As I sat and stood in interchanging fashion, rather like a Russian Kozachok dancer, in row E, seat 24, of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand and looked up to my left to see the rather large and, unlike our own, perfectly working and crystal clear screen showing the game and match entertainment, in between self-promoting adverts and the worthy cause of Richard House Children’s Hospice, I was made aware, once again, that West Ham still consider themselves “The Academy of Football,” as they advertised membership to “The Academy.”
Whilst three of the starting eleven for West Ham on Tuesday, in their top of the table 1-1 draw with Southampton, were graduates of “the Academy” (Mark Noble – captain and scorer on the night; Jack Collison – substituted after 21 minutes, having seen teammate Matty Taylor sent off for violent conduct; and James Tomkins – freely chucking his elbows into the ribs of Dean Hammond like some kind of Inbetweeners dance tribute act,) the football was far from what West Ham had become traditionally associated with. But, according to Sam Allardyce, it’s ok because “all this team did before was lose” before him.
From where I was positioned, busy practising my own traditions of standing, sitting and kicking out – something that wasn’t considered dancing when I tried to re-enact it in a nightclub the same night, but is in Eastern Europe – when the Southampton faithful, myself excitingly and appreciatively included, began to sing “you used to play football” to the group of fans situated in the corner of the East Stand, it seemed well-received.
Of course, it is a chant that no football fan ever wants to hear about their club, but the fans were accepting of the fact that Sam Allardyce has changed that style West Ham have strived to maintain (instilling it as an ethos in the academy so it can grow through and into the first team) and duly clapped our satirical efforts that took the shape of a reply to their “we’ve only got ten men” chorus.
Lost in the tribalism that is the away stand, deindividualised by anthemic chanting and the quick dissemination of one man’s opinion into a whole stand’s worth, I quickly found myself shouting “hoof” regularly and singing a line that reassured any doubters over how many teams called Bolton Wanderers there were. Yet, for all the mocking that can be served in a 90-minute spell, to opposition fans that, in majority, agree with you anyway, West Ham are still at the top of the table with sixteen games left to play.
Unlike Big Sam, I can understand fans’ criticism of their style of play, described by one as “sterile 1-0 wins.” Anyone that knows football would’ve expected such route one directedness to be witnessed at The Boleyn Ground when Allardyce took over: it was a style that, until recently, had become synonymous with the Reebok Stadium dwellers, Bolton Wanderers; Zat Knight even called for Owen Coyle to revert to such tactics.
However, being the disinterested and often tired football fan I am by the time The Football League Show starts, I hadn’t seen West Ham’s football first-hand all season – bar their John Carew headed appearance at St. Mary’s earlier in this campaign – and thus, I hadn’t fully engaged on a wholehearted opinion on West Ham’s football this season, and still haven’t.
Yet, the Sam stereotype was something further enforced by the pre-game entertainment in which a montage of five recent Hammers goals were shown: three were penalties – two of them being described by the BBC as “controversial”; another was struck home by Winston Reid whilst David Forde laid motionless on the floor, having been floored by Julien Faubert, a goal that Millwall manager Kenny Jackett felt shouldn’t have stood; and the last of the five-goal highlights was a headed effort by Carlton Cole following a lofted ball into the box from deep.
Whilst the football isn’t pretty and the results, although victorious 56.67% of the time, aren’t always attractive, I can’t help admiring the relentless waves of attack that The Hammers led with in the opening stages, irrelevant of how direct they were or were not. They were like salmon swimming up water: they leaped up strong and regularly in attack and defence to head the ball clear and nod it down to runners gliding through the channels to meet the waiting balls and like salmon they didn’t give up when the tide was against them, like it was once Matty Taylor had been sent off.
When watching Southampton this season, despite the fact we’re the league’s top scorers, I have been hit with twinges of frustration when the neat, slick football isn’t paying off and a quick switch to something more direct isn’t adopted: it pangs me. We’re second and I can’t complain with that position, but having led the race for four months, not winning it or finishing second would pain me and if there is one thing we can learn from a team that aren’t admired for their style of play this season, it is their grit and determination to get the ball forward relentlessly.
I’d dislike for us to resort to that method as the norm for the rest of the season, but lately the goals are not being scored as frequent as they were for the first four months of the season – 2.2 per game – and they’re currently only coming at a rate of 0.9 goals per game and the ability to switch from the pretty to the necessary when needed, in order to get a result, could be the factor that ensures us back-to-back promotions.
West Ham “used to play football” as the chant went, but not playing it is serving them well at the moment: whilst some may like to believe we are Brazil or Barcelona, we’re not and sometimes the brutality of the game is as effective as the beauty.