The Mike Ireson Column

Where football goes to die

An open letter to Tony Pulis

Dear Tony

Just had to drop you a line to thank you for the 10 hours of my life I’ll never get back.

I had really been looking forward to my first away game in a while, although not so much the drive up from the south coast but hey, over land and sea etc.

Having been delayed on the glorious M3 and forgoing my planned food break for just some wee relief akin to a Formula 1 pit stop, the sat nav brought me upon your ground.

Things started to look up when I managed to park directly opposite the ground (once I had been relieved of five of your English pounds). I’ve never parked so easily and so close to a ground, surely a sign that after the testing drive the day was going to get better.

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As I wended my way to the ground (for wended substitute crossed the road) I chanced upon a purveyor of what looked like quality hot meat products. So tasty did they look (and I was starving) I took up the offer of both a burger and hot dog.

Bimbling towards the away end the hot meat products turned out to be as scrumptious as they looked. Another win. An extra bit of spring appeared in my step as the gods seemed to be aligning.

In to the ground and a kindly steward pointed me in the direction of my seat. I was delighted at what was a really good view and an aisle seat. Being six foot two I’m always grateful of a bit of extra room. Another win.

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What could go wrong now?

Well that question was answered when the referee blew his whistle to get the game underway.

I, and everyone else in the ground, was treated to a masterclass in game killing and tedium.

West Ham tried their best, yes we weren’t on top form with some sloppy passing, but as the away side we had 63% possession. That stat sums up how negative and disinterested in creating anything for yourselves you were.

From the first minute you played for a 0-0 draw. Well done.

Now yes I do feel a bit sorry for myself being in attendance at such a dreadful spectacle, but my heart actually goes out to your own fans.

Man alive, how awful must it be to know you’re going to be served up this tosh every week. Your ground is a nice ground, all four stands close to the pitch. There should be a cauldron atmosphere there. It’s perfect for creating noise and intimidating opposition.

But as I looked round during the game there was nothing. No singing, no chanting, no atmosphere. Just blank expressions of fans who had had any kind of enthusiasm battered out of them by week after week of negative non-football.

You are in danger of losing a generation of fans. When the kids attending now with their parents grow up will they have the same desire and passion for their team as they should?

Not when their memories are of such negative non-football. When they start drifting away and not in turn bringing their children the club is in trouble.

Yes I’m sure you’ll grind out enough points to achieve Premier league survival again, but at what cost?

On the 3 hour drive home I entertained myself with guessing how long the highlights would be on Match of the Day. I settled on 3. There were actually 5, but 1 minute of that was devoted to talking about Gareth Barry during the warm up, and another minute was spent on several replays of Ben Foster and his special way of saying hello to oncoming forwards. So a net of 3, another win.

So, after arriving home at 8.30, 10 hours after I had left, what I had I got from the day? A decent parking space, some nice food, an aisle seat and I realised my phone took a pretty nifty picture.

I had also visited a four sided graveyard where football goes to die.

Yours sincerely

Mike Ireson

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Parish Notice

WHTID meetup after Spurs game - the improvised one

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As Safehands unfortunately cannot make the Spurs game I have been contacted by Iron Liddy and been asked to announce the following:

Since the game is an early kickoff some of us may fancy spending some time dissecting the game together in a pub or restaurant, having a chinwag, a sherbet or two and be merry, whatever the result. I am not sure how many overseas supporters are going to be there for the Spurs game apart from myself, but regardless of that, if you maybe haven’t been to an official WHTID meetup before, this is an improvised opportunity for you to meet some fellow posters whose comments you may have been reading regularly.

And what better chance to finally put some faces to names and avatars ?

For those who fancy it, despite this not being an official WHTID meet up of course, plse proceed to the foot of staircase 238 inside the stadium after the conclusion of the game. We can have a quick one inside the stadium after which our group can then decide on where to go next and what to do. Iron Liddy and Mr.L unfortunately will have to leave us after a drink or two, but that shouldn’t prevent the rest from maybe finding another pub and/or a curry house or another suitable place to celebrate our win (hopefully) in style.

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So, see you at staircase 238 after the game. COYI!!!

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The GoatyGav Column

Golden Days For English Youngsters – Good Luck Reece

It’s a big congrats to Reece Oxford for his ‘Golden Boy’ nomination from me. The responses to the recognition he’s earned have been mixed from the West Ham supporting element of social media but I’m chuffed for him. He’s one of our own – why wouldn’t you show your backing for him.

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Out of the twenty five nominees for the award this time six are English. The highest number of any single country on the continent. Something else to celebrate. Linking to my piece from last week it looks like there may be some initial sparks of talent coming through from the investment in the elite youth that Sir Trevor oversaw during his time in charge of development at the F.A. The under nineteen world cup winning team gives further evidence of this.

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Rashford, who was runner up last year

Reece is in good company amongst his fellow nominees. The list includes Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Solanke, Rashford, who was runner up last year, and Gabriel Jesus. To Reece’s on-line detractors I would contend that there are many experts sitting on the panel that have drawn up the final twenty five of Europe’s brightest prospects. Clearly they see something in the lad. That is a clear indicator, at the very least, that he should get a chance to learn and grow in to an even better player – hopefully, eventually, for West Ham.

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English players have won twice

Previous winners of the U21 most exciting talent award include Aguero, Pogba, Fabregas, Rooney and one of my favourite European players Isco. Interestingly when you look at the nationality of winners, compared to the nation that the player’s clubs are in, English players have won twice, since the award’s introduction in 2004, and players at English clubs have won six times. Players at clubs in the best technical league in Europe, Spain, have won three times. Personally I’d have expected that number to be much higher but ‘them is the facts’. Equally as surprising is the fact that the two English winners, Rooney and Sterling, are joined by two from Spain, two from Brazil, two from Argentina, two from France and only one from each of Germany, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands.

players at English clubs have won six times

So what’s best for Europe’s elite young talent in terms of their own careers. The best continental flair is often snapped up by English clubs nowadays, which some argue is denying our lads chances, but how about players going in the other direction? Rather than loans to the Championship, as was usually the case over the last 10-15 years, is it not better for our future prospects to spend a season or two in other top European leagues? I believe so. In terms of development I’m of the opinion that they can learn aspects of the game that they wouldn’t do in England – giving them a more rounded knowledge, and experience, and developing them in to more complete players. At under twenty one level we’re definitely in the mix in terms of the best players coming through. So what’s going wrong seems to be to do with what happens after twenty one. Here’s where the F.A. needs to focus and where English players are getting left behind for no, apparently, good reason. As a nation we appear good a coaching youth but don’t have managers in charge at the top level who are able to bring the youth through to the top level.

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And so back to Reece Oxford. His loan spell at Borussia Monchengladbach has not provided him with any first team action as yet. That said he has been on the bench for all of their Bundesliga fixtures except the opener against Essen following his pre season goal against Malaga. Monchen have started well with two wins and two draws from their first five leaving them seventh in the table. Personally I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets on from the bench. Wouldn’t it be a great opportunity if it were against league leaders Dortmund this weekend? Whichever game it is, if it comes to pass, I wish him all the best and hope that he grabs his opportunity with both hands. Call me old fashioned but I don’t want to see a West Ham entirely devoid of any home grown talent. Rice and Oxford snapping at the heels of the likes of Reid, Ogbonna, Fonte, Kouyate, Noble and Obiang in the squad would restore some pride in, what was long ago known as, ‘The Academy of Football’.

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Finally a well done to the team for progressing to the next round of the League Cup (I give up trying to keep up with what it’s called). The exciting prospect of a great game at Wembley, and progression to the quarter finals, in the fourth round awaits.

COYI! West Ham 4 the Cup!

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Interview

One on one with: Jose Fonte

Who’s better, Alderwield, Van Djik or Lovren? Why it’s time referees used video replays and why he won’t be taking dancing lessons from Michail Antonio.

IN January 2010, Jose Fonte signed for Southampton Football Club in the third tier of English football for a £1.2m fee from Crystal Palace.

Back to back promotions followed as he went on to make his Premier League debut at 29 years of age and earn a first International call up two years later.

After seven seasons at Saints and International glory at Euro 2016 with Portugal, Jose Fonte is now a West Ham United player after signing for £8m in January. Now, nine months on, he says he can achieve even more in his career. Simon Banks went to West Ham’s Rush Green training ground to find out more.

Q. There must have been a lot of teams interested in signing you after your successful career at Southampton, why West Ham?

A. “The manager was a big part of that, he made it clear that he wanted me [to join West Ham] and sold me the ambition of the club, I saw the project that they have and what they want to achieve in the future and I wanted to be a part of it. The fact that I am in London now helps a lot too, because a lot of my family members live in London, it just all made sense and I am very happy.”

Q. What can you learn from the likes of Slaven Bilic and defence coach Julian Dicks?

A. “The manager and Julian [Dicks] have had great careers as defenders and are loved by the fans here. They will be able to help me to improve, no mater how old you are you are always learning. I hope that I can develop even more under the coaching staff here and go on to achieve things here.”

Q. It must have been difficult to return to Saint Mary’s in a different club’s colours, what emotions were you going through?

A. “I’m not going to lie, it was a very strange day he first time. Obviously emotional because of our past together and after forming a lot of memories as part of the club, I have some very great memories of playing [for Southampton]. It was a little strange to go back so early on [in my career for West Ham] just two weeks after I signed, so I was just trying to be really focused and try not to pass to the wrong team! The fact that we got the three points was most important.”

Q. How much of a baptism of fire was it making your debut for West Ham against a firing Manchester City? (4-0)

A. “It was a very proud moment [to make my West Ham debut] and you always remember your first game for a club, obviously it wasn’t a start that I wanted and Man City are very strong and don’t need any help to win games, so the fact that we gifted them three goals was very disappointing but the most important thing is that we bounced back in a tough game against Southampton after that.”

Q. When you first started your playing career in Portugal, were you always a central defender?

A. “I started playing football as a striker when I was young then as I got older I moved into central defence in my early teens. As soon as I started getting taller the further back I started playing! The rest from there is history.”

Q. When you were growing up who did you like to watch?

A. “I had many players I looked up to [when I was young] the players I liked most were Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, they were my favourites because they were excellent defenders. I also looked up to Figo and Rui Costa for the national team, I always watched the best players closely as a kid.”

Q. If you wasn’t a footballer, what do you think you would be?

A “I have a big passion for motor sport and I used to do a lot of Go-Karting when I was young, so I think I would maybe be some kind of racing driver or maybe a basketball player, I like playing basketball and I’m tall too.”

Q. You had to wait until you were 31 to earn your first international cap for Portugal, why do you think you had to wait so long?

A. “When I got to the Premier League I thought to myself that I might be on the radar [for an international call up] but I was 29 years old. For the first two years it didn’t happen because the coaches at the time didn’t fancy me or had other options, but I never gave up. I played my best and the new manger came in and gave me a chance and it was one of the proudest moments in my career that I am very grateful for.”

Q. Just how exactly did Fernando Santos and the team pull off such a successful campaign at Euro 2016?

A. “We weren’t one of the favourites to win and that worked in our favour really because it removed some of that pressure. The manager [Fernando Santos] put the pressure on us though, from day one he told us we are going to win it, and because of the great team spirit we had, we also believed it too.
Getting through the group stage was tricky but once we got through we were unstoppable. It was a credit to the fantastic manager, staff and players who were all pulling in the same direction, looking back it was an incredibly proud moment.”

Q. Your wife is English and you’ve lived here for a long time now, what do you make of the English national team and why do you think they continue to underachieve on the big stage?

A. “There is so much talent in the England team, the quality is there along with great young players, good staff and training facilities, so I don’t know what is missing. England has everything to succeed, so hopefully under [Gareth] Southgate they can come together and establish good team spirit. An unbreakable team spirit is the most important thing, that’s what helped us succeed last year and if England have that, they have the quality to match.”

Q. What is Cristiano Ronaldo like and just how vain is he?

A. “On a personal basis, he is a great person and great to watch in training but not when he is against you!
If some people think he is vain or arrogant then that is a bit harsh on him, but if he is a little bit it is because he has the right to be, he works hard and he has achieved so much in the game, so good on him. Everyone in Portugal appreciates what he has achieved and everyone is proud of him.”

Q. Pepe is known for being quite a controversial character, what is he like to partner with on the pitch and is he always so fierce or is he just misunderstood?

A. “On the pitch, he is one of the greatest central defenders that I have played with and off the pitch, one of the nicest guys in football. When he is on the pitch he transforms into a different kind of animal because he is an athlete and super competitive and a very good player.”

Q. You’ve been part of some of the most solid centre back pairings in recent times, who is the best you’ve played along side?

A. “I have been lucky to partner probably some of the best defenders in recent years, with Pepe, Toby [Alderwield], Dejan [Lovren] and [Virgil] Van Djik.
Off the pitch, Dejan and I have a great relationship and we enjoyed successful times at Southampton. Van Djik is probably the best I have played with, he is without a doubt one of the biggest stars out there and he is strong, gifted, skilful and has everything he needs to play for any team in the world.”

Q. Who is the toughest player you have faced in club or international football?

A. “I have to say [Sergio] Aguero, because of his height and low centre of gravity it makes him very hard to play against. He is a very good finisher and one of the very best around, so it is always a good challenge playing against him. I would say Luis Suarez during his last season with Liverpool as a close second because he was unplayable.”

Q. There’s an argument that players are becoming too soft and referees are getting too whistle-happy in the modern game, how difficult does that make defending in the modern game?

A. “I think referees protect [attackers] a little bit and that just means you have to be at the top of your game. We all want the game to be fluid but the referees have a tough job because some players are so quick and things happen in a split second and it is difficult to make decisions, so it is always going to be controversial.”

Q. Do referees need video technology?

A. “I think it is about time that referees were given the help of video replays, because decisions like that [Gabbiadini’s disallowed goal in the EFL Cup Final] are so vital to get right. Other sports around the world use it and referees could check and in 30 seconds would know yes or no, I think it would help and be in the best interests of everybody.”

Q. Who would make it into your five-aside team of players you have played with?

A. “In goal, I’ll have to go for Rui Patricio because he was unstoppable in Euro 2016 and made some brilliant saves in the final and was goalkeeper of the tournament. In defence, I would go for Pepe because he is a brilliant player and very athletic. In midfield, Adam Lallana on the left and Sadio Mane on the right, both are excellent. Obviously, Ronaldo up front. No explanation!”

Jose Fonte’s West Ham teammates.

Biggest joker: “The biggest joker is Mark Noble, he is always laughing and joking with everyone.”

Hardest worker: “I would say the hardest worker in the team is myself! But we have a hard working squad of players here.”

Best dressed: “The best dressed at the club is very difficult one to call, I’ll go for Kouyate, even though Noble thinks that he is!”

Worst dressed: “The worst dressed has to be Angelo [Ogbonna], he came into training with wide flared tracksuit bottoms that were very strange.”

Most skilful: “The most skilful player has to be Manual Lanzini.”

How will you celebrate when you score? “If I scored for West Ham I would of course celebrate and it would be a special moment, but I wouldn’t dance like Michail [Antonio] he’s dancing is awful!”

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The Blind Hammer Column

Bilic–Round Pegs In Square Holes?

Blind Hammer asks if Bilic really has a flaw in playing Players out of Position?

The encouraging performance against Bolton gives further evidence that our season is recovering after a horrible start. Nevertheless criticisms persist that we are wasting Hernandez’s talents, marooning him out wide on the left. Bilic has been slated for allegedly misusing Hernandez in much the same way as he previously experimented with Antonio at Right Back.

There is little evidence that Chico is enjoying his current role yet playing players out of position is not necessarily a managerial flaw. In some cases it may actually represent managerial genius. Moses at Chelsea and Valencia at Manchester United have both thrived when converted to Wing Backs. We can forgive Bilic for attempting the same with Antonio but perhaps not for how long he continued with the experiment.

We also have an honourable and illustrious tradition, as a club, at effectively switching players from one position to another. Ron greenwood was particularly adept at recognising where players could thrive in alternative roles. Geoff Hurst did not start out as a Centre forward; it took the vision of Greenwood to transform him from what would now be described as a defensive midfield player into a World Cup hat trick hero. Similarly Trevor Brooking started his West Ham career as a striker alongside Geoff Hurst. I remember Shoot Magazine celebrating how brooking had “taken the pressure off” Hurst. It was the astuteness of Greenwood and lyall which transformed an ordinary striker into a world class midfield player. The history of West Ham is sparkled with examples of player’s successfully switching position. Billy Bonds was a legend whether he played at right back, central defence or midfield.

So playing players out of position is not necessarily wrong. Football is not like a game of Tetris where pieces simply have to be in the right places for success. It comes down to judgement. Playing Moses at Right Wing Back was good judgement, playing Antonio there was not.

So the real question is one of assessing Bilic’s judgement. Most importantly this judgement has to extend beyond any particular game to strategic recruitment and squad design. It is here that we can find the reason for Hernandez’s seemingly strange role.

Some transfers have been peculiar. Players have been, on the face of it, recruited to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Snodgrass was bemused that Bilic did not understand where he preferred playing after signing. His record of success came largely from a role on the right. Yet playing on the right was a berth from which he was unlikely to depose Antonio. The transfer was muddled, Snodgrass should not have been signed as a Payet replacement given he had no record of success in the Payet role.

Similarly Zaza had no successful track record as a solitary striker, preferring the second striker role. Yet it was this lone striker role, to his advisors apparent perplexity, that West Ham expected Zaza to thrive in.

Now Hernandez, famed for his operations in the penalty area, is tactically playing wide.

So what should perhaps be criticised is not the playing of people out of position but the apparently confused recruitment policy. Developing talents in your clubs by testing them in different roles is one thing, to significantly invest in players and then play them in roles in which they have no record of success seems strange.

To be fair Bilic has denied deploying Hernandez as a winger and has instead described him as developing a partnership with Carroll. He has also admitted it is not an ideal situation. This is probably true but at the start of the season it was Hernandez who had the central striker berth around which the team was to be built. The horrible start to the season caused a late SOS call to Carroll to instead fulfil this role.

What is really driving the playing of Hernandez wide left is the early crisis in defending which beset our team. Bilic admitted he was thinking about the sack before the Huddersfield game and probably realised that even the West Ham Board would part company with him unless he managed to repair what was then the worst defensive record in the league.

The sticking plaster, given our defensive fragilities, is to play 3 at the back. Whilst this has addressed the crisis in defensive performance, it has left us depleted of creative midfield resources. Bilic has little choice but to adjust for this by relying on the direct approach deploying the skills of both Antonio and Carroll. Hernandez is the sacrificial lamb who has to try and fit into this system. This is probably not what he anticipated. Other teams will be designed around his skills, here he is trying to adapt to the skills of Andy Carroll.

Despite the encouragement of the Bolton game I believe Bilic has little choice but to pursue this course for the time being at least. It would be the height of folly to abandon 3 at the back against Spurs based on the challenge Bolton presented. He is paying the price for not addressing the weakness in central defensive cover over the summer. Collins injury has exposed this particular foolishness even more now.

The real weakness at West Ham is not so much the playing of players out of position but confused transfer recruitment over the last 18 months. We need to more accurately identify the players to play in the system we need. Three at the back as an option was completely disregarded over the summer despite the fact it was a critical element in our eventual survival.

What is clear that the number one priority for the team was to stop the disastrous shipping of goals and build a team strategy that all could draw confidence from. In the short term it is unavoidable that Hernandez has to either fit in with this defensive solidity or feature from the bench. We do not currently have the squad talents to fight fire with fire and play “gung ho” attacking formations. A heavy defeat to Spurs could jeopardise the green shoots of recovery we are now witnessing.

COYI

David Griffith

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