The Blind Hammer Column

Blind hammer argues that we all need to manage expectations.

What are the common factors which unites our last game against Swansea with our notorious game against Hull in 2014? Well in both games there was a clear expectation that West Ham should win. In both games we were in the end considered to have and below par performance. In both games we ultimately won all 3 points. Arguably the 3 points gained against Hull was our luckiest ever. We went ahead after 30 minutes with a penalty which should have been disallowed for handball earlier. As a result the Hull keeper was sent off yet despite this double setback Hull dominated the game, equalised and West Ham only won through a flukey own goal scored on a rare foray.

Swansea also dominated possession and the game for long periods, only succumbing to a last gasp winner from Sakho. In both games our supporters condemned the team with a chorus of boos, famously against Hull even after full time when all 3 points were secured. This is the time that Allardyce finally fell out with many West Ham fans by sarcastically cupping his hand to his ear.

This was the time that Allardyce lost a lot of credit with me. This had nothing, however, to do with his cupping his ear antics. I was instead stunned when he widely announced, 24 hours before kick-off that this game was a “must win” game and that not winning would have disastrous consequences for the club. Prior to this game West ham had suffered 3 successive defeats. It was yet another season with which we were flirting with relegation.

For Allardyce, a competent science led sports technician in so, many other areas to get such basic sports psychology wrong was staggering to me. I groaned when I read Allardyce’s comments and predicted that we were going to suffer a fear laden performance, with players paralysed by the season defining consequences of a misplace pass or mistake. The script was laid out for a cautious effort with apprehensive players fearful of errors. Players sought the safe rather than the inventive, the wary side or back pass rather than more risky, daring and ultimately more successful move.

Allardyce got an entirely predictable performance after the cack handedness of his psychological preparation. If anybody was lucky in how events panned out
In our unlikely victory it was Allardyce.

So you can imagine my chagrin when I learnt that the club hierarchy had similarly designated the Swansea game as a “must win” with implied consequences for Bilic arising from any failure.

The paralysing impact of this was immediately obvious for all to see in the first half against Swansea. Rather than relying on play that was instinctive and decisive, we were instead laboured and predictable. It seems we find it difficult to learn the lessons of even recent history.

Bilic is not stupid. He will not need to be told of “must win” games. If he truly needs this pressure then it should be applied privately out of sight of both fans and team. If Bilic is really a manager who needs pressure poured on him to perform then perhaps we do have the wrong manager. I think it is more likely that Bilic, an intelligent man is perfectly aware of expectations. What we saw from Allardyce in the case of Hull, and the Board in the case of Swansea, was seemingly an attempt to distance themselves from the likely performance of a team not yet firing on all cylinders. . In other words get excuses in early, making statement that appears to absolve responsibility for any negative performance.

Personally I thought some of the weirder and wonderful predictions of our result before the Swansea game had, in any case, rather more to do with wishful thinking than any serous football analysis. This led to completely unrealistic expectations. Whatever their weaknesses may be up front, clement had organised Swansea into one of the most difficult defensive outfits in the league. They had nullified the Spurs attack at Wembley, forcing a 0-0 draw, a defensive feat which we had singularly failed to replicate, conceding 3 in our own game against the self-same Spurs line-up only 7 days earlier. I had no idea on what form book those forecasting a goal feast for West Ham were relying on.

The problem is that fear is one of the most crippling problems in football. For a period Roberto Martínez managed Wigan Athletic to an extent where they massively punched above their weight in the Premiership. Martínez himself ascribed this success to the fact that he consistently was able to motivate his Wigan team to play without fear, without the weight of expectation, and as a consequence they consistently exceeded hopes. Martínez was unable to consistently achieve the same result against the weight of expectations when he moved to Everton. Ronald Koeman identified a similar problem and described a recent below par performance in the Europa League as due to his players being “scared.”

This is why I have never personally booed either players or the team. This is not because I am not disappointed but because I believe it is massively counterproductive. By erecting a wall of hostility towards our team we are simply providing one more obstacle for them to overcome if they are to become ultimately successful.

Allardyce actually described this well in his analysis of booing in the 2014 Hull game. He explained’

“We don’t need them on players’ backs when we are coming off three defeats. They have to stay and help them win.”

He added:
“At half-time, the players were talking more about fans booing them than the game. I had to make sure they kept focused on the field.”

So booing made it harder for a team to perform in a way that pleased the crowd. It is odd that Allardyce could understand this but fail to grasp his own counterproductive psychological methodology.

The constant brinkmanship of Bilic’s future is probably causing lapse of judgement. In recent weeks both Antonio and Carroll have played despite obviously not being 100% fit. Bilic is probably motivated to play these key players, even whilst unfit, in response to the pressure he is under.

The West Ham Board must show decisiveness. They should either back Bilic or not place pressure on the team, or they should show resolution now and sack him. What is crippling for the team’s confidence and development is the drip drip of leaks about games being “must win” games, or the 4 games to save Bilic’s job scenario from alleged insider sources. This ultimatum must at least remain private.

We are playing in the most competitive league in the world. It is sheer nonsense to imagine that there are so called “easy games”. We should manage expectations accordingly. Our next opponents Burnley have delighted in shocking several “big clubs” who have underestimated them. However we have quality players who have all recently demonstrated their undoubted abilities in the recent internationals for their national sides. If we want the free flowing instinctive football we would all have joy in then we need to eliminate the fear of failure. We must dare to succeed.

COYI

David Griffith