Talking Point

Are we top yet ? Thoughts from a Hammer high up in the Pyrenees

Summers are all about holidays, they are all about fun. I like my holidays and I like taking them in August. The only downside is that more often than not it means missing the first few games of a season and missing the excitement, fizz, merriment and wonder of the new term.

Here we are then – on the dawn of a new era – a new stadium beckons and a new manager is starting to find his feet. The must be real emotions for everyone as we play our last season at the Boleyn Ground – it holds so many memories for all of us – but I have always supported the move to the Olympic Stadium and I still do. Of course, there are worries and doubts, but I think it must be the right move for the club. In ten years time, we will all wonder what all the fuss was about…….I hope.

Big West Ham welcome to Slaven

It is great to welcome back Slaven Bilic to the club and his appointment has been widely, and rightly welcomed. It is so important that we have a great last season at the Boleyn Ground and leave Upton Park on a high note, ready to face the future and all that it holds for us. We cannot go limping into the new stadium on the back of a mediocre performance. We need a good season and we need Slaven to take us to where we want to go. I was never the biggest fan of Sam Allardyce, to put it mildly, but it is important that we all wish him well in whatever he does in the future – he provided a vital service to the club when we needed him to and we should be ever grateful that he secured promotion for us. I am confident that Slaven is the man to take us forward. I met him once in Zagreb when I was a Government Minister – but that’s a story for another time.

So – what of this season so far? Well, we could not have asked for a better start. In between trying to update live threads on-line – BBC, Sky and others, trying to watch live-streaming – not a very successful idea, catching intermittent reception of Radio 5 Live – I had a really hard time, halfway up these wonderful French mountains, trying to follow West Ham’s progress against Arsenal at all. Half the time I heard more from the sheep on the mountain than I did from various commentators or journalists.

Happily, I was in the company of the son of friends who were staying with us – who just happened to be a Gooner. He didn’t say that all Arsenal had to do was turn up to secure three points; he didn’t say he hoped West Ham would play well but everyone says this is Arsenal’s season; he didn’t say Arsenal was already a great team, but with the addition of Petr Cech it was now a brilliant team and that West Ham were about to get hammered. He didn’t say any of that but as we got into the game I knew that’s what he was thinking – because that’s how Gooners think.

In fact, as the game progressed, he didn’t say much at all – and by the end, I was on cloud none, floating above the Pyrenees, and he was down in the dumps with the rest of the Arsenal.

It wasn’t just that it was Arsenal, or that it was away, or that both goals were so superbly taken – it was that it looked like there was a real team out there, that worked for each other and played well together. Now I know that the way I watched, listened and strained to read various vid printers on the progress of the game wasn’t the most ideal way to follow events, but the manner of victory seemed as important as the victory itself. Which is why, having endured an even more difficult time following our first home game against Leicester, the reports of the manner of the defeat were more worrying – the team spirit was lacking, the guys weren’t there for each other and it was all a little lacklustre.

There is also something a bit ominous about a cracking start away from home and no success at home. We have learnt from experience that the cracking away wins start to fall away as the season progresses and teams lock up shop at home – by which time a team has to have sorted out it’s home form. A good strong season befitting of our last at Upton Park – with all the history, legacy sentiment and hope that it could inspire – will be built on the solid foundations of a home record we can be proud of – not stunning and very very enjoyable away wins like that at The Emirates – even if I had to endure it halfway up a mountain in France and by testing modern day technology to its limits.

Talking Point

What do we want from the season?

I urged for caution after the victory against Arsenal and it gives me no great pleasure in feeling vindicated. Defeat is always a difficult pill to swallow, no matter how often I tell myself: you’ve been supporting this team for as long as you can remember, get used to it. Not many actual fans talk of the “West Ham Way”, but I’d argue that if that phrase had an accurate meaning it would be more about inconsistency than playing beautiful football. That was what I overheard a number of times at the Boleyn on Saturday: same old West Ham. Beat Arsenal one week, lose to Leicester the next.

Having said that, Leicester are the in-form team at the moment: their performances since they triumphed against us back in April have been staggering. In Claudio Ranieri, they have appointed an experienced and stable manager. It is also delightful to see his Leicester side do so much better than Chelsea, the team that treated him so poorly. If I want anything from this season, it would be to see Ranieri beat Mourinho in both home and away fixtures. Then Mourinho really would need a new doctor.

But what I really want from this season is…well, what? I have never been one to get caught up in the aura or allure of Slaven Bilic: yes, it’s great to have a Boleyn ground fully behind its manager, cheering us on at 2-1 down with a sense of unity. Yet surely the Leicester game ultimately revealed more about Bilic and the squad’s limitations: defensively a worry and lacking an attack.

Last week, I said we still did not have enough shots on goal. I felt that was the same this week: in the first half, we seemed so content to just play the ball back and forth at the back, as if the squad was more concerned about listening to chant “We’re West Ham United, we play on the floor.” Mauro Zarate’s amazing run in the second half summed it up for me: he played brilliantly, got all the way to a shooting position and then…he hesitated, nervous about shooting. Opportunity missed.

Yet to return to the broader point about Bilic, I think this comes down to what do we want from this season? Hopefully the Leicester result has made most of us sane fans aware that Champions League football is a long way off. So what next? The Europa League? I find this confusing: we got into the tournament via Fair Play, but we wanted to focus on the Premier League. Fair enough. But if that is the case, why bring in Bilic now?

I am not calling for Sam Allardyce to return, but if the premise of this season is the stay in the league and finish in the top ten, I would argue you may as well have stuck with Allardyce just because he has the experience to do that.

So maybe Bilic is here to do what Allardyce would have done, only more attractively? As much as a good feel as there is around the Boleyn these days, I wouldn’t mind having that same new manager, new era feel next August when we start at the Olympic Stadium. I don’t think we will get relegated, I just feel that that outcome is slightly more likely under Bilic.

Essentially, this comes down to a problem that has inflicted the English mindset for a while: not enough prestige or love is given to the Europa League. Yes, the argument is that we didn’t want it, we’d rather qualify properly and go straight into it. But overall, there appeared to be a bizarre sense of euphoria that we had made it into the competition and then a blase reaction to us going out: from the board and from the manager.

So the question is, what do we want from this season? Premier League safety for the Olympic Stadium? Europa League qualification, but will we take it seriously? Either way, we have to at some point stop being the team that beats Arsenal one minute and loses against a side we should beat at home. And maybe that is something far greater than the relatively inexperienced Bilic can handle – at least, in the short term.

P.S. Please follow me on @kirancmoodley

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Talking Point

Overruled! - It is time for video refs

If this sounds familiar to you it is because we’ve been discussing this last year already. Yet again – and very early in the season too – West Ham have suffered from a shocking refereeing display and I am not even talking about the inept efforts at the Europa League qualifying stage.
Anthony Taylor for sure was not in the mood to give anything for the home team on Saturday, his decision near the end of the first half NOT to award a penalty to West Ham and send Leicester’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel off for holding out his arm in the box to clearly stop Sakho from following up the ball massively changed the odds for West Ham to turn the first half deficit into a draw or even a home win in the second half.
I hate to blame referees for all and sundry as obviously West Ham didn’t play well in the first half and maybe overall deserved to lose the game.

But it’s become a quite regular occurrance that refs (at least in the Premier League) get one or two big decisions wrong every weekend. I am talking about big decisions here: penalty or no penalty, sending off or just a yellow card, goal scored from an offside position, stuff like that which can really affect final scorelines.
And it’s not German pedantry or nitpicking on my part either. Those big decision can lose a team vital points that ultimately have a much bigger impact: League position, progressing in a cup competition, relegation, qualifying for the Europa or Champions League. Jobs are on the line here and I’m not just talking about the players or managers, it can and does affect clubs in a big way.

The answer is very simple in my view – take a book out of how they deal with these things in US sports for instance. I do follow all American sports with interest, baseball, American Football, Ice Hockey. They all have ways and means to overrule a controversial decision on the pitch. You might say that those sports are very stop start anyway, so a further delay doesn’t really matter so much as it would in football. And I know that football as the globally most loved sport tends to hang on to its rules and traditions a bit longer than might be healthy in some cases. But remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day. It wasn’t too long ago that no substitute players were allowed in football.
There was a time when there were no players’ names on the back of the shirt. Back in the day the goalkeeper could still pick up every backpass without being penalised. There’s goalline technology now and referees are armed with vanishing spray to mark the position of the wall for a freekick.

In all of these cases there were frowns and doubts from diehard oldschool fans initially, but I reckon most football fans are glad that now those changes have been made.
In terms of the substitutes on the bench it is a necessity of course, in my view it’s the same with handing over certain decisions to a video referee.
In baseball and football these are initiated by a manager’s or coaches challenge, in the dugout they have their own TV people who within seconds indicate to the manager if the incident is worth challenging. There’s then two ways of going about this: In American Football the umpire crew on the field checks out the replays on the sidelines, looking at as many replays as they need (but usually this is done within 60 seconds), they can then uphold or overrule their initial call on the field.

In baseball this decision is being handled by an operations center in Manhattan where every single game is being monitored on several screens and from several angles.
It is them who view the replays and then relay their decision back to the umpire crew in the respective ballpark. In this case the video referee does have the final decision.
Again those instant replay decisions usually don’t last longer than 60 seconds.
In Ice Hockey the referees themselves decide to ask for clarification from the instant replay headquarters in Toronto if they are unsure if a goal should stand or not.

I feel it is time to introduce similare measures in football (at least at the Premier League level). As a fan you want the referee to get the big decisions right and with the speed of the game these days and so much hinging on the referee’s whistle it is natural for referees to be a bit overchallenged at times (pun fully intended). It is not about mocking referees in general or questioning their efforts.
It is about giving them some much needed assistance in order for them to get the big decisions right and maybe even gain more respect from the fans in the process.
Give each manager one challenge per half. if it is just one this makes sure that the managers use it when it’s needed for a big call rather than use it in a sinister way to halt the flow of the game or stop the opposition’s momentum.

The time it usually takes for the players to moan and argue with the referee (and for the TV station to show replays of the incident from three different angles) can be used in a much better way for a video referee to have a look and then give his decision on the big screen (like in rugby league). Rather than just delaying proceedings on the pitch I feel this would even add to the suspense and drama of it all. Plus you get more decisions right obviously. Which to me is the main point.
Do manager’s cahllenges and the introduction of video referees in football remove controversy and heated discussions in the pubs afterwards from the equation ?

Of course not. There will still be plenty of incidents to talk about. But you won’t have to talk about referees getting it so wrong in such a shocking way quite so often anymore. Which can only be a good thing.

Talking Point

Back Down To Earth With A Bump

I feel sorry for those who got caught up in the emotion of last weekend and believed Slaven Bilic had managed to turn a boring, defensive Sam Allardyce team into one capable of mixing it with the top four in the Premier League. I’m not saying many did and I must admit, I was riding high after frantically checking the live text stream whilst on holiday in Italy, as I’m sure were most watching the game but if we learnt anything from this weekend’s result, it’s that there’s still a lot of work to do.

As great as the Arsenal result was, a home fixture against Leicester was always going to be a better gauge of the season ahead. They’re the kind of team we should be beating, especially at home and although everything is up in the air at the start of the season, both the result and the performance were a great disappointment.

In short, we didn’t get going in the first 45 minutes and gave away two easily avoidable goals. Granted, the second-half performance was better but we still struggled in terms of creativity and ultimately, it was too little, too late.

The whole defensive unit should be shouldering the blame for both goals conceded. Winston Reid was caught out of position by a ball over the top and failed to show Vardy inside or down the line. Instead, he stood off the former non-league player and allowed him time to pick out a decent ball to find Okazaki who did well with his initial effort and was quickest to react to the rebound. The second goal was similar to the first in the sense that simple movement to outside the width of the penalty area left our defenders in a muddle. This time, Ogbonna was dragged out wide by Okazaki while the rest of the back four stood like statues inside the 18-yard box and let Mahrez ghost in and slot home with a nice finish.

It’s easy to say the second half was a vast improvement and although the quality and pace of our play did improve, the fact that Leicester were looking to solidify the win obviously played its part. Were it not for Kasper Schmeichel, Sakho could have nabbed an equaliser but if we’re being completely honest, Leicester probably just about deserved the three points. It certainly wasn’t one of our worst performances in recent times but one that quickly dampened the jubilant emotions still present from such a big win only last week.

Obiang managed to impress in his first appearance for the club and Payet was another bright star in my book. He’s not the type of player who will catch the eye for the entirety of a 90 minute match. Instead, he’s a player that will produce powerful and pacey spurts on the ball and the quality of service he consistently provides is something we’ve been crying out for. The way in which he took his goal would have pleased many and I’m sure he’ll prove a bargain come the end of the season if he carries on in the same vein.

As well as the result leaving a sour taste in the mouth, there is probably two other major negatives to take from the game. Adrian’s red card is something we really could have done without, to miss a player that has become so integral to the starting XI for three games, so early in the season is detrimental to say the least. I’ll refrain from commenting on Darren Randolph’s goalkeeping capabilities but the club trying to seal a move for Rob Green ASAP probably isn’t the worst bit of business.

In addition to Adrian’s silly but deserved red card (there’s apparently an appeal on the way but one I wouldn’t expect to be successful), my heart does go out to Reece Oxford. The young lad was the centre of a media frenzy after his performance against Arsenal, and rightly so. His mature and faultless display against The Gunners will now be a distant memory to most after he was hauled off at half-time by Bilic. It’s not to say he played terribly, he just couldn’t handle Leicester’s style of play. Strange as it may seem, Arsenal are probably the perfect team for the 16-year-old to play against. Their accurate, yet often slow and central build up play gave him plenty of time to analyse what was in front of him and read the game, whereas the pace and directness of Saturday’s opponents meant he was sometimes running around like a headless chicken. With even the experienced Reid and Ogbonna getting pulled this way and that, Oxford was unfortunately the obvious option when Bilic had to make some sort of change. The coming weeks will be a real test of his character and having to fight his way back into the side and perhaps prove himself once again is one he probably needed and that will almost certainly make him an even better player.

The final thing to take from the game is something we as fans knew, the coaching staff knew and the board knew. We desperately need another striker! I’m sick of talking about it, I’m sick I’m writing about and like many of you, I’m sick of reading about it. It’s time something actually got done. We all know the final few weeks of the transfer market is when a lot of clubs do some major business and I’m hoping the two Davids have got something up their sleeve that is worth the wait. Whether it be Charlie Austin or Javier Hernandez, one of them or someone with equal ability and Premier League experience needs to be pictured holding a West Ham United shirt aloft, sooner rather than later. The likes of; Nolan, Jarvis, Amalfitano (although I rate him as useful squad player, someone who can’t keep their behaviour in check, doesn’t belong at the club) and Maiga can go. While one of the aforementioned strikers would be a definite contender for the starting XI, someone like Dwight Gale (who clearly isn’t wanted by Palace and could be snapped up on the ‘cheap’) would provide good impact from the bench and with his electric pace and ability to finish, would cause problems either through the middle or from a wide role. There’s probably a few more areas that could be added to and I’d like to see the drawn out transfer of Alex Song go through, with possibly another versatile creative type brought in, not just to make up the numbers but someone that can challenge for a starting place and fill the inevitable void left by injuries and suspensions.

As hard as this weekend’s defeat was to take, it’s one we’ll certainly learn from. I’m sure the majority would have settled for three points from the opening two games, regardless of what game they came from. It’s the next few weeks and fixtures that will be more crucial and hopefully there’ll be positive news to report.


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The Mike Ireson Column

Taking Candy From A Baby

I don’t like AFC Wimbledon. There I’ve said it. They are in my imaginary little black book.

Why? Well that’s easy. They have cost me money on several occasions. They seemed to be the team that would always let down a weekend football bet. Four results out of five right and who’d fall over on their faces? AFC flipping Wimbledon.

I gave them several chances. I’m a fair man. But as convinced as I’d be they had to win a certain game they would always contrive to flush away the certain winnings I would collect. Enough was enough, they went in the book. And I rigidly stick to my guns, they never get placed in any bet I have now. They’re dead to me.

A weekend football bet for me now is a religion. And I’m not alone am I? The summer months were baron. No summer football tournament to pit your wits against the bookmakers. Just endless weekends of barbeques where the football loving attendees would gather in corners predicting the upcoming season and what transfers would take place within their clubs. My Gooner supporting brother-in-law with a complete straight face telling me Pep Guardiola would replace Wenger. Me telling him a) he was a mentalist and b) Pep hadn’t even heard of Arsenal.

Now I’m not a serious gambler, I’d only bet on horses or dogs if I were at a meeting. It’s no use me betting on them otherwise as I know not the difference between a thoroughbred and Paddy McGinty’s goat. I may as well stand in the middle of the high street and set fire to my money.

But football? We know don’t we? We know stuff. How hard can it be? We watch it, live it, breathe it. This will be like taking candy from the proverbial baby.

So, the routine. I love the routine. Depending on social commitments, either Friday evening or Saturday morning that is when the plan of action is drawn up. Every week is the same. As I know football it will just be a simple task of sitting down and deciding how much money I shall win. Getting through the working week is made bearable by the fact you know that at the end shall come this dual of wits.

Bookmaker app open on my phone with the fixtures, tables up on my tablet. Notebook and pen to write down my bets. This will be easy, right?

Then comes the deliberation. I’ll make a list of ‘dead certs’ and a list of ‘maybe’s’. Depending on how long the dead cert list is determines how many maybe’s will get used. Decision time. I’ll usually do 2 bets, ranging from either trebles to maybe a fivefold. Place the bets on bookmaker app, write them down on notepad and we’re set.
I have then also taken to getting my wife to predict some results. She will be the first to admit her football knowledge is limited. When watching a game her usual phrase of choice will be “Go on sweetheart” (she’s a Pompey girl bless her). I will take four of the hardest games to predict. Ones I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It’s just to see how the worlds of so called knowledgeable and not will compare. I’ll place a bet for her because by god the accumulated odds are usually pretty damn good.

Now placing the bets is only half the fun. The other half is watching them unfold. And that can only be done with Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports. The perfect blend of five people sat together discussing football like we all do. They’re our friends. They speak our language. Plus of course hoping our very own Bianca Westwood delivers the goods from her match.

Held together perfectly by the chairman, Mr Jeff Stelling. Imparting facts at implausible speed as we rush around the grounds. Watching the videprinter make and break hearts with every goal reported.

Now (clang, name drop alert) I’ve been fortunate to meet Jeff a few times as his son and my stepson have played against each other at youth level for a few seasons and he genuinely is one of the nicest people you’ll meet. The same off screen as on. Very friendly and very funny. I’ve even seen him run the line resplendent in Sky Sports jacket.
So Saturday afternoon unfolds as you find yourself cheering teams on you have no interest in bar from bringing home your sure fire winning bet. You wait for the next line to appear on the videprinter. Will it be that all important goal at Macclesfield or Arbroath?

You curse goals that go against your bet and cheer stupidly as Rochdale take the lead to show you knew exactly what you were talking about when you placed them in your accumulator. The ebbs, the flows. The teams who come back from 2-0 down, the teams who snatch last minute victories, the teams that throw away leads. When you have money on them it’s important.

You get to 4.48 and full time results start to appear on the videprinter of dreams. You start chanting and praying for an injury time goal at Plymouth. Why oh why did you put them in the bet? But they were on the ‘dead cert’ list. They weren’t a ‘maybe’!! You cross everything than can be crossed to ensure Partick Thistle retain their 1-0 lead.
The reckoning hour arrives. Winner or loser. Does it matter? No it doesn’t because you’ve just had a couple of hours of pure, unadulterated entertainment. Highs, lows and all points in between.

So I hear you ask, how have the first couple of weekends gone? Well I’ll tell you.

Last weekend I found myself unable to sort my bets out on the Friday, and having got up late on Saturday I had to rush off to Southampton for a matinee performance of Jersey Boys with my wife, mother and father-in law (can you guess which two out of the four arranged that for the first day of the new season!)

At lunch before the show I was excusing myself as I spent 5 minutes frantically throwing a couple of bets on. No thought, no planning, gut instinct. Long story short, one bet came in. Happy days. The wife bet? Three out of four correct, Torquay letting her down for a rather nice shopping trip.

This week though, all different. Time to sit down, think, consider first weekend results. If I had won last week on no preparation, this week would be a breeze! One team let me down on both bets. Eastleigh and Tranmere Rovers you have been warned. Don’t let me have to write your names down in my imaginary book!

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