Blind Hammer argues that Football is much more than a game.
England departed the World Cup last night after what the BBC described as the “heartache” of defeat. England fans shared in the disappointment which has afflicted the vast majority of sides departing this competition.
The BBC did not exaggerate. The emotions involved in supporting Football teams are sometimes raw and very real. These emotions emerge in the support of both our national and club sides. Genuine tears of both joy and anguish are shed every year as critical events determine the outcomes of crucial fixtures.
Some people do not get this. They look on from the side-lines; bemused, often murmuring “it’s only a game”.
Yet I think following the fortunes of a football team is so much more than simply playing a game. Supporting England over the last few weeks provided the opportunity to reach out to a sense of community and national identity. Very few activities offer similar opportunities. Sport in general and most definitely Football in particular offer safe access to a range of emotions we would never otherwise encounter in our lives. Football can literally provide a safe arena where we can experience the range of human emotions, both positive and negative, in a way we could not otherwise enjoy or endure.
One of the most thought provoking books I have ever read was Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our nature”. What he assembles in this book is a mass of archaeological, anthropological and historical records to show how violent Human Societies have been over the millennia of our existence as a species. In more ancient times we would, as tribes, clans or simply vassals of a feudal lord, have experienced more routinely the very real collective thrill of victory or trauma of defeat. The adrenaline high of victory achieved against real risk to life and limb can, nowadays, only be imagining by most of us. On the other hand we would shy away from the raw emotions accompanying defeat the grief of bereavement, mutilation or enslavement.
Happily most of us no longer live in societies where the risk from death, injury or imprisonment is a daily threat. Despite this I think there is something in our collective psyche which yearns for these emotional highs and lows. A safe window to these passions can be opened by Football. Sadly to fully realise the joys of victory we normally have to realise the disappointment of defeat. The joy of England winning their first ever World Cup Penalty Shoot-Out was undoubtedly heightened by our relief from the disappointments of previous tournaments.
The experience of most Football supporters, certainly West Ham Supporters, is that of experiencing both the joy of victory but the disappointment of defeat. The contract between these high and lows provide a relief from the hum drum routine greyness of our lives. They provide dramatic memories which stay with us for all our lives. Those who say it” only a game” just do not get it. They are the ones missing the unforgettable experience of unconditional collective joy. The grabbing and hugging of a stranger, both celebrating in the success of a West ham goal.
Despite the disappointment of eventual defeat our lives are enriched by the safe access to these emotions.
We can only hope that the upcoming season offers compensatory joy for West Ham supporters.
Welcome to the latest in a series of articles designed for international matchdays – a look back at former Hammers players who wore the Three Lions of England.
Today, as England prepare to face Croatia in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we look back at a former Hammers and England goalkeeper. Robert Green was born in Chertsey on 18th January 1980 and came through the youth system at Norwich, making his full debut in April 1999 at the age of 19. He played for England Under-16s and Under-18s and made 241 appearances for the Canaries, helping them to promotion to the Premier League in 2004. He made his England debut under Sven-Goran Eriksson in a 3-2 friendly win against Colombia in New Jersey on 31st May 2005. He was selected as England’s third-choice goalkeeper for the 2006 World Cup but had to withdraw from the squad after rupturing his groin whilst taking a goal kick during an England B international against Belarus.
Green signed for Alan Pardew’s West Ham United in August 2006 for a bargain £2m, joining up with former Norwich team-mate Dean Ashton who had signed for the Hammers seven months earlier. The 26-year-old Green made his Hammers debut in a 1-0 defeat at Tottenham on 22nd October 2006 – he went on to keep nine clean sheets in 27 appearances in his first season, particularly impressing in a stunning performance against Arsenal at the Emirates in a 1-0 Irons win in April 2007, by which time Alan Curbishley had taken over as manager. The club finished 15th but had seemed doomed to relegation for much of the season.
Green was a Premier League ever-present in 2007/08, keeping nine clean sheets in 41 appearances in all competitions during a season in which he was voted Hammer of the Year and the Irons finished tenth. He saved three penalties during the campaign: the first from Kevin Doyle at Reading in a 3-0 win in September 2007; the second from Benjani in the last minute to secure a goalless draw at Portsmouth in October 2007; and the third from Jermain Defoe, again in the last minute, to force a 1-1 draw with Tottenham at the Boleyn Ground in November 2007. In the summer of 2008, Green climbed Mount Kilimanjaro during a charity event for AMREF (the African Medical and Research Foundation).
Green followed the same spot-kick stopping trend early in the 2008/09 season, saving a penalty from Jason Roberts as the Hammers beat Blackburn 4-1 in August 2008. He would also save a spot-kick from Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard in May 2009 but the England midfielder scored from the rebound. Green was again a Premier League ever-present in 2008/09, a season which saw Gianfranco Zola take over from Curbishley in September 2008. Green kept 12 clean sheets in his 43 appearances as the Irons finished ninth. He was runner-up to Scott Parker in the Hammer of the Year voting. Green won his second England cap, and his first as a Hammer, in a 2-0 friendly defeat in Sevilla against Spain on 11th February 2009. He also started his first matches for England in the June 2009 World Cup qualifiers – a 4-0 win in Kazakhstan and a 6-0 win over Andorra at Wembley.
2009/10 would again see Green play every Premier League match but the Hammers would drop to 17th place in the division. He saved a penalty from Aston Villa’s Ashley Young in a 2-1 home win in November 2009. Green played 41 matches in all competitions, keeping eight clean sheets. He had also risen to be England’s number one goalkeeper, starting in four consecutive games under Fabio Capello between August and October 2009 – a 2-2 friendly draw in the Netherlands and a 2-1 friendly win over Slovenia at Wembley, as well as a crucial 5-1 World Cup qualifying home win over tonight’s opponents Croatia. Green was sent off just 14 minutes into the fourth of these starts though, in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat in Ukraine – he was dismissed for a professional foul after a mistake by former Hammer Rio Ferdinand.
Green started in World Cup warm-up games against Egypt and Mexico – both were at Wembley and both ended in 3-1 wins. He fought off strong competition from David James and Joe Hart (both representatives of West Ham and England themselves) to claim the starting berth for England’s opening match of the 2010 World Cup against the USA. With England 1-0 up through an early Gerrard goal, an uncharacteristic handling error by Green gifted Clint Dempsey an equaliser as the Americans claimed a point. Green was unceremoniously dropped by Capello, with James replacing him for the rest of the tournament – England were knocked out in the second round by Germany after a 4-1 defeat.
A difficult season at club level followed in 2010/11 as the Hammers were relegated under Avram Grant. Green saved yet another penalty, this time from Mauro Boselli of Wigan in a 3-1 home win in November 2010. Green missed his first league game in just under four years when a knock kept him out of a 1-1 draw at Blackburn in December 2010, Ruud Boffin taking his place. Green played the other 37 league matches though and made 44 appearances in total during that fateful campaign, keeping seven clean sheets. He also saved a penalty from former team-mate Matthew Etherington in an FA Cup quarter-final at Stoke in March 2011, although the Potters would go on to win a controversial match 2-1. Green was again runner-up to Parker in the voting for Hammer of the Year.
Green remained with the club for the Championship campaign of 2011/12, with Sam Allardyce taking over as manager. He was sent off in a 4-1 win at Blackpool on 21st February 2012, with midfielder Henri Lansbury taking over in goal – the red card was later rescinded. ‘Greeno’ kept 17 clean sheets in 45 games, playing a key role in the Hammers’ return to the Premier League through the Play-Offs. During a match at Barnsley in April 2012, with the Claret and Blue Army singing ‘Sign Up Greeno’ as the goalkeeper’s contract was set to expire at the end of the season, Green turned to face the supporters, mimed signing an imaginary piece of paper and held out his hands, as if to say ‘where’s the contract offer?’. He joined QPR on a free transfer in the summer of 2012, with Allardyce signing his former Bolton ‘keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen on a free as his replacement.
Green had made 241 appearances for West Ham in all competitions, his final match being the 2-1 Play-Off Final victory over Blackpool at Wembley on 19th May 2012. He had kept 62 clean sheets, won the Hammer of the Year once and been voted runner-up twice. Green won his 12th and last England cap a week later in a 1-0 friendly win in Norway and was named in Roy Hodgson’s squad for Euro 2012. My video below is a compilation of some of Greeno’s saves in a West Ham shirt.
After four years at Loftus Road, Green moved north to join Leeds in the summer of 2016. During his time at Elland Road, Green was also studying at the Open University for a BA Hons Business Management Degree in order to have something to focus on after he retires from football. He moved to Huddersfield last summer but did not play a competitive game for the club. Now 38, Green is a free agent after his release from Huddersfield – he has been linked with a reunion with his former Leeds boss Garry Monk at Birmingham.
Croatia v England
England face Croatia this evening in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup – it will be the eighth meeting between the two nations. The pair have met once before at a major tournament, with the Three Lions emerging victorious in the group stages at Euro 2004 with a 4-2 win. The two nations have met more recently in World Cup Qualifying though, with the last meeting between the countries resulting in a 5-1 win for England in front of 87,319 at Wembley on 9th September 2009. Jay-Z featuring Rihanna and Kanye West was number one with ‘Run This Town’, District 9 topped the UK box office and Westcountry Television completed the digital switchover process with the turning off of all analogue signals from the Caradon Hill transmitter.
Croatia were dealt an early blow when Chelsea’s Frank Lampard converted a penalty in the eighth minute after a foul on Aaron Lennon. Fabio Capello’s England doubled their lead ten minutes later courtesy of a header from Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard. Lampard scored a header of his own after 59 minutes but, not to be outdone, Gerrard bagged his own brace seven minutes later with yet another header.
Croatia pulled one back with seventeen minutes remaining – West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green, the feature of today’s piece, made a double save before Eduardo tucked home the loose ball. Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney rounded off the scoring in the 77th minute, converting after a kicking error by Croatian goalkeeper Vedran Runje to ensure England booked their place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in style against former Hammer Slaven Bilic’s Croatia. West Ham’s Matthew Upson joined Green in starting the match for England, while future Hammer Mladen Petric played the second half for Croatia.
England: Robert Green (West Ham), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), John Terry (captain, Chelsea), Matthew Upson (West Ham), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Gareth Barry (Man City), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Wayne Rooney (Man Utd), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa).
Subs: Jermain Defoe (Tottenham) for Heskey, David Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Lennon, James Milner (Aston Villa) for Gerrard.
Croatia: Vedran Runje (Lens), Josip Simunic (Hoffenheim), Nikola Pokrivac (Red Bull Salzburg), Darijo Srna (captain, Shakhtar Donetsk), Danijel Pranjic (Bayern Munich), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham), Ivica Krizanac (Zenit St Petersburg), Ivica Olic (Bayern Munich), Eduardo (Arsenal), Mario Mandzukic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Subs: Mladen Petric (Hamburg) for Olic; Ivan Rakitic (Schalke) for Pokrivac, Ivan Klasnic (Bolton) for Eduardo.
Ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final tomorrow, here’s the second part of my look back at Croatians who have represented West Ham United.
Davor Suker was born in Osijek on 1st January 1968 and began his professional career with local side Osijek in 1984 – West Ham would later play Osijek in the UEFA Cup in 1999. Suker played for Yugoslavia in the 1988 Olympics before moving to Dinamo Zagreb in 1989. He won two caps for Yugoslavia and joined Spanish club Sevilla in 1991. Suker made his Croatia debut in 1992 and was named in the Team of the Tournament at Euro ’96. Suker caused controversy in 1996 by posing for a picture at the grave of Croatian fascist leader Ante Pavelic while in the company of two well-known criminals. He signed for Real Madrid in the summer of 1996 and won the Golden Boot at the 1998 World Cup.
Suker moved to Arsenal in 1999 before joining West Ham on a free transfer in the summer of 2000. The 32-year-old made his debut in a 4-2 defeat at Chelsea on 19th August 2000 and scored his first goal for the Irons in a 2-2 home draw with Manchester United a week later. He scored his second goal for the Hammers in a 1-1 draw at Sunderland on 5th September 2000, with his final goal coming in a 2-0 home win over Blackburn in the League Cup third round on 31st October 2000. His final appearance for the club came as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat at Manchester City on 28th April 2001. Having made 13 appearances for West Ham, scoring three goals, Suker moved to German side 1860 Munich in the summer of 2001.
Suker played for Croatia at the 2002 World Cup – in total, he won 69 caps for his country, scoring 45 goals. He retired from playing in 2003 and established his own school of football, the Davor Suker Soccer Academy, with training camps located in Zagreb and several other Croatian cities. Now 50, Suker has been the President of the Croatian Football Federation since 2012. His three goals for West Ham can be viewed in my video below.
Mladen Petric was born in Brcko on 1st January 1981 and began his professional career with FC Baden in Switzerland in 1998 – Petric had moved to Switzerland with his family during his childhood. He moved to Grasshopper Zurich in 1999 and spent five years with the club, winning two league titles and making his Croatia debut in 2001, before joining Basel in 2004. Petric won the Swiss title again and the Swiss Cup with Basel but moved to Germany in 2007, signing for Borussia Dortmund. Under the management of new Croatia boss Slaven Bilic, Petric became the first player to score four goals in a match for Croatia (against Andorra) and also scored the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over England at Wembley, a strike that ensured the Three Lions would not qualify for Euro 2008. After a season with Dortmund, he joined Hamburg and spent four years with the club.
Petric moved to Fulham in 2012 but was released just a year later. He made his final appearance for Croatia in February 2013 – he won 45 caps for his country, scoring 13 goals. With West Ham United having failed to sign a striker to join Andy Carroll during the summer transfer window having been linked to Jermain Defoe, Loic Remy, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba, Sam Allardyce brought in free agent Petric in September 2013 – he made his debut as a substitute in a 3-2 home defeat to Everton on 21st September 2013. Petric made three more sub appearances for West Ham over the following month, in a 3-2 League Cup third round win over Cardiff, a 1-0 defeat at Hull and his final appearance in claret and blue, a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester City on 19th October 2013.
Petric was released in December 2013 and signed for Greek side Panathinaikos in January 2014. He won the Greek Cup in 2014 and announced his retirement from football in May 2016 at the age of 35.
Nikica Jelavic was born in Capljina on 27th August 1985 and began his professional career with Hajduk Split in 2002. He moved to Belgian club Zulte Waregem in 2007 before joining Austrian side Rapid Vienna in 2008. He made his Croatia debut under Bilic in 2009 and moved to Scotland in 2010, signing for Rangers. After 18 months with Rangers, he joined Everton for £5m and spent two years with the Toffees.
Jelavic moved to Hull in January 2014, spending 18 months with the Tigers before teaming up with his former international manager Bilic at West Ham on transfer deadline day in September 2015. He had made his final appearance for Croatia in 2014 having won 36 caps for his country, scoring six goals. Jelavic made his Hammers debut as a substitute in a 2-1 win at Manchester City on 19th September 2015 and made eight sub appearances before his first start, in a 0-0 draw at Swansea on 20th December 2015. Jelavic scored his first goal for West Ham in a 1-0 FA Cup third round win over Wolves at the Boleyn Ground on 9th January 2016 and scored his only league goal for the club a week later in a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle. His final appearance in claret and blue was again as a substitute in a 2-0 home win against Aston Villa on 2nd February 2016. After scoring two goals in 15 appearances for West Ham United, Jelavic moved to China, signing for Beijing Renhe. After spending a loan spell with Guizhou Zhicheng, Jelavic, now 32, signed for the club permanently last year.
The first part of my look at West Ham’s Croatian Connections looks at two former Hammers who also played for and managed their country.
Slaven Bilic was born in Split on 11th September 1968 and began his professional career with Hajduk Split, making his first appearance for the club in the 1988/89 season, following loan spells with Primorac and Sibenik. After 109 appearances for Hajduk, the central defender moved to German club Karlsruhe in 1993 for a fee of £750,000. Bilic was soon appointed as the club’s captain and, in doing so, became the first-ever foreign player to be named club captain in Bundesliga history. He was voted the best centre-back in the Bundesliga after helping Karlsruhe reach the semi-final of the 1993/94 UEFA Cup.
Bilic, a law graduate fluent in German, English and Italian as well as his native Croatian, signed for Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United for £1.3m in January 1996. Due to a delay in the granting of his work permit, the 27-year-old had to wait a few weeks for his first start before making his debut in the 1-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane on 12th February 1996, playing a part in Dani’s early winning goal. Bilic did not taste defeat in any of his first five matches as a Hammer as the club went on to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and defeat title hopefuls Newcastle 2-0 at the Boleyn Ground, before a 2-2 draw at Coventry and 2-0 home victory against Middlesbrough. Indeed Bilic would not be part of a losing Hammers team at home until September 1996 when Wimbledon triumphed 2-0 in east London. Bilic would also play every minute of Croatia’s run to the quarter-finals of Euro ’96, where they would be defeated by eventual winners Germany.
Bilic’s first goal in claret and blue arrived on the 25th September 1996 in a 1-0 League Cup second-round second-leg encounter with Barnet at Upton Park, the Hammers going through 2-1 on aggregate. The classy, commanding defender scored his first Premier League goal just four days later but Liverpool went on to record a 2-1 win in east London. As the club became embroiled in a winter relegation scrap and were dumped out of the League Cup by lowly Stockport, ‘Super Slav’ set the side on the way to a crucial home win over fellow strugglers Sunderland, scoring the first goal in a 2-0 victory on 28th December 1996. It was to be his final goal in a West Ham shirt. Experiencing further cup embarrassment at the hands of Wrexham in the third round of the FA Cup, the signings of John Hartson, Paul Kitson and Steve Lomas ensured the Hammers’ Premier League survival – Bilic was named runner-up to Julian Dicks in the Hammer of the Year poll for 1996/97, signing off at Upton Park by keeping Alan Shearer quiet in a 0-0 draw with Newcastle. Bilic’s final game for West Ham came in a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford against champions Manchester United on 11th May 1997.
After three goals in 54 West Ham United appearances, Bilic signed for Everton in a £4.5m deal in the summer of 1997 – these three goals can be seen in my video below. The move had been agreed in March with then-Everton boss Joe Royle but Bilic claimed he had a debt of loyalty to West Ham to stay with the club until the end of the season to ensure the Hammers’ top-flight status was preserved. When he signed for Everton, the late Howard Kendall had taken over for a third spell with the Merseyside club.
Bilic impressed as Croatia reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in France; however, his exaggerated response to a raised hand by Laurent Blanc in the semi-final against the host nation ensured the French defender was sent off and consequently missed the final. Bilic went on to ensure Croatia finished third in the tournament. Bilic looked set for a return to West Ham in July 1999 as Harry Redknapp sought to reunite him with the ever-developing Rio Ferdinand but concerns about the Croatian’s long-term fitness, and doubts about securing insurance following his pelvic problems, scuppered the deal. Redknapp signed Bilic’s international team-mate Igor Stimac instead while Bilic remained in limbo for the next six months, until an agreement for a £1m pay-off was reached in February 2000, representing around half of the balance remaining on his Everton contract which still had just over two years to run. After 28 appearances for the Toffees, Bilic re-joined Hajduk Split 48 hours later, playing nine matches before announcing his retirement.
Bilic, a rhythm guitarist in a Croatian rock band and self-proclaimed socialist, began his managerial career with Hajduk Split in 2001 and became coach of the Croatian Under-21 side in 2004. After two years he took over the reigns of the full Croatia side, enjoying a successful six-year spell which included knocking England out at the qualification stage for Euro 2008. He was appointed manager of Lokomotiv Moscow in 2012 where he spent a season before joining Besiktas.
After two years in Turkey, Bilic was announced as Sam Allardyce’s replacement at West Ham United. ‘Super Slav’ made an excellent start, defeating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away from home, making West Ham the first team to win at those three Premier League clubs in the same season for ten years, since Chelsea in 2005/06. The win at Anfield was the Hammers’ first there for 52 years – Bilic stated that “we parked the bus but we didn’t put the handbrake on”. Home wins over reigning champions Chelsea and Tottenham served to further endear Bilic to the Upton Park faithful before a 3-2 win over Manchester United in the final Boleyn match of all-time saw Super Slav in tears on the touchline at the final whistle. The Hammers finished seventh and reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, having knocked out Europa League finalists Liverpool along the way – it was the Hammers’ highest league finish for 14 years and the club’s first top-flight positive goal difference since 1985/86.
Following the move to London Stadium, Slav led the Irons to another cup quarter-final and an 11th-placed finish, becoming the first manager in Hammers history to record top-11 finishes in his first two top-flight seasons. Slav’s Hammers beat Tottenham at Wembley in October 2017 to reach the last eight of the League Cup, the first time the club had reached Cup quarter-finals in three consecutive seasons since 1989-91. Slav and the club parted ways in November 2017 – now 49, he is currently part of ITV’s team at the 2018 World Cup.
Igor Stimac was born in Metkovic on 6th September 1967 and began his professional career with Hajduk Split in the mid-1980s. He also had a loan spell at Dinamo Vinkovci. After 64 appearances for Hajduk, the central defender moved to Spanish club Cadiz in 1992.
Stimac returned to Hajduk two years later before signing for Derby in October 1995 for £1.5m, helping the Rams to promotion to the Premier League in his first season. Stimac won 53 caps for Croatia, scoring two goals and appearing for his country at Euro ’96 and the 1998 World Cup.
After four years in the east Midlands, Stimac joined West Ham in late August 1999 for £600,000. With the Hammers experiencing a defensive injury crisis, the 32-year-old made his debut in a 1-0 home win over Watford on 11th September 1999. Stimac scored his only goal for the Irons in a 2-2 draw at Newcastle on 3rd January 2000, a match which also saw him captain the team – this goal can be seen in my video below. He was sent off twice for the Hammers – once in a goalless home draw with Chelsea on 18th March 2000 and again in a 1-0 home defeat to Leicester on 23rd August 2000. His final appearance for the club came in a 3-0 home win over Southampton on 5th May 2001. Having made 52 appearances for West Ham, scoring one goal, Stimac returned to his home country for a third spell at Hajduk Split in the summer of 2001.
Stimac became manager of Hajduk Split in 2005 before becoming boss of fellow Croatian side Cibalia the following year. He was named manager of NK Zagreb in 2009, spending a year with the club. Stimac replaced Bilic as Croatia manager in 2012 but, a year later, he tendered his resignation to Davor Suker, his former West Ham and Croatia team-mate and president of the Croatian FA (more on Suker in Part 2).
Stimac was named manager of Croatian club side Zadar in 2015 but quit after six months. He became head coach of Iranian club Sepahan in November 2015 but resigned in April 2016. Now 50, Stimac was most recently manager of Qatari club Al-Shahania, joining the side in 2016 before leaving the following year.
I know, it’s one weird headline this, but bear with me, it’s been a strange week and the sun has also been beating down relentlessly in my hometown.
So maybe that’s what brought me to Hamburg-Ohlsdorf cemetery, more of that later…
First things first: Congratulations to you all as England have indeed made their way into the WC semi-finals which in itself is an amazing achievement already, especially when you consider you have also managed to win your first penalty shootout in WC history along the way.
Enjoy your moment in the sun, cherish it and be proud! But please don’t think the title is in the bag just yet. Anything can still happen!
Germany of course have won numerous penalty shootouts in the past, but that didn’t help us this time around as the Krauts went out as quickly as they possibly could.
To add insult to injury they even managed to finish last in their respective group. Pathetic of course, but the bad vibes were there in the German camp even before a ball had been kicked and if you had asked German fans beforehand most would have shoulder-shruggingly predicted an early exit, although probably not quite this early…
Concordia have started their preseason schedule and I have managed to watch the odd training session as well as a few games of both the first team and the U23s already.
It’s always a great feeling going into a new season as new players arrive and try to gel quickly with the rest of the lads. The opportunities are endless, at least in theory every team can dream to finish top of the table when the first games of the season proper finally kick off.
Concordia are no exception here and I’m buzzing for the new season, but as they have actually finished all their transfer business already I can now focus on the goings on at our beloved West Ham.
The past week has been quiet on the transfer front, if you’re talking about deals concluded. The deal for Felipe Anderson appears to be moving further away from happening.
But there is a good chance that the signing of Jack Wilshere on a three year deal will either have been announced already as you’re reading this or it could well happen sometime later today.
Wilshere would then join up with the first team at their preseason training HQ in the Swiss Alps. I won’t have to tell you too much about Wilshere, he’s a well known commodity in England. His career has been blighted by numerous injuries in the past although it has to be said that he didin’t miss any games due to injury last season.
The pessimists are going to say now that the law of statistics is telling us that his next injury is waiting just around the next bend. The optimists will say that he might finally be over his injury troubles, ready to hit a lengthy purple patch at West Ham.
The biggest points in the pro column are the facts Wilshere is a West Ham fan (or at least used to be one as a kid before joining Arsenal) and that he would come reasonably cheap. There are no free deals anymore in this day and age of course, but saving money by avoiding a transfer fee, with Wilshere lowering his wage demands at the same time, makes this a potentially very decent deal for us, especially with Lanzini out for anything between 6-12 months.
Wilshere surely knows what to do with a football, boasting sublime dribbling and passing skills and I would welcome him at West Ham 100% with wide open arms.
Another player rumoured to be a potential signing for us (who might even have a medical scheduled for as early as today) is Andriy Yarmolenko, a 28-year-old Ukrainian attacking winger/striker, currently playing for Borussia Dortmund.
Yarmolenko would probably be the cheaper alternative to Felipe Anderson. Yarmolenko has featured many times for Dynamo Kiev as well as for the Ukrainian national team.
Two words to describe him: Strength and confidence. And his passing ain’t too shabby either. Plus it’s not exactly easy to get the ball off him within the laws of the game.
He can be inconsistent, drifting in and out of games, but that is an issue affecting most players. He’s had a bit of an off year at Dortmund last season, however, a change of scenery, a new challenge at a club like ours might suit all parties.
An interesting aspect is that Yarmolenko is a similar case as Arnautovic, but the other way round. Arnautovic was converted from winger to striker at West Ham and we all know that has worked a treat for us.
Yarmolenko on the other hand started out as a striker earlier in his career, but has been more effective in the recent past when being used as a winger.
Another positive is the fact that the guy is very much down to earth – he had numerous offers to go to bigger clubs in his career, but up to now he has always decided to pick clubs where he could start games on a regular basis, even at the price of earning less money by staying put.
Yarmolenko would be another decent addition to our squad.
Finally there’s Fabian Balbuena, centre-back and skipper of Brazilian outfit Corinthians. He will be 27 years old next month and is well known for being dominant in the air, very focussed throughout games and more than capable of instigating quick counter attacks by picking a decent pass after intercepting a ball.
As he hasn’t been a permanent fixture for the Paraguay national side there could be an issue with obtaining a work permit, but if the deal was to happen we’d be getting a strong defender here, a natural leader on the pitch and a guy the rest of the league might just learn to hate with a passion before you can even say “clean sheet” three times.
Surely transfer business will now begin to pick up in earnest, not just for West Ham but everyone else too. Only at the end of the window can we even begin to judge if it’s more of the same old same old (razzle dazzle and all that) or the beginning of a new era at West Ham, ushered in by Pellegrini and Husillos. We shall see. Which brings me to my final little episode which is completely unrelated to football or West Ham, but probably you will bear with me anyway and be glad you did once you’ve finished reading. I certainly hope so.
The cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf is world famous. You don’t often hear that said about something as morbid and dark as a graveyard. But Ohlsdorf is a bit different, it’s the fourth biggest graveyard in the world for starters and the biggest rural cemetery in the world – and even listed as an attractive sight to visit for tourists.
Emanating from a concept of English architect Sir Christopher Wren a rural or garden cemetery is not just your average burial ground but rather a tranquil place that uses landscaping to great effect. It makes burial plots feel much more like a well designed park or forest walk than a gloomy graveyard.
That’s what Ohlsdorf essentially is, a giant park with 12 miles of road for car traffic leading through a vast area which stretches for nearly three miles in length and one mile in width.
You can walk there for hours on end as the different garden pathways within the cemetery confines run for more than 50 miles! Boasting numerous different kinds of flowers, bushes and trees.
You will find numerous graves of famous Hamburg celebrities, singers, actors, politicians – including Hans Albers, Carlo Karges (Nena’s guitarist), the famous composer and local lad Johannes Brahms as well as former Hamburg mayor and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Plus of course many non-celebrity Hamburgers, like my beloved parents. Last week I paid them one of my rare visits.
Rare because I believe that only the ashes of the remains of their weak and old bodies are buried there anyway and I don’t necessarily need to be in that precise spot in order to pay my respects and cherish their memory. Or feel connected to their immortal soul/spirit or whatever you wanna call it.
This time though I’m actually glad I did go there because literally 200 metres away from my parents’ grave I found this, a place I had been loosely aware of before but had never really taken an effort to visit and acknowledge properly, until now…
It’s the Hamburg Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. An utterly beautiful and atmospheric place where I got lost for over an hour, looking at the various limestone gravestones of people who died as young as 18 or 19, from various regiments in all corners of Britain and the Commonwealth.
The grass is maintained in pristine condition, you could easily play tennis or golf on the surface and it doesn’t come as a surprise to see those graveyards/gardens in such a wonderfully kept state as it is indeed being cared for and looked after by the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission), employing British gardeners, stonemasons etc.
What’s more, as in numerous other cases the world over, our two countries have struck a deal whereby the CWGC essentially have taken over that plot of land within Ohlsdorf cemetery in order to look after their dead as they see fit.
I only found out later when researching for this article that I had basically made a very short trip to Britain when strolling between the rows of limestone. In legal terms this part of Hamburg belongs to the UK.
So this little plot of Britain right in the middle of my hometown does honour more than 2500 soldiers, their wives and children who all died while serving their nation although not all of them necessarily dying in combat, during both WW I and II.
Not all of those buried here died in or near Hamburg, loads were eventually transferred from 120 smaller, provisional war cemeteries from different areas of Northern Germany like Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, Hannover, Braunschweig or Oldenburg. The majority of them died as prisoners of war.
Others were taken down by flak guns during the various air raids in WW II.
25 unidentified marines are honoured by a plaque whose submarine was sunk in 1916 close to the Helgoland shoreline.
There are also those Commonwealth soldiers who died during the post-war occupation/liberation in Hamburg, it was an unusually harsh winter in 1946/47 which killed numerous Brits and Germans alike due to unsufficient supply of wood and coals to keep the people warm in their war-torn drafty flats and houses.
And there is also a memorial tree planted in memory of the crews who passed on during the Berlin Airlift when their supplies helped to keep thousands of starving German men, women and children alive.
The famous “raisin bombers” became part of Berlin folklore and German history and it is only good and proper that those brave British soldiers are being honoured for their sacrifice in my town as well.
Why am I telling you all this ? Because I felt a weird connection to all those people, despite or maybe even because I am the offspring of their former sworn enemy.
First off I was struck by the sheer coincidence that my parents were buried virtually right next to all those Commonwealth soldiers.
I think I mentioned before about my mom telling me dozens of times over the years about her fondest childhood memory (wearing a big smile on her face as she was walking down memory lane) of being given the most delicious candy bar ever (and the first taste of chocolate in years) when a British soldier provided a little German girl, just 8 or 9 years old, with a Cadbury bar – a girl who was later to become a woman and the mother of a very dedicated local West Ham fan and massive admirer of the British way of life.
I was reading on the gravestones which regiments and battalions those brave servicemen hailed from and me being West Ham I naturally was keeping my eyes peeled on the London Regiment (one battalion of which was based in Bow I understand) and the Essex Regiment (based in Brentwood) and so I figured that one or two of those buried and honoured in Hamburg Cemetery must have been West Ham supporters.
It got my mind wandering as I started thinking about what it’d be like if one of them soldiers did return just for one day or a week from their grave (not in a creepy flesh-eating Zombie kind of way of course) and find himself in 2018 Hamburg, an Englishman still in uniform who died in 1945 having a chat more than 70 years later with a West Ham fan, a Kraut at that who has never been experiencing hiding out in a shelter during air raids in his lifetime, a chinwag between a Brit and a German many decades after the two big wars.
I’m sure it would be a most interesting conversation, covering various topics including the modern way of life, politics, music, new gadgets, the internet, football and West Ham United of course.
Maybe that soldier in question would be surprised at being addressed by a Kraut in reasonably good English.
Maybe he would be flabbergasted to see all them flashy cars rushing past, all those bloody smartphones and massive HD television screens everywhere. Not to mention those strange internet blogs!
Maybe he would be incredulous upon hearing that football teams no longer play with five strikers on the pitch at the same time.
Probably he would ask me after all this mind-boggling new information to take him to a bar for a nice cold beer or some cider in the July sunshine to let it all sink in.
And I would happily oblige and probably just shake his hand quietly at the end of the day, thanking him for his sacrifice and service, helping to create an environment where British and German people nowadays can share the same opinion, or debate different points of view in a civilised manner, enjoy some jolly good banter while sharing a beer, a pie or a bratwurst.
Having a laugh. Or sharing pain and even grief at times.
Or just a trivial thing like sharing the passion for the same football team.
One that plays in claret and blue. Where fans blow bubbles and where dreams all too often seem to fade and die.