The Iron Liddy Column

Super Slav talks to the fans

On Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend a Fans’ Forum at The Boleyn ground which featured Slaven Bilic, James Tomkins, Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson. This was a free event made available to season ticket holders, Academy and corporate members, as well as those who have joined the new stadium season ticket priority list. The format of the evening was a Q&A session and attendees were invited to submit questions for the quartet via email before the event.

You’ll notice that I haven’t added much in the way of personal comment or analysis to this account and that it’s simply a transcription of the evening’s events. That’s partly because it would make an already long article far too cumbersome and also because my intention was to give those of you who weren’t able to attend the Forum the experience of being there by proxy. I hope the Q&A format doesn’t prove tedious to read.

On arrival we were shown into the Legends Lounge to await our audience with the trio of players and West Ham’s new manager. As the bar began to fill up it was obvious that I wasn’t alone in wanting to get up close and personal with our new saviour and that our victory over Arsenal on Sunday has inspired renewed optimism and enthusiasm among the fans. The audience was probably twice as big as that as last season’s Forum, despite the fact that it had featured fans’ favourite Carlton Cole and our charismatic keeper Adrian.

We were finally allowed into the adjacent conference room and there was a real air of expectancy as around 200 fans scrambled for the best seats. West Ham’s Press Manager Paul Stringer was there to oversee the event and when he introduced Super Slav and his boys there was a standing ovation as they filed slightly self-consciously on to the stage.

Despite his air of quiet confidence there’s also a degree of shyness about Slaven Bilic and he broke the ice by drawing attention away from himself and on to a fan’s lovely black Labrador guide dog. So he’s an animal lover ….. he just went up another notch in my estimation.

The first question was inevitably directed at Mr Bilic and a member of the audience asked him to give us some technical insight into his approach to the Arsenal game. He began by saying that we’ve made a great start; especially in view of the fact that it was a local derby against a side that we haven’t beaten for 9 years and one which has had a very good pre-season. He also hoped that we’ve all enjoyed having the bragging rights over our Arsenal supporting friends this week, which inevitably caused much mirth among the audience. He went on to say that he was particularly proud that we did it in such style and that he is very proud of our team.

As far as his tactics for the game were concerned he said he asked the team to focus on which Arsenal players they had to challenge so that they didn’t have a chance to do anything with the ball. He claimed that it wasn’t that difficult to keep the ball as Arsenal are not ‘ball takers’. He said that what our squad did brilliantly was to show such determination and to demonstrate an ability to play a real ‘thinking’ game. In other words, they engaged their football brains.

Slaven said the team had taken the day off on Monday so this was the first time they had been back together to celebrate our victory. He said that it had been a very special day and that we should all take confidence from it. However, he also said that we can’t afford to be complacent; and his actual words were:

“It was a great win but if we think we are that good then we are dead, dead, dead.”

The next question was aimed at Aaron Cresswell and James Tomkins and a fan wanted to know what they felt had changed at the club since Slaven’s arrival. Tonks answered for them both and his first comment was that Sam Allardyce did a great job at West Ham. He went on to say that the players’ priority now was to impress Slaven and that they were all embracing a new job and a new beginning. He said that Bilic gave them the confidence that they could beat Arsenal and that it had been a massive turnaround from their pre-season, especially as “the gaffer” and some of the squad members don’t yet know each other.

Slaven was then asked what the three biggest things are that he’d like to change at West Ham and what finish he is targeting in the Premier League. He was also at pains to say what a great job Sam did at the club and that he has given us great stability. He highlighted our fantastic start to last season and said that although the second half had not been so good he thought we had been very unlucky with injuries. He said that Sam has left him with a good situation to build upon and called it a “quality cornerstone.” He described West Ham as “a good club, not a massive club, but a good club” and said that he saw this as a great opportunity to bring in some new players who would help the existing squad members to improve by 10 or 15 per cent. He stressed that he wanted to hold on to the talent we have and that he was very disappointed that Stewart Downing left as he hadn’t wanted to lose him.

He went on to say that his aim is to play total football like Barcelona (!) and his priority is to “do the job properly.” He acknowledged that this Saturday’s game against Leicester could be difficult but that we will be attacking space and players as well as defending. He said that we will have ups and downs but he’s trying to instil self-belief into our squad. He said:

“Some players believe, some don’t, but we got the proof at Arsenal.”

The next member of the audience wanted to know what our points target will be for this season. Bilic said that he doesn’t think that way – he called it “the England way” and said that he finds that “very scary.” He doesn’t automatically think that if we don’t reach 40 points that we will go down and his approach to every game is to play good football rather than focusing on the points. He is obviously aiming as high as possible but hasn’t set himself a specific target. He was emphatic in his optimism that we won’t be facing relegation at the end of the season and he said that he “know(s) we can do it.”

Aaron Cresswell was then asked why he made the decision to stay at West Ham when he had had offers from other clubs such as Man City and Chelsea. It raised a great laugh in the audience when he quipped “you’re first person who’s told me I had offers.” He went on to say that he was immensely proud to have signed a new deal with us and that he was looking forward to exciting times ahead with the Slaven.

Carl Jenkinson was then grilled about the unusual move to sign two consecutive one year loan deals. He said that he always knew that he wanted to come back to us but that Arsenal “hold all the aces” and that the decision was really out of his hands. He was at great pains to say that he’s always wanted to stay at West Ham and that he’s loved his football here.

This was followed by a heart-warming moment when a very young fan called Finley, who has been a regular at these events and is known to some of the players, told James Tomkins how he had used him as his inspiration for a school project which had earned him top of the class and his head teacher’s special award. He then cheekily asked Tonks if he could trade his project for his match day boots, which earned a big laugh to go with his top marks. Inevitably James agreed, which resulted in one very happy little Hammer. Finley then went on to ask Tonks whether he expected us to qualify for the Europa League again this season (presumably through the front door this time) and Tomkins said they would be taking it one game at a time and trying not to get too carried away with the Arsenal result but that they were all hoping for a top half finish and to be pushing for the Europa League.

An older fan followed on from this by asking Slaven about the combination of ‘kids’ and more senior players that he selected for this season’s Europa League games. He wondered whether he had been “caught between two stalls” and if in hindsight Slaven thought he should have played the academy squad all through the competition. Slaven explained that it hadn’t been a normal pre-season and that many players had struggled to play three games a week. He admitted that his priority was “to not jeopardise the Premier League.” He said that ideally he would have liked players on the pitch for only 45 or 60 minutes at a time but that the depth of our squad meant that he’d had to play the majority of them for 90 minutes. His strategy was to try to qualify with our best squad at home but to go with ‘kids’ and a less strong team for the away games. He recapped the question ‘why not use all kids?’ and admitted that in hindsight he wished that he had used all academy players for the tournament but didn’t because he wanted to go through.

The next fan to speak said that the consensus on social media is that we need another winger and he asked Aaron Cresswell if he could see himself pushing forward to play on the left wing like Gareth Bale (I wish). Cressy said that he really prefers the left back position but that he would be happy to play anywhere that Slav asks of him.

All three defenders were then asked if they had enjoyed their stints playing out of their normal positions. James Tomkins responded by saying that he’d only played at right back a handful of times and that the position was still very new to him. He said that the gaffer had given him the confidence that he could play there and that the experience “didn’t get much tougher than playing at Arsenal at right back.” Despite finding it challenging he said that he had enjoyed it and that he could really see how playing in different positions could improve him as a player. It raised a few laughs when he and Jenks exchanged looks as he said that he understands Carl’s perspective much better now and that he was less likely to “have a go at him” on the pitch.

Aaron Cresswell was also asked if the left back spot in the Euros is in the back of his mind and he said that while he would love to play for his country he’s concentrating on his job at West Ham for now.

The subject then got on to the one and only Terminator: Julian Dicks. Slav was asked which of Dicksy’s qualities had convinced him that he was right for the role as assistant coach and he replied that there were so many. He cited the fact that they had played together as being very important and that he considered Julian to have been a great captain. He also said the fact that they had been roomies had made them very close. He explained that although the spine of his team came from Croatia and Germany he felt that it is always important to have a minimum of two ‘local’ members in his back room staff. He clearly feels a genuine bond with Julian Dicks and went on to describe him as a good and loyal man – “Mr West Ham United.” He said that although they were different players they share a very similar philosophy to football and to life and dramatically said:

“He is my gift from God.”

Unsurprisingly Slaven continued to be the focus of attention and the next person to pose a question asked him what clinched his decision to come to West Ham and this country. Slav said that although we had our ups and downs in the two seasons that he was here, he felt that he played the best football of his career at Upton Park and that he had even enjoyed the bad days. He said that West Ham was a good family club then and that’s still true today. It felt genuine when he said:

“I consider West Ham United as my club. I feel really connected to England – my son was born here.”

He added that every manager’s ambition is to work in the Premier League, so even though he felt very drained after his role in Turkey came to an end and that he had planned a period of rest, that plan was soon forgotten when he got the call from West Ham and he found a renewed sense of energy at the prospect of managing us.

The mention of Turkey took us on to the next question when a fan cited the fact that Bilic took Besiktas to the Champions League and Europa League. He wanted to know how far West Ham has to go before we can aspire to the same level. Slaven’s response was realistic and he said that it was important to realise that there are more chances to qualify in Turkey than there are in the Premier League in England. He assured the audience that he will do everything possible to qualify in the next few years but to bear in mind that it was easier to achieve in Turkey.

Next we were asked to cast our minds back to an episode of Saint and Greavsie when it was suggested that Slaven had chosen to move to Everton in 1997 because he thought they were a bigger club. This particular fan wanted to know if Slav still considered Everton to be a bigger club today. Mr Bilic squirmed a little at this question. He replied that at that time Croatia had a good national team and he admitted that when he was awarded Footballer of the Year in Croatia the accolade went to his head. He said that he had been impressed by the ambition of Everton’s Chairman, Peter Johnson, to win the league but that he had asked them to wait until the end of the season so that he could see out his term at West Ham. Initially Everton were annoyed by this and had wanted him to leave by the March deadline but ultimately they praised him for his loyalty when he insisted that he couldn’t leave West Ham until the end of the season. He smiled wryly when he said that the following season he’d got nowhere near the promised Champions League with Everton. He went on to say that he still wouldn’t say that West Ham is a bigger club than Everton but that we are in a growth period and our move to the Olympic Stadium coupled with our ambitious Chairmen will take us to the next level.

The next subject to come up was transfers, when a member of the audience asked Bilic if Carlton Cole is still on standby if we don’t sign Austin or Hernandez. Slav was quick to assure us that they are actively seeking to add a quality striker to the squad, particularly now that Enner Valencia is going to be out for 10-12 weeks. He called this a big blow but was also keen to report that Andy Carroll is now fit and injury free and his decision to use him will depend on his fitness level. Despite this he’s still very keen to add one more striker but admitted that it’s very frustrating when you can’t get what you want. He said unfortunately it feels like the whole world is trying to sign a striker and at times even those with a much bigger budget struggle in this pursuit. However, he did confirm that:

“We are close to finishing one deal.”

This prompted the question of whether he is looking for a regular starter or a backup striker and he described his choice as “not a typical backup.” He said that strikers are special people and that he doesn’t want too many. If they’re left on the bench for too long it begins to affect their confidence and the art is in trying to achieve a balance. He said he wants a versatile striker who will compete for a place; we already have quality and it’s important not to overload the squad.

The focus moved back to our trio of defenders and they were asked who they would consider to be the hardest striker to play against and which defender they would like playing alongside them in their dream team. Carl Jenkinson answered first and he said that Eden Hazard would be his most formidable opponent. He then mentioned ‘Robin’ and said that he was in a similar mould. Although he was meant to be choosing a fellow defender I can only think that he was referring to Robin van Persie as being in a similar mould to Hazard. James Tomkins then went on to choose Torres during his time at Liverpool as his most feared striker and he said that he was “on fire in his prime.” Tonks would most like our very own Rio Ferdinand alongside him in the defensive line and said that he would love a career like his. Aaron Cresswell also chose Hazard as his biggest hazard (pun completely intended) and made the morally debateable but technically understandable choice of John Terry as his dream team mate.

Next they were asked how close our centre backs are which caused a bit of laughter and innuendo that wouldn’t look out of place on WHTID. The questioner went on to clarify that he meant how they are helping new players to settle in? Tonks said that Angelo Ogbonna hadn’t needed any special help to settle in and he attributed this to the fact that West Ham really is like a family. He described the squad as being very close and tight-knit and laughed as he said:

“There must be something in the air at Chadwell Heath. I’m not a morning person but there I find myself high-fiving everyone in the mornings!”

The laughing continued when somebody asked James Tomkins which top centre halves he would compare Reece Oxford to and he replied “he’s a holding midfielder isn’t he?” In a more serious tone he said that Reece has proved himself to be a really versatile player and that he did exceptionally well on Sunday. He went on to say that with the right mind-set and discipline our prodigious talent can be as good as he wants to be.

The focus stayed on the younger members of our squad when Slaven Bilic was asked if he was going to blood more of our youngsters or if they would be going out on loan. He confirmed that some will be loaned out to other clubs as it would be selfish for him to keep them purely as backup to our first team. He said obviously he will be keeping Reece Oxford plus a few more who are looking promising but he didn’t name names.

Next Aaron Cresswell was asked how he motivated himself to work his way back into the Premier League after he found himself at Tranmere Rovers following his release by Liverpool. He said that at the age of 14 it’s not about money so it wasn’t the end of the world when Liverpool let him go. He used his time at Tranmere to learn his trade and then spent 3 really good years at Ipswich. He said his advice to young players in a similar position would be to never give up.

James Tomkins was highlighted as being one of the longest serving players at West Ham and a fan asked him how things have changed at the club since he joined. Tonks said that he has seen many different management ideas since he made his debut under Alan Curbishly, who he cited as a very stable manager. He said he felt that same stability with Sam Allardyce but now he was looking for us to grow into something better under the new gaffer and that things feel very good right now. As Tonks said:

“The only way is up.”

The evening took a more light hearted turn when somebody asked James Tomkins to choose his favourite crowd chant or song, apart from Bubbles, and whether he could entertain us with a verse. He claimed that the only ones he could remember were unrepeatable and that he has a terrible voice anyway but he did say that hearing Bubbles, especially at away games, always gives him goose bumps. He said that our support at Arsenal was brilliant (thank you James) and that it hadn’t gone unnoticed that every West Ham fan and even some of the Arsenal fans stayed in the stadium to applaud the players at the end of the game.

Staying with the Arsenal theme Jenks was then put under the spotlight when he was asked how it felt to see us beat them so emphatically. He didn’t hesitate in his response when he said:

“I’m a West Ham player now, I want a good season and I felt no mixed allegiance …. I was happy, over the moon.”

This lead on to Slaven being asked about what was going through his head at the final whistle on Sunday. He said:

“I was very happy. It’s hard to say …. up …. high. When I played Reece Oxford I knew what would happen if it didn’t work out …. I felt relief and very proud.

Bilic was then asked if he would be playing our strongest teams in the FA Cup this season. He replied that with a bit of good form and luck he thinks we have a good chance in the cups this year and that he’s ambitious and looking forward to both of them. He went on to say:

“We aren’t going to take those cups just like that. Maybe I’m crazy but if somebody said to me you should only aim for the semi-final of the FA Cup and League Cup I’d say ‘no thanks’ because I believe we can win.”

The last word of the evening went to the young Hammer called Finley who asked what had been the biggest impact of the new players. Slav’s response was that he needs all the players to do their job and his plan is to improve a squad that’s already good. He said that they all have good qualities but that his focus is on bringing in new players who can make those around them even better. He finished by saying how optimistic he is for the season.

Inevitably the questions were carefully vetted and selected by the club’s PR team beforehand so there was never going to be anything controversial thrown at Slaven and the players but I still felt a candidness and honesty that’s been somewhat missing from our manager’s rhetoric in recent years.

Formalities over, the evening concluded with the opportunity for the audience to speak to Slaven and the players and to obtain any photographs or autographs that they desired. There were a lot of people to get through so while Slaven held court in his seat on the stage our personable young defenders made their way along the queue chatting and laughing with the fans as they scribbled and posed. I waited patiently along with the rest of them and was rewarded by a warm handshake and a quick chat with Super Slav as he signed my bits and pieces …. and no, that’s not a euphemism. Mind you, my friend was considering asking him to sign some very unusual items. He’s a very charismatic man is our Slav.

On the way out we bumped into our trio of defenders in the foyer of the hotel and they were very happy to stop and chat some more. I couldn’t resist pulling Jenks’ leg about the Arsenal game and he said that he’d watched it on his own at home. I suggested that he was sitting there on his sofa in his Arsenal scarf which he took in very good humour but he insisted that he’s a Hammer now so we said we’d let him off with one of those horrible half and half scarves.

Obviously this was a PR exercise but I didn’t come away feeling ‘spun’. I was left with the impression that we now have a very honest and straightforward manager who values the thinking game and that our players are as impressed with him as I am. Slaven, I share your optimism for our future.

COYI


The Iron Liddy Column

The Football Brain: Nature or Nurture?

I’m not enjoying this writing to a deadline malarkey; it’s giving me more anxiety than last season’s penalty shoot-out against Everton!

I’m sitting here staring at the flashing cursor on a blank page trying to decide what to write about, with an equally blank mind. Although I said I was going to focus on the social and cultural side of things I know that in reality the majority of you just want to read and talk about what happens on the pitch. In fact, following my column last week, I was chatting with our very own Longtimelurker and he said that he was a little disappointed by my decision to not cover ‘on the pitch’ issues and that he hoped and expected that I would revisit that. The truth is that I just don’t have any confidence in my ability to analyse the game. I love watching it and I know what I like but I know that I don’t see the patterns on the field that my husband sees for example. Despite the fact that I can actually control a football and have demonstrated a decent level of skill, I just know that if I was playing alongside him that he would be screaming at me to pass and move and berating me for not finding space. It frustrates the hell out of me that I can’t be more analytical but I still enjoy watching it in my own way. As the Lurker said, he’s firmly in the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ school of Philistinism and he asked how many of us would be honest enough to say the same about football?

This got me thinking. Is my inability to read the game like the other ‘experts’ (ahem) on WHTID because I’ve never played proper 11-a-side myself or do I simply not have a football brain? I think not having anyone to watch games with and to explain the tactics to me when I was small is certainly a factor. Maybe if I’d had more input at an age when my brain was busy making all its neural connections and synapses it would be more football shaped. Then again maybe a football brain is an inherent thing that you’re born with and not something that can be learned? I decided to investigate.

Many legendary football players have been hailed for their ability to ‘read the game’, showing an uncanny genius for being able to predict where the ball will be as play unfolds. Our own Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking are regularly cited as prime examples. The best players see things earlier than everyone else. They react faster, they see passes and spaces and they can process everything more quickly than players who don’t have their gift. They instinctively know where their team-mates are … what foot an opponent has his weight on … where the goal keeper is … how much weight to put on a pass so it arrives in the strikers path.

Then there are others who have made it into high level professional football based on their ball control and/or pace but seem to have little capacity to apply their intellect as well as their physical dexterity to the game.

A high profile example of just such a player is Theo Walcott. In 2010 Chris Waddle publicly questioned Walcott’s England credentials and claimed that the Arsenal winger "doesn’t understand the game.” Speaking on Radio Five Live Waddle said:

“People keep saying he’s young but Wayne Rooney understood the game at 16, 17. I’ve never seen any difference in Theo Walcott since he was at Southampton and broke into the team at a very young age.

“I’ve never seen him develop. He just doesn’t understand the game for me – where to be running, when to run inside a full-back, when to just play a one-two.

“It’s all off the cuff. The ball comes to him and if he gets a good first touch he might be on his way if he shows pace. But he has a plan in his mind before the ball comes to him.

“He’s not looking as if to think, ‘This is where I want to be, this is where I want to go, and this is what I’m going to do.’

“People keep saying to me, ‘Oh he’s young and he’ll learn.’

“I keep thinking, ‘Fabregas has learnt and he’s young, Rooney has learnt … they all read the game so well.’

“I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems.

“Eventually he could play up front but would he know where to run? Let’s be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time.

“I just don’t know whether he studies the game, learns the game, or what. He’s at a great club where they play fantastic football week-in, week-out, and I’m just surprised he’s never developed his game.”

Waddle’s assessment was backed up by former England boss Graham Taylor, who said:

“I’m not going to be in any disagreement at all. I haven’t seen the improvement of Theo Walcott in terms of what Chris is saying of reading the game. I just haven’t seen it. I just see a problem there.”

Waddle’s and Taylor’s misgivings were echoed by Alan Hansen in his column in The Telegraph when he said:

“With the pace and trickery he possesses in abundance, Walcott will always make a living from the game, but the big unknown is whether he has enough to make it right to the top and be remembered in 20 years’ time as a great player.

“It is no slight on a player to accuse them of not having a football brain. You either have one or you don’t.

“It is about natural instinct, the innate ability to see things before they happen. Wayne Rooney has it and Kenny Dalglish had it.

“When Bob Paisley used to say at Liverpool that, at the highest level, the first two yards were in the head, he was spot-on.

“If Theo Walcott had that ability to see the picture opening up, that football brain, he would be a world-beater, but he has a long way to go and we still don’t know how he will ultimately turn out.

“It is about seeing options, seeing them early and then being able to pick out the right pass at the right time. If he improves all those areas, he can be a 9 out of 10 player. At the moment, he is 7 out of 10.

“But it is not as simple as going out on the training pitch and practising every day. It is about instinct. There is no thought process when you have a football brain, you just see it and play it, so that’s why it is so difficult to add that to your game if you don’t have that natural instinct.”

Fast forward five years and despite his doubters and detractors Walcott has continued to compete at the top level and has just been rewarded with a lucrative new contract at Arsenal. He was also selected over Giroud to start up front in this weekend’s Community Shield; the second time that Arsene Wenger has pulled him in from the flanks to give him the centre-forward position at Wembley ahead of his French striker. At the end of last season the England international started in the FA Cup final against Aston Villa, scoring the opening goal in a 4-0 victory.

So has Walcott gone on to develop a football brain in the interim period and has his reading of the game improved? Reports on Sunday’s game suggest that it was still his pace rather than his footballing acuity which earned him his place, as he used his speed to pull Chelsea’s defenders into awkward positions. His only really meaningful contribution to the game was his well-timed pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain which led to the game’s only goal. Other commentators suggested that his appointment was a decision based on stats and I couldn’t help but smile at the irony when Wenger’s choice of Walcott over Giroud was described as a ‘no-brainer’.

When he was asked after the game whether Theo Walcott will keep that role during the new season, Wenger said:

“It depends on the games. I tried to see the options I have through the season.

“I felt today that I wanted to use Theo’s pace to go in behind. In the first half he worked very hard, didn’t get too much service, but he worked very hard.”

So it shows that you don’t necessarily need an innate ability to see the patterns in football to succeed as a professional but what could Walcott do to take his game to the next level and to be hailed for his comprehension as much as his blistering pace? Is it possible to acquire a football brain through the right kind of training?

A decade ago in an article in Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science Paul Ward, a psychologist at Florida State University, stated:

“Coaches haven’t quite caught on to the power of the mind, instead focusing on visual skills such as seeing a ball in peripheral vision. People try to train players’ eyes as opposed to their brains."

Ward believed then that ‘reading the game’ is not just a turn of phrase, top players’ brains really do work differently to those of the rest of us.

At the time it was common for progressive coaches to subject players to intense spatial-awareness tasks in an effort to hone their visual skills. However, Ward said that they might be better off getting players to focus on mental rather than visual improvement. Sports psychologists would test players’ reactions to the ball and eye movements using virtual-reality systems or giant video screens hooked up to joysticks. Ward claims that such studies suggest that visual skills account for only a small fraction of the difference between expert football players and novices.

He posited that elite players have "enhanced perceptual cognitive skills.” In footballing terms, they ‘read the game’ well. He went on to expound that these star players use the same amount of their brain for these tasks as a novice; but they use it better, for instance by perceiving the field as a unit or by looking at key body parts to anticipate an opponent’s moves. So much of what we recognize as footballing talent is down to the brain rather than the body.

Ward argued that perceptual cognitive skills can keep a player in the game as he ages and loses speed; and he cited Paolo Maldini as a perfect example. Maldini is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time. He played at a world class level for his entire career spanning two and a half decades, and won the Best Defender trophy at the UEFA Club Football Awards at the age of 39, as well as the Serie A Defender of the Year Award in 2004 at the age of 36.

At the time Ward admitted that some vision experts would disagree with him and say that visual perception is crucial to the sport. While coaches at the highest levels were persisting in hiring visual specialists, psychologists such as Ward were suggesting another approach. He had found that players can improve with the help of simulations that boost perceptual cognitive skills associated with the game.

Ten years on it seems that ‘brain training’ may still not be common practice among leading football coaches as scientists at London’s Brunel University are still working on the theory that the game’s elite players, such as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, have mental faculties that are better programmed to anticipate their opponents’ moves. Research published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2013 found that of 39 players tested, the more experienced footballers were able to suppress the urge to act instinctively, making them less susceptible to feints or tricks from their opponents.

Brunel’s study reinforces the view held by one of the greatest players of all time, Johan Cruyff, who said:

“Football is a game you play with your brain.”

Ward was clearly a man ahead of his time as the question of whether football clubs are missing a trick in overlooking dedicated training for the most important organ of all – the brain – is still being asked. Today’s football professionals have a battery of physios, fitness trainers and doctors all striving to fine-tune their players’ physique for optimum performance but I wonder how many of them are focused on ‘brain training’ and have added a neuroscientist to their backroom staff?

When he spoke to CNN in 2013, Dr Dan Bishop from Brunel’s Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance said:

“I can see top teams employing neuroscientists in the future. That’s because we have the skills and resources to witness very subtle changes in perceptual abilities that may not initially manifest in performance data, because people can change their mind midway through a task and therefore give an erroneous response, when in fact their initial ‘preattentive’ brain response was the correct one. I imagine that this will be most useful at academy level, to assess the development of young players.”

Bishop believes the findings could help nurture a new generation of young sports stars in Britain. He said:

“We believe this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high-quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents.”

During the trial, players ranging from novices to semi-professionals were placed in an MRI scanner and shown video clips of a player dribbling towards them. They then had to decide in which direction to move in order to tackle them. The study found the better players were more sensitive to moves and tricks by an opponent than those at the less talented end of the scale, which came as no surprise to Bishop when he said:

“I am confident the findings would be even stronger with professional players. Much of the activation we saw was comparable to the activations we had witnessed in our previous studies of badminton players — which included a large number of international athletes.”

There is a growing group of coaches who need no convincing of the power of the brain in developing top players. One of them is Kevin McGreskin, Technical Director at Soccer eyeQ, a company that specialises in elite performance coaching.

During an interview with football magazine The Blizzard McGreskin said:

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport. We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

Soccer eyeQ’s website explains how these studies are consistently showing that it is the mental abilities, not necessarily the physical prowess, that is the differentiating factor between elite and non-elite players; and that a holistic approach is required which gives the same attention to developing mental abilities as well as physical.

McGreskin’s views are shared by Michel Bruyninckx, formerly Academy Director for Belgian club Standard Liege and Qatar’s Aspire Academy, who is something of a pioneer when it comes to brain training in football players. He places huge value on “brain-centered learning” and devised a specific program designed to foster improvement in a young player’s cognitive skills. Bruyninckx places the same level of importance of neuroscience as he does football tactics.

Both Bruyninckx and McGreskin have embraced “overload” drills to help tune players’ brains. Some might be asked to speak in different languages during fitness training, while others are asked to throw a tennis ball around and call out colours during sessions involving a football.

Bruyninckx told The Blizzard:

“We need to develop an engram – a neurological track – in the brain. We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain. Jose Mourinho immediately understood what I’m trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions. He also noticed that the organisation of the drills requires a greater team involvement, more concentration, attention, a continuous inciting of perception and that intelligent playing could grow a lot.”

Bruyninckx’s brain training method, which he has developed in collaboration with the University of Louvain, is called CogiTraining and its key tool is SenseBall. According to Bruyninckx, the method’s objective is to generate intelligent players who can think and play faster and more accurately in a collective approach. In 2014 AC Milan adopted the CogiTraining/SenseBall system in order to emphasise brain centered education as part of its core training method for young players.

Presented with all this research and information, do you believe that a football brain can be created with cognitive training or do you think that it will always be something a player either just has or doesn’t have?

If it is a valid hypothesis, why is the game only now waking up to the importance of cognitive training, 50 years after England was lead to victory by arguably one of the greatest ‘football brains’ we’ve ever seen? Is it only something worth doing with academy players or can mature professionals also benefit from this approach?

Finally, which West Ham players, past and present, do you think had/have an innate ability to read the game much more effectively than their team mates?

Personally, I was particularly interested in Bruyninckx’s concept of overload drills and wondered whether we are inadvertently giving other countries an advantage over the England side by employing so many foreign players in the Premier League? Are their cognitive skills, and ergo their game, being improved simply by training in a foreign language? Would England’s fortunes improve if more of our players plied their trade overseas? It’s all food for thought.


The Iron Liddy Column

Raising the curtain on corruption in football - A review of Patrick Marber's new play 'The Red Lion'

As you may or may not have gleaned, Iain has asked me to commit to a regular weekly column to appear on Wednesdays. I have agreed with a degree of trepidation because I’m not a sports journalist or a professional writer, just a claret and blue blogger with West Ham in my heart. I know that I’m prone to epic articles and getting bogged down in detail but I hope that as my confidence and experience grows they will become more succinct, not to mention more quickly produced!

As the rest of Iain’s squad of authors are eminently more qualified than I am to analyse the tactics of the game and the merits of players I have decided to focus on the cultural and social side of West Ham and football in general, with some current football affairs thrown in for good measure. My articles won’t be to everyone’s taste but I hope you’ll appreciate that they’ve been produced with the maximum of effort and the best of intentions to inform and entertain you.

Last week I was invited by my former schoolmate and fellow Hammer Rich to see Patrick Marber’s new play The Red Lion at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank; a drama set within a cash-strapped non-League football club. Rich is already a fan of Marber’s work, having previously seen his acclaimed plays Dealer’s Choice and Closer, but as I was unfamiliar with his oeuvre I decided to do a bit of background reading beforehand.

I discovered that despite his success as a playwright and comic writer in the 1990s (his work on The Day Today and with Steve Coogan on the Alan Partridge shows preceded a move into high-end theatre) Marber had suffered an extreme case of writer’s block and had almost given up on writing completely after failing to produce anything for several years. During this protracted fallow period Marber moved out of London to rural Sussex with his wife and children. Unfortunately the peace and isolation of the countryside only served to compound his creative block and he was in real danger of a permanent place on the literary subs bench. To distract himself from his frustration he decided to take his son to The Dripping Pan to watch Lewes FC, although he is actually an Arsenal fan. It proved to be a turning point for both Marber and the struggling football club.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2010 Marber describes how he reconnected with the essence of the beautiful game and the effect it had on his life and the future of the club:

“We came to our first game at the beginning of last season and I just had the best time I’d had at a football match for years, in terms of a very pure footballing experience.

“Obviously, I’d enjoyed greatly supporting Arsenal for years and still do but in terms of the game it just reawakened my love, reminded me why as a kid I’d loved watching and playing it.

“And being close to the pitch: I’d forgotten what it was like to be close, and to hear the players and the ref and the linesman, and feel the atmosphere in a completely different way, because I realised that sitting at the Emirates Stadium you experience the atmosphere by proxy, through the crowd, because you’re one of them, whereas here you’re kind of in it.

“So I thought: ‘Great, we’re going to carry on coming, we’re going to support Lewes FC as well as Arsenal, this is a good thing.’ I went on the website to find out more about the club I was now going to support and found out it was in dire peril. It owed HM Revenue & Customs about a hundred grand at that point and there were messages on the website from the owners saying please contact us if you can help. Please contact Steve Ibbitson the manager if you can help.

“My first thought was I could afford to donate a bit of money to the club: a couple of grand or something, if that would be of help, so I phoned Steve Ibbitson and said: ‘Look, I’m just a bloke who’s started supporting your club and I don’t want to see them go under and I do know a few people with some money who might be able to help.’

“We had a three-hour cup of tea on a very rainy day and he took the time and had the courtesy to explain to a complete stranger how the club works and how they got in this financial strait. At that time it looked in serious shit, it was going to go under.

“Once I’d met with Ibbo I was in for life. There was nothing I could do. This is a man who loves his club and he’d been working around the clock, had given his own money to the club, wasn’t being paid and was just doing it for love. And I thought: ‘I want to get involved with this man, with this club. I’m in.’ I just couldn’t stand aside. I went home to my wife and said: ‘I have some bad news.’”

Marber’s enthusiasm for non-League Lewes was to help add their name to the growing legion of community-owned clubs. He threw himself into an ambassadorial role, persuading his showbiz friends and local Lewes people to join him in investing in the club. As a result, in their 125th year, the Rooks swerved bankruptcy to become Lewes Community Football Club.

Marber went on to say:

“We need plumbers, we need electricians – we certainly need more supporters – and we need people to come and make sandwiches, we need sponsorship, we need more stewards: the whole club is a volunteer club. This could be a disastrous experiment and go tits up, and just be a silly dream, or it could work fabulously, and become a model for other clubs to follow, just as we’ve followed AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester.”

At the time of his interview in 2010 Marber revealed that his creative juices had thankfully started to flow again and that he was working on two new screenplays, while simultaneously helping to manage the football club. He insisted then that his foray into club management was not background for a prospective drama.

“There’s a fabulous play to be written about this takeover. I could write it tomorrow. It’s not research but there’s been fantastic material, as you can imagine when there are six blokes who don’t really know each other at the beginning, get together to take over a football club and have to negotiate with the owners. It’s very rich. But I’m not going to write about it. It’s too good.”

True to his word he didn’t go on to write the story of Lewes’ takeover but he was clearly inspired by his rekindled passion for non-League football and the result is his latest play The Red Lion, which opened to very good reviews earlier this month.

Armed with this background information I hopped on the Fenchurch Street line with Rich last Tuesday, keen to see how the story of a small time semi-pro football club would translate to the stage. The only other staged football events I’ve seen before have been several Hammers Heroes shows and a West Ham fans forum, where the audience has always been predominantly male. I fully expected the theme of the play to attract a similar gender bias but could immediately see that Marber’s reputation as a playwright has transcended the subject matter to attract a demographic more typical to the National Theatre than a football stadium.

The first thing we noticed as we took our seats in the stalls was the smell. The set designer Anthony Ward has cleverly used the distinctive odour of horse liniment to instantly evoke the musty, fetid atmosphere which has pervaded men’s football changing rooms for generations. Not that I’m in the habit of frequenting such places you understand but I’ve stood and shivered outside enough of them to be immediately transported back to a cold wet side line at the slightest whiff of white horse oil. I was sure that I could also detect undertones of sweat and damp mud but that might have just been the realism of Ward’s dank and dilapidated dressing room where the story unfolds.

The play is a chamber piece populated by three characters instantly recognisable by football fans and they’ve been very well cast.

Peter Wight’s aging and overweight Yates is a faded, gently paternal figure whose former status as the club’s star player has been gradually eroded by a humiliating spell as their manager and personal tragedy. Despite dedicating his life and soul to the club, he now cuts a lonely and rather sad figure as the lowly kit man, comforted only by his match day rituals and memories; making his nickname ‘Lege’ as a former club legend all the more poignant.

By contrast Daniel Mays plays the vain and strutting manager Jimmy Kidd, whose inflated view of himself as some kind of non-League Jose Mourinho is matched only by the size of his ruthless ambition. Despite his bravado Kidd’s insecurities and desperation in the face of his crumbling marriage and mounting personal debts are clearly visible just below the surface.

Calvin Demba is equally convincing as rising football star Jordan, with a physique that wouldn’t look out of place on any Premier League pitch. He perfectly captures the paradox of self-conscious lack of confidence and defiant arrogance that comes at the cusp of manhood. His character is both morally idealistic and corruptible and we see him wage an internal war influenced by both Yates and Kidd.

As the play opens Yates and Kidd seem to have a difficult and strained relationship but as it progresses it’s obvious that there’s also an underlying affection and respect. Their relationship is tested in full as the The Red Lion’s winning streak is jeopardised when a rival club poaches their best player and Kidd is under pressure from the board. Potential salvation appears in the shape of Jordan, a young player with exceptional promise, and his arrival reignites both men’s passion for the game. It hits Kidd like a drug as he envisions not only glory and success for himself and the team but also a way out of his personal problems. Yates’ response is much gentler and his fatherly concern for the young player is driven by his dream of reviving the spirit of the club’s glory days before they were corrupted by the unscrupulous ethics of Kidd. Over the course of the next three games we see the two older characters battling for control of this boy’s future and, ultimately, their own. Kidd employs Machiavellian tactics to achieve his aims while Yates relies on his word of honour. What neither of them realise is that Jordan is harbouring a secret and troubled past which could wreck the future of all three of them.

At this point of the play I couldn’t help but be reminded of our own wayward and damaged player of recent times, Ravel Morrison, and I felt a new level of sympathy and understanding of the pressures these young players face from diametrically opposed controlling influences.

The first half of the play begins fairly slowly and by the interval it was still difficult to see where it was going. Inevitably Rich and I discussed our views on what we’d seen thus far and I was surprised to learn that he thought there were homoerotic undertones and that Yates’ looks of longing at Jordan were sexually charged. I didn’t get that at all and I thought his yearning was caused by his romantic idealism of the game and a longing to relive his glory days vicariously through the boy. It made me realise that we live in a culture where the sight of an aging, overweight man massaging the lithe muscular body of a young boy in a sporting context can still cause discomfiture among some men and I wondered if that was a typical response? The second half of the play is much more dramatically charged and the tension between the three characters builds, with tragic results.

While I couldn’t fault the authenticity of the performances I found Marber’s plot fairly predictable, to the point of being hackneyed in places and the best plot twist is revealed too early, which impacts on the tension. It is a character driven play and the dialogue sounds genuine to the football fans’s ear. Mays’ intense and manic performance is mesmerising and the perfect foil to Wight’s finely nuanced delivery. It’s clear that Marber is writing about a world he knows intimately and his play is imbued with his passion for the beautiful game. A noticeable leitmotif is the absence of father figures and the pain and scars that the characters bear because of difficult and abusive father/son relationships.

I noticed that some of the audience found the script comical in places but realised that I didn’t share their mirth. I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I’m so deeply inured in the frankly sometimes ridiculous drama of football and that I’m immune to the comedy of its discourse.

During an interview Daniel Mays was asked if non-football fans would relate to the play and he replied:

“Absolutely. I can’t stress that enough. Football is just the gateway. When you get into the second act, it really becomes about these three individual men and the very universal themes of betrayal, loss and ambition. We see how co-dependent they are and how much vulnerability they have. Patrick [Marber] is a master at shining a light on certain aspects of ourselves that we probably wouldn’t share. It’s about how men can wound or heal each other – I find it a profoundly moving and poignant piece.”

Whilst I agree with him on one level I also believe that football fans will find the play more rewarding than those who have no love for the sport. Everybody knows that football is a never ending source for moral debate and this can be used as a metaphor for life. However, I believe that only those who truly love the game are really able to understand its hold over us. These characters speak more deeply to us than to those who are not fans and I think perhaps only we will truly appreciate Marber’s double layer of meaning.

Initially I wondered at Marber’s choice of name for his team and the title of the play, it seemed more redolent of a pub side than a semi-professional club. At the play’s conclusion I realised that the name and heraldic crest is meant to represent Britain. Our glory days are past, our board have sold all our assets to the highest bidder and we are now a feeder club in a morally corrupt system.

Marber’s timing is perfect, as FIFA implodes amid corruption claims this play shows that bribery, exploitation and dishonesty have now reached grass roots and non-League football. It’s a timely reminder that something needs to be done before football reaches the same tragic fate as one of his characters. I fear it could be too late.

Ultimately the essence of the play is a clash between those who pursue an activity because of a belief in its inherent worth and those who regard it simply as a means to an end. Marber doesn’t make the moral judgement, he leaves that to us.

The play isn’t without its faults but the final verdict of two West Ham fans at the end of the evening is that we would recommend it for an entertaining and discussion provoking night out.

The Red Lion is showing at the National Theatre until 30th September


Talking Point

Football Mad: The story of mental illness and suicide in the beautiful game

When I look back at the past two seasons as a West Ham fan in years to come sadly the word that will define them for me will be ‘abuse.’ I feel as though my senses have been battered by an incessant stream of vitriol aimed at our owners; our manager; some of our players, one in particular; and at fellow fans.

I looked at Carlton Cole’s face as he sat on the sofa on Goals on Sunday last weekend and I saw a very unhappy man. His mouth was smiling but his eyes weren’t; his time at West Ham has extinguished some of the spark in of one of the sweetest, funniest men in the game. Football’s Mr Nice Guy was forced to sit there and admit that he has been fined £40,000 for losing his temper and retaliating in kind to an abusive tweet from an opposition fan. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Although he is a favourite among many West Ham fans he has also had to endure constant criticism and abuse from other factions of our fan base and beyond. You really hope that the love that he receives from his supporters helps to cushion the pain of the virtual blows that he’s subjected to on social media; a subject which brings me on to our most vilified player in the past couple of years, Kevin Nolan.

In his recent interview with Dave Evans in the Newham Recorder Kevin said:

“It has been a tough couple of months ….. people talking about me and saying things about me, it has been hard, I am not going to deny it, but the only thing I have ever known is playing football. That is the only thing I can do now. I have got nothing to prove to anyone. I have done a lot in my career and a lot of what has been said has been unfair, but that’s life I suppose.”

Anybody who regularly follows West Ham’s fortunes will know that Kevin Nolan’s response to the vicious and personal abuse he has been subjected to for months on end is an understatement. For somebody not in the public eye it’s difficult to comprehend what it must be like to be exposed to a daily barrage of abusive and crass criticism. As a woman I also feel for his wife and try to imagine how upset I would be at having to watch my husband endure such hatred and venom simply for trying to do his job; not to mention the stress of trying to ensure that it didn’t reach the ears and eyes of my children.

Nolan went on to say:

“I’ve come to the stage in my career with all the negativity surrounding me and I have just taken it on the chin. It’s water off a duck’s back for me. Sometimes it hurts of course, but I’ve got a fantastic family, fantastic support system and not just with family and friends but also within the club.”

So Kevin is still smiling and still coping, at least he seems to be. Anyway, isn’t he fair game for all the critics and abusers given his dream job and huge salary? Maybe, maybe not. A popular consensus seems to be that professional footballers, as well as other people in the public eye, are exempt from the consideration afforded to ‘regular’ people. It’s as if a proportion of society considers that their wealth and celebrity makes them somehow immune from the frailties of the human condition and that they can either just absorb or repel any abuse without it affecting their mental and physical wellbeing.

As the cruelty and contempt that they have had to tolerate reaches its height both Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan have also arrived at a stage in their careers as professional footballers where they need to take stock and ask themselves the question “what next?” It sounds like a lovely problem to have doesn’t it? All that money in the bank, not too many medals granted, but scrapbooks filled with memories of a job that most people can only dream of, what have they got to worry about? In fact they are probably at a very vulnerable stage of their lives and you can only hope that they have the mental strength and support networks that will enable them to navigate it successfully as they continue to deflect the scorn and bile that is heaped upon them every day.

For the majority of these relatively still young men football has been the only way of life that they’ve known since they were children; it defines them as human beings and shapes their self-worth and self-identity. When they come to the end of their footballing career they are in danger of losing so much more than a big income and the chance to play football in front of thousands of people. Unfortunately no amount of money, fame or privilege can protect mentally vulnerable people from the irrationality and despair of depression and mental illness; conditions which are exacerbated by external circumstances and the stresses of abuse and criticism.

A few weeks ago Clarke Carlisle, the former Burnley and QPR defender and one-time Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, left hospital following his second suicide attempt.

He told The Sun newspaper that he had been left severely depressed by the end of his football career, financial problems and the loss of a TV punditry role. Seeing death as the only escape from his despair Carlisle stepped in front of a lorry on the A64 on the 22nd of December and hoped for oblivion. As it turned out he survived the impact and was airlifted to Leeds General Infirmary suffering from cuts, bruises, internal bleeding, a broken rib and shattered left knee. On Christmas Day 2014 he was admitted as an in-patient to a psychiatric unit in Harrogate before his release in January this year.

Carlisle’s battle with depression has been well documented in the media and in 2013 he made a poignant semi-autobiographical documentary for BBC3 called ‘Football’s Suicide Secret’; which told the story of his final season before retirement – a season which, like much of his playing career, was marked by periodic bouts of depression. His first suicide attempt came at the age of 21, just as his team Queens Park Rangers had been promoted to the Premier League. Here was a young professional footballer apparently approaching the zenith of his career and about to enjoy the prestige, accolades and wealth that entails, when he decided to take his own life with a handful of pills on a shabby park bench. In an article that Carlisle wrote for the BBC in 2013 he said:

“Everyone else thought I’d made it, that I had the dream life. And I did. I was a 21-year-old professional footballer for QPR and the England Under-21s. I had a nice flat, a nice car and a loving family. My irrational mind had made me think suicide was a rational action though. So I went to a park near my home in Acton armed with lots of painkillers and thought “I’m going to take all these pills and kill myself, because I’m no use to anyone”. I’d just suffered a severe knee injury and had convinced myself that without football people would see me for what I really was, which was nothing. I sat on a bench in that park, washed the pills down with a can of beer, and waited for it to happen. In the end I was incredibly lucky, because my girlfriend found me and I was rushed to hospital in time to have my stomach pumped. I survived and didn’t tell another soul about the incident for years and didn’t ask for any help. I just locked this suicide attempt away in Pandora’s Box.”

The film also highlighted the tragic and shocking death of former Premier League and Welsh international player Gary Speed. Despite his glittering playing career and his recent appointment as Manager of the Wales team Speed’s wife Louise found his lifeless body hanging in the garage of their luxury home in November 2011. At the inquest into his death the coroner reached a narrative verdict but stated that cause of death was by “self suspension.”

On the morning of his death he had appeared full of smiles as a guest on the BBC One TV programme Football Focus, with presenter Dan Walker later describing 42 year old Speed as being in "fine form.” After the programme finished Speed joined former Newcastle United team-mate and friend Alan Shearer to watch their old club play against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Although he never discussed any possible mental health issues with anyone, he had told Shearer that the pressure of management had put some strain on his marriage and that he and Louise had argued the night before his death. Four days before he hanged himself he had also texted Louise about the possibility of suicide, but he dismissed such an action because of the importance of his wife and two children. At the inquest his mother Carole Speed described him as a “glass half-empty person.”

During his documentary Clarke Carlisle spoke to Speed’s sister Lesley and she said that if somebody had asked her whether Gary was suffering from depression before that, she would have said absolutely not. She went on to say:

“He hid it from us and it stopped him asking for help ….. we were just so sad that we couldn’t help him through….. that’s a huge regret that I didn’t get him to one side and say ‘is everything alright?’”

Carlisle commented:

“I know only too well that most depressives are great actors who can put on a different persona, a facade. What you need to be able to do is open up, yet the cruelty of the illness is that it won’t let you.”

Speed’s sister Lesley also made the telling point that now that she knows more about the condition she knows that people suffering from depression are not just fighting an illness but also dealing with the stigma that comes with it. During a short interview for the film, Aidy Boothroyd, Carlisle’s manager at Northampton, reinforced the view that depression and mental illness are not something that you admit to in professional football. He said that he had tried to protect his player by telling the team and the press that Carlisle was suffering from flu when depression had forced him to miss work.

Carlisle spoke to other young footballers about their experiences with depression, including Simon Jordan, Lee Hendrie and Leon McKenzie and he tried to show that depression, just like a physical illness, can strike even those who have found their dream jobs and adulation. While it may not always be helpful to view depression as something triggered by circumstances, there is no doubt that a footballer’s career cycle contains plenty of triggers. Carlisle investigated the effect of that first rejection with a visit to an academy full of young players who hadn’t begun to consider that they might not hit the big time; and also looked at how injuries and defeats can drag a player down and what awaits them after retirement.

As my research continued I was shocked at the prevalence of suicide and attempted suicide within the professional game. No doubt most football fans are aware of the tragic case of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first million pound black footballer and the first professional footballer in Britain to openly ‘come out’ and admit he was gay. His courage drew many admirers among the wider audience, but some observers said it was less appreciated in parts of the football world. He suffered both homophobic and racist abuse during his time as a player, with even his own manager, Brian Clough, labelling him “a bloody poof” His personal torment took its toll professionally and his promising football career had already nose-dived by the time he came out in 1990. Fashanu embarked on a new career coaching the US football team Maryland Mania but in 1998 he fled back to England amid allegations of sexual abuse by a 17 year old youth. On the morning of 3rd May he was found hanged in a deserted lock-up garage he had broken into in Shoreditch, London, he was 37. Fashanu’s suicide note denied the charges, claiming that the act was consensual and that he was being blackmailed by his accuser.

Whatever the truth of those allegations, Justin’s suicide was a culmination of a lifetime of rejection. That rejection began when he was given up by his parents as a child and placed in a Barnardo’s Children’s Home. It was compounded by the racist jibes he suffered on the football pitch, and by the homophobic abuse inflicted on him at Nottingham Forest by his manager Brian Clough.

A more recent high profile case is that of the former national German goalkeeper Robert Enke. On 10th November 2009 32 year old Enke committed suicide when he stood in front of a regional express train at a level crossing. In this highly emotive video Robert’s widow Teresa Enke describes how the pressure of being a professional footballer contributed to Robert’s depression and death. She says:

“Sport will always be important but you should always see the human being behind the sports person, you shouldn’t just reduce them to a performance. It’s nice if he performs well but you should respect that people make mistakes. I wish there was more understanding of [being] a professional sports person.”

Sadly self-awareness is no guarantee of protection from the effects of mental illness. Another former German professional footballer committed suicide in July 2014 after a long battle with depression. Andreas Biermann, who started his career at Hertha Berlin, took his own life after struggling against the illness for five years. The 33-year-old last played for FSV Spandauer Kickers, based in Berlin and he had published a book called ‘Depression: Red Card’ where he discussed his struggle. Biermann had initially revealed that he was suffering from the illness after the death of Robert Enke and he had previously tried to take his own life on three occasions.

You might be forgiven for thinking that suicide within professional football is a relatively modern phenomenon due to media pressure and the added stress from the abuse inflicted by fans via social media. You may also think that suicide has never touched West Ham. Sadly neither is true.

This list of professional and ex-professional footballers and managers who felt driven to take their own lives makes very sad and shocking reading. Footballers who committed suicide

Among them you will find Syd King, Thames Ironworks’ and West Ham’s star full back from 1899 – 1903; who went on to become West Ham’s manager, a position he held for 30 years from 1902 until 1932.

Syd King was considered one of the best full backs in the Southern League and he recorded 16 appearances in Thames Ironworks’ first season in the Southern League Division One in 1899, also making seven appearances in the FA Cup that year, an impressive run that ended in a 1-2 home defeat against arch-rivals Millwall Athletic. In 1900 he was retained as a member of the squad after the club’s transition to West Ham United, and continued to play for them until 1903, recording 59 league and 7 FA Cup appearances in total.

At the start of his last season as a player he was appointed club secretary, although he was already considered to be a ‘manager’ of the club. His tenure at West Ham included our election to the football league in 1919 and in 1923 he took West Ham to the FA Cup Final for the first time, losing to Bolton Wanderers but also assuring our place in the top division finishing as Division Two runners up. An edition of the local newspaper East Ham Echo proclaimed in 1923 that:

“Syd King is West Ham and West Ham is Syd King.”

Following promotion King implemented a period of consolidation for West Ham in the First Division, the highlight of which was the 1926-1927 season when West Ham finished in 6th place in Division One. This performance was not equalled by the Hammers until the 1958-1959 season during Ted Fenton’s tenure. This consistency was partly made possible when King signed players who went on to become West Ham legends and record holders, as well as England internationals, including Jimmy Ruffell, Ted Hufton and Vic Watson.

Syd King was appointed a shareholder of West Ham United in 1931 but the team was relegated in the 1931-32 season back to Division Two. On 5th November 1932 West Ham lost their ninth game of the next season, against Bradford Park Avenue, and at the same day’s board meeting, according to one board member, during the discussion of the team King was “drunk and insubordinate.” It was no secret that King ‘liked a drink’ but he had already appeased the board many times over the issue. On the following day they announced that:

“It was unanimously decided that until further notice C. Paynter be given sole control of players and that E. S. King be notified accordingly.”

It was also suggested by the board, but never confirmed, that King had been syphoning off West Ham funds for himself. He was suspended for three months without pay and also banned from entering the Boleyn Ground. Following a board meeting on 3rd January 1933 his contract was terminated permanently, and he was given an ex-gratia payment of £3 a week.

Although comparatively rich for an ex-player working in football, King’s reputation and career were in tatters. Within a month of the sacking he sadly committed suicide by drinking alcohol mixed with a corrosive liquid. The inquest into his death declared that he had taken his life ‘while of unsound mind’, and had been suffering from persecution delusions. According to his son his depression had begun when West Ham were relegated in the summer of 1932, and that his paranoia had followed on from that.

In his book ‘At Home With The Hammers’ (1960) Ted Fenton, West Ham United player (1932-46) and manager (1950-61) wrote:

“The boss at West Ham was Syd King, an outsize, larger-than-life character with close-cropped grey hair and a flowing moustache. He was a personality plus man, a man with flair. Awe struck, I would tip-toe past his office but invariably he would spot me. “Boy,” he would shout. “Get me two bottles of Bass.” Down to the Boleyn pub on the corner I would go on my errand and when I got back to the office Syd King would flip me a two-shilling piece for my trouble."

Isn’t it sad and unthinkable that a man with such a big personality and who had achieved so much at West Ham felt compelled to take his own life when he lost the support of the board and consequently his position? It really highlights the fact that nobody is immune from depression, even those with long and successful careers.

Given the stigma that often comes with mental illness, it’s perhaps no surprise that footballers and managers who suffer from depression often do their utmost to hide it instead of asking for help; and there are undoubtedly current and former professional players and managers still suffering in silence today.

In 2013 Football Association chairman David Bernstein admitted that the issue of mental illness in the sport has been “badly neglected in the past.” He said:

“This is not something that’s been high on my agenda – maybe it should have been higher.”

A spokesman insisted that the FA regards the issue as "vitally important” and Scott Field, the FA’s head of media relations, said:

“The mental well-being of players, managers and indeed all participants in football is vitally important to the FA, from grassroots to the professional game.”

He said that the FA had helped to produce a handbook for professional players tackling the subject of mental illness, as well as organising awareness workshops for coaches in 2011. The FA has also provided financial backing to the Sporting Chance Clinic, which treats sportsmen with behavioural problems.

Let’s hope that they’re taking it as seriously as they say. The latest suicide statistics reveal a disproportionate rise in the number of male suicides. In the UK, the male suicide rate is approximately three and a half times higher than the female suicide rate and the highest rate of male suicide in the UK is in the 40-44 age group.

The circumstances behind the depression and suicides of these professional footballers and managers are as varied as their careers but the one thing they all have in common is that their status within the professional game didn’t protect them from their mental torment; they were just human beings with the same vulnerabilities as the man on the street. In fact they may be more vulnerable than the average man on the street. FIFPro, the World Footballers’ Association, conducted an international study into the extent of Mental Illness in Professional Football More than 300 current and former professional players and six national unions participated. The first paragraph of the report’s conclusion states:

“The results of our study show that mental illness seems to occur among former professional footballers more often than in current players and more often than in other populations. Consequently, mental illness among former professional footballers cannot be underestimated and should be a subject of interest for all stakeholders in football. Attention to career planning in an early stage of a football career might significantly help to prepare the post-sport life period and to avoid potential problems after retirement (Alfermann 2007).”

If you’ve reached the end of this article then you’re obviously a thinking West Ham fan and probably not prone to outbursts of personal abuse where only professional criticism is required. You’re probably also already cognisant of the issues surrounding depression and mental illness and understand the fragilities of all human beings, including professional footballers, and how unwarranted and spiteful personal attacks on a player or manager could contribute into pushing a vulnerable person over the edge. The point I’m trying to make probably won’t reach those who could benefit from it the most. Those who won’t read have no advantage over those who can’t; so there’s little hope of educating either.

I’m not suggesting that professional footballers and managers should be wrapped in cotton wool and that they shouldn’t have to bear professional criticism but I wish all football fans would stop to think of the words of German goalkeeper Robert Enke’s widow the next time that they feel compelled to write an abusive comment and ask themselves if it’s really necessary or fair and to consider the impact it could have on a mentally vulnerable person struggling to cope with a barrage of abuse.

“Sport will always be important but you should always see the human being behind the sports person, you shouldn’t just reduce them to a performance. It’s nice if he performs well but you should respect that people make mistakes. I wish there was more understanding of [being] a professional sports person.”


Book Review

Nearly Reach the Sky by Brian Williams: A Valediction to The Boleyn

When Iain emailed me a few weeks ago to ask if I would like to review Brian Williams’ new book Nearly Reach the Sky: A Farewell to Upton Park I was both flattered and nervous. I haven’t been asked to write a book review since I was in my Headmistress’s Good Readers Club when I was 8. I said yes straight away as I’m already a fan of Brian’s writing and I anticipated a funny, clever and interesting read. I wasn’t disappointed, it was such a good read that I finished it in a day; my only hope now is that I can do it justice.

I suppose the first thing that a prospective reader might want to know is which literary genre this book falls under. To be honest it could easily be categorised as a tragicomedy, a memoir or even a history of sport. The one category I wasn’t expecting was romance.

Nearly Reach the Sky is more than just a collection of one West Ham fan’s musings on his life as a football supporter; it is a billet doux, a letter to his love of more than 50 years. It’s an explanation of his feelings for his club, which moves through the widest range of emotions – devotion, disappointment, hope and ambition, joy and elation, grief and anger, humour, impatience, self-reproach and resignation. They’re all there.

It is also a valediction. A claret and blue thread has been a part of the fabric of Brian’s life since 1964 and as he weaves and embroiders his personal love story of West Ham United it becomes apparent that a snag has appeared in the cloth. Throughout the book there is the stark realisation that the club is on the verge of leaving the ground that has been its physical and spiritual home for more than 100 years. Very soon that small tear will become a gaping hole and it’s clear that a part of the author’s heart will be ripped away forever.

Ultimately this is a paean to West Ham United but the other love of Brian’s life, his wife Di, also appears regularly in the book, together with her East End family. He has obviously enjoyed a harmonious, if polygamous, relationship with his two amours. Even so, I can’t pretend that I wasn’t shocked and a little horrified to read of Brian’s first ménage à trois. In fact it wasn’t a ménage à trois at all but a foursome! West Ham may have easily seen off other women in Brian’s life, including the girl who distracted him from Tonka’s performance on the penalty spot in the 80s and the lissome 17 year old Sharon and her hotpants; but the admission that I read in chapter 9 is nothing short of scandalous. Brian is now full of contrition and guilt for playing away and fortunately for him Di is obviously a very forgiving woman. I’m not sure that fellow West Ham fans will let him off quite so lightly and if I were Di I’d keep him on a very short leash. Despite his repentance he’s still singing love songs to other ‘birds’ to this day, and right under the nose of his true love too!

Not being born within the sound of Bow Bells has obviously caused our hero some consternation in life and he makes no secret of his delight that Cupid’s arrow landed smack bang in the middle of Beverley Road in East Ham. Here we meet Brian’s future in-laws, including the inimitable Sid, who is possibly the man originally responsible for the term ‘the elephant in the room.’ Fortunately for Brian he’d already lost his heart many years before to the aptly nicknamed ‘Ticker’ when he scored twice in the 1964 FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, so his claret and blue credentials stood up to Sid’s suspicious scrutiny. Having passed the test with flying West Ham colours he was welcomed into the bosom of Di’s family as an honorary East Ender. He had found his dream woman who not only shared his love for West Ham but also lived just streets away from his beloved Boleyn. Love blossomed and it was clear that it was going to be a match made in heaven when their marriage was given the personal blessing of John Lyall.

If you are beginning to worry that Brian has written some kind of Mills & Boon novel or worse, Sixty-Four Shades of Claret and Blue, fear not! As a member of the fairer sex I’m perhaps more inclined to focus on the more human elements of this story but there are more than enough match reports and reminiscences of seminal goals, games, fouls and finals to dissuade the average woman from reading it. Equally, if you are one of our more youthful West Ham fans and you think that this is a tome that would appeal only to the more decrepit members of our fan base who like to bang on about how much better it all was in their day, you would be wrong. Whilst this is a very nostalgic collection of anecdotes the author has seamlessly woven stories of past glories and defeats with accounts of recent players and games to create a narrative that every West Ham fan will be able to place themselves in at some point and say “I was there.”

Brian is obviously not a fan of the linear approach, this is not one long hoof from 1964 to the present day. Instead he weaves nimbly in and out of the decades, moving from one story to another and back again with a clever little one-two and some nifty back passes to yesteryear without ever losing his reader along the way. His story is inevitably populated with all the West Ham icons, heroes and villains that we all know and love … or hate; but we are also introduced to some of the people who make up the true heart of West Ham United ….. the fans. It’s these people that elevate this tale from being ‘just another West Ham book.’ Of course you’ll be expecting to read of Brian’s adulation of Billy Bonds and even the emotional moment when a Wolves fan broke ranks during the wreath laying ceremony for the late, great Bobby Moore. But the real pleasure of this book is being able to identify with the joy and pain of Brian’s West Ham supporting family, friends, colleagues and passing acquaintances. Their stories are as much a part of our club’s history as yours are and they all deserve to be recorded alongside the oft told tales of the people on the pitch.

This is essentially a very funny book but, like all West Ham fans, Brian also has a talent for pathos and there is an ever present poignancy between the lines of humour. His anecdotes evoke the whole gamut of emotions and I laughed out loud and shed some tears several times before I turned the final page. As I wiped away the last tear and the final smile faded from my lips I was left feeling proud and grateful. Proud because I was born a Hammer and grateful that all the wonderful characters in Brian’s book are my kith and kin. I realised that I am also a part of the same story, we all are. That sense of belonging is priceless and I can’t help but feel that something will be lost when the doors of The Boleyn are finally closed for the last time. No matter how positive any West Ham fan feels about our impending move, I challenge them to read this witty but poignant book without feeling wistful and nostalgic for a time that will never come again.

For the benefit of any newcomers to the site Brian Williams has supported West Ham United for the past 50 years and for the last 25 of those years he has been a journalist for The Guardian newspaper. He also writes a regular Tuesday column for West Ham Till I Die. This is his first book.

You can order a copy of Brian’s book NEARLY REACH THE SKY from…

Biteback Publishing for £8.99 in paperback (Use promotional code WESTHAMBW)

Biteback Publishing for £9.99 as an eBook

Amazon for £12.99 in paperback

Amazon Kindle for £10 as an eBook


Copyright © 2019 Iain Dale Limited. Terms and conditions. Cookies.
Website by Russell Brown.