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The Sound and the fury


Filed: Monday, 5th February 2018
By: HeadHammerShark


"What happened to ya?
We were one of a kind"

- Ian Brown, "What Happened to Ya? Pt 1"


This article started life as a match report of the game between West Ham and Crystal Palace. That was in January when life was simple and we were a top half team. Then circumstance took over and it has morphed somewhat. Of course, things were different back then. West Ham wasn't a racist club. People at the club seemed aware that we needed new players. Han Solo was Harrison Ford.

But so much has gone under the bridge that as I tried to write this piece I felt like a man using an umbrella to try and catch a fish; wholly unsuited to the task and unable to keep up. I've been abroad with no access to this account so I couldn't post up this piece, and yet with every passing hour it mattered less because the content was rendered obsolete by further developments. I honestly didn't think a club could dissemble this quickly without Mike Ashley being involved.

And now all we hear is sound, and every where we turn is fury. All of which leads inexorably to one simple question:

What has happened to my club?

What. Has. Happened. To. My. Club?

Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe when other fans were telling us that we were their second team, they weren't simply saying it because of our helpful tendency to play nice football and at the same time roll over for them. I'm now wondering if that faint praise and those half smiles merely disguised a sense of being thankful that it wasn't them. Not for them the constant threat of humiliation and embarrassment. That was our sole preserve.

It is the lot of football club owners that fans will generally always hate them. Supporters place no limit on our ambition, and demand that owners follow our lead. But they are bound by such inanities as money and overdrafts and cashflows and rules and the realities of trying to keep such febrile businesses afloat. I don't doubt that running a football club properly is a job that demands high levels of skill and competence, perhaps outstripping a regular business because those enterprises do not come under such high levels of public scrutiny over every single decision they take.



Next Level


But is anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that West Ham is a well-run football club? Surely even those who refuse to see anything wrong with our leadership so long as they make the crossed Hammers can't call me a Quisling for suggesting that they could be doing their basic tasks a little better than they currently are?

It is February and with the team bereft of fit players due to our annual injury crisis, the Board have allowed five players to leave the squad and brought just two in. They have made our squad smaller at a time when our Premier League place is not remotely secure and when our medical staff appears to be unable to stem the constant flow of injured players. And yet all of that garden variety incompetence doesn't even make the top three things they fucked up most on deadline day.

No, instead we have other crises to manage, namely the insinuation from our (newly minted) Head of Transfers, Tony Henry, that we no longer wished to purchase African players and then the revelation that Leicester will simply not do business with us due to some inane public comments from Karren Brady in her Sun column.

The beauty of this is that at the same time Henry was allegedly emailing out this "club policy" about African players to agents, the deal that was scuppered with Leicester was for the Algerian forward, Islam Slimani. We apparently can't even be racist properly.

And so it came to pass that West Ham fans must once again ponder why our club should always be so different. All fans love to feel they are hard done by, but telling people you support West Ham nowadays invokes an involuntary sense of sympathy from fellow supporters. They might not know the intimate details - the failure to qualify for the League Cup semi final because we forgot a player was cup tied, the requirement to pay Sheffield United 30m+ for the Tevez saga despite their being no legal grounds for it, the record signings who get injured on debut, the homesick player from Oxford, the preternatural gift for identifying soon to be bankrupt sponsors - but in a way, that doesn't matter. In the style of the Trump White House, it has ceased to be relevant what the drama is so long as there is some drama to distract fans.

We have been overwhelmed by a cavalcade of uselessness.

***

"We got to pump the stuff to make us tough,
From the heart"

- Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"


Before all of this happened we actually took a break from causing incredulity and played a game of football. That seems like a quaint nod to a bygone era now, like MTV playing a music clip or Government ministers being competent, and yet it does actually remain the primary activity of West Ham United.

Crystal Palace were in town and they arrived with a fair wind behind them. Since Roy Hodgson took over, they have been surging, with their results finally catching up to the underlying analytics which have suggested all season that they were a good team underperforming.

With the squad decimated, Moyes was forced to improvise and so we saw Pablo Zabaleta deployed into midfield and new signing Joao Mario given licence to roam widely in support of the lone striker, Chicharito, and both did all we could have asked of them. Historically the Mexican has been incapable of performing that role but here he battled and worked and generally did everything that he could to hold back the tide. Behind him Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate stepped manfully into the breach and combined with Zabaleta to take the fight to the visitors, and if we were somewhat fortunate to be on level terms at half time, that engine room drove us forward to a surprisingly progressive second half display.



Legend


I have latched on to Noble somewhat on recent weeks, as a kind of emotional life raft in the roiling sea of being a West Ham supporter. Because the owners are so rarely incapable of projecting a positive image of our club, we are forced to look elsewhere for things to be proud about and Noble couldn't be making me prouder right now.

Forget the longevity and the fact he is a Hammers fan, because those things are nice but they aren't all that relevant. Instead focus on the way he cares. Focus on how he carries himself. Focus on how he represents our club on and off the pitch. As a footballer Noble is having his own resurgence as his experience and ever excellent technical ability allows him to continue controlling games from the middle of the park. But off the pitch he is also everything that this club is supposed to be. He is devoted to his community and an exemplar of how to treat others and give something back to the people who make up West Ham United, whether it's through his soccer schools or his housing project or just the simple ability to talk about football fans with a scintilla of empathy.

At a moment when those who lead our club off the pitch routinely make me ashamed, Noble and his footballing brothers have found a way to restore my faith in the badge by what they do between the lines (you're probably correctly guessing here that this bit was written pre-Brighton). Here they were, battered and tired and with their numbers depleted by boardroom incompetence and yet they more than matched a tough opponent. It hasn't always been the case, but when you take a step back and view this match as dispassionately as possible, our players did us proud.

Supporting Noble was Kouyate, who suffered a nasty head injury early on and returned as the second coming of Ian Bishop. He suddenly found a passing range, and began dominating the game in a way I haven't seen him do before. His astute pass found Chicharito just before half time, from which he and Mario fashioned a chance which was only interrupted by a James Tomkins foul.

Penalty. Noble. You knew he wouldn't let us down.

In the context of what was to later be revealed, it was stirring to see the return of Kouyate to his best form. We need his rangy athleticism and ability to, well, cause mayhem from central midfield in the absence of our more artisanal forwards. How ironic that our best ever African player should be so instrumental in leading the team to this crucial point.

Mario looked lost to start but grew into a physical and frenetic game that saw possession routinely coughed up by both sides with startling frequency. The Portuguese conjured a lovely pass to free Chicharito for the penalty and generally looked the kind of quick-witted, intelligent footballer who will link beautifully with Manuel Lanzini and Marko Arnautovic if they are ever all fit at the same time. I also enjoyed that his first touch involved him dribbling straight out of play while Moyes looked on, bemused. Levity amid the gloom.

But the true calling card of Moyesian football seems to be the ability to construct a rock solid defence from the softest of materials. Here he was shorn of yet more bodies and he merely shrugged and rearranged the deckchairs to keep the Titanic afloat. So Aaron Cresswell went back out wide and reminded us all that he crosses with the consistency of a chicken on a High Street, and in came eighteen year old Declan Rice to the middle of the back three and nobody really batted an eyelid. Palace helped us out there somewhat, by channelling almost all their attacking play through the electric Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian is one of those players who makes you inch forward involuntarily when he gets the ball, even as you're encouraging Sam Byram to kick him. And to be fair, Byram did, repeatedly.

But generally we swarmed Zaha when he got the ball and on the one occasion that Palace didn't go through him, Andros Townsend surged to the byeline and crossed for Christian Benteke to head the opening goal. Had they done this a little more often we might have had a tougher evening, but as it was the visitors were indebted to Wayne Hennessey for a terrific save from a second half Chicharito header to keep things level. A point was, all things considered, a pretty fair result.

And then we went to Brighton, and I didn't see that game because I was overseas and sometimes you just have to be grateful that the Universe has been kind to you.

***

"You thought I was cheap, you were the sale of the century,
Creased ourselves up on the way down"
- Sleeper, "Sale of the Century"


And so as we all drifted away through the thin sheen of rain that covered the stadium like mist, the talk turned to the transfer deadline. They've got to do something, we thought. Kudos to Moyes and the boys for that performance, we all thought, but now they need help.

Of course, I should say that such thoughts go against the grain for me. I don't like David Sullivan buying anyone because he doesn't understand football, but I particularly don't like him buying anybody in January because he doesn't seem to understand footballing economics either. So, after a history that includes Mido, Benni McCarthy, Robert Snodgrass and Nene, and public commentary from both Sullivan and Brady that they considered these transfers as failures, it felt natural that we should want the club to sit this window out. After all, they couldn't make any stupid decisions if they didn't make any decisions.

But the other hallmark of the club in recent years has been the chronic failure to keep our playing staff fit. Whatever the club is doing in this regard is not working and it tends to have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the handwritten scrawl on the back of a lottery ticket that our owners laughably call our business plan.

Not only do we drop points due to the weakened sides we constantly have to field, but it has caused the Board to act rashly in trying to plug the gaps. Hence they spent 10m of this summer's budget on Snodgrass when they really only needed him for a few games to cover a player shortage last January, and now they can't even recall him from Aston Villa to do the same this year.



A poor signing, treated poorly


But what was different last year was the context of our league position and the fact that we were just about to emerge from our injury crisis. We enjoyed a brief revival to lift us up the table and by the time that Fonte and Snodgrass arrived it was already pretty evident that we were not going to be relegated. Thank God for Sunderland.

But this year is different, with a whole glut of similar teams all scrabbling around for the same few points, and our playing resources likely to be paper thin for a while yet. As it happens, I think Moyes gives us an advantage over those other teams, but our injuries have reduced his options to the point that we couldn't name a full substitutes bench at Huddersfield. This was not a window in which to suddenly decide to keep our powder dry, and such inertia could prove fatal. Sullivan has taken a huge risk.

And so it was that we came limping into the deadline having failed to do anything beyond add Joao Mario on a loan and Jordan Hugill from Preston North End. I have no issue with the purchase of Hugill, particularly as he has come from Preston and will have been properly scouted by Moyes and Alan Irvine as a result. In a time when English clubs are awash with money, and previously unheralded overseas leagues are churning out good players at higher rates than ever, it is entirely possible that divisions like the Championship and the Scottish Premier League are once again the best place to get value for money. And lest we forget, Cresswell, Michail Antonio and Dele Alli all came from somewhere.

Hugill is perhaps a little older than we might like, at twenty five, but he should know his own game and has already demonstrated a considerable amount of fortitude in rising from the Glen Hoddle Academy to the Premier League. In a team with our problems, I see no issue with adding a player prepared to run himself into the ground, and if he fails, then he is young enough to be resold in a year or two for some sort of return. He is, in that sense, the very antithesis of Benni McCarthy.



Tattoo sleeve, beaming smile. You'll do, son, welcome aboard


The problem with the signing is not with the player but the context. With Diafra Sakho finally gone, and scoring against PSG immediately, we were already light up front. Thus the sale of Andre Ayew for 18m was baffling on a number of levels.

Ayew is, by my estimation, the only footballer under thirty whose value has dropped in the last two years. At a time when Moussa Sissoko costs 30m and 20m is an opening offer for pretty much every Premier League player, we are once more selling our players into a totally different market then we buy from. This is the problem when we feel the need to offer such astronomical wages to attract players to West Ham in the first place. While the owners might think that having the thirteenth largest wage bill in Europe is a sign of ambition, most others see it as a sign of chronic inefficiency and it makes players very hard to shift without reducing their transfer fees drastically. We have fallen into the age old trap of paying players for what they have done elsewhere rather than what they will do for us. Say what you will about Hugill, he will earn his money through his performances in claret and blue. Ask yourself if that could really be said about Joe Hart.

So off went Ayew, Sakho, and Toni Martinez and if anything happens to Chicharito on Saturday then we go to Liverpool with our line being led by Preston's striker. It's a curious time to be alive, no?

***

"How could it ever come to pass? She'll be the first, she'll be the last
To describe the way I feel"

- The Stone Roses, "She Bangs The Drums"


All of which is skirting around the main issue, which can be simply laid out in the question I asked above, namely "What the hell is happening to my club?"

Rumours have swirled around for days now about why we are losing players when we need to add them and why we would be apparently offering ludicrously low amounts to try and pry players away. Those rumours range from the owners asset stripping in preparation for a sale to both HMRC and criminal investigations into our transfers, via a massive cashflow issue to straight up incompetence - the latter still being my best guess.

I understand that transfers are complex and hard to get done, but so are brain surgeries and you don't get to have a go at them because you bought a private hospital. Fans are furious, and while that might not always have a basis in rational thought, I happen to agree that if nothing else, we deserve better than we are currently getting. We shouldn't kid ourselves that our reputation was glittering when they took over, but we were promised that with Karren Brady and her ultra professional stewardship we could look forward to a rehabilitation of our public image.

Instead, they have stumbled from crisis to crisis, stopped off to get into a slanging match with Sporting Lisbon, fallen out with their own players, while slating some we haven't even bought and topped all that by alienating the entire taxpaying population of the country. It might wind us all up, but Jack Sullivan's Twitter account is pretty small beer.



Goodbye


On 10 March the Real West Ham Fans Group are planning to march on the Club, and while I don't really agree with the action I understand it wholly. The burning sense of frustration that is searing through the West Ham support has been grossly underestimated by those in the boardroom. "Wait until the next transfer window" might suffice for the apparently tepid self examinations that pass for Board meetings but that is no comfort to fans driving back from Wigan into a howling gale and wondering why they just surrendered their Saturday for a club that can't help but give off the signal that it despises them.

And now.

Now somehow we have plumbed new depths. Tony Henry's comments made his position untenable. He may have been stitched up by the Mail, the last bastion of anti-racism, but his apparent confusion about why his comments were a problem didn't show that he wasn't being racist, but instead showed that he didn't understand how he was being racist. That's not the same thing. Our club, the first English top flight team to have three black players, does not need such people in it's employ.

And what it all highlights is the total shambles that is our corporate governance. Henry doesn't want African players but we still try and loan Slimani on deadline day. He doesn't think Russian players settle very well in England and still we try to get Fyodor Smolov until the player calls it off because he thinks his club are being lowballed.

Best of all is Henry's concern about how well Italian players adapt when our player of the season so far is literally an Italian of African descent. When Cheikhou Kouyate posts an Instagram picture with the caption "African and Proud" then the club must surely understand that this is beyond their agency to stage manage. You don't get to tell people how they feel. Henry is gone, but significant questions remain.

Embed from Getty Images
Ade Coker (and Clyde Best and Clive Charles). Heroes - let's learn our own history


And as an aside, perhaps if the club properly celebrated men like Clyde Best, Ade Coker and Clive Charles a little more obviously, instead of constantly regaling us with tales of a team who finished third, then their employees and fans might be a little more attuned to the relevance of racism in our history. And yes, I realise being black is not the same as being African, but I think we're in the same territory here.

Overriding all of that is the concern about who else knew about Henry's "policy" and why he was talking to the press without apparent supervision. As the lads at Hammers Chat pointed out, Sullivan has been keen to play up links to Henry in the past:



That's vague enough to allow Sullivan to say he was unaware, but if he was then it really doesn't reflect well on a structure that can allow such activity from a senior employee to go unnoticed. This, of course, is the problem with an owner who only wants association with successful transfers. There is a huge hole where a proper, functioning Sporting Director or Director of Football would sit. And you all know where I'm going with that.

As for Karren Brady and her inane column in The Sun, I remain confused as to why this is even a thing. Sullivan's assertion that he would have to pay her more if he didn't let her go off and write for Murdoch, shill for Alan Sugar, help out Philip Green and sit in the House of Lord's doesn't really hold up to scrutiny when she's getting 900,000 a year from us.

Either way, our Karren sure can pick her business associates.

I wonder what Brady's own position would be if a West Ham employee cost the club a transfer due to an artless thought posted online or in a newspaper. I suspect they'd be gone before they could yell "what about slapping women?" through the window.

I've defended Brady many times because I think she is criticised primarily by a lot of West Ham because she is a woman, and for no other reason. In this case, she cannot be defended. Her desire for fame seems to outstrip her desire to do a good job for us. That's a problem.

Which brings us back to that march by the Real West Ham Fans group. As I mentioned, I don't particularly agree with this initial course of action, because it feels like dropping a nuclear bomb as your opening gambit, but that's up to them. I also can't help but concede that they are probably right to think this is the best way to motivate change. But it's a specific problem for the board now. They are toxic and their constant failures are magnified by the media storm they insist on creating around the club. The problem when you're so desperate for attention is that you don't get to duck out when that attention is negative. Where we once went for the Cearns Family and Terry Brown, now it is the current owners, and once that particular rock starts rolling it will be nearly impossible to stop.

I don't want to reach the position where the owners and their families are being abused at games, but it's also possible to see why fans don't feel they have any choice but forceful protest. All of the purported fan engagement ideas of the last few months have led nowhere meaningful. The club is still run disastrously, and we are regressing at an alarming rate. A change has to come. It has to.

I would call once again for the owners to step back and disappear from the spotlight. Hire a Director of Football and give that person carte blanche to modernise the Club. Send the Sullivan boys to German clubs where they can learn their trade at the cutting edge, and not by serving coffee in our club cafe, if it truly is the intention that they are going to one day run this club.

Have Karren Brady reduce her extra curricular efforts and focus her energies on West Ham as a community enterprise. Let's see her turn those formidable talents that we hear so much about and see so little of, to endeavours that matter to fans - Isla's Fight would be an easy cause to pick up and gain ground with fans, so too the long term funding for the Supporters Club, or engaging with WHUISA on all sorts of fan matters. She might argue that she does that already and I might argue that I wouldn't know because I only ever hear about her doing things that are nothing to do with my club.

And that, after all, is what this is all about. This club will endure because it always has, but I find it hard to grasp how badly our owners are currently letting us down. When a player can walk over to the travelling support after a defeat at a promoted club and ask where the money has gone, you know things are bad. The manager deserves scrutiny too, of course, especially as we seem incapable of defending against weaker sides, but the backdrop to all of this seems to be a boardroom culture of incompetence that is suffocating all else inside the club.

So, back to my question, because we are running out of time to get a satisfactory answer.

What is happening to my club?


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.







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