Constantly looked over for seemingly better alternatives (West Ham’s search for fans against the pull of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and a growing Manchester United fan base in London; and Sam Allardyce, who once genuinely believed he was good enough for Real Madrid, with Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Steve McClaren at England and Steve Kean at Blackburn).
Battling with a misconceived image of their respective histories (West Ham’s supporters being tarred with the tag of hooligan casual; and Allardyce as an encourager of foul play).
And a failure to ever rise to their maximum potential (West Ham’s brilliant homegrown crops of the 1960s and 1990s should have won more than just the 1964 FA Cup; and Allardyce’s failure to hit the ground running immediately to appease Newcastle’s then new owner Mike Ashley, who did not appoint him).
Who would have thought a 57 year old from Dudley in the West Midlands with an old-school philosophy and a club famed for their attractive playing style and tradition of producing classy footballers, be it Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking or Joe Cole, would have so much in common and end up turning to each other in pivotal points in their respective histories and careers.
Before addressing Allardyce’s first six months at the Hammers, it is important to first look at the environment he was parachuted into. A club £110 million in debt, according to notorious owners David Gold and David Sullivan in their opening press conference in January 2010, Gold and Sullivan had hopes of becoming London’s top team through their seven-year plan. Champions League qualification by 2017 was seen as a feasible goal, particularly if the club avoided relegation in 2009/2010, which they did under the admirable and dignified Gianfranco Zola. However, the owners, sensing there were better alternatives to the well-loved Italian, turned to football’s great placebo: Avram Grant.
Grant, regardless of the scepticism, ludicrous elevation and underhandedness in his appointment by close friend Roman Abramovich, struck gold when he was offered the manager’s job at Chelsea in September, 2008. With his only major role being the management of the Israeli national team up to that point, his appointment as Director of Football in the summer of 2007 was a surprise in itself – given José Mourinho’s defiant protection of Steve Clarke’s assistant manager position the previous summer, when Abramovich’s growing influence led to the sanctioning of the signature of Andriy Shevchenko and a thirst to put Grant, surely as a dressing room mole a la Michael Emenalo four years later, in place of Clarke. Abramovich, regardless, and maybe even because, of Mourinho’s popularity with the fans and media alike, tired of the Portuguese and the Russian’s insistence on adjustments to Mourinho’s pragmatic football, and failure to back him wholeheartedly in the summer of 2007, had seen Chelsea in tactical limbo: scoring more goals, but losing their defensive solidity and killer instinct (scoring eight goals in seven games, but conceding eight in as many games at the start of the 2007/2008 season). Grant, as a placid, non-confrontational and quiet individual, was the perfect antidote to the brash Mourinho.
This transferred perfectly to West Ham under Gold and Sullivan, with the influence of agent Barry Silkman on the ill-fated loan captures of Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane, where West Ham paid both players’ inflated wages in full, and the signings of Winston Reid and Pablo Barrera – who were both signed on a whim after decent World Cup performances. These deals mirrored the power of superagent Pini Zahavi and ‘Grant’s’ acquisitions of Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic at Chelsea. Many of Grant’s signings would probably not have happened under Zola, who was horrified at being kept in the dark over a potential deal for Graham Dorrans in January 2010, who advocated the use of youth-team products like Jack Collison and Fred Sears and who dealt with transfers alongside technical director Gianluca Nani (ultimately mixed, but clearly Zola-stamped, acquisitions of Luis Jiménez and Alessandro Diamanti in the summer of 2009 for example).
As well as his failure to assert himself in the boardroom, Grant failed to inspire tactically or motivationally in the dressing room. Like at Chelsea, where the reports of the players and Steve Clarke running the show during Grant’s eight-month reign seem more and more realistic in hindsight, key figures, Wally Downes and Scott Parker, clearly had a hold on team affairs – but this did not prevent some dismal and tactically clueless West Ham performances. Without a clear game plan and an idea of his favoured and consistent starting XI, and a lack of intent, Grant’s ‘tactics’ and lack of pressing led to incessant attacks on the Hammers’ goal and West Ham’s defence was torn to pieces on a near-weekly basis. Coupled with Grant’s failure to be roused and influenced by West Ham’s boisterous support home and away, with Scott Parker often having to resort to giving the dose of inspiration the Hammers needed in key matches such as in the 3-3 draw away to West Brom on 12 February, West Ham failed to achieve one of the main goals of a team hoping to avoid relegation: building a home fortress (winning just five home Premier League games in 2010/2011).
Under Allardyce, there has been a remarkable shift in strategy by the owners – who have kept a lower profile and have backed Allardyce handsomely. Allardyce has brought in eleven first-team players since he took over in June, 2011 and each one has crucially had his stamp of approval. Arriving before 7 August, Kevin Nolan (29, £3 million): the inevitable replacement for Scott Parker as West Ham’s talisman and captain, but has yet to have the devastating impact expected of him; Abdoulaye Faye (33, free transfer): the epitome of the ‘Allardyce player’ with his monster-like presence, strength and commitment which West Ham were badly lacking in their defence last season; Matthew Taylor (29, £2 million): a cultured left foot and brilliant set-piece delivery which are both key for Allardyce’s trademark use of wide play, with crosses, and his exploitation of corners and free-kicks; Joey O’Brien (25, free transfer): always a reliable and upstanding full-back for Bolton before a series of devastating knee injuries but by proving his fitness to the strict Allardyce, the Irishman has solved a problematic right back slot for West Ham in recent seasons; and John Carew (32, free transfer): a key hold-up outlet and provides the intense competition that keeps Carlton Cole on his toes (the Englishman has lacked motivation at times in recent seasons, partly due to a lack of alternatives for West Ham).
From 10 August, George McCartney (30, loan deal): Eggurt Magnusson’s sale of McCartney was the reason for the regrettable loss of Alan Curbishley and the Northern Irishman is a much better alternative to Herita Ilunga (West Ham conceded three goals from their left hand side in the opening games against Cardiff and Leeds); Papa Bouba Diop (33, free transfer): like Faye, epitomises Allardyce’s love of tall and strong players and gives West Ham cover with the steel they lack; Sam Baldock (22, £2 million): eyebrows were raised in paying a reported £2 million for a man who had only scored 43 goals in 124 games for League One side MK Dons, but the Englishman has been pivotal to West Ham’s resurgence with his channelled running and poacher instincts (5 goals in 10 games); David Bentley (27, loan deal): was incredibly rusty, despite his undoubted natural ability, and suffered an unfortunate knee injury but was a risk worth taking considering it was a loan deal; Guy Demel (30, free transfer): Ivorian international, with great pedigree and stature, who can bomb down the right flank and is slowly regaining his match fitness; and Henri Lansbury (21, loan): Allardyce’s best signing at Upton Park so far and his all-action and committed displays have won him instant cult status with the Hammers’ fans.
Admittedly, Nolan, Taylor and Baldock would have been players well out of most Championship teams’ reach and budgets, given that they were also chased by Premier League clubs, but credit must be given to Allardyce in convincing the likes of Faye, Nolan and O’Brien to drop down a division. Also, Allardyce’s working of the transfer market must be applauded and when one considers the amount (over £10 million) Sven-Göran Eriksson spent on the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Lee Peltier, Sean St. Ledger, Matt Mills, Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Beckford. Allardyce has clearly been weary of the future in bringing in players that left a meaningful impact on the Premier League at some point in their recent careers and who could replicate that form, in tandem with Allardyce’s acclaimed man management, in the Premier League in 2012/2013. As well as that, Allardyce has used the loan market, a crucial part of the likes of Wolves, Birmingham, Blackpool, Swansea and Norwich getting promoted in recent reasons, to great effect.
Still, though, regardless of Allardyce’s pedigree in the transfer market over the years, with names ranging from Jay-Jay Okocha, Yuri Djorkaaef and Iván Campo to José Enrique, Michel Salgado and Steven N’Zonzi, he faced an incredible challenge in winning round the West Ham supporters. The Hammers’ fans, regardless of the heartache and disappointment of recent years have always prided themselves on their tradition of attractive ground football and even in the cases of passionate footballers like Julian Dicks, these cult heroes were still comfortable with the ball at their feet. Allardyce’s appointment seemed to suggest a new chapter would be written, with an emphasis on shape retention and hold-up play rather than flowing team moves. From this, perhaps Allardyce was entitled to quip:
I don’t know why they (the supporters) moan about winning when all they did before was lose.
With Allardyce already leading the Hammers to ten league wins, two more than their amount of victories in the whole of the 2010/2011 Premier League campaign, which would have been near-unimaginable at this stage, even in the ‘easy’ Championship, under Avram Grant and his stale squad, the Englishman deserves immense credit. This is without even addressing Allardyce’s prominent use of the likes of Jack Collison and Mark Noble, rather than Papa Bouba Diop, whose deftness and incisive passing have been as crucial to West Ham scoring 45 goals, the second highest in the Championship, as Cole’s/Carew’s hold-up play and bulldozing abilities.
Avram Grant always swore by his “good football”, but it was often directionless and clearly ineffective – two facets that are devastatingly punished in Europe’s most competitive second division, the Championship. So, if West Ham can maintain their brilliant away form and continue to eradicate the nervous mentality of the Grant era (Allardyce has already worked wonders with the likes of Robert Green, James Tomkins, Winston Reid, Mark Noble, Jack Collison, Julien Faubert and Carlton Cole), where leads were blown, late goals conceded and comebacks rare, then they look the most likely side to go the distance with Southampton in getting promoted automatically.