Kill Your Darlings

"Now I'd like to start all over again
I just want to change my mind"
- Gregory Isaacs, "Can I Change My Mind"

Do people ever truly change their minds? I’ve pondered this a lot recently, watching people fighting over petrol or standing in front of empty supermarket shelves and wondering whether these events would ever persuade those same people to reconsider who they vote for or what news sources they trust. This isn’t a call for people to vote one way or another, by the way, but it would certainly be nice to hear from people who didn’t get their qualifications in epidemiology from the University of Facebook.

It feels an especially pertinent question in a week where a Member of Parliament was stabbed to death while meeting with the very people he represents. That he was a fellow West Ham fan isn’t terribly relevant, even if it added some extra poignancy to the awful news. As his family grieve and a nation ponders exactly how we have allowed two elected MPs to be murdered in a five year time span, I wonder if the purveyors of vitriol and hatred in our national discourse will consider toning down their rhetoric? In a week where somehow the government seems to be attempting to turn us against *checks notes* our GP’s, I don’t hold out much hope.


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A man for the medium sized occasion?


Which brings me, unimportantly, to the banks of the Mersey. A game of football, between footballers, watched by football fans on a surprisingly sunny afternoon in October. Yet, is there anything more tribal in British society than football? It ought to be noted that our game here was an inconvenient interruption for Sky Sports as they spent the afternoon focusing on the Newcastle takeover. Lots of people arrived in front of the cameras to tell us that questions needed to be asked about the nature of that deal, and then summarily failed to ask any of them. And Newcastle fans, with the world watching them, wore tea towels on their heads and held up meaningless banners about rebuilding and reminded us that tribalism trumps all.

And as I watched us settle down and start to pick Everton apart with the sort of slick passing and movement that has lately become our hallmark, I asked myself whether it was possible for me to change?

For, as many of you know, I have been largely underwhelmed by our £25m purchase from last season, Said Benrahma. At least part of this is driven by the fact that he is a Will Salthouse client and therefore a David Sullivan buy rather than David Moyes. Purchased before Moyes had cemented his place in the fabric of the club after his return, Benrahma was a signing emblematic of the way in which West Ham would never modernise or move on. A player bought by a chairman with his agent mate, who didn’t fit into the playing squad the manager was trying to build, but who Sullivan liked the look of. Give me strength.

I confess that my view of Benrahma was thus skewed before he even started, and it didn’t really alter much as legions of people queued up to tell me that his early performances were George Best when they looked a lot more George from Rainbow to me. Curiouser still, this season those same people keep insisting that he had improved hugely and that I ought to acknowledge that in my assessment of him. This is, I think, true but it does also suggest that I was probably correct in saying that his first season was largely a disappointment. Either way, my heels dug in a little further and the barrier for the Algerian to impress me rose another inch or two.

None of this, of course, is Benrahma’s fault. He has no control over the internal politics of West Ham transfer dealings, nor does he have any say over the way the club seem determined to make him a cult hero by featuring him in every other social media post that they make. No Man of The Match poll seems to pass without the Algerian being featured, irrespective of whether he has played well. And if Twitter ever start charging for fire emojis, we might have to knock a million quid off the next interest payment we make to the owners, purely for the cost of the Benrahma posts.

But that last part is actually pretty instructive because it gets to the heart of what I think is really at play when fans talk about Benrahma.

***

“I fell in love once and almost completely”
- The White Stripes, “Fell In Love With A Girl”


You see, I have a theory.

I believe, on some level, that West Ham fans need a darling. I don’t think this is unique to us nor do I think it’s a bad thing especially, but I think it is hardwired into our collective consciousness. I think the origin of this is fairly straightforwardly that most of us have not had the chance to support a good West Ham team and have thus edged our fandom into other areas. When your team doesn’t win anything, you start to look for silver linings elsewhere. Some delved deep into the mythology around our off-the-pitch activities, some drew comfort in the self-appointed notion of the Academy and the belief that our style of play was innately superior to others – a feature of the John Lyall/everybody’s second team era, I think – and others have sought comfort in the myth of the individual.

I have lost count of the older fans who have told me that seeing Bobby Moore alone justified their West Ham fandom. Indeed, the most repeated phrase of my West Ham supporting career is that Paolo Di Canio was the best player ever to don the claret and blue and worth the price of admission alone. Fair enough, I suppose, although probably best to make sure the admission you’re paying isn’t to a ground in the North of England, just in case he has another one of those calf strains that tended to flare up around Birmingham.


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This is not a game that took place in Leeds


The lineage of the darling seems to me to be quite tied up in the type of team we had. In more successful times there was a tendency to favour the Cavalier – Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Di Canio, Dimitri Payet and Marko Arnautovic. In leaner periods, there have been the Roundheads – Billy Bonds, Julian Dicks and Scott Parker – who I think were perhaps the most beloved of all, for appearing extraordinary in teams of utter mediocrity.

I’m not old enough to have seen all these players and I’ve probably missed others out. Certainly there were those of fleeting popularity like Stuart Slater, John Hartson and Carlos Tevez, and others who should have fit the bill like Eyal Berkovic, but who simply didn’t play to the crowd enough to earn their garlands.

But it feels a consistent theme to me, that Upton Park often needed that player to spark it into life because we couldn’t really expect it of the team at large. When your side is inconsistent, there is a curious joy in watching a player of substance and feeling that he, at least, is yours. But where that falls down at the moment is that we don’t need a darling. I go to watch this current team and the great joy is in the unity and collectiveness. This isn’t a team that relies solely on the whims of a single player to achieve. We might be too reliant on the tensile strength of Michail Antonio’s hamstrings and the aerobic capacity of Declan Rice’s lungs, but we have still survived those players being absent at various times.

Remember when Payet lost interest in his second season and eventually downed tools? We looked bereft of not just inspiration but of basic structure. His departure wasn’t like sliding out a key Jenga block, it was like taking the whole table from underneath and then being surprised at the catastrophic subsequent collapse. Moyes, you sense, has no time for such nonsense.

So I resist Benrahma, even as others point out to me the quickness of his feet and mind. I wonder why so few fans seem to require him to produce anything, while those same fans wonder why I never credit him for his output. Perhaps it is therefore I who need to change – to accept that the quicksilver interplay of our front four includes him just as much as it does Bowen, Fornals or Antonio. Perhaps it is I who ought to focus more on what he can do than what he can’t.

Perhaps.

But I’d also ask others to demand a little more of their darling too, or maybe even abandon the concept altogether for a while. Of course that, if you take my theory as correct – which I accept many may not – might be quite difficult. As we have seen this week, the long history of a club is hard for fans to step away from. The miniscule number of home fans dissenting to the Newcastle takeover tells us that few feel able to detach from history or tradition even, ironically, when their club will never again be the same.

I don’t criticise Newcastle fans for their joyous reaction to their new owners, because I know it would be no different if it were here. But I do marvel at the lack of self awareness. I feel my eyebrows raise involuntarily when I hear them talk of getting their club back, when their club has changed irrevocably forever. I stared blankly at the huge banner quoting the lyrics of Jimmy Nail, and wonder whether there may have been anything slightly more worthy that could have been printed and shared with the watching world.

Like it or not, they now join Manchester City and Chelsea in the new-money lounge where there will forever be a giant asterisk above everything they ever do. When those trophies are won and the celebrations start, ordinary fans of ordinary clubs - which they no longer are – will look, shrug and turn off the TV. This won’t matter to Toon fans, of course, and instead most will simply post Mbappe crying GIFs to their Twitter feeds and demand that Erling Haaland signs a new £750k a week contract, but deep down they will know that the club they support today is not the club they supported yesterday.

Until we get some kind of structural change in English football, these takeovers will make the game less competitive and less interesting. There are those who have spent the week telling us that the Premier League will be even better for the addition of a seventh superpower. The common thread between those people is that they invariably support one of those seven teams. For the other eighty five league teams in England, it’s been hard to stifle a yawn at the talk of what wonderful things will now emerge from Newcastle having limitless funds to waste.

I think it may be hard for them to hear this, but when any of those seven teams win anything it will make absolutely no difference which of them it is. Does any non-elite team fan really care whether Chelsea or Man City win the league this year? In what possible way could it make any difference to anyone? Who cares, they are all the same. These are rock climbers who scale mountains with huge nets beneath them, and endless safety harnesses. Sure, it’s impressive to beat the other guy to the summit but there is absolutely no sense of peril and therefore no sense of achievement.

All this takeover actually does it move another club into the gilded realm of never again having to worry about relegation and instead reduce the teams battling the drop from fourteen to thirteen. Thus, the only actually interesting part of the Premier League just got less competitive. Say what you will about Newcastle, but they lit up many a relegation battle.

So, back to my darlings and to Said Benrahma. In a week of huge change and people showing that they will never change at all, I will be making an effort to be a man of adjustment. I will try to focus on the nice turns and the slippery feet and not demand excellence every single time. But Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch had it right, you know. His advice for writers was that when in doubt, kill your darlings. Change the script, rewrite the ending and don’t be precious. This isn’t a team that needs a talisman or a standard bearer to rally behind. They’re out there already, all over the pitch. And who knows how long we’ll get to enjoy them. It seems ridiculous to say this of a team assembled at the cost of ours, but there is an authenticity to this group that wouldn’t survive a takeover like Newcastle. Soon, the high-priced big names will arrive up there and the team will improve, the intimacy will disappear, and those fans will never again feel connected to their team in the way that we currently are to ours.

There is a falseness to that of course, when there are £25m players out there in Claret and Blue, but in the current Premier League we somehow are a smallish fish. As Angelo Ogbonna thumped in a header to give us back to back wins at Everton for the first time in over ninety years, it’s worth remembering the moment in history that we are currently in. Our fans agitate for change in the same way that Newcastle did and I’m honestly not sure what I think about any of that anymore. This West Ham team is already good. And they don’t need a darling.

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