Sunday, 18th March 2018
West Ham v West Ham
Filed: Monday, 12th March 2018
Author: Ten Thousand Miles From The Boleyn
I came out of the Burnley match with a strange sense of melancholia.
Not genuine depression of course, more like that booze-induced version one can experience after a big night when at some point the next day you realise that the only thing that is going to change how shitty you feel is more alcohol, and once the initial rush has passed the urge to lie down takes over followed by a sad, hollow feeling... or maybe that's just me.
It wasn't just due to the defeat, the forgettable season so far, all the anger surrounding the Board, the stadium, the march or even because it was four o'clock in the poxy morning. I'd approached the game with a sensible amount of positivity and my usual sardonic disposition intact. But eventually I came to the realisation that gallows humour ceases to be funny when you can feel the trapdoor beneath your feet and the noose around your neck.
I live ten thousand miles from the Boleyn. So what do I know about anything?
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It all started so well. Just like Ben Sherman, Harrington Jackets and Prince of Wales check, whenever I hear Burnley mentioned I'm transported back to a time before the glamour, commercialism, prohibitive cost and obvious inequalities of the Premier League. I find myself thinking fondly of Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill, of unkempt sideburns and missing teeth, of snow covered pitches and orange balls (which always cleared up eventually). I then ask myself, "Sure, dental care and personal grooming have come a long way, but is watching football any more enjoyable?"
Witnessing fit, highly-talented and fashionably coiffured players performing on immaculately-prepared pitches has a certain appeal, but surely we all miss the delights of watching less than perfect physical specimens bumbling around on a surface better suited to Finnish Swamp Wrestling. I also have enormous respect for players of the past as I clearly remember how much harder it was to execute a superb pass or a pinpoint cross wearing six-stud boots with a leather ball completely soaked in water; and less clearly the time I headed the ball back from a goal kick and ended up concussed.
Maybe it's the rampant monetisation that irks me so? I don't know what it's like in England right now but in Australia, sporting events are constantly interrupted by invitations to place a wager on some peculiar series of impossible to logically predict occurrences. As a result an entire generation are being sold (successfully) the notion that a game can only be enjoyable if there is the opportunity to pick up some cash. We went out to dinner recently with a friend and her son spent most of the evening placing in-game bets on the thrilling clash between the Adelaide Serial Killers and the Melbourne Lumbersexuals.
What about going to the game, better known nowadays as the match day "experience"? While I haven't visited the new stadium I'm aware of the problem with being so far from the action, I once saw Australia play on a converted cricket oval and imagined it would be like watching West Ham from the flats behind Priory Road.
But I guess for newer fans and particularly kids it probably seems normal, and less daunting than a trip to the Boleyn Ground was back then. My brother took me to my first game in 1966 and it's hard to imagine nowadays that security or too many parents would let an eight-year-old carrying an empty Mackeson crate into the ground, let alone allow him to stand on it on the North Bank terrace. That was a time when my weekly pocket money covered the cost of transport, admission, a program and a bag on monkey nuts.
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Maybe it's the inequity that has resulted from the gobs of money that have poured into the game? Before the Premier League it always seemed possible that a decent manager, a core group of quality players, a youth academy and some shrewd signings could result in a successful side. But the sad truth is we had all these things but still underperformed something fierce in the League and in the Cup, and if it wasn't for the First Division having twenty two teams with only a couple being relegated we would have gone down more often and much sooner. I will now use these depressing facts as an excuse for my excessive celebrations after our cup win against Fulham.
In my defence we did start drinking in the morning and to be honest everything, including the game is something of a blur, but I have one vivid flashback of late that night, propped against a tree and chucking up countless pints of lager. Suddenly there are flashing lights and a throbbing noise, at this point I realise I am leaning against a palm tree, made of plastic, planted next to the dance floor of the Locarno Ballroom! Happy days indeed.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that a shortage of success could never dampen my enthusiasm and support for West Ham, because unlike now, there was no sense we would never, never, ever win the league. Sure, the FA Cup is still here but to be honest it feels diminished somehow, possibly because overseas coaches and players just don't get it. And even if we have (by our standards) a stellar season, qualification into the Europa League seems about as welcome as a dose of the clap.
But continued success is also no guarantee of contentment because I have had the good fortune of supporting a winning team. In the mid 90s we were living in Brisbane and a new team was created to play in the AFL, probably better known in the uk as "Aussie Rules", or as my Dad described it; "Closing time in the Duke of Fife". It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon, until of course a new tv deal moved the games to Saturday night.
As season ticket holders in the early 2000s we were treated to three consecutive Grand Final victories and in the fourth were beaten; a bit like winning the Premier League three times in a row and losing 1-0 away to Man City on the last day of the season. After the game we were so enraged we went out to the garden and torched the team flag in disgust. I think that story may say more about my wife and I but my point is that banking goodwill from previous seasons is really hard.
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So is watching football as enjoyable as it used to be? As far as I'm concerned the answer is no… and don't get me started on fucking VAR.
So can it be turned around? There are things they do over here in the A League that are awful, like the entire league season being simply a way of seeding teams for the playoffs; but some are designed specifically to retain some equality. The salary cap and the draft system are designed to take away the ability for any team to buy success, so in theory; a decent manager, a core group of quality players, a youth academy and some shrewd signings can result in a successful side. Will it happen in the Premier League? Not a chance.
I supposed I shouldn't be surprised my mood was so bad at the final whistle, I started the match thinking fondly of all the things that made supporting West Ham in the 60s and 70s so good, and ended up thinking of all the things that made it so bad. With a little more luck and confidence we could have gone into halftime 2-0 up and I'd be looking forward to our next match. As it is all I'm thinking about is all those potential signings who are saying to their agents "Don't even think about it".
On a positive note I did have $10 on a spectator taking one of the corner flags and sticking it in the centre circle.