The Sands of time


On the 2nd June 1978 history was made at the Football League’s Annual General Meeting held at the Café Royal in London.  Every year the clubs got to vote on whether the teams who had finished at the bottom of the then Division Four would be “re-elected” to the Football League for the following season, or replaced by a team from the Non-Leagues.  There was no formalised pyramid as there is today with any club who felt they had the resources able to make an application to join the league.  In the previous decade, clubs such as Chelmsford City, Romford, Gravesend & Northfleet and Altrincham had made applications to get into the league without success, with the advantage always with the league sides.  That was until 1977 when Workington were voted out of the league, having finished adrift at the bottom of the Fourth Division, replaced by Wimbledon FC.  However, it was events on Regent Street a year later that would be remembered in the annuls of footballing history.

The bottom four sides in the Fourth Division in that season in order were:-

Hartlepool United – 37 Pts
York City – 36 Pts
Southport – 31 Pts
Rochdale – 24 Pts

They would be joined in the vote by Bath City and Wigan Athletic, the two representatives from the Southern and Northern Leagues respectively.  Wigan hadn’t even won their league, finishing runners-up to Boston United although they were no strangers to playing their hand in trying to gain election, having made 34 previous applications.

In the first round of voting, York City, Rochdale and Hartlepool United topped the voting, meaning they were safe, whilst Bath City received just 21 votes and were discounted.  But Wigan Athletic and Southport both gained 26 votes meaning a second vote was needed.  Unfortunately, Southport lost by 29 votes to 20 and were ceremoniously kicked out of the league, the last club ever to suffer the re-election fate.  The fans blamed the trumpet-playing pub landlord and chairman, Walter Stanley Giller although Wigan Athletic had been very canny in their campaigning, bringing in former England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey to help influence some of the voters – every Football League club got to vote, not just the teams in Division Four and he was still a revered character in English football.

Almost forty years later, Southport were lining up against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier in the final game of the regular season.  In just a few months time the two clubs would be playing their football two divisions apart as the Imps would be returning to the Football League after a six-year hiatus whilst Southport would head in the other direction after seven years at the highest level of Non-League football.  Since that June day nearly 40 years ago they’d rarely come close to returning to the Football League – a 3rd place finish in 1994/95, eight points behind champions Macclesfield Town was the closest they came.

With the Isthmian League season done I could put the stresses and strains of my Lewes role behind me and go back to being a wandering football fan for a few weeks.  Come July time and I am itching to get back into action at The Dripping Pan but by the end of April I am looking forward to a break.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved for us to be playing 250 miles south in the Isthmian League South Play-off Final but we weren’t (although next year will be different I am sure) and so I could get the footballing map out and find some new grounds to visit.  This time last season I saw a double-header in snowy Harrogate Town and Guiseley – this year I would be heading North-West to take one step closer to finishing off the 92 for the third time (after the weekend there would be just Morecambe left to do) and also take in some racing at Haydock Park and Rugby League at Salford Red Devils and their new A.J. Bell stadium.

Southport have undoubtedly suffered as Liverpool and Everton have benefited from the ever-generous Premier League revenue streams.  As I walked down Haigh Avenue I passed a group of youngsters heading in the opposite direction of the ground – 3 Liverpool and 2 Barcelona shirts, oblivious to the game about to start on their doorstep.  Before the season-high attendance, they had averaged just over 1,000, down by around 800 from their Football League days.

In the same season that Southport were facing up to life outside the Football League, Fleetwood Town were formed, starting their life in the Cheshire League.  Twenty years later they folded, reformed and took their place in the tenth tier of English football as Fleetwood Freeport.  They regained the Town name in 2002 and since then they have been on an upward trajectory unlike anything else that has been seen in Non-League football, thanks in main to Chairman Andy Pilley who has run the club since 2004.  Their story is one of the only successes of the single investor models.  Whilst the soap opera continues to play out at Billericay Town, the carcasses of similar stories litters the Non-Leagues.  Margate, Kings Lynn and Histon, to name but a few are examples of where such a strategy has gone horribly wrong but at Fleetwood, the success is all too clear to see with a club that is thriving off the pitch as well as on it.  The club was promoted five years ago into the Football League, with striker Jamie Vardy leaving at the end of the season for a Non-League record fee of £1m paid by Leicester City.  Almost a year to the day of my visit, the club opened an £8m training facilities, putting them on a par with clubs in the Championship.

Southport 1 Lincoln City 1 – Merseyrail Community Stadium – Saturday 29th April 2017
On paper this was a dead rubber with both sides fate already determined.  In reality it played out like one.  Lincoln City had made a number of changes to their side and consequently none of the urgency that had characterised their games in recent weeks was there.  Southport showed in the opening period why they had been in the bottom four for over three-quarters of the Conference Premier season, with the fans seemingly resigned to defeat before a ball had been kicked.

Lincoln City had sold their allocation of tickets, and some more, occupying two sides of the ground and a fair section of the main stand.  The home side formed a guard of honour for the Imps as they entered the field accompanied by a riot of red and white from the away fans.  The home fans looked on in envy – relegation would see few such days in the coming twelve months, especially as local upstarts AFC Fylde would be heading the other way.

Despite the weakened side, Lincoln City were looking to finish the season on a high, coming into the game on the back of a ten game unbeaten streak.  They looked to get the ball wide as often as they could, trying to find space behind the Southport full-backs, whilst the enigma that is Matt Rhead played the pantomime villain to a tee, winding up the home players and fans alike, constantly in the ear of the referee about the treatment he was receiving.  On the half-hour his presence in the area caused all sorts of chaos and Lee Angol had the simplest job of putting the Imps into the lead.

Back in 1973 when both sides were in the Football League, the crowd was entertained by an appearance from Red Rum at half-time, who had just won his first of three Grand Nationals.  Today, we had the excitement of a kids five-a-side tournament and the songs of Coldplay.  Don’t get me started about the demise of half-time entertainment…oh OK if you insist then have a read of this.

The rest of the game was played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly.  The home fans around me on the Scarisbrick Terrace were reading out the teams currently in the Conference North, mentally ticking off where they had been, getting very excited about a day trip to Blyth Spartans, although the claim by one that they were from Blythe in Staffordshire rather than Blyth in Northumberland was amusing to listen to.  Just as most of the home fans were getting ready to head home for an afternoon of Jeff Stelling, Southport scored through Neil Ashton.  I had made my excuses before the final whistle, heading down to Haydock Park to watch the action on and off the track.

Twenty two hours after leaving Haigh Avenue I was on my way into Fleetwood, about an hour north of Southport, past the town’s most famous feature, the Fisherman’s Friend factory.  I’d been tipped off that if I could get into the club lounge area then I may meet up with Syd Little, a long-time fan of the club and often seen helping out his wife who runs the kitchen.  Alas, with that avenue of pleasure closed off, I headed to the Highbury Chippy, which came highly recommended but like Chessington World of Adventures was a disappointment.  Apparently it is under new management but it appears they are yet to get to grips with exactly how long to cook food for.

Fleetwood Town 0 Port Vale 0 – Highbury Stadium – Sunday 30th April 2017
It is rare that you watch a game that is so bad you wish someone had invented a time machine to get those 2 hours of your life back to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry.  There’s no disrespect in that statement to Fleetwood Town as hosts – after all they had little to play for once Bolton Wanderers had taken an early lead.  However, at the other end of the pitch, if I was one of the thousand plus Port Vale fans who had turned up in hope they could get a win, I would have been furious that the team simply looked ill-prepared, tactically inept and completely devoid of motivation.  For the home side, they had to hope Bolton Wanderers slipped up for them to have any chance of automatic promotion.  Possible, but unlikely.  For Port Vale, the maths was much simpler.  Better the Gillingham result and they would be safe.

The strong cross wind made it difficult for both sides, but it was clear what the issue was from early in the game so why continue to try to plan long cross-balls?  Neither keeper really had anything to worry about in the first half bar dodging the litter blowing onto the pitch whilst the fans put on their best smiles for the completely over the top Police presence and their roving video camera man.

I cannot really tell you anything of interest in the second half.  With five minutes to go and the police readying themselves for a potential pitch invasion from the away fans I headed out.  As I got to the corner of Highbury Avenue a huge cheer went up.  I got to the car and checked the score, expecting to see one of the sides had scored but there was nothing.  I can only assume the cheer was for a corner, so bad the game was.  In the end Port Vale went down without a whimper and I hope for the fans sake that they find some comfort in an opportunity to be at the top end of the table next season, albeit at a lower level although I think there may need to be a big chance off the field before the good times start to roll again.

Football has moved on beyond comparison in the last forty years, mostly for the good.  The anarchic process of re-election, the perfect example of the old-boys club in action, has fortunately been scrapped but that’s no comfort to Southport (although it may be for Port Vale next season!).  For Lincoln City and Fleetwood Town the future looks bright.  Even if the latter do not find success through the Play-offs, they will get stronger on and off the pitch, looking forward to having a local(ish) derby with at least Wigan Athletic and possibly even former Premier League Champions, Blackburn Rovers.  Strong foundations built on and off the pitch, with a good local fan base can only lead to good times ahead for the Trawlermen and the Imps.

Postscript:
Just one week later Hartlepool United, the club with the most reprieves from re-election (14 times) were relegated from the Football League after rivals Newport County scored an 89th minute winner in their game against Notts County to leapfrog United and send them down in the final minute of the season, having spent just two weeks in the bottom two all season.

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More (I)FABulous law changes on their way


If yesterday’s Premier League games tells us anything about the state of the game today its that referees get big decisions wrong from time to time.  Spectacularly wrong in the instances at Swansea City v Burnley and Manchester United v Bournemouth where the decisions had a material impact on the game, if not the result.  With great power comes great responsibility and whilst many of us will question their ability to handle the pressure of a billion pairs of eyes scrutinising any and every decision, it is something that they will have to live with.

The use of video replays would have made a massive difference yesterday.  In the game at Swansea, Anthony Taylor blew his whistle to give a penalty to Burnley for handball.  Play was halted by his whistle so if video technology was in use, he would have easily been told that it was the Burnley play who handled, not a Swansea City player and play could have restarted with a free-kick to the defending team.  Likewise at Old Trafford with the Ibrahimovic and Mings incident, play had been stopped by the referee.  He knew something had gone on which should be enough for an opportunity to review the decision.

Referees have so much pressure on them to perform that it is time some of the responsibility was taken off them.  The use of goal-line technology in the top flight has eradicated any doubt and opportunity for error as to whether the ball has crossed the line.  Somehow, we need to get that technology working further down the pyramid.  Perhaps if we also took timekeeping away from them, then there would be less pressure at the end of games when the mysterious “added time” amount is often questioned.  Rugby Union and League uses a time-keeper who is able to fairly stop the clock in circumstances where unnecessary time is being taken – hardly a revolutionary change or one that would require significant implementation (and would give the Premier League/Football League further opportunities for sponsorship no doubt).

The decisions at The Liberty Stadium and Old Trafford come at a very apt time for football as this week we’ve seen the latest round of proposed changes to the game being made public.  It’s that time of the year when the footballing world is treated to the bewildering proposals in the laws of the game as the 131st meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) met at Wembley Stadium. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not FIFA who make up laws just for the sake of it, but IFAB which, in a nod still to the importance the British played in the development of the game, is made up of representative from the home nation Football Associations plus FIFA.  Yep, this group has more power than UEFA, South America and Asian football combined.  If any country wants to suggest a rule change, then they have to get the ear of a board member and it is discussed at this annual gathering.

The decisions made at this year’s meeting will be formally ratified in the summer and then come into play at the start of next season, although some will on.y be seen in junior football, such as the implementation of sin bins.  Such a change will be run as a trial in junior football with the aim to see how feasible it is to bring into the game at a higher level.

Another interesting change that will be trialled next season relates to how penalty shoot-outs are managed.  The proposal is that they will follow the tennis tiebreaker approach meaning in theory no one team will gain an advantage of taking first (6/10 shoot outs are won by the team that takes first).  So team A will take first then Team B will take two, then Team A will take two, and so on until Team B take the 10th penalty, if necessary.

The meeting, which was chaired by Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn, also approved further testing of video assistant referees (VARs) and agreed a strategy to improve player behaviour.  From next season, assuming the home stadium has the ability to support the technology, video replays will be used in the FA Cup from the Third Round as an extended trial.

The board also discussed the issue of player behaviour and dissent towards the officials.  A key part of that strategy will be considering how better to use captains. This may eventually mean only captains can speak to match officials, as is the case in rugby union, but such a rule-change does not appear to be imminent.

For now it appears the law changes won’t impact us too much.  Last season’s amendments are still proving difficult for many officials to interpret, none more so than the rule about players not having to leave the field after being treated for an injury if the perpetrator is cautioned or dismissed which has been a thorny issue for our management team on a number of instances.  And let’s not go into the whole “offside in your own half” business.

There’s a balance to be struck between making changes for the good of the game and making changes because it justifies the purpose of IFAB.  The jury is still out where public opinion sits but perhaps they should listen more to the average fan and some of the ideas they may have.  Watching 100 plus games a year gives me plenty of opportunity to think about what could be done to improve the game, so here are my five ideas for submission to next season’s meeting:-

  1. The use of an independent time-keeper who is able to stop the clock for any excessive time wasting and thus eliminate the concept of “injury time”.  No longer would there be dispute about adding 30 seconds for a substitution (we timed an opposition substitution two weeks ago when they were winning at 1 minutes 17 seconds from stop to start of play).  Likewise, there will be no silly antics of players getting involved when a goal is scored and they try to recover the ball from the net and are blocked by the defending team.
  2. If the ball is kicked directly out of play for a throw-in (i.e without bouncing) then it should be taken level from where the kick was made – in other words the same rule as they have in rugby.  The purpose of this is to try to reduce time-wasting tactics where defenders, protecting their lead, hoof the ball out of play and thus encourage more attacking and positive play.
  3. Foul throws should be treated as fouls and penalised with a free-kick to the opposing team rather than giving a throw to the opposition.  I’m amazed at how often at the highest levels of the game, foul throws are not penalised.
  4. Get rid of indirect free-kicks.  All fouls and transgressions should be treated the same – fouls are given because the laws of the game have been broken and should be penalised the same way.
  5. “Shepherding” the ball out of play for a goal kick needs to be redefined.  It’s the biggest joke in football when a defender creates a barrier yards away from the ball to stop the forward getting to it, even when they change direction of attack.  Allow an exclusion zone of no more than 2 feet from the ball – anything else should be deemed as obstruction and penalised either with a free-kick or in the area, a penalty.

Of course I doubt any of these will see the light of day.  If I was to predict what we will see in the future I would say it will be 20 minute half-time breaks (more opportunity to sell advertising) and that there is no limit to the number of players that can be named as substitutes – after all during major international tournaments this rule is already in existence.

I’m sure IFAB and FIFA will argue changes are for the good of the game, but if that was the case, why haven’t they implemented some of the more sensible ideas already?

Championship reputation


There can’t be many fans who dislike Fulham.  OK, perhaps apart from Queens Park Rangers fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, although the vast majority of the “new blues” probably have no idea where their nearest neighbours actually play.  The club has tried to retain a sense of history and tradition whilst a maelstrom of off the field activities have directly impacted on the field performances.  But coming into the new 2016/17 Football League season (hashtag EFL for those down with the kids) there was a sense of optimism that things could be different this term.

unnamedSome things never change though as this Friday night season opener proved:-

  1. Despite the travel logistics, Sky felt that it was justifiable in ensuring that Newcastle fans couldn’t get back to Tyneside after the game by public transport;
  2. Despite point 1, Newcastle still filled the whole of the Putney End;
  3. The only beer you could get in the ground was Carlsberg;
  4. At the age of 35 Scott Parker is still as mobile as he was when he joined West Ham back in 2007;
  5. The police still haven’t worked out how to manage the crowds at Putney Bridge tube station;

Prior to the game, which had seen an eventful tube journey where football fans had been called into action to prevent a fight on the train between a heavily pregnant woman and a young “lady” with attitude who felt it was her right to stand blocking the doors “to get some air”, I chatted with a member of Fulham’s new marketing team.  It seems that owner Shahid Khan was now in action not words mode and wanted to press ahead with an ambitious development of the Riverside Stand that would see it built up and back into the Thames, supported by a man-made island.  Fans would then be literally shipped into the ground.  Not the craziest plan I’ve heard and actually one that would have been more than ideal for The Boleyn Ground (swap River Thames for access road leading to bus garage).  The current capacity of just under 26,000 with limited space for corporate hospitality simply does not allow the club to increase the ever-important match day revenues.

By retaining Benitez, a significant number of players from last year and boosting the squad with some new signings, the bookies unsurprisingly have made Newcastle favourites for an immediate return. From experience of West Ham’s foray’s into the Championship you know that the novelty of visiting grounds you haven’t been to in a while soon rubs off when you are losing though.

unnamed (3)The atmosphere had been turned up at the Cottage as kick off approached.  Newcastle were being backed by 6,000 fans, an outstanding achievement considering the kick off time and distance.  Fulham fans in the Stevenage Road stand were making quite a din themselves, fueled by those card clappers and the acoustics of the metal roof.  One noticeable fact was the lack of home fans wearing replica shirts.  Perhaps I’d just been accustomed to seeing virtually every fan in one during the European Championships or that the new ones, complete with the statement “VisitFlorida” on the front weren’t yet on sale.

Fulham 1 Newcastle United 0 – Craven Cottage – Friday 5th August 2016
After 10 minutes of this game I turned to Tall Tom and pointed out the Newcastle game plan.  “Every time the right back gets the ball he hits it diagonally behind the Fulham left back”.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence before another ball was hoofed up field for Perez to chase.  On this occasion he did earn a free-kick on the edge of the box as Odoi pushed him over but if we could see their tactic from the stands so quickly then I’d have hoped Fulham boss Slaviša Jokanović (described by Wikipedia as a “physical player”) would have too.

unnamed (1)The game was played at a good pace although neither team seemed willing to progress further than the edge of the penalty area.  Newcastle should have had a penalty when Ritchie’s cross is punched away for a corner by Tunnicliffe.  New season, better technology, same basic decisions being missed.  Ten minutes later Fulham went ahead when Matt Smith rose the highest to head home a corner.  Men on the posts? That’s so 2015/16.

The second half saw more of the same from both teams.  Newcastle’s fans seemed to be permanently on edge every time the ball was played towards their goal, whilst the Fulham back line opted for a no-nonsense approach in defending.  They had another decent shout for a penalty when a last-minute shot appeared to hit a Fulham arm but rarely threatened the home team’s goal.  I can only assume they have neglected to work on set pieces in the pre-season based on the efforts of Perez and Shelvey (or as Sky refered to him “England’s Jonjo Shelvey” which still gives me hope of an international call up).

Full time saw Benitez stride purposefully towards the referee although the Spaniard kept his dignity and simply shook hands.  He had a right to feel aggrieved but this would have been a harsh lesson for him and the team.   The Championship is a brutal league where pre-season odds and reputations count for nothing.  Teams will raise their game at home to Newcastle and will park the bus at St James’ Park.

For the thousands of Fulham fans disappearing into the London night the dreams of a return to the promised land may just remain a little while longer.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 10 – The Theory of Just Pricing


Back in 1261 whilst waiting for the medieval equivalent of Super Sunday to start Thomas Aquinas picked up his quill and started to draft the first ever transfer policy for his as-yet unnamed football team. He had studied the way that his local market worked and mused that “no man should sell a thing to another man for more than it’s worth”. In that one statement he tried to explain the collective transfer value of Andy Carroll.

4766163428_f4f73b243f_bAccording to prevailing economic theory, there is no such thing as a rip-off or something being over-priced. The price of anything is simply the market – if someone is prepared to pay then it is a fair, market price AS LONG AS there are alternatives (monopolies such as train companies do not adhere to such a model of course). So if someone wants to pay £25million for a route-one target man with a dodgy knee and an even dodgier ponytail then it is a fair price. Nobody forces a football club to buy any player – they have three choices. Try to negotiate a lower price perhaps throwing in a few players who aren’t good enough for them, spend the cash on something else such as a new fleet of Bentleys for the existing player or go and buy an alternatively crocked player with a bad haircut elsewhere.

The transfer market should establish a fair price for every player as no one has an intrinsic value. So they may have played for their country a hundred times, scored the winner in a World Cup Final, kick with both feet and can head the ball fifty yards – all great characteristics but irrelevant if you are looking for a goalkeeper. Clubs who slap a price tag on a player are trying to create a false economy that will never prevail.

Aquinas suggested the concept of a “just price” – the price the buyer is willing to pay with the right amount of knowledge of the product. So if a club knows Carroll has a dodgy knee/ankle/ponytail, the price they are willing to pay should be different to that without the information. He also saw those people who sold with recognised avarice as evil people – something that could certainly be levelled at the ticket pricing strategy of football today, or dare I say it, football agents.

So there we have a brief explanation as to how a 13th century Italian monk came up with the first, truly fair rules of the transfer market. That ladies and gentlemen, is the theory of just pricing.

You are only as good as your next game


Four months ago Leyton Orient found themselves 2-0 up going into the dressing rooms at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.  They O’s were just 45 minutes away from their first visit to the Championship and sticking one over on the Rotherham United manager, Steve Evans.  Nobody wants to see that these days do they?  Ninety minutes later and the players lay distraught on the pitch, having lost the game 4-3 on penalties.  After a forty nine match league campaign, their fate had been settled by one missed spot-kick.  Harsh.

IMG_1120A few months later and the O’s were looking up the table rather than down it. Amazingly, after those exploits last season, manager Russell Slade was under pressure.  The fickle nature of football, combined with a new owner who had bought the club in the summer from Barry Hearn, means that a manager is only as good as his last match, irrespective of what has gone on before.  Slade’s achievements in finishing third last season were impressive, especially with clubs with much bigger resources, and of course, budgets in the division such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Preston North End and the anti-club, Milton Keynes Dons.

Whilst The Mighty Rooks would be starting their FA Cup campaign down on the south coast at Bognor Regis Town, I would be in London.  Westfield Shopping City, Stratford to be precise.  Sometimes even I have to compromise between football and family time, and this was a promised treat for the Littlest Fuller.  But then a cunning plan started to emerge.  Get to the Shopping mecca early doors, take family to nice restaurant for lunch and then walk across the Olympic Park for some football.  Genius.  So clever that they agreed to come with me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Orient, as they always were when I was growing up.  My Dad often used to bring me to Brisbane Road when I was young as the Dad of one of my best school friends, Derek Possee,  used to play for them and so we didn’t used to pay to get in.  I remember seeing a couple of classic games against West Ham here, including the FA Cup 4th Round back in January 1980 when the Hammers edged a thriller 3-2 on their way to Wembley (proper FA Cup Final Wembley, not money-making Semi-Final Wembley), standing on a milk crate at the front of the West Stand.  I remember that stand well, with the tea bar at the back and the rust falling from the roof whenever the ball hit it.  I stood on it for the last time in December 1996 to see Peter Shilton make his 1,000 appearance against Brighton & Hove Albion.

IMG_1105Since then the ground has been totally transformed.  The old West Stand is now a unique-looking stand with steep obstruction free seating and then a huge wall behind it, with various local community facilities inside – a great and innovative use of the space.  In each corner there are the privately owned flats with their balconies that openly flaunt their ability to disregard the Taylor Report with spectators able to stand (STAND!) and drink beer (BEER!) in view of the pitch.  How many of them do you think cause problems each home game? Exactly!

Leyton Orient 0 Colchester United 2 – The Matchroom Stadium – Saturday 13th September 2014
Sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that will be the sentiment of the majority of Leyton Orient fans as they reflect on the defeat to Colchester United. It was a decent game of football, with the home side peppering the visitors goal (16 shots) but failing to really test Walker in the Colchester goal.  There was one incident in the second half where from the view we had in the North Stand, Watt appeared to handle the ball on the line, although most of the crowds view would have been of the keeper diving in front of him.  May be just the angle but looked like a penalty from where I was sitting.

There were a few familiar names in the starting line up for both sides.  Leyton Orient had Jobi McAnuff on the bench, a player who showed considerable promise at West Ham under Pardew but was shipped out far too early. Colchester lined up with Freddie “The new Tony Cottee” and George “son of John” Moncur.  Sears problem was, like Cottee, he was a small, in your face striker.  He, like Cottee, scored on his debut for the Hammers and was then seen as the saviour.  Unlike Cottee, he never really repeated that high and was released by the Hammers.

IMG_1122Colchester were forced to start the game with 10 men, as the referee wasn’t happy with the black ankle pads that George Moncur had on over his socks.  The U’s were wearing a black and yellow kit, with striped socks.  Quite what was wrong with that I don’t know.  Good to see he was so hot on those laws of the game but let so many very physical fouls by the away team go unpunished in the first half.  It’s all about priorities, after all.  It did seem that Colchester had been sent out to simply use brute force to stop any Orient attack and it was a surprise that it took twenty minutes for the first name to go into the book, that of Moncur. Like father, like son.

Colchester seemed happy to hoof the ball into the corners for Sears to chase.  They weren’t in the game at all, appearing to have come for the draw.  Just before half time Magnus Okuounghae rash challenge on David Mooney saw him see red and the most ludicrous “stand off” between two aging, plump fans in the East Stand, gesticulating to each other that frankly made them both look very silly.

However, come the second half and Colchester realised that if they played on the counter-attack, using the pace of Sears and Watt, playing it to feet then they may have some success.  Twice they broke, twice they scored.  The first, was less than 10 seconds after Leyton Orient had taken a corner, with Sears the creator.  Five minutes of injury time were announced but still the O’s couldn’t hit the target.  “We’re only playing against ten men” shouted the chap next to me.  True, but with Orient always keeping two men on the half-way line to counter the attacking threat, they lost that numerical advantage.

IMG_1124The defeat meant that Slade could be soon looking for another job.  Director Mauro Milanese was the man to pass the message on to Slade from ‘President’ Francesco Becchetti after the 2-0 loss to Colchester.  “The president has been honest enough via Mauro Milanese to tell me we have got one game to sort it out so hopefully we get a response on Tuesday,” said Slade, “That’s in terms of my future, obviously today’s result is not a great one for the football club, these things can happen but obviously the president will want better than that.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why football will one day eat itself.  Senseless decisions made by people who believe they can be the next Manchester City or Chelsea, spending peanuts along the way.  As a neutral it was a very enjoyable afternoon, watching a decent game of football. One game can change the course of a season and I hope for all that Slade has done for the O’s it comes on Tuesday night.

Matt finish saves Hammer’s pre-season blushes


At the end of last season many West Ham fans faced a dilemma.  Premier League survival had been assured, which of course was the prime objective of any club outside the top seven every season, especially with the increased revenues available from the overseas TV rights but the team had gone backwards under Sam Allardyce.  In the previous season the club had finished in 10th spot, and with the big money signing of Andy Carroll, expectations were for a push towards a Europa League spot.  Instead a dreadful run of form between November and January saw them lose nine Premier League games and be eliminated from the Capital One Cup at the Semi-Final stage by Manchester City, shipping in nine goals without reply over the two games.

Questions were asked of Allardyce’s stewardship, not only in terms of the results but also the style of play that was still not winning over the fans.  His relationship with the supporters had dropped to an all-time low as he often mentioned that the failure to get behind the team in difficult times was one of the reasons why their form was poor.  In April 2014 during the away game against West Bromwich Albion, a section of West Ham fans expressed their distaste at the style of football played under Allardyce by displaying a banner which read “Fat Sam Out, killing WHU”.  Owners Sullivan and Gold took an unprecedented step of almost undermining him by insisting he employ an attacking coach for this season to “ensure the team provides more entertainment”.

14635690272_14b416929c_kThe club moved quick to appoint former player Teddy Sheringham in the role, although he is yet to finish his coaching qualifications and has no background in similar roles which suggests it was more of a move to appease the fans rather than to assist Allardyce.  The main issue is that Allardyce had built a squad to play in a certain way, his way.  You simply cannot change the style a player plays just by coaching them for a few weeks.  So Allardyce has been given the cash to bring in some new faces.

So far four have arrived.  Argentine forward Mauro Zarate, Senegal international Cheikhou Kouyate, highly rated full-back Aaron Cresswell from Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic’s teenage midfielder Diego Poyet.  These aren’t the signings on paper that would have me purring with excitement at a new look, attack minded team.  Allardyce (and the owners) transfer record in bringing in overseas forwards has been shocking to say the least.  Let me throw some names out there and see whether you can say what impact they had on West Ham or English football in general:-

Maroune Chamakh (2 games, no goals), Modibo Maiga (31 games, 3 goals), John Carew (21 games, 2 goals), Brian Montenegro (2 games, 0 goals), Papa Bouba Diop (16 games, 1 goal), Pablo Barrera (2 games, 0 goals), Marceo Borriello (0 games, o goals)

Last season all the attacking eggs were placed in the Andy Carroll basket.  Carroll’s strike rate through his career has been just less than 1 goal in every 4 games.  So over the course of a Premier League season, even if we had changed our style massively by using two wide me, such as Jarvis and Downing, we would have only expected to score a dozen goals.  Hardly enough to push us into the top eight.  Alas, Carroll picked up an injury and missed over half the season – the reason that Allardyce continued to trot out as to why we were struggling.  He was forced to resign Carlton Cole who for many games was the only striking option we had.

14632781351_e28cdcbd53_kThe first opportunity for the new dawn of the Hammers was to be away at Stevenage in a pre-season friendly. Whilst these games can be dismissed as irrelevant in terms of a barometer for the season ahead, it would be one of the few opportunities Allardyce would have to demonstrate his new attacking intent before the Premier League season got underway. However, in an all too familiar story, Carroll, Cole and new striking option Zarate would not travel up the A1(M) for the game.

Whilst not in the same financial bracket as a Non-League team hosting a big club, this would be an important game for Stevenage and they hoped for a bumper crowd.  Their relegation back to League Two at the end of last season had dented the momentum the club had after winning promotion to the Football League back in 2011.  Two seasons later and they were on the verge of a place in the Championship after reaching the Play-Offs, only to lose to Sheffield United.

This was my first visit back to Stevenage since they lost their Borough a few seasons ago.  I’d first been to Broadhall back in 1996 when they played Hayes in the FA Cup first round.  I’d stumbled on the ground by accident after visiting our prospective wedding venue down the road and celebrating by buying our first ever PC (an Intel desktop that cost a whopping £1,995) in the Industrial Park just off the A1.  Having seen a number of football fans parking outside Comet (RIP) I managed to persuade the then Future Mrs Fuller (FMF) to go to the game.

14635563612_4ef65c1a55_kEighteen years later and she was dropping me back in the same Industrial Park opposite the ground.  Alas, with the two little Fuller’s in tow she wouldn’t be joining me, opting for the shopping option instead.  The fans were out in force, with all those hopes and dreams for the season still in tact.  Whilst one day would not make them fade and die, they could start to plant those seeds of doubt that sit in all football fans.

Stevenage 2 West Ham United 2 – Saturday 12th July 2014 – Broadhall Stadium
Whilst we all know this is all about the performance, rather than the result, if it wasn’t for Matty Jarvis West Ham would have left Hertfordshire with their tail firmly between their legs with a defeat to a spirited Stevenage side.  His 84th minute header brought the Hammers back into the game then set up Stewart Downing to score a 90th minute equaliser much to the relief of the fifteen hundred travelling West Ham fans.

Without any first choice recognised strikers, Allardyce, sporting an American Hustle look with three (THREE!) shirt buttons undone, was forced to start with a first half side utilising Kevin Nolan and McCallum up front.  New signings Cresswell and Poyet also started, with youngster Leo Chambers playing alongside Winston Reid at the back.  Despite the wishes of the board, the opening exchanges simply saw the Hammers punt the ball long for the likes of Vaz Te and Ravel Morrison to chase, rarely troubling the Stevenage keeper, Sam Beasant, son of ex-Wimbledon legend David.

14450407710_0806dace44_kThe opening exchanges were unsurprisingly cagey, and played at a sedate pace, yet bang on 22 minutes the referee blew his whistle for a water break.  Ridiculous.  We were in Stevenage not Salvador.  During the break, both benches were on the field, coaching the teams.  You can see this playing right into the hands of the TV companies if this is allowed to continue, being able to sell more advertising slots in prime time TV.  Five minutes later, after the referee had been prompted as to where the game actually stopped from, Stevenage had a player down injured.  Once again, manager Graham Westley was on the pitch, obviously now the club doctor.  And the role of the fourth official is often dumbed down.

West Ham’s keeper Adrian had a torrid first half and was at fault for the opening goal of the afternoon.  Cresswell headed back to Adrian and as the keeper slid out  to gather, he dropped the ball at the feet of ex-Wealdstone winger Pett who said “Thank you very much” and tapped the ball into an empty net.  Adrian did what all good goalkeepers should do in that position – he appealed for a foul then started holding his wrist as if injured.  He then faffed at a low cross from Deacon and pushes the ball into the onrushing Stevenage forward, who couldn’t believe his luck and slammed the ball against the post.

14449338290_45762b6c6a_hHalf time and wholesale West Ham changes saw a brand new starting XI with Downing and Jarvis brought on to give the team some width.  However, it was Stevenage who struck again when that old favourite “A. Trialist” turned neatly and beat Jaaskelainen to double their lead.  It looked like being a miserable afternoon for West Ham until Jarvis threw himself at a Demel cross to score a rare headed goal.  Even rarer was a Downing goal, let alone a header but it was his nod, from Jarvis’s cross in the 90th minute that gave West Ham a share of the spoils.

So what would Allardyce have learnt from the 90 minutes?  There were certainly some positives – Winston Reid looked sharp, Jarvis positive and it was great to see assured performances from the young trio of Lee, Potts and Chambers.  On the flip side where must be some worries over the goal keeping situation, Tompkins looked very shaky against League Two strikers and the lack of strikers saw Nolan huffing and puffing away chasing long hoof balls.