The Big Picture: Reading between the lines at West Ham United
Tomorrow afternoon, West Ham United face Reading at Upton Park in a game they may not have thought would be so hugely important just a few months ago. Whatever the result, however, there is a deeper discussion taking place in east London about the methods of one particular manager.
Sam Allardyce has presented himself as a solutions man, his recent interviews pointing to the failure of “the West Ham way”. Essentially, the West Ham he came to save, not a team categorised as playing route one football under Gianfranco Zola or Avram Grant, have been unsuccessful in recent years and so, with Big Sam in situ, winning is now possible again. Whether he thinks the players incapable of better football is not in question – in an interview published today by a national newspaper, Allardyce points to four results this season in which he claims his side played attractive football to rival that of Swansea City. Incidentally, the four he selected contained plenty of goals – helpful but not integral to entertainment.
In this case, Allardyce was asked to compare and contrast his team’s approach with the reputation Swansea have built over the past five years or so for catching the eye. Even though he did not raise the topic himself, it speaks volumes that Allardyce is so confident that he opted not to veer away from such a pointless comparison but instead meet it head-on. Surely that reveals something. He isn’t averse to a different style of football. He just feels his way is better. The success of teams like Swansea, Norwich and Blackpool over the past couple of years at Championship level suggests differently.
The key point is that, whatever your opinion of Sam Allardyce or the football his West Ham side play, it is fairly meaningless unless you actually support West Ham. And if you do support West Ham, you pay your money to see them take to the field and you are entitled to an opinion about what you are watching. West Ham are a slightly different club to most, particularly in the Football League. If you look at their results against Reading over the past few seasons, you will find one game they lost 6-0 at the Madejski Stadium while somehow managing to find no use for a substitute named Carlos Tevez. Maybe he refused to warm up.
In the past few days, I’ve tuned into Talksport on a couple of occasions. Whether it was merely spectacularly coincidental timing on my part or a fair sample of their output as a whole, the content was identical. Both times, blokes with London accents were talking to other blokes with London accents about whether West Ham United fans were right in their condemnation of the football played under, and because of, Allardyce.
Of course, there was the usual teeth-gnashing that we also had in the national media recently when Lee Clark and Gary Megson were relieved of their duties at Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday respectively – this idea that, quite apart from the thought processes of Dean Hoyle and Milan Mandaric in those instances, no supporter can be remotely unhappy if their team is situated towards the top of the league table.
If anything, surely a decision to back or sack a manager is more pure if not based solely on results. When listening to this difference of opinion – the presenters incredulous that Allardyce was being questioned; the callers mostly in agreement that the football was unpalatable – it was impossible to fend off two recent quotes from highly respected quarters.
It’s the height of arrogance for them to demand a team should play in an ineffective way so that they can be entertained.
Here, Jonathan Wilson is referring to an England youth side less than a year ago and sounding like he could be mounting a defence of Allardyce’s tactics – but he begins that paragraph by saying: “Football’s beauty is in the struggle, in the fact that a weaker side, through diligence, industry and clever tactics, can hold off a stronger one.” West Ham have spent millions this season and have very few, if any, stronger opponents that they should feel the need to “hold off”.
Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well — last year we were better than Inter Milan — but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.
A large number of people downplay the importance of that hard-to-define quality. It cannot be summarised by a quick glance at a league table. It’s more far-reaching than that, but the easiest way to describe it is that feeling a fan gets when he or she is about to head off to watch their team. If it’s indifference, then there’s something wrong and you can’t always tell that from a form table or points tally.
So some fans want the moon on a stick? Perhaps that isn’t the end of the world. Have you seen the price of football lately? It’s all very well for media pundits to cosy up to football managers, some of whom, frankly, are pretty difficult to warm to, but when you pay money into the game rather than take it out, it entitles you to think big. Some West Ham fans have very unfairly been portrayed as unintelligent during this debate for their inability to be thankful for their current league position. Maybe it’s the wider picture they are concerned with. Wider even than the league table.
It would be wrong to say that football has moved on and that route one tactics can no longer be successful, but it is equally wrong to think that Allardyce’s way is the only way, or even the best way. Take Swansea and Norwich, for example, flourishing in the Premier League; Brighton punching above their weight in the Championship – all of whom are set up for the future far more convincingly than West Ham.
Away from those obvious reference points, warning signs can also be found elsewhere for Allardyce. Look at his former club Newcastle United, promoted from the Championship under Chris Hughton and now excelling under Alan Pardew, himself a former West Ham manager. The Newcastle of two seasons ago – with Kevin Nolan a key figure, money available for January signings and a wealth of Premier League talent at their disposal – laid down a clear marker for West Ham upon their arrival in the Championship last summer. The Magpies romped to the title, but their fans also had a little grumble at times about Hughton’s approach. West Ham fans must hope their chances of replicating Newcastle’s rise from the second tier towards the top of the Premier League are not resting on Liverpool giving them £35million for Carlton Cole.
When it comes down to it, there seems to be a proportion of West Ham fans who don’t want their club to be lumped in with stock names such as Stoke City when people talk about ugly football. Allardyce feels his reputation for producing such football is unfair and if it was only the media that were giving him such a label, then he would have a point. Instead, it is a sizeable number of his own club’s supporters. Even if West Ham United do win promotion this season; even if they demolish Reading tomorrow afternoon, Sam Allardyce should probably start to do some listening.