Back To The Future

“We’ll be running round Tottenham with our willies hanging out,
Singing I’ve got a foreskin, haven’t you? (f*cking Jew!)”

- West Ham Fans, Traditional Arr.

Thursday Night

I appear to have wandered into a time machine. When I woke up on Thursday, it was 2021 and West Ham were barrelling around Europe – massively, I’m told – and by the time I had gone to bed I was somehow back in the mid-eighties. You’ve probably all seen the video by now; a Jewish man boarded a Ryanair flight to Belgium and, as if that fact alone wasn’t punishment enough, was greeted by the above chant from some travelling West Ham fans.

I deliberated for a while about writing those lyrics out, but I think it helps to see it in all its puerility. This is a song that has been sung on the terraces at West Ham for as long as I can recall, and it sounds like a nursery rhyme sung at a Nazi creche. It is usually dismissed as “banter”, the emergency ripcord of the modern village idiot, but that simply reveals an attitude which has pervaded the culture of our club for far too long.

What makes this even more galling, is that this particular song is almost always included in the same setlist as “Ten German Bombers”. You’ll all know that one too – about how “the RAF from England” shot down Nazi bombers – and as much as I don’t want to break racist, Little Englander hearts I do feel obliged to point out that an awful lot of those RAF pilots had the gall to come from places other than England. We’ll discuss the skin colour of some of them another time, because this is all probably enough of a shock already.

I guess I’ve resigned myself to the modern English trend of people invoking a war that ended seventy five years ago and pretending they’d love to have fought in it, but I do feel at the very least they ought to tell us which side they’d have been on.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this incident was that it wasn’t even in the stadium or anywhere close. One couldn’t even blame it on the anonymising effect of being in a large, drunk crowd. This was hours before the game, in a different country, sung at a solitary man trying to take a flight in peace. Instead, he was greeted by boorish types who seem to consider themselves exempt from the laws of society due to the presence of a match ticket in their pocket. Or maybe because they absurdly believe themselves to be soldiers of some sort, on a march to the front and operating under Martial Law. Or maybe it’s the catch all belief that you can get away with saying anything so long as you chuck the word Tottenham in there and dismiss it as... wait, let me check my “Moron’s Guide to Hate Crimes"…ah yes, “banter”.

God, I hate these arseholes and I hate that even now so much of this stuff is written off by the vast majority because it has no impact on us. Take another version of terrace wit, that was apparently written by an AI programme attempting to imitate a real life functioning human being. Is east London like Bengal? Is it like the back streets of Delhi? What would be the purpose of memorialising that observation in song, I wonder? And I wonder about the Venn diagram of the people who sing that song and those who complain that the local Asian population don’t tend to support West Ham.

Ever looked around the stadium and questioned why there weren’t many women there? Ever stood behind a thirteen year girl and sung – out loud, like the best boy in the whole nursery – that east London is full of tits, fanny and West Ham?

I retweeted a Twitter thread in the week from a Chinese West Ham fan who had travelled literally thousands of miles to watch us play – I don’t know how recently but we can reasonably assume we were probably shit at the time – and was routinely asked at games if he sold DVDs. I wonder if our fans really consider the impact that this stuff has on their fellow Hammers. Imagine taking a line of coke in the toilet at half time, then singing something homophobic at Brighton fans and then waking up the next morning not knowing that you just changed forever how the gay West Ham fan sat two rows behind you feels about their club.

What does this sort of shit say about us? Can a collective ever grow up? I have no idea but it would be terribly exciting to give it a try. This isn’t “Woke”, by the way. It’s perfectly normal to want all my fellow West Ham fans (and indeed any fans) to be able to attend a match without having their race, gender, sexuality, religion or indeed pretty much anything mocked or traduced in song. And this is not a high bar, in fact it’s laid flat on the ground, so what I’m really saying is that this is the basic behavioural standard of human beings generally.

We can dismiss it as the one-off actions of a couple of fans, and claim it’s nothing to with West Ham, or we could tell the truth and accept that these songs and this behaviour is wider than that. This stuff is like a fault line that sits under the club. We can pretend it’s not there because we can’t see it, and it’s never caused us personally any problems, but one day it might bring the whole thing crashing down.

And let’s not blame it on day trippers either. To get tickets for Genk you had to have a significant number of Priority Points, meaning that anyone who did was “proper West Ham”, a classification used to cover a multitude of sins over the years. Yes, it’s a great show of support for the team to go to Newcastle on a Monday night (and watch Leon Best score a hat trick against us, as I once did, for shame) but it doesn’t confer anyone with the right to be anti-Semitic, and then to attach that anti-Semitism to our football club.

In the words of the great Logan Roy – fuck off.

“Drive your fuckin’ whirly-bird”

Somewhere in the middle of this bullshit, a game of football broke out and to start with we weren’t terribly good, conceding to Joseph Paintsil inside just four minutes. This isn’t the first time a player with that name has terrified West Ham fans and that continued for much of the first half as we struggled to find our rhythm. The perils of the Europa rotation revealing themselves at last.

The malaise was highlighted most by the performances of the two rustiest players. Both Mark Noble and Arthur Masuaku struggled to imprint themselves on the game as Genk flew at us, and exposed some hitherto hidden flaws. Noble, so good against Manchester City, was poor here as the pace of the Belgian attacks caught him short and he struggled to exert a defensive influence, and couldn’t find ways to progress the ball effectively. Elsewhere Masuaku was hugging the left touchline, leaving no room for Aaron Cresswell to overlap, and there was a notable lack of support for Michail Antonio from our front three.

Thus it was Noble, Masuaku and Antonio who left on fifty eight minutes and a minute later Said Benrahma swept in an equaliser from a neat Vladimir Coufal cutback. It was a nice finish but the real piece of quality was the defence shredding pass for Coufal from Manuel Lanzini. It was to be a second half lit up by Lanzini and Benrahma as they combined to great effect in the opposition half to totally flip the balance of play, with the latter finding acres of space in his number ten role. The introduction of Tomas Soucek gave us more legs in the middle to get forward in support and back to cover, and most of the second period involved us knocking at the Genk door.

With just eight minutes left, Benrahma picked up a pass from Cresswell outside the box, noticed the terrible square-on defensive stance of the defender and slipped it round him, burst in to the box and poked it past the keeper. It was a great goal, and befitted a second half performance of the type that people keep telling me he is capable of producing. If this seems like me damning him with faint praise, that may be true, but I felt for the first time tonight he truly looked like a player who might take a team with him, rather than needing to be pulled along in their wake.

Somewhere around this point a travelling fan lost a…wait, checks notes, what the actual fucking fuck…a finger, while celebrating that goal. I didn’t think one could have a worse travel experience than taking a Ryanair flight, but this may well force me to revisit my theory.

While the Genk stewards took a leisurely stroll around looking for some ice to pack the severed digit in – alarmingly suggesting that this is now becoming so common an occurrence that the urgency just isn’t there any more – Soucek headed into his own goal. Thus, Genk nicked a point that they maybe deserved for their first half performance, and maybe didn’t deserve for having barriers in the away end made out of razors.

And so it was that we qualified for the next round of the Europa League, unbeaten, before December and having lost just one finger in the process. What a time to be a Hammer.


“I know it ain’t like the old days
I guess my memories run wild”

- The War on Drugs, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”

Sunday Afternoon

One of my abiding memories of last year was the feeling that while we were playing well, improving and clawing at the tails of the big boys, we were still some way short of the summit. Never was that better illustrated than by the home fixture with Liverpool, when we arrived full of hope and left like a Dragon’s Den contestant who forget their pitch and just punched Theo Paphitis instead.

That fear accompanied me today, as did the continued terror that our European exertions were secretly sapping us of our ability to compete at this level. For the first half that seemed reasonably accurate, even though we took a fourth minute lead when a Pablo Fornals corner sailed over Angelo Ogbonna, through Alisson, into the realm of great unfairness, and into the goal via a particularly bitter part of Jurgen Klopp’s psyche. Apparently.

Thereafter came some fairly pivotal moments. Cresswell escaped dismissal for a tackle on Jordan Henderson, where his foot bounced up off the ball and his studs caught the Liverpool skipper just under his knee. I didn’t think it was a red card, but since Fabian Balbuena was sent off last year for kicking a ball and catching a player in his follow through, I have given up trying to interpret the rules. In truth I think we are currently caught between an old style of tackling that said you could go off your feet so long as your studs were down and you got the ball, to a state of affairs whereby anything that isn’t perfectly clean and in control risks a red card.

Such a system will cut down on career ending injuries, which is good, but will also mean a distinct change of mindset is now needed for players. Tackles will become less about winning the ball, so much as diverting it away from opponents. No such grey area exists around elbowing players in the face though, so I’m not sure why Diogo Jota was allowed to do that to Ogbonna and force him off permanently with blood dripping from his face.

Not long after this, Mo Salah dived to win a free kick and Trent Alexander-Arnold sumptuously curled it into the top corner. It’s easy to say that Declan Rice made a silly tackle but the problem with not challenging Salah is that he’s quite capable of dribbling past an entire defence if you don’t. Someone does actually have to try and tackle him, Clive.

I don’t even really think there’s much of a debate on Salah anymore. He’s a fantastic player who also happens to dive. There are loads of players like this, and while the Premier League promised to clampdown on this a few years ago they only managed to punish players from mid-table teams before abandoning the practice altogether once the volume of the simulation became clear. It happens. It’s shit. If they wanted to do something about it, they could, but they haven’t, and it was 1-1.

For much of the rest of the half we laboured. Antonio was through on goal but miscontrolled, and while Liverpool didn’t open us up they bossed the game. A change was needed. The main avenue of hope for us was coming down the left, where Benrahma was continuing his good form from Genk and regularly getting on the ball. Herein lay the dilemma – Alexander-Arnold can be targeted with the promise of great rewards, but if you mess it up he can kill you. He’s basically a footballing Squid Game.

'Trent' faces up to Benrahma

It seemed to me that our half time adjustment was to push Fornals into an auxiliary striker role and to try and simultaneously target the space in behind Alexander-Arnold. This was something that Brighton had done consistently with Leandro Trossard, and they had exploited the weak central midfield defensive work of Liverpool to overturn a two goal deficit at Anfield.

With Fornals and Benrahma causing havoc, we looked threatening with every break and so it proved when Jarrod Bowen picked up a turnover, drove straight through the middle, past four players and fed Fornals perfectly for our second. With fifteen minutes to go Kurt Zouma rose unmarked at the back post to head in a Bowen corner, and all seemed settled.

Sadly not, as the visitors brought on the apparently world class Divock Origi who scored a brilliant goal of his own and generally caused havoc. With seconds remaining Sadio Mane headed a set piece wide and that was all she wrote. A thrilling, pulsating win, with the Indian Burial Ground rocking and the sense of hope palpable.

Afterwards Klopp was as magnanimous as a Ponzi victim, suggesting that set piece goals were somehow unworthy (goals from corners this season – Liverpool 5 : 5 West Ham) and generally bemoaning everything. In truth I’ve never paid too much attention to post match interviews such as those. He’s not supposed to be happy, and he’s had no time to reflect but the thing that did rather strike me was that I didn’t necessarily think that these were even particularly good corners from us. The first from Fornals was punched in to the net, and the second involved Zouma dancing through a load of static defenders in the style of Maria von Trapp while Alisson flailed about doing Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box.

If I was Klopp I’m not sure I’d be highlighting such defensive frailty.

But this was more than just the triumph of a reincarnated Stoke. We looked terrifying on the break, and the Rice-Soucek axis were once again superb in preventing Liverpool from advancing at the times of greatest peril. One game doesn’t mean much, and the truth of a Champions League campaign is that every game is a must-win, but this is no longer just one game or one month. It’s a long, evolving growth that has me more excited than I have ever been as a football fan.

Earlier this week, some fans tried to take us back to a time of shame and negativity. Today the team brought us back to the future. What a thrill.

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