Saturday, 17th March 2018
West Ham 0-3 Burnley (And Other Ramblings)
Filed: Tuesday, 13th March 2018
I often wonder about these articles. What value do they serve, really, beyond allowing me to engage in something I like to do?
"I long to feel, some beauty in my heart
As I go searching, right to the start"
- Doves, "Kingdom of Rust"
They have become unrelentingly grim, with gloom painted over them like miserable graffiti and the gallows humour that I promised myself I would always try to thread through them is as long gone as Dimitri Payet.
I have no idea if Karren Brady is aware of The H List, but if she is I strongly suspect that she thinks it's just someone pissing into the tent, and I suppose from her perspective that might be true. Which led me to thinking about what I would do now if I were her. "Resign" is certainly an option there, but I have worked long enough in the City of London to know that people don't generally leave million-pound-a-year jobs for silly little reasons like not being good at them.
Another day, another disaster
Which got me to thinking about my own career and what I would bring to West Ham as a Director. "Not much" is the answer there, but once upon a time I did have a role whereby I helped manage a team of a couple of hundred people. It was as challenging as you might expect, with my responsibility specifically covering personnel issues. I suspect that this was primarily to keep me away from doing any technical work, but in that role I learned a lot about people. And specifically I learned one very valuable life lesson; namely that you don't get to tell others how they feel.
I lost count of the amount of times I heard junior staff tell their superiors something along the lines of "You make me feel undervalued when you only ever focus on my failings" and then hear a reply that began with the phrase "No, that's not true". See how that goes? You're wrong, you don't feel like that, have another go.
And I have returned to this again and again this weekend. On some very deep, subterreanean level I do actually feel sympathy for Brady and the Board - they are trying to make a group of people happy who have a completely disparate set of desires. As my fellow Hammers blogger Alex V astutely pointed out, how on earth do you placate a fanbase who want a more modern approach to running the club while simultaneously demanding a return to traditional values? How do you reconcile people like me who think they waste money constantly, with those who sing "where's the money gone?"
But you know what? That's the gig. And it's absolutely the gig when you turn a football club upside down in pursuit of a dream that you sold and then didn't deliver on. Thus, for two years both our elected and unelected representatives have been telling Brady these problems and been repeatedly told that they were wrong.
You're wrong, you don't feel like that, have another go.
And this is why they fail.
They fail because they seem incapable of dealing with us on a basic human level. I appreciate that lots of fans like the London Stadium and are far more concerned with the bloody awful team, but there are also lots of us who feel misled and lied to about the whole thing. And still we hear in the accounts about this wonderful, world class arena that we play in and all I can think about is Alan Partridge pointing out that there was over a thousand miles of very pleasurable cruising before the Titanic hit that iceberg.
They're scum, Karren, sub human scum.
All admissions of failure seem to be couched somehow in terms of the failure of others. Problems with the stadium begin with the landlord, issues with the team seem to swing between the likes of Jose Fonte and Robert Snodgrass, before eventually landing on the head of Slaven Bilic, and if all of that doesn't land then there is always bad luck. The accounts speak of an "unprecedented injury crisis" which is a statement you could only make if you had literally never seen West Ham play before.
Even now, the fans are somehow to blame for the team losing 3-0 to Burnley, and not the fact that this squad was assembled by randomly throwing darts at a 2012 Panini sticker album.
Karren, I know you don't want my advice, but I shall offer it up anyway because I know no other way to help my club. Treat us like human beings. Hear what we have to say, but also listen to it. Approach discussions with fans with the baseline that the stadium move has not delivered what an awful lot of us wanted. Instead of telling them why they're wrong, let them tell you why you're wrong, and then see if that spirit of cooperation can carry you any further than getting a few flags waving around the edge of the pitch before the match.
I actually thought that was a nice touch and inspired an interesting discussion about our history with my daughter, but that's scant consolation when Joe Hart is scrabbling around like a fish on a chessboard, and the temporary scaffolding is bending and warping with the weight of angry protesters.
And when you do all of that, and reach the inevitable conclusion that the rest of us got to some time ago - namely that the stadium simply cannot be fit for purpose as a football ground, because it wasn't designed to be - then you need to march up to David Sullivan and tell him that you're going to publicly admit as much and demand that he therefore better find a way to improve the team post haste.
I get that your entire brand is built around infallibility but none of this is going to disappear like you hope it will. West Ham is the Not OK Corral, and you need to acknowledge your own part in that, if you want to have any hope of moving us forward. As it is, I have never felt so disconnected from my club.
After all, you don't get to tell me how I feel.
"There's a place where time is dead, and all things stand still
And always will"
- The Handsome Family, "If The World Should End In Fire"
But let us start at the beginning, before the mercury rose and the citadel was stormed. I went to this game in search of faith. A glimpse of a renewed faith in the game I have spent so much time with, and in those people that I have watched it with. Truthfully, it felt like a blessed relief to be going to a match, and not wondering about marches, fans being attacked by their brethren or what new bombshell was going to be dropped in our collective laps. Even then, we must not forget that there are those of our regimental stripe who couldn't attend this game for fear of their own safety, for shame.
But the sun was out and it truly felt like I hadn't watched West Ham play with the sun on my face for years. And for an hour, whisper it, I thought we were the better team. The side still looked disjointed and hastily thrown together - because they are - but there were things to commend here. We went at Burnley with all the vim and vigour that was missing last week, and duly caused them some problems. Marko Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini and Joao Mario all had chances, but couldn't quite get the perfect look. Such is the nature of Burnley. They are defensive magicians. They are also the most cynical time wasters in the division. Their players spent the entire game feigning head injuries in an attempt to slow the game down and I'd love to say I'd never seen anything like it except they did the exact same thing last year.
Yet for all our flimsy superiority, you always got the sense that - much like a night time stroll in Romford - there was trouble waiting around the corner. Burnley haven't got to their lofty heights by accident. Their success has been built upon a seemingly unsustainable combination of forcing their opponents to miss good chances, and taking their own lesser ones. And falling over a lot. They have almost broken the Expected Goals model, and serve as a salutary reminder that while people like me would reduce the sport to an algorithm, the game itself still remains as gloriously unpredictable as an errant firework.
West Ham - building character since 1895
And so Dyche introduced Chris Wood after an hour and watched as the Kiwi was immediately involved in two goals within five minutes. The first was offside apparently, but should have been defended better either way. It unfolded like a slow motion replay as Angelo Ogbonna dallied where Wood was purposeful and picked out Ashley Barnes, who took a brief break from throwing himself to the floor to power the ball past Joe Hart's famously vulnerable left hand. The problem with weaknesses is that people will keep exploiting them until you prove they no longer exist. And this one still exists.
There was still time to dream of a renaissance, but by now the gates of Hell had swung open. At one down, against the league's best game killers, we were deep in the mire even before the pitch invasions began. Moyes responded to Dyche outwitting him with a typically late and ineffective substitution. On came Javier Hernandez, and still the visitors kept running straight through the middle of our Papier-mâché midfield. Where have you gone Pedro Obiang? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Hart soon fumbled a long range effort and a third went in. I threw my eyes upwards in search of that long departed sun, or maybe the ghostly silhouette of Alan Pardew being projected on to the night sky as our owners turned on their own version of the Bat signal. Now I think about it, that might constitute gallows humour if it wasn't for the fact that the useless bastards might actually bloody do it.
"Oh baby, oh baby
Then it fell apart"
- Moby, "Extreme Ways"
But what of the real story? I wrote a short piece for The Guardian in which I was constrained by a word limit. Some picked me up for only saying that "I cannot condone the violence" so let me say here that I condemn it completely. How could anybody not? The fighting in the seats behind the dugouts was so bad that kids had to be ferried forward to the Burnley benches for shelter. These were, I believe, the £5k a year seats where West Ham fans fought each other over I don't even know what. Hope truly does lie in the proles.
Elsewhere, there were four separate pitch incursions which all ended with some form of physical altercation either with players or in the stands after the invaders had returned. The first guy came on holding an A4 poster. This is like holding up a postage stamp to Neil Armstrong while he walked on the moon - it could have said "Wenger Out" for all I know.
Having done all of Cheikhou Kouyate's running all day, Mark Noble then appointed himself Chief Steward as well and roughed the guy up. Some think he was wrong, but what I saw was a frustrated man who knew that once pitch invasions start, the team rarely comes back. And true enough we kept conceding goals as various miscreants made their way on, each showing a surprising amount of stamina to make it all the way to the middle.
I don't blame the fans, but anyone who was there can't deny that as soon as the atmosphere turned, the team simply wanted to get out of Dodge. And for those who remember the Bond Scheme protests of the early Nineties, you'll know what I mean when I say that a decent team can rarely coexist with a poisonous atmosphere.
Try as we might, that toxicity drips out on to the pitch - or is carried there atop a corner flag - and infects the players. We must remember that they will be gone after all of this, mercenaries caught in the middle of a blood feud. Instead it is us who will remain, silently watching us lose to Barnsley in the Thunderdome and wondering if relegation was truly a price worth paying to vent our frustrations.
But I am getting ahead of myself, because relegation will assuredly not be the fault of the fans, even if some in the media would wish to say it was. Those who protested had every right to do so. I can't understand the desire to go on the pitch, although I surely recognised the homage to the famous Everton invasion against the Bond Scheme. Once again we were shaking hands with the past, and invisible bridge between eras, with the only constant being that the club is still run by spivs and charlatans.
Shaking hands with the past. It's shit here, they both said
But the real spirit of the protest lay in those those who gathered in front of the Directors' Box and confronted the architects of this demise. In reality, the situation was horrible, even if I believe that this was entirely caused by a Board who have insisted on chipping away at the foundations of our club and are now finding that the debris is falling squarely on their own heads.
I will say that I hate that Sullivan's children had to face that. Even if they might be too prominent for their tender years, it is indeed worth remembering that they are just kids who didn't deserve to have objects thrown at them and to hear their father abused. They are fans too, remember. Similarly, David Gold was there with his daughters and grandchildren and reportedly left in tears. None of us should be happy about that, nor can we condone those who threw objects. To do so is to cede the moral high ground. There is no need for it. We are on the side of the angels.
But before you think I've changed my mind, let me say once more that this was brought upon themselves. I have previously described the relationship between the fans and the owners as being like a pressure cooker, and the thing with those is that you need a way to release that pressure before it explodes. West Ham fans have got no traction with the club over our complaints, which ultimately culminated in the threat of a protest march. Only then, with that ludicrously sharp Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, did the board deem our points worthy of an audience. Two years and ten thousand marchers to get some flags around the pitch. It's like Agamemnon sacking Troy for a loaf of bread.
But by organising the cancellation of the march, the club skilfully moved the protest into the stadium, for where else could it go? And now the genie is out of the bottle, he won't be returning. The fans might not know exactly what it is they want, but they can say with certainty that it is not this. And yet, I am not among those who subscribe to the view that relegation might not be a bad thing. It will set the club back years, and destroy our finances. If you're annoyed at the interest payments to the owners now, wait until we're in the Championship and can't borrow against our TV money, meaning we have to get it from Sullivan instead.
I know, deep down, that the only way to affect the regime change that we desperately need is to continue these protests. To tell them how we feel and have the world hear our side of the story. But I fear that the Catch-22 here is that doing so will be terminal to our hopes of staying up.
The team are bereft of ideas and confidence and that brief flirtation with solidity under Moyes has long since departed. In the last week, our goal difference has taken an even bigger battering than David Sullivan's ego. The protest is entirely necessary for us, because without it we will never get the better team we need to avoid being in these relegation scraps all the time, but it is distracting for the players and may contribute to sending us down. Pick the bones out of that, Yossarian.
We need three wins from somewhere and you'd say that if they aren't taken from Southampton, Stoke and Everton then we won't be long for this world. In effect, I'm asking an unruly mob to strike a balance between protest and lung bursting support. I think I might be being a touch optimistic.
"I am now a central part of your mind's landscape,
Whether you care or do not"
- Morrissey, "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get"
But this is where we are now. Without those protests on Saturday, would the full wattage of the media currently be shining with such force on our corner of the footballing world? Probably not. We have seen Miguel Delaney, Jacob Steinberg, Sam Wallace, Ken Early and John Dillon scratch the surface of our situation and find interesting stuff beneath their fingernails. With protests planned before the Southampton game, the best option open to the club now would probably be to allow them to proceed in the hope that supporters can exorcise their revolutionary spirit in the morning and concentrate on the match in the afternoon.
Which brings me back to the owners. I have wavered on their continuing stewardship because I fear the path taken by Coventry, Blackpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and so many other former contemporaries. I have previously written that a bad manager can set a club back years, while bad owners can hamstring you for a generation. But the moment these guys chose not to intervene when they knew their own supporters were being threatened was the moment I wanted them gone. I'll take my chances in the lawless bandit country that is football ownership, if it means that we can go to games without worrying about our own safety.
But leaving that aside for the moment, for such a departure is not imminent, the crucial thing for them to decide now is whether they are in this as fans or businessmen. They currently flit between the two, alienating everyone as they go. I have no objection to owners who lend the club money at high interest rates, but then they don't get to turn around and claim that they are exempt from fan protest because they are "custodians" and not owners, and they damn well ought to be competent enough on an individual level to know exactly what role they are performing for the club. As it is, Sullivan denied being Director of Football in December, sandwiched in between two sets of accounts that explicitly identified him as performing that role. That is not indicative of good corporate governance.
They did well to get that in
And how grimly I laughed as Sullivan bemoaned the failure of the minimum wage stewards to put themselves between him and an angry mob, considering that he couldn't have cared less when they did the exact thing same last season but it was our kids who were bearing the brunt of it all. I say again - they fail because there is no human face to the club, and apparently not even a scintilla of empathy around that boardroom table. I found it telling that Sir Trevor Brooking stayed in his seat and faced down the mob on Saturday, while others disappeared to the safety of the hospitality suites. A rare glimpse of dignity amidst the turmoil.
I hope we don't go down, because the repercussions of that go far beyond the boardroom and the playing staff. The wider club is diminished and the clock is once agin reset to "rebuilding", a mindset that has felt like our default for nearly two decades now. We operate in the face of a permanent storm front. We are reducing to being a walking "hold my beer" meme. These people have inflicted great damage upon the name of our club.
Forget those media critics who helicopter in for a quick look around the Directors' Box and then leave, baffled at the level of anger among fans. I follow the Danny Baker code over people like Jim White and Jason Burt - ask yourself when the last time was that they ever paid to go to a game and if it wasn't any time recently then you can discount their opinion. Proper journalists are examining our club and finding what we have long known to be true; that there is a deep malaise afflicting the soul of West Ham. And whether we like it or not, it's very possible that the spark that reignited the fire in our belly was the sight of those fans confronting our owners. It may be jagged and edgy and hard and rough but in many ways, that is West Ham.
I don't know where we go from here, but I do know that there is no going back.