Something was missing amongst the happy faces at Upton Park on Saturday evening. Given that Diafra Sakho’s 88th minute strike had given the home side their first league win since January 18th – a whole nine fixtures ago – the smile on the West Ham supporters’ faces may have been borne out of relief more than anything else, but they were smiles nonetheless.
Yet the home side’s manager conspicuously lacked his trademark Cheshire-cat grin. Sam ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce usually loves nothing more than using one of his side’s wins as a platform to declare his own stature; but this time, rather than any bombastic statements, the 60-year-old used the post-match interviews as an opportunity to aim a riposte at West Ham’s chairwoman, Karen Brady.
She’s wrong. We haven’t been under-performing, we’ve been under-results-getting. She’s wrong in what she’s saying
As humorous as the notion of a team being defended as “under-results-getting” might be, the public exchange is just the latest in a long line of very public exchanges between the Premier League’s second longest-serving manager – behind Arsenal’s Arséne Wenger – and the West Ham United hierarchy.
Whilst the situation between manager and ownership has never, publicly at least, been a harmonious one – the outspoken triumvirate of David Gold, David Sullivan and Karen Brady have all, in the past, publicly criticised both the performances and transfers of the current manager – but the growing sense, bordering on certainty in some corners, is that Sam Allardyce is not long for West Ham’s parish.
The fact that the former Bolton and Newcastle manager has never struck the most popular figure around Upton Park will not come as a surprise to many. West Ham supporters often operate on a binary love or hate scale when it comes to both managers and players, often not entirely based on logic – Love: Paolo Di Canio, Joe Cole and short-term manager (And Chelsea legend) Gianfranco Zola; Hate: Frank Lampard, Paul Ince and Alan Pardew.
Add this to the reverence to the near-mythological ‘West Ham way’ of playing football and Allardyce’s predilection for a pragmatic blunt-force style of football means that the relationship between manager and supporters was always going to be a strained marriage of convenience rather than a passionate love-affair.
A marriage of convenience it may have been, but Allardyce’s time at West Ham has, for the most part been a success. Allardyce has delivered on his targets of achieving a return to the premier League and solidified that status, all operating under less-than ideal financial constraints. This season West Ham have – despite Karen Brady’s comments – exceeded all expectations in terms of success in the league.
Whilst Allardyce has himself bemoaned recent form – which, it must be said, saw Manchester united sneak a late draw at Upton Park and West Ham mere seconds away from a win at London rivals, Spurs – he can be particularly pleased with both the League form, particularly in the first half of the season, and the success of some of his summer signings.
Allardyce went against one of the ‘Moneyball’ golden rules and bought in Enner Valencia on the back of an impressive World Cup and has been rewarded with some fine performances from the Ecuadorian who has linked well with other new signing Sakho.
Signing Alex Song from Barcelona on a season-long loan has proved a masterstroke, invigorating a midfield that last season resembled a wasteland in terms of creativity.
But perhaps the greatest success is the performances of left-back Aaron Cresswell who, in his debut season, has been considered unlucky not to be called up into Roy Hodgson’s most recent international squad.
Despite all the positives to acknowledge, the spectre of last season still hangs over perceptions of Allardyce. Whilst relegation was, by the business end of the season, a distant possibility, the club’s league form running through to the new year didn’t inspire confidence with either the club’s supporters, or – surprise, surprise – board.
Big-money signings such as Stewart Downing, coupled with previous outlay on – with the best will in the world – ‘meat and two veg’ players such as Matt Jarvis did nothing to inspire excitement around the Boleyn ground.
Very few West Ham fans want anything less than Andy Carroll to blossom at West Ham. But with yet another season lost to injury, the outlay of £15 million is looking increasingly like a mistake, however well-intentioned it may have been.
If, as heavily suggested, Sam Allardyce’s contract will not be renewed in the summer, who will West Ham’s ownership be looking to bring in? And is there any evidence to suggest a methodology behind the club’s current ownership?
When scope is shifted to beyond the tenure of the current manager it may be the case that West Ham fans, even those who have been most vocal in their criticism of ‘Big Sam’ may not like what they see. If asked to compile a shortlist of potential candidates to succeed as West Ham manager, one would be hard-pressed to find an abundance of options.
Slaven Bilić has been generally touted as the most popular candidate. The Croatian’s stock had fallen with failure to bring his nation to the 2010 World Cup, but a widely praised, though ultimately fruitless, Euro 2012 meant he left on relatively good terms.
Since then he has impressed at Beşiktaş, recently turning over Liverpool in the Europa League and still in contention in this season’s Süper Lig.
One element that would make the former West Ham defender attractive to Gold, Sullivan and Brady would be his popularity with West Ham supporters, the ownership being acutely aware of the vitriol regularly aimed at the current boss.
Another potential candidate is Real Sociedad’s David Moyes, though whether the Scot’s footballing philosophies would sit well with the ever-critical paying public is doubtful, as too is Moyes’ willingness to leave a relatively relaxed La Liga spotlight for the bear pit that is Premier League football, particularly so soon after his disastrous spell in Manchester.
Given the lack of options, attention should also be turned towards what exactly West Ham want from a manager. If one looks at two clubs similar in size and scope of ambition – Southampton and Swansea – the way in which both clubs treated managerial replacements in recent times should be a blueprint for West Ham to follow.
Swansea saw Garry Monk as a replacement who lacked the experience, but, crucially, had been indoctrinated in the philosophies that the club wanted to aim for. Southampton also followed this approach, firstly by replacing Nigel Atkins with Mauricio Pochettino, and then, with his departure imminent, had sourced a replacement for the Argentine in Ronald Koeman.
Particularly in the latter club’s case, there’s a methodology and philosophy in place – the question is can the same be said for West Ham?
At West Ham’s stadium, just in front of the team dugouts, the phrase ‘Academy of Football’ is writ large on the pitch-side grass, a nod to the club’s fabled youth development system.
Much like the aforementioned ‘West Ham way’ of playing football West Ham’s youth system is, on current evidence, more of a mystical idea, rather than tangible policy – only two players in the club’s first team squad, James Tomkins and Mark Noble, are graduates of West Ham’s academy, hardly evidence on a particularly solid foundation on which to build.
Coupled with any confusion over West Ham’s current philosophies are further uncertainties over the club’s future. The investment from Gold and Sullivan have, thankfully, assuaged any fears over financial catastrophe in East London, however, the impending move four miles west to the Olympic stadium has only bred more uncertainty.
This move, deemed crucial to the club’s future according to the owners, means approximately an extra 20,000 more seats to fill. Given the issues Manchester City, a club with a similar stadium history, have had with empty seats at league games it only serves to muddy the waters surrounding what kind of club – and, by proxy, manager – West Ham’s owners envisage.
With so many unanswered questions on one hand and, on the other, a sense that the current manager, for all his faults and unpopularity within the fan base, had been somewhat of a success at West Ham the pressing question still lingers – do West Ham stick or twist?