should be a little bit of joy in everyone’s heart - Hammers’ or not - for a club who have stuck with their Manager and actually seen him win through. It would be nice to think that when the pressure builds next season, the immediate plan of the bottom eight clubs won’t be to sack the incumbent manager and install someone who is supposed to be better but often isn't, but rather, perhaps look at what has happened at the Boleyn over the past five weeks, grit their teeth and resolve to fight on with the man they thought was good enough to start with.

As if that wasn’t enough though, the Boleyn is buzzing with the news that West Ham fans have topped a poll for the best ‘terrace’ chant. Directed at former Hammer’s favourite Rio Ferdinand and sung to the tune of Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’, the lines ‘His name is Rio and he watches from the stand’ – a reference to the Manchester United defender’s ban for missing a drug test - was elected to be the best chant in a poll conducted to celebrate the launch of Oulala - a free fantasy football game - in which 1,500 British football fans were polled to find the funniest football terrace chants of the last ten years. It should be worth noting though that the ‘Rio’ song was used when Peckham-born centre-half was a West Ham player - 'He's name is Rio and he's a West Ham man' - and the flipping of a song of celebration to one of derision is one of the more delicious things about a stadium chant.

Odd then the placing of the Runner-up award at the feet of Fulham’s fans for their chant directed at another ex-West Ham player, Bobby Zamora. Sung to the tune of Dean Martin’s ‘That's Amore’ the line ‘When your sat in Row Z and the ball hits your head, that’s Zamora’, the decision will leave many Hammers fans scratching their head as to who sat in judgement of this award.

Now  for those of us who remember the Football League before the ‘Year Zero’ exploits of the F.A., the terrace chant is now something of a  lost art. But when discussing recently if the quick wit of the ‘terraces’ was still available, I cited the song about Zamora as an example of continued excellence. For Bobby Z is a player who still finds a place in the heart of those of us who were at the Play-off final v Preston in Alan Pardew’s second season at the club. It was Zamora who scored the solitary goal in a tense match to send the Irons back to the Premier League and the glorious season that eventually ended in heartbreak at Wembley in 2006. In fact, it was Zamora’s late season and Play-off form that resurrected a poor season and almost single-handedly propelled West Ham back into the top flight.

But after that Play-off victory, in a delirious (but in truth wholly unnecessary) open-top bus celebration, the team were met at the gates of the Boleyn by a Dean Martin impersonator who led the assembled crowd through  various renditions of ‘Amore’ including the one that had the line ‘When the ball hits the net like an Exocet jet (sic), that’s Amore’. The song could be heard in various forms as the team moved through the 2005/06 season to the F.A. Cup final and was definitely sung at the final itself.

However, as the team fell apart in the following season’s ‘Tevezgate’ fiasco, it was deemed – quite incorrectly in most supporter’s views – that Bobby Z was surplus to requirements and he was sold to Roy Hodgson’s Fulham where he went on to have a couple of excellent season’s. Howver, in the next game where West Ham played Fulham, after initially being welcomed back as a popular ex-player, the ‘exocet jet’ lyric was immediately changed to ‘Row Z’ in a superb and highly amusing about-face, that had many fans openly laughing at the quick wit on display.

Quite how then Fulham have ended up with the Runner’s-Up Award is a bit of a mystery. There is no doubt at all that West Ham fans used the chant first and there are even rumours that they borrowed it from Zamora’s previous club Tottenham. I’m even wondering if the ‘Chant Committee’ were at the West Ham v Fulham game and got confused over which end of the stadium was singing the song.

Still, perhaps it’s best not to be churlish. Two awards in a week is probably enough and there’s a good chance the Runner-up accolade might be the highlight of Fulham’s season.

Now leave me alone, I’ve got a song in my head that won’t go away and I’m off to find a Dean Martin CD…

A Taylor Report

(April 2014)

Ever keen to go against the flow – it’s been a problem for me since I was a child so blame my Mother – I’m not at all disappointed to see the debate going on over the standard of referring displayed at last weekend’s game against Liverpool at the Boleyn. Sam Allardyce and his ilk would apparently rather see us discussing the game and not the officials, but without the debate and confusion over decisions like those we saw on Sunday, what is left? Sam says he’d rather lose a game to goals scored in open play and not penalties or free kicks, but this seems to be rather an ironic  comment from a man who has become something of  a master at stopping teams from creating anything on the normal field of play.

In the asinine world of 21st Century Premier League football, where the top five teams are virtually decided before a ball is kicked and the only ‘interest’ – and I use the term loosely – is in what order they eventually finish, the continuing arguments about what the referee and his colleagues see or don’t see is often the only talking point.

Rather than berate Anthony Taylor for his decisions we should be lauding him for keeping us all guessing as to what is likely to happen on the pitch once the whistle blows. And before the Referee’s Union gets all huffy here and starts telling us we don’t know the rules – we know we don’t know, that’s the fun in it! – I’m not here to haul Taylor over the coals, but rather sympathise with some of the issues the modern game officials face.

I mean, intentional handball in the area resulting in a penalty, is surely the most basic of rules and one that kids in the park can be seen to scream from an early age. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as many appeals for handball as I’ve seen these past few years though. My guess on this is the newer lightweight balls causes the flight, direction and – significantly – elevation, to confuse defenders who, even with the heightened skill and senses of the modern professional,  can barely move out of the way in time. 

It seems incredible to me that a player at the top of his game would deliberately touch the ball knowing they would face Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard from 12 yards, but the slight movement of hand to ball – the deciding issue in any penalty regardless of whether it’s awarded by a referee on the pitch or via TV – seems to occur more and more. The increase in this can be marked by the frequent sight of defenders funnelling back into the area with their arms behind their back – what is that about? – surely an indication that there has been some subtle change somewhere. 

My guess – and I’ll admit it’s based on nothing at all other than what I’ve seen or experienced – is that there’s always been an instinct to move the hand or arm, after all the limb has always been used for balance and  elevation,  but the micro-seconds it takes for a top sportsman to realise that would be a mistake and move it away, has been lost by the technological advances in the ball design.

But doesn’t that then cause issues with the definition of deliberate? Had we been able to read James Tomkins’ mind in the split second before he touched the ball, would we have seen the thought bubble that said ‘I’m beaten here, I’ll just see if I can get a touch with my hand and hope the ref doesn’t spot it’. I’m guessing not. I’d be surprised if more that 5% of handball awards were actually premeditated decisions to stop the ball going where it was intended. Of course, that does produce an argument as to the fairness of most penalties anyway, but that aside, at least the following argument - namely whether or not the player should have been sent off for giving away a spot kick as last defender -  is then a non-starter for me.  

We all recognise the ‘professional foul’ – officials best of all – and only the blatantly deliberate stopping of a goal should result in a dismissal; a mistimed tackle or a handball during an attempt to tackle or clearance shouldn’t be enough.  The irony here Is that there is no more blatantly ‘professional’ way of stopping someone than by pulling the shirt – how many penalties get given a season for that though, considering how often you see it on TV highlights? If a shirt tug resulted in a penalty every time, the poor old Sam would be on heart pills.

With regard to the foul being given by an official against a player who touches the ball but ‘follows through’ to tackle an opponent, there is an urban myth attached that seems burned into the minds of many – some of those actually playing the game. Is there ever a week when we don’t see a player making that circular motion with their hands indicating that it couldn’t have been a foul as they touched the ball first? The rules of the game say nothing about this though. When  Hammers keeper Adrian  came out to stop Liverpool’s  John Flanagan’s run, he got a first touch but he didn’t significantly alter the course of the ball, clattering into the attacker on movement alone and sending him sprawling. Under current rules regarding the ‘second phase’ Referee Taylor decided the forward movement was a foul as it stopped the attacking player from staying on his feet and getting another touch of the ball, and it seems this decision has been backed by many retired officials (If only we heard from as many currents refs as we do previous ones!) .

Inevitably this does raise other questions about the rules and their interpretation: First would be was Flanagan or another Liverpool player really able to take advantage had the ‘secondary’ movement not occurred? Secondly – and for me this is really important - if the only way Adrian could have stopped conceding a penalty was to stay on his feet, allow Flanagan to get a shot in and hope to clear it, doesn’t this then effectively make football a non-contact sport? Tricky one this: on one hand the problem could be solved by making ‘first contact’ an actual rule, but what would you then do with a player getting an obvious touch first but with studs high and breaking an opponents leg on follow-through?  Frankly, I don’t see an obvious answer to this bar use of common-sense that I’m sure Anthony Taylor will almost certainly say he applied anyway.

The last talking point is surely the easiest to solve and the least contentious – unless of course you’re a FIFA official. The third referee needs to be away from the touch-line and looking at a TV. It’s true West Ham would have had the goal they did score against Liverpool ruled out but I can think of at least one occasion this season where a point would have been gained elsewhere, had this been employed. It’s a nonsense when a referee is talking to a linesman about what did or didn’t occur when the incident is being played (illegally incidentally) on a big screen behind them. 

As we saw last weekend in the Fulham match, the new goal line technology can show a ball 2 centimetres on the line so why not use that same technology to further benefit the game? Imagine  a miked-up referee explaining over the tannoy why Andy Carroll’s goal had been ruled out, then add why he decided to give a penalty later. Top entertainment! And I say this from someone who would have suffered from the decisions. Add that to the instant offside decision and you have – if you’ll excuse the term – a whole new ball-game.

If only someone had the time and money to replay every Premier league game this season with the hindsight of technology, I wonder how the league table world look? 

In a sport that has evolved to the point where contentious issues are often the only uncertainty, it would be a wonderful paradox to  actually find Anthony Taylor as some sort of championing hero.