My West Ham Story
It’s “splendid isolation week 16.” I thought Iain Dale would write this in his weekly “Letter from Tunbridge Wells”, because he has been counting the weeks since he went into lockdown in March in his emails which arrive every Sunday. But no, nothing remained the same last week. There has been “a wee spot of light away in the distance,” as David Moyes put it before the crucial game against Watford on Friday, “and we are aiming to get it”.
Instead of reporting “week 16” of splendid isolation, Iain told us that he had ventured into London last Thursday for the first time in four months, and on the Friday Boris Johnson set out a road map for ending lockdown that could see theatres reopen from August and crowds return to sport stadiums in October if “pilot events” go well (the first of them being a cricket friendly in The Oval on 26-27 July). Premier League Clubs are even more ambitious. They are hoping that games could be played with supporters present as early as September, with around 50 percent of capacity, due to social distancing and obeying of healthcare rules. But of course that will all depend on avoiding a massive “second wave”.
So there’s at least some hope that I’ll be able to spend the credit I have with West Ham United on match tickets in autumn. However, the only West Ham game I could attend this season, flying over from Austria, will remain the defeat to Newcastle back in November. Our following weekend trip to London had been planned to take place by mid-March, together with three friends and their wives, with an afternoon being reserved for football in the London Stadium of course! Well, you will have guessed it: It was the Wolves match on March 15th we had intended to watch. And this fixture happened to be in the round which was the first to be postponed entirely because of the coronavirus. We had already decided to cancel the trip beforehand, with figures rising and discussions about a lockdown already much more intense in Austria than in the UK at that time. The lockdown in Austria was announced exactly on the weekend we had planned to stay in London!
”Promise less, deliver more”
Four months later, we still do not know when we will be safe from the virus, but at least West Ham is safe now: On Friday night the Hammers virtually secured their place in the Premier League with their 3-1 victory over Watford and now they are even mathematically safe after their 1-1 draw on Wednesday night against Manchester Utd. That brought back some happiness to the Irons’ supporters who have suffered a lot this season. I’m sure plenty of us have celebrated on Friday as if we had won a cup final, and rightly so! Premier League survival was achieved that night by a team starting with purpose and determination, ready to vindicate what manager David Moyes hat asked his players the day before: “Promise less and deliver more,“ he had demanded ahead of the Watford game.
And they did deliver: Within ten minutes the Hammers were 2-0 up courtesy to goals of in-form attacking duo Michail Antonio and Tomas Soucek. And when Declan Rice made it 3-0 with a brilliantly timed long range shot from Mark Noble’s assist, it was all but clear that “the winner stays up game” belonged to West Ham. I celebrated the victory in “splendid isolation” because I had watched the game all by myself on my notebook, sitting in the parlour of an old mansion house in Reichenau an der Rax, one hour south of Vienna, being the only guest of this newly renovated guesthouse this weekend due to the bad weather (and Covid-19 of course).
”He wears Claret and Blue, he’s West Ham through and through”
Friday evening was also a very special one for skipper Mark Noble who became one of only ten players who have played 500 games for the Club within the last 125 years. In his 500th appearance on Friday evening, he once again led his teammates into a crucial battle and marked this appearance with another typically committed and influential performance from the centre of midfield, also giving the assist to the decisive 3-0 by passing the ball to Declan Rice who scored that beautiful goal (that I will tell you more about below). In the matches since the restart after lockdown, “Mr. West Ham” has played in a more advanced link-up role in midfield which seems to have suited him better than a mere defensive role which he often had to play in previous games. Also in the match against Manchester Utd Mark could not be criticized for playing sidewards and backwards, making the game slow. He linked up with Rice, Soucek and Bowen in some neat attacks, the latters being January signigs who have contributed very much to West Ham’s revival and helping Antonio to become the most prolific goalscorer of post-lockdown.
Mark Noble made his debut in the senior team at the age of just 17 in a League Cup match against Southend in August 2004. That was around the time I renewed and intensified my support for West Ham. The Hammers, in addition to my lifelong support of Rapid Vienna, had first caught my attention back in grammar school when we had developed an interest in English football. They had been on the list of foreign clubs to follow since, but because of their promotion within the season of 2004/05 my interest in them increased significantly and hasn’t stopped to this day. Within these almost sixteen years West Ham have been promoted twice from the Championship via the play-offs (in 2005 and 2012), have reached one FA Cup final (in 2006) and managed a “great escape” in the unforgettable spring of 2007 when I travelled to our first game at Upton Park with my friend Alfred! This game was a defeat (of course…), but with a beautiful goal scored by Carlos Tevez and with Mark Noble playing in midfield.
West Ham in a nutshell
Tevez took the goal from quite a similar position to the one from which Declan Rice hit the back of the net on Friday evening against Watford. It even was almost the same minute of the game, although the circumstances of the matches being very different: Whereas Rice scored the 3-0 in the 36th minute facing a completely empty Sir Trevor Brooking Stand at Stratford, Tevez’ 1:1 came in the 35th minute in front of an erupting Bobby Moore Stand at Upton Park. When I watch the video of this goal I still get goose bumps!
However, that joy didn’t last long back in 2007. With Chelsea’s next attack, just a minute later, they were in front again, and eventually they won 4-1. These two minutes between the 35th and the 36th minute of that game could be seen as "West Ham in a nutshell“: Absolute joy erupting in the ground after Tevez’s brilliantly taken goal, immediately followed by the bursting of the bubble when Shaun Wright-Phillips scored at the other end of the pitch within a minute after the equaliser.
How to change a habit?
David Moyes adressed this “trademark” of the Club in his press conference before the Watford game. It’s this habit of “bursting bubbles” shortly after they have started to fly, which the Scot wants to change when he’s given more time in his second spell than two years back in 2018 when he was replaced after “having done his duty“ of keeping West Ham up. The end of this story (replacing Moyes by a manager of – supposedly – “higher calibers” when the Board decided to turn to former Manchester City and Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini) can also be seen as a typical “fade and die” situation after having “nearly” played the “West Ham way” from autumn of 2018 to the day Fabianski got injured and was replaced by a poorly selected subitute goal keeper. Well, this time round it is all but secure that David Moyes will remain in his managerial position after having guarded West Ham to safety.
When Moyes came back to London in December he said that he refused to consider surviving Premier League relegation a “success” and insisted that in the long term his ambitions sat far higher than that. The manager wants a cultural reset – away from the view he had of West Ham when he was at Everton, namely of a “flaky, inconsistent” side.
That was a view, he said, that was reinforced by one of his earliest memories from the first time he was appointed manager in November 2017, when Watford were his first opponents. “My biggest memory from that night was Marko [Arnautovic] coming off with a sore finger,” said the Scot. “I thought ‘my goodness, what is this I have got here?’. It was my perception [that West Ham were soft] and a lot of managers would still see it that way. It is something we need to change. We have to alter that culture.”
He pointed to a word he heard during lockdown: “One of the things I heard in lockdown came from the Archbishop of York. He said ‘promise less, deliver more’. That has to be a bit of West Ham,” Moyes said ahead of the game against Watford.
Now with the boys having delivered and secured another 4 points and Premier League football next season, it remains to be seen if Moyes‘s intention to change this mentality will reap fruits and West Ham will stop being the team everybody wants to play if a losing streak shall finally come to an end. Far too often, West Ham have not delivered, and famous wins were followed by silly defeats and lacklustre displays. Therefore within the sixteen seasons since Mark Noble’s debut the Hammers have only once qualified for Europe via their league position. And since supporters who have witnessed the Irons winning silverware have to be 40+ of age, two medals for winning the play-off-finals are the only trophies Mark Noble (33) has won with our beloved club. “Let others wage wars for European qualification or Cup silverware, ‘tu Felix West Ham’ celebrate surviving another relegation battle,” that could be our ironic motto in variation of the famous saying about how the (long-gone) Austrian empire had been built by the House of Habsburg (“Let others wage wars, thou, o happy Austria, marry”).
Well, I’m sure no one of us would mind if David Moyes adds some steel to the “soft Irons” when he puts together the squad for next season, as long as he doesn’t forget the attacking flair and creative flow that always has surrounded West Ham! The latest signings of Jarred Bowen and Tomas Soucek have been a success, let’s hope the gaffer will find more “hungry players” he can motivate to give “blood, sweat and tears” when they put on the shirt, like “Mr. West Ham“ Mark Noble has done for 16 years now. Moyes has really earned the chance to show us what he can do for an entire season or more.
The “new normal” sound of football
Next season will start without supporters present in the ground – an isolation of the game which is not “splendid” at all. Without the noise of the crowd, the sound of the game feels like grassroots football on a playing field somewhere in a small village, as one can hear almost every single word which is spoken on the pitch and the sidelines.
The German newspaper “Die Zeit” even had the idea to publish every word that the players had spoken on the pitch during an entire game, filling sixteen pages of the latest issue of “Zeit Magazin” with the words that were exchanged from the first until the last minute of the “Geisterspiel” between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Reading the repetitive language of the players you may think of rap in terms of rhythm, and some things written down sound like a Dadaist play. It was not a surprise that the conversation was dominated by a trio of David Alaba – Joshua Kimmich – Thomas Müller who warned and encouraged the other players for 90 minutes. If the referee made a decision to the disadvantage of Bayern, they often immediately questioned it and tried to put the ref under pressure.
Let’s hope that not only these “ghost games” will become a thing of the past some time this season (maybe as soon as September or October), but let’s also look forward to the prospect of changing the brand of “soft and inconsistent West Ham” within David Moyes’s second spell. But don’t worry, I’m not dreaming of a Bayern-like transformation of West Ham United. It would be boring to win the league seven times in a row like Bayern or Red Bull Salzburg – that would obviousky contradict the motto of all the years I’ve been a member of the Claret and Blue Army: “Never a dull day with West Ham United!”
Though no promises will be made anymore, according to David Moyes’s call to “promise less and deliver more“, with the positive end to the season – not just avoiding relegation, but doing it in style in recent games, including the first double over Chelsea since the 2002/03 season – we dare to dream that the Irons will perform better in their fifth season in the London Stadium than the four years before. And I dare to hope to witness a game of the next campaign in London, as soon as travelling will feel more safe and crowds are going to be allowed to cheer on their team inside the ground again.
If things are going well, we will meet again in autumn!
Come on you Irons!