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And into the fire


Filed: Wednesday, 24th October 2018
By: HeadHammerShark


Well, that didn't last long.

"Out of the blue and into the black
They give you this, but you pay for that"

- Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)


When last you were here, we were basking in the warm glow of a nascent unbeaten run and an emphatic thumping of Manchester United. Since then we've lost to Brighton and Spurs, found ourselves in the middle of a national discussion around employment rights and freedom of speech and a new signing has picked up a season ending injury because traditions must be upheld, goddamnit.



I'll see you soon - save me a bed on the ward


Brighton 1 - 0 West Ham

Our trip to Brighton could almost have been directed by Guy Ritchie, so predictable was the outcome, as we followed up a rousing victory over Mourinho by going very quietly into the night. Such swings of form and fortune are the hallmark of supporting a lower half team, but it's still a thudding punch when it happens.

The most frustrating element of this game was that we had so much of the play. After a fairly non descript opening, our defence went full Moses and the Red Sea as Beram Kayal set up Glen Murray in the 25th minute. This marked the sixth time Murray has scored against us which officially means that he is now a Nemesis, which rather reminds me of the moment you find out that the bad guy in Lord of the Rings is an upset lighthouse keeper.



And Glen Murray did appear


Thereafter we pressed and harried for an hour, and ended up fielding a thoroughly playground 4-1-5 formation as Manuel Pellegrini asked the outstanding Declan Rice to do everyone's defending and shovelled attackers on ahead of him. For all that, our best chance fell to Fabian Balbuena who headed inexplicably wide, unmarked from a Felipe Anderson corner. This upset the Brazilian so much that he has apparently refused to ever take a decent corner again.

Marko Arnautovic also had some presentable chances, including a last minute opportunity created by Robert Snodgrass and Lucas Perez that he skied over the bar. In such moments it's possible to see why he plays for us and not for a bigger club. That inconsistency probably says a lot less about him than it does about the remarkable continued excellence displayed by the likes of Kane and Aguero.

And thus we left the South Coast with a curious mixture of feelings. In isolation it was hard to criticise the performance given that we had dominated the ball and had the better chances, but there remains an itch that can't be scratched about defeats such as these. It's not that I think we ought to always beat teams such as Brighton - we have, after all, not ever actually done so in the Premier League - but more a sense that such erratic failure remains hard coded into our DNA.

We did enough here to win, would have grumbled but accepted a point and yet somehow went home with our pockets empty. Plus ca change. Perhaps one ought to acknowledge the difficulty of getting a team up and running in just eight games. Pellegrini has endured a difficult start after all, with no team in the league having a tougher opening nine games than us, but I'm still waiting to see something click into gear, a penny drop or a corner turned. We remain a footballing roulette wheel.

***

"No I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace"

- Bob Dylan, "Positively 4th Street"


And so to Spurs. It doesn't make much sense, but in recent years this has been a fixture to rejuvenate us from cold spells. Whether it was Ravel Morrison crowning Sam Allardyce's tactical masterclass at White Hart Lane (and convincing Big Sam to play unsuccessfully without a striker for two more months), the highlight of Andre Ayew's Hammers career at Wembley, or the Friday night title charge ending winner from Lanzini, we have done well against Spurs of late. Indeed, going into this game we had actually won this fixture more times than them in the preceding eight years, despite that being arguably the best period of their modern history.

It was a shame then to see us fritter that away with a subdued performance of questionable intent. Andriy Yarmolenko started diffidently and ended up being stretchered off with an Achilles tear. His season is over, and the wisdom of David Sullivan's long held policy of buying players who are either old or have poor injury records continues to look like a folly. A reminder too that the glibly promised new scouting and analytics department has yet to be seen. Perhaps it's part of a package deal with the London Stadium WiFi.

Anyway, Yarmolenko joins Carlos Sanchez, Jack Wilshere, Winston Reid and Lanzini on the Andy Carroll Memorial wing, and we are now just a couple of weeks away from the Pellegrini rite of passage press conference where he tells us he's never seen an injury crisis like it.

I have no sympathy - when you buy with no regard to player fitness being a skill and don't invest in training or medical facilities then this is what happens. Topping the injury charts stops being unfortunate when it happens every single year. So off went Yarmolenko and on came Grady Diangana, which tells us quite a bit about how well Michail Antonio must be doing in training.

We were also missing Pedro Obiang, which was a shame as central midfield has long been the weak link in the Spurs chain. With the Spaniard missing, Harry Winks was the best player on the pitch in the first half, which was even more impressive as he was playing alongside Easter Island statue Eric Dier and "bring your best mate to work day" winner Moussa Sissoko. In the second half that accolade belonged to Declan Rice, in supreme form again, and it wasn't hard to see that we might be witnessing an England midfield pairing of the near future there.

I thought Spurs were the better side in the first half as they pushed Kieran Trippier way up the pitch to take advantage of our defensively weak left side, and used some clever movement from Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura to trouble our back four. We held firm as the visitors nice play rarely resulted in attempts on goal - they mustered just two all day - until Sissoko took advantage of Anderson and crossed for Lamela to flick in a header. They could have scored again soon after but for a marvellous save from Lukasz Fabianski, and at half time I wasn't all that confident.

We looked especially vulnerable from our own corners as Anderson was taking them with all the skill of a man whose eyes were sewn shut, and our two deepest lying defenders were Pablo Zabaleta and Mark Noble which is akin to leaving two guys in a canoe to keep out a submarine. We survived, although I refuse to accept this as evidence that this plan is a good idea.



No problem lads, Zaba and Nobes are there


The second half was much better, as we pushed higher and played all the game in the Spurs half. In the end, we failed to get anything largely due to the excellence of Hugo Lloris who made four fine stops. Tactically I still struggle to see exactly what Pellegrini is attempting to achieve, although he wasn't helped here by the performance of Anderson, who was resolutely dreadful until he was mercifully hooked off. Worryingly, our best performances this season have come when we've been able to counter attack against stronger teams and thus we have been heavily reliant upon the trio of Yarmolenko, Arnautovic, and Anderson. The first is done for the season, the second is operating on one knee and the last made me pine for Sofiane Feghouli here. With softer fixtures finally around the corner, Pellegrini is going to need to find a way for us to play on the front foot.

It would also be remiss of me if I were not mention the outstanding performance of our centre halves, Balbuena and Issa Diop. While they probably get altogether too many opportunities to demonstrate their excellence, it has been reassuring to see them settling into something approaching a solid partnership. Coming into this season it seemed impossible for us not to play with three at the back simply due to the limitations of our personnel, but Diop alone has been so good that those fears have faded away. With the brilliant Fabianski behind them there is cause for optimism as we face weaker opposition, even if our general approach to full backs seems to be to pick two people at random and then reach for the rosary beads.

Midfield remains our main area of concern, primarily because most of them are injured. A central trio of Noble, Obiang and Rice offers a nice balance, but we finished this game with a four of Diangana, Rice, Snodgrass and Antonio and a sudden surge of affection for Cheikhou Kouyate. It is slightly disconcerting that if Rice were to suffer an injury, it feels like it would curtail the entire season. Perhaps we ought to stop leaking details of his contract demands to friendly websites and instead concentrate on actually advancing his career.

***

"Get out your mat and pray to the West
I'll get out mine and pray for myself"
-
The Jam, "Eton Rifles"


But matters on the pitch are only ever the hors d'oeuvres when you're dining at Chez Titanic.

And so perhaps the most controversial element of the last month has revolved around our Under 18 youth team coach, Mark Phillips, who sprang into the public consciousness after writing a number of tweets where he stated that he had attended a march by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) in London, and explicitly praising West Ham fans for being the largest segment of the marchers. For those of you unfamiliar with the DFLA, they are a self styled anti-extremism group who splintered from the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), who were themselves an offshoot from the English Defence League (EDL), and I'm now wondering if their main plan for defeating extremism is through the medium of acronyms. Phillips was suspended by West Ham, and our fan base was cleaved down the middle by the issue.

The DFLA pronounce themselves to be a non-political, anti extremist group and they appear to have garnered a lot of support from West Ham fans. From the state of my timeline on Twitter after this story broke, I would hazard a guess that some H List readers were on the march and in that sense I feel duty bound to examine the organisation properly. Members are adamant that the group opposes all forms of terrorism as well as holding other disparate positions such as demanding better treatment for military veterans, objecting to paedophile grooming gangs and wanting action on "missing" immigrants. Noted right wing agitator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has also previously attended a march under his more commonly used moniker, Tommy Robinson.



Flowers for Al-Jazeera


Quite what any of this has to do with football is beyond me, and while the marchers may feel their stance is apolitical, a letter was handed in at Downing Street by the organisers demanding changes to government policy, which seems to me to render that argument redundant. Thus people carrying our club crest on this march are making a political affiliation of their cause to West Ham whether they accept it or not.

But one also has to acknowledge that the march was legally organised, did not contravene hate speech laws and thus was lawful. Therefore, the question of whether Mark Phillips was within his rights to legally attend seems clear to me - he was.

But freedom of speech and thought and expression are not the same thing as freedom from consequence. Glen Hoddle was within his rights to say that he thought disabled people were being punished for sins of a former life, and the FA were within their rights to decide that was unacceptable and fire him. Thus, Phillips was perfectly at liberty to attend this march, and tweet in support of it - his sister was caught up in the London Bridge terror attacks - but one also has to acknowledge that the DFLA have been described as Far Right by the Police, Anti Fascist groups and the Premier League and appear on several watch lists due to anti Islamic posts on their Facebook page.

It probably didn't help Phillips that his Twitter timeline was later examined and it was found that he had liked a post from Katie Hopkins suggesting that Viktor Orban would "defend Christian culture in Europe", and another comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Hitler. Friends say he is a great guy and a good coach, but people who don't know him have no personal interactions to go on and can only therefore judge him on his actions. It isn't surprising that people have concerns.

While several members dispute that the DFLA position is Islamaphobic, I would suggest checking your back door for Labradors if you read their site because there is an awful lot of dog whistling going on. And this, I think, is the key point that seems to be missed by so many in this debate, and it's something I have said about West Ham previously;

You don't get to tell other people how they feel.

So yes, Phillips was entitled to attend the march, and others are just as entitled to decide that the intent of that march was Islamaphobic. That same freedom of speech that protects him also protects them.

And if Muslim Hammers supporters say that this is an issue, and that they would be less likely to take their child to our Academy, or even to games, then DFLA members don't get to tell them they are wrong. That's just not how society works, and anyone truly believing in free speech wouldn't pretend otherwise.

And no doubt there are some who feel that their support of the DFLA has been misrepresented and that they genuinely are just taking a position against terrorism. Well, that's reasonable enough and we all ought to be grown up enough to accept that there is nuance in everything and that no one group of people ever think homogeneously about anything. I, after all, consider myself a Labour supporter but have little time for Jeremy Corbyn or the anti-Semitism that seems to stick to the party like glue. I understand the shades of grey.

But any DFLA member wishing to apply that logic, and wishing to be distinguished from those who marched with them and threw Nazi salutes, might want to ponder the irony of asking not to be judged by the actions of a few individuals - whilst marching against Islamic extremism. If the DFLA wants to get off Far Right watch lists and be seen as the peaceful non political group they wish to portray, then they need to do an awful lot more to disentangle themselves from those who clearly have no issue with those labels.

***

"You do it to yourself, you do
And that's what really hurts"

- Radiohead, "Just"


But back to West Ham. My overriding feeling about Phillips is that I am angry with him for dragging the club into this. It is bad enough that fans choose to march in this way with our club crest so prominent, and claim to represent the rest of us, but for an employee of the club to do it is naive at best. And lest we forget, he has done this just a few months after Tony Henry was fired for referring to African players as causing "mayhem".

But then I find myself asking the same question over and again. What exactly does it say about the culture of our club that these things continue to happen?

For an answer to this I think you first have to understand Sullivanism. How no stone shall ever be overturned, no edge shall be sought, and how others do the leading and we follow on later when it is more expensive. Tomorrow never matters, only today, which is currently a catastrophe because we didn't do what we were supposed to do yesterday. Sullivanism is a lifelong devotion to bailing water out of a sinking ship and never addressing the hole in the boat. This is how you spend more on your squad than all but fifteen other European teams and still end up being worse than Bournemouth.

And what this culture of being substandard does is bleed and seep everywhere. If the training ground isn't up to scratch and the Baroness is encouraging people to watch her new TV show rather than the first team match being broadcast at the same time, then why the hell should anybody else care about the way the club is projected? What exactly does working for West Ham mean, and what exactly does our club stand for? Truthfully, I think what these repeated episodes tell us is that the answer is.....nothing. The club stands for nothing.

And when you have no moral core, no vision, no structure and no plan and you stand for nothing, then this is what happens. People lose sight of the success of the club being meaningful. From the outside it looks to me like there is a huge vacuum where there ought to be leadership. Sullivan is holed up in Theydon Bois on the phone to agents, Brady is part time and Pellegrini disappears back to Chile whenever there is a break in fixtures. Who, I wonder, is there to shape the club and establish the values that employees ought to be adhering to?



That West Ham leadership structure in full


I don't know Mark Phillips, and I have no idea what his past performance or conduct has been like, or the terms of his employment contract, and therefore it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on what should happen to him. Very specifically, I have no idea if his views have ever impeded the development of kids from ethnic minorities because until a month ago we had never developed any kids from any background at all.

I will say this though - this sort of thing happens too often for me to think it is a series of random events. Employees are operating with no regard for the club's reputation either because they have no regard for the club's reputation or it has never been made clear to them that they need to be more professional in their conduct. And that comes from the culture within West Ham. It comes from leadership, or more relevantly, the absence of it and it comes from the acceptance that West Ham is not a high performance work environment.

So, when youth coaches feel they can tweet from Far Right marches, and when high profile players go out boozing while injured, and when nepotism is rife, and the Vice Chairman refuses to give up a pointless and unhelpful Sun column lest it detract from her personal brand, then what does that tell us? What do these repeated demonstrations of valueless behaviour really mean?

I think it is clear: the club is rotting from the inside out. Mark Phillips is just a symptom - the disease is elsewhere.


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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