War of the tag-teams

The summer months, I find as a football fan, are intolerably boring.

As each season nears its conclusion I tell myself that I'm going to forget about football and West Ham United for the next three months and concentrate only on beer, getting a tan, and the ladies. But come early morning on Monday 25 May, I'm straight onto KUMB.com, checking out Cockney Hammer's excellent West Ham gossip round up. This pattern has continued every day since the season ended and when I'm not on the forum, I'm either on the BBC gossip page or thinking about West Ham. Thus, as a result of many wasted hours spent thinking about our beloved club, I thought I'd actually do a useful West Ham-connected something, and analyse the managerial double-teams we've had over the five years.

In the flashy silver and consistent blue corner - Alan Pardew and Peter Grant. Always reminded me of a lower-scale Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Grant always seemed to be the brains behind Pardew's success - as he got on with all the players most of the time and they seemed to respect him, which is more than be said for Pardew. Not quite an exact replica of the Clough-Taylor partnership, but hopefully you can see where I'm coming from on this one. For me, it was no coincidence that after the two previous seasons' success, Grant's departure to Norwich City in the first half of the season preceded our slide down the table.

In the dreary grey corner - Alan Curbishley and Mervyn Day, aka 'Al 'n' Merv'. Has there ever been a less inspiring duo in charge of the Hammers? You'd be pretty pushed to find one. You have to admire them for the miracles they worked towards the end of 2006/07 season to keep us up in the Premiership but you also have to take into account that they had at their disposal a much better squad than any of our relegation rivals thanks to the Icelandic millions. The two ex-Hammers spent even more the next summer yet with a squad which was the envy of many teams, failed to build anything special. It was fitting that the pair's penultimate match was one in which the side struggled against a frankly rubbish League Two side and were losing for 80 minutes until the introduction of a player who epitomised Al 'n' Merv's reign, Carlton Cole.

Thirdly and finally - once in the royal blue but now in a shade of white which symbolises a blank canvas and all the future promise in the world - Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke. All we could have hoped for in terms of a first season; our highest league finish since 2002 - with very limited resources - attractive football, and young players being brought through and being given ample opportunities.

Firstly, Alan Pardew and Peter Grant. Pards had been our gaffer for just under a year when Grant arrived as his assistant. After his failure to get us promoted the previous season, many people wanted his head. What we got, however, was not a manager sacked but a reliable, hard-working assistant manager appointed. Pardew's team immediately appeared more organised, more determined to grind results out in difficult circumstances - the early-season wins against promotion rivals, at home to Reading and away to Sheffield United, were clear examples of these newfound qualities. Coupled with Pardew's natural exuber... (did I even have to start that word?), rapport with his players and knowledge of sports science and the game in general, the Hammers started the season on fire.

And then came the slide. Pards' head is called for yet again, and he looks more and more depressed after each sh*t result- 0-1 at home to Brighton, 1-4 away to Cardiff, 1-2 at home to Preston - but meanwhile, Peter Grant just got on with his job, out of sight, behind the scenes. We never heard from him apart from when we'd just had an outstandingly good/bad result and Pardew was being touted as the next England manager/next gaffer to be sacked, and Grant would make a straightforward comment, but one that was always perfectly apt.

At the end of the season we were promoted via the play-offs, and the duo followed the team into the Premiership. We heard even less from Grant that first season - he was never pictured on the touchline like some Premiership assistant managers; Sammy Lee, once of Bolton,seemed to be on the box almost as much as Sam Allardyce, the then Bolton Wanderers manager, was. Practically the only thing we heard from Grant in 2005/2006 was an admission, after a mid-season break to Dubai which proved to be disastrous, that the break was, in hindsight, a bad idea.
I always got the feeling with Grant that he was not only performing the function of steering wheel with the players, but also with a young, talented, and at times overtly excitable manager in Pardew. In my view, much of the success of 2005/2006 was down to him and I belivee that he is one of the - if not the - most effective assistant managers that West Ham United have ever had.

Secondly, Alan Curbishley and Mervyn Day. Fair play to them, they kept us up and they also guided us to a top half finish the following season. But at what cost? Almost £20 million of Icelandic money was spent in January 2007 in an attempt to salvage something from a truly disastrous season. Money was clearly needed, as only two of Curbishley and Day’s first fourteen matches in charge were won. It was reported in some quarters of the press that Curbishley simply did not have the respect of the players. What little respect the ‘Baby Bentley’ crew - as Curbishley characteristically bluntly dubbed them - had for Pardew was not transferred to Curbishley. It was reported in the media and reported in Brian Belton’s book ‘Brown Out’ that elder statesman Teddy Sheringham was ‘badmouthing his manager’ in the canteen one day, and when Curbishley appeared, the player simply walked off without a word.

Sheringham said later, ‘I don’t see what car you drive has to do with performance on the pitch.’ Quite.

Curbishley was clearly trying to shake things up at West Ham, but he went about it in an irredeemably crass and stupid fashion. As for Day - well, whereas Grant assumed a background role and left Pardew to deal with the primadonnas and enigmas of his dressing room whilst working hard behind the scenes and earning a quiet respect from Hammers fans, ‘Merv’ was simply nowhere to be seen - save for the occasions when he would leap off the bench at random intervals to wave his arms about and shout instructions which I doubt made any more sense to the players on the pitch than it did to the fans in the stands. My own impression of him was that he was simply a boring old fart and thus the perfect right-hand man for Curbishley. I remember at the open training day (yes, I still go to those and yes, I know I can no longer get away with going to them on my own without being derided as a saddo with no life) where for some reason, I decided to collect ‘Merv’s’ autograph.

With difficulty, our keeper in the ’75 Cup Final scribbled his signature on my replica shirt with a cheap plastic pen usually used for filling in order forms for shirt printing that I’d swiped from the shop upon discovering that my black marker pen had run out. One ‘cheers, Merv’ later and the grim deadpan expression upon his droopy features still remained. He then went on to lecture the poor bloke next in line on the benefits of the traditional black marker pen as opposed to the new-fangled new biros - ‘..them other ones don’t work.’

Petty jibes aside, full credit to the two of them - they kept us up.

However, I felt at the time that quite a few of our players were playing primarily for themselves and not for the manager - and not just ones like Reo-Coker who were merely trying to put themselves in the shop window having grown weary of life at West Ham. If you believe Paul Konchesky, Curbishley was hated by a sizeable proprortion of the squad. Curbishley's old nemesis from his Charlton days, 'Konch', claimed shortly after being sold to Fulham for £2million that 'there are a lot of unhappy players in that dressing room who don't like him.' Curbishley retaliated by accusing the England defender of 'having no class.' However, 'Curbites' would point to the aftermath of Carlos Tevez's first goal in the 3-1 defeat of Bolton Wanderers in May 2007, where Tevez ran to his manager and embraced him and was followed by Mark Noble and James Collins.

Nevertheless, I would say that these three players all owed a debt of gratitude to Curbishley for being given a chance in the first team. It was noticeable that no other players joined the rush to embrace Curbishley. The point I am really dragging out here is that in my view at least, Curbishley alienates players. The following season there were rumours of a dressing room bust-up between the manager and record signing Craig Bellamy after the 2-0 opening day defeat to Manchester City. This was no vague tabloid claim either - the papers were very specific about the circumstances. The argument had sourced from the manager's decison to play winger Matthew Etherington at left back for the second half with City leading 1-0 after the first period.

By the end of that season, through negative tactics and what were seen as poor results, Alan Curbishley had turned the majority of the fans against him. The three consecutive 4-0 defeats against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham had contributed much to this. However, the base of Curbishley haters had built up long before - but earlier the situation was a 50-50 one, split between those who supported Curbishley and those who didn't. This was particularly noticeable at the Fulham away game in February where minutes before Nobby Solano's winning goal, the Curbishley haters (and I counted myself amongst them) had been chanting 'too f*cking negative' after the manager made yet another defensive substitution. Minutes later, the bloke next to me, and a notable few others began chanting ironically 'too f*cking positive' as an angry riposte to those who didn't support 'Curbs.'

However, as with many things concerning the Curbishley-Day partnership, the negatives drowned out the positives. Somehow, it seemed fitting that the pairing's last two matches in charge of us were a stark contrast in comparison to each other - both 4-1 wins, but one a glorious performance against a major rival for a top half Premier League finish; the other a scraped victory against a poor League Two team.

Curbishley and Day were never the right management team for West Ham United. I just never really felt that they understood the club and its traditions and history - and I never could comprehend why two West Ham old boys couldn't understand what the West Ham fans expected in terms of football and respect of the traditions of the club, having spent so much of their playing career at the club. However, the manner in which they were treated by the board in the summer of 2008 was completely below the belt and I'm sure that I wasn't the only fan to feel sorry for Curbishley and Day last summer over the way Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney were sold above their heads.

Finally, Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke. Despite my disgust at the way the board treated Curbishley and Day I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when Zola and Clarke were appointed. 'Now we'll see something,' thought I. Things were on the up, despite the fact that we'd just lost our shirt sponsor and so our players were running round with little nylon patches on their shirts; despite the fact that we'd lost half our defence and whether we'd replaced them was doubtful; and despite the fact that our fans, upon arriving at The Hawthorns for Zola's first game as our manager (albeit in the stands while Kevin Keen took charge) were greeted with many choruses of 'Zola is a Chelsea fan' from the West Brom fans - despite all this, I believed it and so do thousands of others, that the Hammers were on the up. Not even losing 3-2 to a newly-promoted team and getting mugged off £7 for a Wimpey burger and chips at services at Watford Gap could dampen my enthusiasm for the little Italian and the substantially larger Scotsman as our new management team.

The early signs looked promising in the pair’s first game, against Newcastle. I had been sceptical when two necessary strikers had been signed in aging David Di Michele and Diego Tristan, but after half an hour of Di Michele’s debut, I was screaming to any of my fellow occupants of the Centenary Lower who would listen that the Italian was the new Di Canio. In hindsight, this was an over-the-top reaction as exactly half of Di Michele’s goal haul for the entire season was attained inside his first 30 minutes in a West Ham shirt, but such was my excitement at the GFZ-Clarke reign being underway that I quite forgot my natural pessimistic self. Even though Michael Owen got his traditional goal against West Ham, my optimism wavered none. Oddly, I didn’t even notice the fact that we failed to win any of the following seven games until someone pointed it out on the KUMB.com forum.

As far as I was concerned, the side was playing good football under the new management and that was all that mattered. I was thrilled that, in the middle of this run, Zola had the balls to play three up front against Arsenal. Yes, we lost, but not without a fight. I could see something special in that team, something which was previously unseen in either Curbishley or Pardew’s regimes. As I began this article both these men were out of work, although Pardew has since been unveiled as the new manager of League One Southampton.

On the subject of Steve Clarke, many supporters had been as delighted by the Scotsman's appointment as assistant manager as they had been by Zola’s appointment as manager. He brought with him an excellent reputation from Chelsea and the Hammers had had to pay a substantial compensation packet to Chelsea, such was their reluctance to lose him. Clarke very much took the role that Peter Grant had taken during his time at the club. He was slightly more in the limelight than Grant was, being more high-profile because of the Chelsea connections, but had the exactly the same characteristics and operated in the same manner. You could see right away that he had the total respect of the players and that they would do anything that him and Gianfranco asked of them.

Soon enough, we were out of the rut and were mounting a serious challenge for Europe. Things got even better; Gianfranco acquired his own song, which unlike the categorically failed 'Alan Curbishley's Claret and Blue Army' was now being sung with heart-warming regularity. In fact he had two songs - the claret and blue army song with Gianfranco (later Franco Zola) being the word inserted before the main body of the tune. In addition, the little Italian also had his more personal soundtrack to the tune of that god-awful DJ Otzi 'Hey Baby' tune that the likes of Bolton and Wigan base their entire musical repetoire on - 'Giiiiaaanfrancoo Zola, he's only five foot three, Gianfranco Zola, he comes from Eetarrlee, he ain't Chelsea no more.'

This was invariably followed up by 'stick yer blue flag up yer arse' or, to the same tune, 'from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, we nicked yer Zola and yer Clarke.'

The club, whose supporters feared relegation at the start of the season now, due to the vagaries of the European qualification system and the situation of Man United winning the League Cup and two European-qualified sides, Everton and Chelsea, contesting the FA Cup Final. In the midst of all this excitement, a snag had appeared. In the event of us qualifying for Europe, Zola would not be allowed to manage us in the UEFA Cup (or Europa League as it went on to be known) as he did not have the necessary coaching licence. In the event, however, more than a few supporters seemed less than distraught at the possibility of Steve Clarke being the man on the touchline for only the club's second European campaign in ten years.

In the event, a series of injuries, bad luck, bad results, and the revival of Spurs culminated in the Hammers finishing ninth and failing to qualify for Europe, but 'UEFA Pro-Licencegate' was a telling episode. If for any reason Gianfranco should leave the club, I think that the club should look no further for a replacement than the man sitting a few inches along from him in the dug-out. Because this current managerial 'tag-team' in our dugout right now gives me greater cause for optimism than any other I can remember in all the time in which I have been supporting the club. We have two men on our bench who want us to play attacking football, who want to bring young players through, and along with Scott Duxbury, have a vision for the club. It's an ambiguous word I know, but a vision is all it is at the moment. While Manchester City are committing potential suicide by splashing billions on players well into their twenties who will likely go on to provide nothing like long-term value, we're going steady with The Project. Nothing more, nothing less.

Vive The Project, vive The Academy, vive attacking football, and vive Frank 'n' Steve!

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