The S J Chandos Column

Rice is a quick learner and an 'obscene effort' is required against Man City!

Only West Ham United FC could lose a match so convincingly in the last eight minutes! Seriously though, it does beggar belief the way in which we played so well against Arsenal and were in line to win a vital away point, only to blow it at that late stage. Yes, the team probably tired in the latter stages and the nature of Arsenal’s second goal was particularly galling, but (as Arnautovic has subsequently said) we should have maintained our shape and discipline even after that reverse. Instead we unravelled in a quite worrying fashion.

Still, perhaps we should console ourselves with the thought that we did not expect much at the Emirates and now just move on to the next match, versus Man City, this coming Sunday. Only first, I think it needs stating that overall we deserved the point at the Emirates, but that the same old defensive mistakes (at the very death) cost us the result. Lets hope that we can get firmly on top of those defensive lapses and they do not ultimately prove our undoing in the run-in to this turbulent and frustrating season. Incidentally, my view on the post-match Moyes-Rice controversy is that the Manager was obviously too honest in his response to the media’s questions. He should have delivered a more diplomatic response and saved the frank honesty for the dressing room. As it is, social media have jumped on it and created a big fuss and that does no one any good in this present situation. The truth of the matter is that Declan Rice is a youngster of great natural ability and it is that which underpins his outstanding performances this season. But as a 19 year old, he is (naturally) still short on that other vital ingredient, experience. And it is experience that tells a player what to do in a split second situation like that, if you have it, you react automatically/instinctively and clear the danger. Rice does not have it yet, got caught in two minds and unfortunately took the wrong course of action. Ironically, costly as the mistake probably was, it will ultimately add to Rice’s experience and ensure that in future he will make the right decision in similar situations.

The one thing I do know about Declan Rice is that he is a quick learner, he has amply shown that this season, and this incident will probably be a key lesson in his journey towards becoming a top class international defender. His ability to learn from mistakes/situations and progress is what distinguishes him from other promising players at the club who have not made the same progress. I am a fan of Reece Oxford, but there is no doubt that Rice has superseded him in the race to become a first team regular. And perhaps that is why, it is about a positive attitude, learning lessons and continually progressing your game. One player has, the other, hitherto, has not to anything like the same degree!

Well, ‘thank goodness for Ashley Barnes’ of Burnley (as David Hautzig stated in his recent match review). Indeed! That scrappy Clarets equaliser against Stoke City could yet prove vital to the outcome of the relegation battle. It is pretty much clear that if Stoke City lose to Liverpool this coming weekend (as the form book says they should) then they are going to be relegated. Southampton (as the club presently in 18th place) have shown a consistent inability to win matches and if that trend continues then they should occupy the third and final relegation place. Also in the relegation mix are Huddersfield and Swansea and it is still possible that it could be one of those two (rather than the Hammers) who fall through the trap door if Saints somehow manage to save themselves at the 11th hour. But, lets not rely on the deficiencies and negative results of others.The best possible response is to win this weekend to (hopefully, if Bournemouth do the business in the south coast derby) create a 9 points gap over Southampton. If not, then we need at least a point from the Man City match and hope that we can then complete the job up at Leicester City.

No one denies that beating Man City is a very tough task, in facing both the best team in English football and the newly crowned PL champions. But we are at home and if the history of West Ham United FC proves anything (for example, see Fergie, Man Utd and an obscene effort!), it is that a highly motivated team (playing above itself) can get a result against even the best opposition. Hopefully, Man City will take their foot off the accelerator (now the title is in the bag and they are out of the Champions League) and the minds of all those multi-million pound City Stars will turn to keeping fit for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

I know that is probably wishful thinking, but what the hell! After all, stranger things have happened!

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

In retrospect, the crucial thing on Monday evening was not to lose!

Like most of you, I am frustrated that we failed to secure a crucial win over Stoke City. To have done so would have put us 10 points ahead of Stoke and 9 points ahead of Southampton. As it is, we are now 7 points ahead of both clubs, with 4/5 matches to play. Whereas, if Stoke City had secured a travesty of a victory, the gap would have been reduced to a far less comfortable 4 points and given them great momentum going in to their next fixture at home to Burnley. So, in retrospect, it could be the case that the crucial thing was that we did not lose on Monday evening. Tough as some of our remaining fixtures are, I still reckon that we will accumulate the necessary points to preserve our PL status. I am also comforted by the thought that it is very unlikely (based on prior/current form) that either Stoke City or Southampton will secure the three victories out of their final four games that they probably need to stand any chance of surviving at our expense.

I am greatly encouraged by the timely return to fitness of Lanzini and Carroll, plus the apparent determination of Hernandez to stick to his striking task, regardless of the fact that he cannot be happy that he is not starting games. Other notable sources of encouragement are the brilliant form of Rice and Ogbonna, the strong leadership of Noble and the continuing effectiveness of Arnautovic in his central striking role. On the down side, Hart remains prone to silly errors, but we still need to get behind him as I have a suspicion that he will probably remain our first choice custodian for the remainder of this season. Personally, I am also spurred on by the knowledge that the players have previously responded well, under Moyes, when faced with some very tough fixtures against the top sides. For instance, we beat Chelsea (home} and then went on to grind out creditable draws against Arsenal (home), Spurs (away) and Chelsea (away). Those results hopefully bode well for the forthcoming challenges against Arsenal (away), Man City (home) and Man Utd (home). The objective must surely be to maximise the points return in those three matches, so there is less riding on the final two matches vs Leicester City (away) and Everton (home). That final home match against Everton might be our ultimate assurance policy, but lets hope (as events turn out) that we do not actually need it!

As for the match itself on Monday, I thought that we dominated for the majority of the game and should have won easily. The fact that we had three goals disallowed (rightfully as it turns out) speaks volumes. I know that Moyes has a tough job, but I must say that I anticipated that he would have started with Arnautovic-Hernandez up front in this fixture. Hernandez caused Stoke all sorts of problems when he came on and one can only speculate on the impact he could have had if he had started the match. In the end a vital point was rescued by a very unlikely hero, the hitherto incapacitated, Andy Carroll. And what a class strike it was! You know something, on occasions like that, Carroll shows flashes of inspiration/technique that we often think beyond him. Yet, he is obviously capable of it and one wonders exactly what he could really do if could only stay fit for a prolonged period of time. Hopefully, Carroll will now stay fit and play a key role coming on, to positively impact on matches in the latter stages.

Thanks to Carroll’s late equaliser, we stay in a reasonably strong position in our hunt for survival. You would certainly not trade positions with either Stoke City or Southampton, would you? It would be wonderful to secure a great win at the Emirates, but it is more probable that we will set up to clinch another key draw on the road to our PL safety. Indeed, it is all likely to be a bit nerve wracking, but lets hope the issue is settled (to our ultimate satisfaction) come that final home fixture vs Everton. Because Mr Allardyce, and his Toffee Men, are unlikely to do us any favours if they can help it!

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

We must bring Hernandez back in to the fold!

Thankfully, we achieved the draw at Chelsea that has greatly strengthen our survival prospects. I have to say that I really enjoyed the game. Hart had his best display in a West Ham jersey (some would say it’s about time!), Ogbonna and Rice were absolute class, Arnautovic was our best player yet again and Hernandez made a vital intervention from the bench. The goal conceded was soft, in all honesty, but we fought back to equalise and both Arnautovic (for providing the assist) and Hernandez (for delivering a great strike) deserve credit. Indeed. the strike provided a timely reminder (if one was needed) of Hernandez’s proficiency in front of goal. He is that rare commodity, a penalty box predator, with the ability to convert an half chance. In that sense, Hernandez really is worth his weight in gold and needs to be retained in the squad for next season (assuming that we remain in the PL).

There have been rumours circulating that Hernandez has been unhappy at the club, with the suggestion that the player wanted a move in the January window. If so, David Moyes must ensure that there is a rapprochement and that Hernandez feels a valued part of the squad and is prepared to remain for the 2018-19 season. As stated, goal poachers like Hernandez are a rare and valuable commodity and we cannot afford to lose him. He should figure in Moyes first team plans for the remainder of the season, whether starting or joining the action from the bench. Personally, I feel that he could play a really important role in our survival and have an even bigger impact next season.

A victory over Stoke City is crucial. If Chelsea beat Southampton, and we take the three points, then we are virtually safe. After that I reckon one more victory, or even a couple of draws, should clinch the retention of our PL status. And that is to be warmly welcomed, but the board should not be lulled in any false sense of security. The malcontent of the fans has been suppressed for the good of the club, but it remains a very important factor and will re-emerge unless a new direction is taken. In my opinion, the board must authorise substantial expenditure on strengthening the squad this summer – no excuses! By my estimation, we probably need seven quality signings this summer, including: a goal keeper, full-back, centre-half, x2 midfielders and x2 strikers.

In addition, I would expect that Hart, Collins, Obiang, Snodgrass, Carroll and Hugill will all depart the club. I very much doubt that Hart will be signed permanently, Collins should join the coaching staff, Obiang will probably return to Italian football, Snodgrass will likely sign for Villa, Carroll’ s injury record necessitates his departure (hopefully back to Newcastle Utd for c.£10m – if we are very lucky) and arguably Hugill should never have been signed in the first place. That might sound harsh, but the board must be both realistic and decisive in the action taken. We have flirted with relegation (to one degree or another) over the last two seasons and it needs to stop. We need an urgent injection of quality, and improved strength in depth, to ensure that we can get back to challenging in the top ten of the PL. If we continue to struggle then it is only a matter of time before relegation claims us and (as the board well knows) that would be a disaster for the club.

The quality of the summer signings will be absolutely crucial. We need players that will take the club forward to greater things. In addition, I have great hopes that Byram, Burke, Holland, and Cullen can make a positive impact at first team level next season. We also need to see whether the likes of Oxford, Samuelson, Quina and Martinez can finally live up to their big reputations? While bubbling under at U-23 level are prospects like Trott, Johnson and Lewis, who could all come in to the reckoning in the next couple of seasons.

In short, this summer is likely to be a period of change and upheaval in first team affairs. But it is absolutely necessary and will hopefully pay dividends in the long run. Of course, the key question is who will be managing the club next season? If Moyes successfully steers the club away from relegation then it is very likely that he will be offered a new two year contract. And if that is the case, can we really deny that he deserves it? If Moyes can get back to being the manager that he was at Everton, then he could be a good, safe pair of hands. However, the question must still be asked, of the board,whether a more ambitious appointment might not be the order of the day?

We live in interesting times. If we do survive this season (as seems probable), then the board must show ambition and take strong and concerted action this coming summer. Nothing less is expected, nothing else will do!

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

In praise of an excellent victory, but consistency is now crucial to securing safety!

Well, that was a thoroughly enjoyable victory over Southampton, with the Hammers putting in the type of skilful, fluid and cohesive display very rarely seen since we left Upton Park. In addition, the fans responded positively to the performance and gave their staunch and energetic support for the whole of the match. Indeed, the LS seemed very far away from the ‘soulless athletics bowl’ description so beloved of some critics and underlined the fact that, in the correct circumstances, it can be a very effective home ground for this football club.

The priority now is to build upon that display and ensure that our season long inconsistency is a thing of the past. Survival is about continuing to accumulate points and move steadily towards safety. The team did really well and we need to show that we have definitely turned a significant corner towards survival. That means no more abject results up until the season’s end. Yes, we may lose one or two, but lets ensure where that is the case we are still competitive and give every side (including the top four) a bloody tough match. Basically, we must take three points from Stoke City at the LS and (at least) one point from either Chelsea or Arsenal away. Do that and we will probably be almost safe. If we fail to garner that vital away point in those next two away games, then it is probably going to come down to Leicester City (away) or Everton (home) to secure our status. However, we would much prefer to clinch our safety prior to that final home match against Everton. SSN might like it to go to the final day, but no Hammers fan will want that if at all avoidable! Especially with Everton manager, Sam Allardyce, ready and willing to do his utmost to try and put us down!

Regardless, Stoke City is a ‘must win’ and, knowing West Ham, the other points to ensure safety will probably come from less likely, sources (i.e. Man City or Man Utd). The important thing is that we have not only put ourselves in a good position, after beating Southampton, but we seem to have struck some very good form in to the bargain. And that did not seem very likely three week ago, prior to the FA Cup/International break. It is now firmly back in our own hands and we must hope we get a bit of luck keeping our players injury free for the rest of the season. One of the enduring ‘threats’ remains the ‘thinness’ of the squad and the danger of injuries impacting adversely. If we do survive (as I think likely – all things being equal), then major recruitment is necessary this coming summer, with at least 5-7 new players coming in to the squad for 2018/19. That probably equates to 5 class additions, with a couple of promising younger players. Make no mistake ‘iron surgery’ is required, nothing less will do! We can no longer gamble with our PL future and that means breaking the vicious cycle of mediocracy that we have endured in the past two seasons.

Friends told me that I was a little bit hard on Jordan Hug(h)ill in my last blog, which is rather unlike me. Usually I give new players every opportunity to perform and ‘cut them the necessary slack.’ I guess I may have been a bit too damning in my assessment, but it is just that I find it hard to see obvious attributes in the player, apart from honest to goodness endeavour and toil. Hugill certainly seems to be ‘a trier,’ but is that really good enough at this level? Regardless, he is part of the first team squad and I will give him 100% support over the rest of the season, as I would any Hammers player.

Believe me, no one would be more pleased than I if Hugill made the grade as a PL striker. Good luck to him!

SJ. Chandos.

The S J Chandos Column

Some times you just need to take a break, but .....

Firstly, apologies to my readers for not posting on the site recently. This was partly because I was a bit over-extended at work, but also because I was genuinely stunned and disappointed by the relative lack of activity in the winter transfer window. That allied to the decision to sell Ayew to Swansea City (a obvious relegation rival), put Burke back out on loan and flog Fonte were moves that I struggled to comprehend. It made a dangerously ‘thin’ squad even thinner and particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of injuries and suspensions. Do not get me wrong, I can understand the club wanting to sell these players, but just not in the winter transfer window, in the midst of a relegation battle. In my view, if they were to be sold it should have been delayed until the summer. Unfortunately, it appears that the club made the decision to take the inflated fees offered by other clubs at that juncture, which presumably may not have been on offer in the summer. But with no adequate replacements coming in to the squad it was always a decidedly dicey strategy and so it proved.

When the almost inevitable happened, Reid, Collins, Byram, Obiang, Lanzini, Arnautovic et al all fell injured (at various times and durations), the squad become very stretched. Of the players brought in Mario looks decent, without so far overly impressing, and one can only speculate on the rationale for bringing Jordan Hughill in to the club. He has looked out of his depth, when he has appeared, so far, and this is probably the reason for his failure to hitherto start any PL matches. Perhaps there are hidden depths to Hughill’s talents, if so lets hope he reveals them soon, because if Arnautovic and Hernandez get injured over the next few key matches, he is going to have to be pressed in to first team action!

In short, the squad was left far too thin in the summer. Admittedly Hernandez and Arnautovic were good additions, but too many players were allowed to leave without signing replacements. Then those mistakes were further compounded in the winter window. Remember this was the opportunity to augment the strength of the squad and better equip us for the impending relegation battle. And the club blew it right royally. Why? It appears from reports that the club did not have the transfer funds readily available to buy new players outright and they ended up scrambling around trying to get players in on loan with a view to a permanent deal. The board might say that it was all down to the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, well maybe so, but one has to ask why these seem to regularly restrict/limit our transfer activities more than other PL clubs (and I am not referring to the so-called top four elite)?

Naturally, all of this led to fan unrest and the formation of action groups protesting the situation at the club. In turn, this gave rise to plans to stage a protest march prior to the Burnley game, which was then subsequently postponed at the last moment. And on the back of that occurred the horrible spectacle at the Burnley match. I fully understand the anger of fans and the feeling that they have been misled and badly let down. In essence the board broke a golden rule, which is that if you raise expectations to unprecedented levels (i.e. promises of Champions League football played in a world class arena) then you bloody well better deliver! In fairness, expectations were probably also raised by the performance of the team in the final season at Upton Park. However the subsequent two seasons at the London Stadium have been extremely disappointing. In both of the last two seasons the club have had c.57,000 sell outs at the LS and that is a clear demonstration that the fans bought in to the board’s vision of the club’s future. And there is also no escaping the conclusion that they have been badly let down in that respect.

In all honesty I am ok with the London Stadium and I recognise its potential (in the right circumstances) to assist the club’s future progress. There is undoubtedly a lot of residual nostalgia for Upton Park and that was inevitable to a certain extent. However, I firmly believe that if we were watching an exciting and aspirant team every week, challenging at the top end of the PL, most fans would be, if not happy, at least accepting of the LS as our new home. In a nutshell, the poor performance of the team has focused and exacerbated the malcontent that we are witnessing. A successful team would have facilitated our acclimatisation to a new (and very different) stadium environment, lack of success has done the opposite. So, if the board are feeling the heat from fans than they must recognise that they bare ultimate responsibility for that unfortunate state of affairs.

Now, in addition, we have the media and others using the Burnley disturbances as a stick to beat the club. The Mayor of London would obviously like to re-negotiate key aspects of the club’s agreement with the Stadium company. Unfortunately for him, West Ham’s board have a water tight 99 year contract and that can only be revised with the club’s consent. The club are probably prepared in principle to stomp up more cash, but the price for that must be more control over the stadium. In turn, the Mayor’s only current weapon is to use the weight of public opinion against the club to force concessions. Within that context, the Burnley disturbances were probably a bit fortuitous for the Mayor and he arguably was not above exploiting for his own purposes. Hopefully, the recent meeting between the Mayor and Brady will see an end to posturing on both sides and the adoption of a more realistic and co-operative approach. We shall see?

And on the pitch, can we pull away from the relegation zone in the coming weeks? The current relegation battle is the closest that I can remember. Usually, a bit of daylight forms between the bottom three or four clubs and the rest. This year it is so close that any one of eight or nine teams could be relegated. The pundits have grown pessimistic about West Ham’s chances because of the dramatic decline in our results since the Watford victory. After all, losing three matches in a row 4-1, 4-1 and 3-0 is not exactly good at this vital stage of the season. Fortunately the three week FA Cup/International break may have come at just the right time for us. It has allowed Moyes to give the squad warm weather training and concentrate upon sorting out the problems on the pitch. Was the Miami trip worthwhile? As they say, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ and we will see if the team’s form takes an upturn this Saturday, versus Southampton.

The importance of this match cannot be over-stated and the performance/result will tell us much about the probability of our survival. In essence, we must defeat Southampton and follow it up with another home victory against Stoke City. I think that our survival necessitates a minimum of six points from our next three matches. As for Chelsea away, I am not banking on getting a positive result, but if we could grind out a draw (a la the home match against Arsenal and the away fixture at Spurs) so much the better for our chances of survival.

The one thing that cannot be stressed enough is that we supporters must be totally focused on supporting the team in the next two vital home matches. Protests can wait, we are entering the business end of the season and it is absolutely crucial that we end it as a PL club. If we stay in the PL, we can hopefully turn things around, if we are relegated it becomes a whole different, unstable and problematic situation. This is not the 1970s, 1980s or even early 1990s, PL finance is king, clubs do not necessarily bounce straight back and relegation can lead to a club being stripped of key playing assets and going in to long-term stagnation. The fans have made their views known, now they must give the team 100% support as only West Ham fans can. Remember, at the end of the day players come and players go, but the fans are constant. We, the loyal fans, will be the only ones without an escape clause from Championship football. So, lets do all we can, personally and collectively, to make sure that toxic scenario does not transpire. Our club is in trouble and we must answer the call to arms via our staunch support.

As I said, in the title, sometimes you just need to take a break, but …… love of this club always draws you back to the fight!

SJ. Chandos.

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