Watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night, and you can guarantee two things; lesser teams are mere ballast for headline acts like Manchester United, Chelsea et al, and goal-fests are shown first with the gritty one-nils probably saved for the graveyard slot, whatever their importance. This is fine, except that the results of scrappy games often matter more to the clubs involved, and few managers care how the victories come about.
Certainly at the professional level, you play to win, a point made repeatedly by legendary 60’s Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, whose mantra; ‘Winning isn’t the main thing; it’s the only thing’, has been parroted by sportsmen ever since. Lombardi was right. Maybe you can afford to get philosophical over an embarrassing pasting when you’re further lower down the sporting food-chain. But to say that you’re only there for a laugh and don’t really care about the score is just, well, embarrassing.
If your club loses more often than not, you value every win, and as a West Ham fan, I am in just that position. Lou Macari’s brief spell as manager in 1989-90 ended unhappily amid illegal payments allegations, but his go-getting approach; (“The only style I like is a winning style.”), struck a chord with everyone.
In October that season no-one in the Boleyn Ground – apart from the visiting Sunderland fans – complained when a booming clearance from Ludek Miklosko was headed on for Stuart Slater to chest and volley home in one movement (check it out here) It was a great goal in a wonderful 5-0 win. There was no carping about style then, nor should there be now. By all means focus on entertainment, but – and I know I’m fantasising here – only when we’re 3-0 up at Anfield in injury-time.
Sam Allardyce was spot-on in his criticism of travelling Irons fans who doubted his tactics in last season’s win at Peterborough. It made you wonder if some would have preferred pretty defeat to ugly victory. Someone should remind them there are no style points in football.
If we followed a team of Brazil ’82 vintage, we might have complained had Eder merely rolled in a mundane 20 yarder. After all, why didn’t he beat the entire defence and Cruyff-turn the keeper before side-footing home? The problem is, we don’t, and maybe never will, see players of that quality in Irons colours. So let’s accept the wins when they present themselves.
Scrappy victories trump heroic defeats any day, particularly if the winner comes in injury time. How often is it said that good sides score late winners? This happened often in 1985-86, when West Ham came closest to the League title. QPR were downed in the 90th minute by a jet-lagged Frank McAvennie, hot off the plane from the Australia – Scotland World Cup game; Ipswich were dismissed from the Cup in similar fashion, and Charlton were overcome in the same competition by a sole Cottee strike in injury time.
Winning, it seemed, was everything that year, even if it was in an utterly professional, one-nil kind of way. The team ground out results and reaped the benefits. Entertaining? Not always. Memorable? Most certainly. The principle still stands. For proof, consider West Ham’s two most recent FA Cup Finals; 2006 was a great game with the wrong outcome, 1980 a snooze-fest with the right one. Which is best remembered in east London?
When West Ham beat Chelsea 4-1 to stay up in May 1988, the tally including two goals from Leroy Rosenior. The match itself, a nightmarish relegation decider, was a stomach-churning experience leavened only by the outcome. Leroy did it again a few months later at Highbury in the FA Cup; his late header earning a win for a side seemingly intent on relegation. The reactions on the Clock End suggested that no West Ham fan there will ever forget it.
The feature of that, (and many other) seasons at the Boleyn, was world-beating cup form – we also reached the League Cup semi-finals – combined and drain-like showings in the League. Losing League games hardly seemed to matter in ’89, until reality and relegation kicked in at Anfield in the season finale. If ‘cup’ attitudes had prevailed every week, the drop would not have been an issue.
This season Sam Allardyce has brought the pragmatism and single-mindedness that will, probably, keep us up; the hard-fought win at Stoke being a perfect example. The point is that in professional sport, nothing beats winning. It’s what the players are there to do. If they produce a great contest, that’s fine. If not, that’s also fine, as long as the result is right. And I don’t mind waiting til midnight to see it.