The Long(est) Goodbye


When Bobby Moore virtually turned the lights out at The Boleyn Ground around 11.33pm on Tuesday 10th May, most West Ham fans shed a tear as the fine old stadium went dark for the last time.  Time to move on, even if like me, some questioned the need to move in the first place.  The season had been a huge success on the field with Bilic soon putting the pre-season critics in their place with a superb campaign even if two defeats in the last three games cost the club a first-ever Champions League spot.  But thanks to Manchester United’s FA Cup Final win last week over Crystal Palace,the Hammers will once again compete in the Europa League although that now poses an issue of where the home leg will be played after the club has sold over 50,000 seats for the opening game at The Olympic Stadium against Juventus due to take place after that tie.

However, since the Manchester United game the club has come under criticism for hosting a number of other games.  Whilst they may have a charitable motive, the fact that the much-hyped United game wasn’t the last game has seriously irked the fans.  A proposed West Ham Ladies game on 5 June was cancelled after nearly 12,000 fans voted to whether it should go ahead.  Despite over 50% voting in favour of the game! the club cancelled the game influenced by comments on social media! meaning the Manchester United game would be the last public fixture played at The Boleyn Ground. Except it’s not.

FullSizeRender (2)I can’t remember how I stumbled upon the information but on Bank Holiday Monday the stadium was hosting two games between Upton Park FC and Royal Engineers AFC with the ‘pay what you want’ admission fee going to charity.  The official West Ham website had no information about the game nor could I find any information about Upton Park bar an article I wrote myself and published back in 2011, summarised below.  With my alternative option of finishing deconstructing my old office in the garden (aka The Sheduseum), curiosity won the day and I headed off to Upton Park (the place) for my final visit to The Boleyn (the ground and the pub).

Upton Park FC had been dissolved back in 1911 and whilst former FA Cup winners, Royal Engineers, still have a team today, there was no link at all back to West Ham United or The Boleyn Ground.  Both teams actually took part in the first ever FA Cup back in 1871 with Upton Park losing 3-0 at home (West Ham Park) to Clapham Rovers whilst Royal Engineers made it to the final, losing 1-0 to Wanderers.  The two clubs actually played each other in the 1879/80 FA Cup at the 2nd Round stage with the Engineers running out 4-1 winners.  Despite their name, they had nothing to do with West Ham United nor ever played at The Boleyn Ground. The annual performance of the club in The FA Cup did inspire Thames Ironworks who moved to West Ham in 1897 after entering the competition themselves for the first time the year before.  Thames Ironworks became West Ham United in July 1900 and moving to the Boleyn Ground four years later.

But just a few months into the life of West Ham United, Upton Park FC had their finest hour, winning an honour that no English football club can ever lay claim to.  The date is 20th September 1900.  The place, The Vélodrome de Vincennes in the south-east of Paris.  In front of a crowd of approximately 500 locals the Great British football team had just beaten their French counter parts 4-0 and in the process won Gold in the first Olympic games of the modern era.

The 1900 Summer Olympics were notable for being rather different from the ones we can expect later this year.  For a start the games opened on 14 May and did not finish until 28 October.  And then there was the events themselves.  We may scoff at events such as Beach Volleyball and BMXing, but back in 1900 we had ballooning, cricket (England beat France), Basque Pelota and my personal favourite the 200m swimming obstacle race (Gold won by Great Britain’s Frederick Lane).  And there was the shortest Olympic event – the Tug of War – where a combined Danish/Swedish team took Gold from the French in a competition that took 3 minutes 12 seconds from start to finish.

But let’s get back to the football tournament.  As opposed to picking the best players of the time, the Football Association decided to ask Upton Park FC to represent Great Britain.  Quite why they picked a Non-League, amateur side who just a few years before had disbanded is a mystery that time and tide has erased, but they justified the decision by winning gold.

Sounds an impressive achievement doesn’t it?  Well let’s look at the truth.  Football had been introduced into the games as a Demonstration event.  Originally the tournament was to feature five nations – France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain.  Right up until the day of the first game it was expected to be a five way contest but for some reason the Germans and the Swiss didn’t bother sending teams so instead it was decided that it would just be a three team tournament.

In the first game Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques, representing France, were drawn to play Upton Park.  A very comfortable four nil win for the British put them on the verge of a Gold medal for just 90 minutes work.  Three days later the French side beat Université de Bruxelles 6-2 meaning a third and final game was not necessary.  The Belgians could not win gold and so the first ever Olympic football tournament was won by Great Britain, or more precisely, Upton Park Football Club.

At the time the team weren’t actually awarded any medals or even a cup.  Some years later the IOC awarded the club the “honour” of a gold medal, but as they had finally disbanded in 1911 nobody actually knows what happened to any award.  As it was a demonstration event they probably just had a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich or two before they returned back to Blighty.

FullSizeRenderA heart-warming story I’m sure you will agree, and one that could easily be made into a film.  But back to today and can someone please explain what relevance the Upton Park game has to being the last “public” game at The Boleyn Ground because I will be damned if I could find anyone outside the ground at 12.30pm who could tell me?  Still it did give me an opportunity for one final look around and a beer in the deserted Boleyn Pub before I headed inside to see what exactly was going on.

Upton Park FC 2 Royal Engineers 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 30th May 2016
At first glance it appeared this was a wind-up.  There was no game on, nor did it appear that there was any life in the stadium at all.  A group waited outside the main entrance for their tour to start but then I spotted an open door on the corner of the Main and Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.  No signage, no stewards, no posters – just an open door.  Once inside the inner-sanctum of the Main Stand I paid my money for the charity programme and took a seat just as the two teams came out for the first game.  It was surreal to say the least.  Around 100 spectators were spread across the lower tier of the Main Stand.  The constant sound of drills from the Bobby Moore Stand filled the air as the club had begun to remove them, with fans having paid £50 for a bit of old plastic.  Every possible sign in the stand, such as on the toilet doors had already been removed, as too had the big screens in the corners, in preparation for the final public event, the grand auction (only £25 to get in by the way) being held next weekend.

FullSizeRender (1)West Ham fan Matt Lorenzo was the PA announcer although with roll-on, roll-off subs he kept the announcements to a minimum as the two teams, who had to keep a minimum of three players over the age of fifty on the pitch at any time, played out a decent game which saw Upton Park, their squads made up of fans and Non-League players, ran out 2-0 winners.  The first goal was as good as anyone would have seen this season with the centre-back running through the whole of the middle of the Royal Engineers team from his own half before chipping the keeper.

The second game saw the two “first teams” play each other.  Upton Park included former West Ham keeper Neil Finn in their squad.  Finn played in the same Youth Team as Lampard and Ferdinand and became the youngest ever Premier League player when on 1st January 1996 he was drafted in to play against Manchester City at Maine Road after Les Sealey, deputy to the suspended Ludek Miklosko, was taken ill.  Miklosko’s wife had to sew numbers onto the back of Finn’s shirt in the hours before the game, which West Ham lost 2-1.

FullSizeRender (5)The two teams lined up for the “anthem” but no music was forthcoming, so someone quickly hit the button that said “Bubbles”.  “Sorry about that”, said Lorenzo, “We were supposed to be worshiping the Queen not Bubbles”.  Both teams had decided to wear dark shirts, black shorts and black socks, which made it a bit of a nightmare to work out what was going on.  As the second game kicked off, with the crowd now around the two hundred mark, the tour group appeared in the corner of the Main Stand, stopping to take photos and getting in the way of players trying to take throw-ins.  The whole experienced seemed quite bizarre.

FullSizeRender (4)Another decent game ensued with Upton Park running out 3-2 winners.  I’d left with 15 minutes to play to get one final pint in at The Boleyn, for old-time sake.  It seems like this goodbye had been the longest in history, but now it was time to drink up and move on after forty years of some good and a few bad memories of watching football in London E13.

 

 

 

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A fond farewell…sort of


Humans are rubbish at saying goodbye.  We will put something off as long as we can, often kidding ourselves that we will get “one final chance” to say farewell, even when deep down we know it’s not going to happen.  I’ve known for three years that at some point I would be making my final visit to Upton Park yet when the realisation comes that “this is it” I didn’t really know what to think.

26578670721_9db220e464_zI recently worked out I had seen West Ham play at The Boleyn Ground over 300 times.  My first visit was back in 1976, coming to a game with my Dad and brother against Burnley.  I’ve seen promotions, relegation, riots, sit-ins, utter jubilation and crushing defeats.  As a father I remember bringing both my children to the ground for the first time, hoping that they would fall in love with the stadium just like I had.  One hated her first experience of football so much (and we were sitting in a box!) that she vowed never to come back.  There are few games that for one reason or another I don’t recall.  Despite the game becoming this global, polished marketing vehicle, the life that teems around Upton Park on a match day hasn’t really changed in that 40 years.  Ken’s Cafe, Nathan’s Pie and Mash, the same bloke selling the programmes (the one with the pierced ear and funny teeth).  I still wonder today what happened to the Monkey Nuts seller on the North Bank.

There was never going to be a chance of getting a ticket for Swansea City, or latterly Manchester United.  Football doesn’t work on compassion and nostalgia these days.  My years of loyal support and tens of thousands of pounds count for nothing – it is all about the here and now, and I have no issues with that having given up my season ticket six seasons ago.  So my chance to say goodbye was going to be in the Premier League Development Squad League Cup Final First Leg (nothing like a catchy title) against Hull City on a freezing cold April night.

West Ham’s current owners do some things really well. But they also far too often go back to type and think of the fans as ATM machines, happy to dish out cash on demand.  Take the start of this season where West Ham had qualified for the Europa League for the first time in over a decade.  Tickets for those opening games were priced from £10.  That is cheaper than watching games eight levels below the Premier League.  Consequently virtually every ticket for the three games played at The Boleyn Ground sold out.  A few days after the last of those games was a friendly arranged against Werder Bremen where the ticket prices were doubled.  The attendance? Well let’s just say tickets were available to buy on the day.

The positive vibes the clubs created by announcing a year in advance of the move to the Olympic Stadium with some of the cheapest season ticket prices in the Premier League were seriously undone by the legal wranglings over the exact details of the stadium deal. 26578680771_7a998b40f8_zA walk around the stadium store just shows how much money the owners have tried to make out of this final year at The Boleyn Ground.  Almost every item under the sun had a “Farewell Boleyn” logo on.  Based on the number that had started to appear in the bargain buckets, I guess fans have got “farewell” fatigue.

Every fan will have their own special memories of the ground and meeting up with Dagenham Dan and Brian we spent a fair amount of time taking a trip down memory lane to the most obscure places.  In the fullness of time I am sure I will remember more but for me the five most vivid memories have been:-

West Ham 5 Notts County 2 – August 1978 – My first real season at Upton Park and on the opening day a team inspired by Devonshire and Brooking scored four first half goals to top the league. I assumed from my spot on the lip over the entrance to the South Bank, just in front of the man bar that every game would be as easy as this….

West Ham 1 Dynamo Tblisi 4 – March 1981 – Almost 35,000 squeezed into Upton Park to see one of the finest performances ever witnessed at the ground.  The Russians (now Georgians) arrived for this European Cup Winners Cup Quarter-Final as relative unknowns but undid a West Ham side who had lost just a handful of games all season.  Even now I can remember the names of players such as Chivadze, Chilaya and Shengalia. By the time we reached the ground at 7pm, the North Bank and West Stands were full, but for some reason nobody was using the “away fans” turnstile – the first time I ever stood in that corner of the old South Bank.

West Ham 6 Aldershot 1 – January 1991 – Non-League Aldershot had managed a 0-0 draw in the initial tie in this FA Cup 3rd Round tie and with the replay also to be played at Upton Park I took the opportunity to take my then girlfriend of 9 months to The Boleyn Ground for the first time.  She hated the whole experience of standing on a cold and wet South Bank, despite the six West Ham goals.  I had to act fast to turn a desperate situation around so I proposed, kneeling down in the passenger foot-well of her pink Fiat Panda at some traffic lights in Walthamstow.  She said yes and for the next year I wasn’t allowed near a football ground because we were “wedding planning”.  By the time we drew with Non-League Farnborough a year later at the same stage of the cup, the wedding was off and I was again back on the South Bank.

West Ham 2 Ipswich Town 0 – May 2004 – After the shock of dropping out of the Premier League on the last day of the previous season, West Ham made a real hash of trying to immediate return, losing to sides such as Gillingham, Rotherham United and Millwall.  We scrapped into the Play-offs, winning just five of our last ten and then lost to Ipswich Town at Portman Road in the first leg.  This was the Pardew “Moore than just a football club” era and the noise levels at the ground on the night of the second leg were off the scale.  Etherington brought us back into the tie just after half-time and then Christian Dailly scrambled home a winner with twenty minutes to play to send nearly 32,000 Hammers fans into delirium….”Oh Christian Dailly, you are the love of my life, Oh Christian Dailly, I’d let you shag my wife, she’s got curly hair too”.  Less said about the final in Cardiff the better.

West Ham 3 Newcastle United 1 – September 2008 – In one of the first games of the Zola era I decided to bring my daughter to her first West Ham game.  I gave up my Season Ticket in the Bobby Moore lower to watch a team featuring Ilunga, Behrami and David  Di Michele.  The little Italian shone on that day, scoring two in the 3-1 win but more importantly giving every fan hope that we had found the new Di Canio.  Some of the football played on that afternoon was sublime and hard to forget, unlike the performance two weeks later against Bolton Wanderers where we lost by the same scoreline where it was hard to remember.

There are a host of other games that have less positive memories of course plus a huge bunch of matches that just merge into one.  Any fan could wax lyrical about their team’s performances over the year, with their most memorable games being close to their heart.  Being in the stadium one last time brings all of those to the fore, just like the memories of a dearly departed friend or love one.  As Shankly said, football isn’t a matter of life or death – it is more important than that.  Whilst I wouldn’t 100% agree, I do see on the emotional side where he was coming from.

26578684361_98d38ac4d4_zLooking around the ground before kick off it is still hard to fathom why the club feel the need to move.  With just the old East Stand needing redevelopment to make the stadium a more than comfortable 40,000 all seater, blind ambition seems to have got in the way of sense.  This season has taught us a number of things.  Firstly, you don’t need a massive stadium, nor billions of pounds to challenge (and win) at the top of the table.  The fact that West Ham are still chasing a Champions League spot with three games to go has nothing to do with the stadium but the squad assembled.  Secondly, clubs that have ignored their youth development will temporarily be replaced in the hierarchy.  Both Chelsea and Manchester United have suffered this season, primarily down to the old guard simply not reaching the standards required.  Again, that has nothing to do with the stadium.  Finally, it is about the football club being part of the community – moving to the Olympic Stadium will remove the club from the kill parts of this small area of London.

I get the fact this is about ambition and about being able to compete at the highest level of the Premier League but we also have to be realistic.  Only a small number of clubs can compete for the major honours and we have to go head to head against some of the world’s most wealthiest clubs – the new TV deal will make the rich, richer.  Investment will be required and I am not sure our current owners are willing to make that additional step once the club moves to the new ground.

West Ham United DS 1 Hull City DS 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 25th April 2016
In some ways a crowd of over 10,000 for this game was quite impressive, but with tickets on sale for as little as £4 for adults and only a few more games left in the ground I expected more.  There was a danger that the football would become a mere side-show but fortunately a decent game, punctuated by some excellent performances ensured that a fine balance between nostalgia and excitement was maintained.

26371043240_ee9b71b1c6_zDespite the last-gasp winner for substitute Djair Parfitt-Williams, West Ham dominated the game with the stand-out player being Martin Samuelsen, who impressed back in pre-season in a number of games and was again displaying some of the impressive skills that have seen him play regularly in League One this season at Peterborough United.  At the back, a mature performance from Reece Oxford ensured that it was unlikely Hull would ever be leaving East London with anything more than a point from a goal-less draw.

It is hard to imagine how many of the squad will go onto be regulars in the first team.  Sam Byron signed in a high-profile move from Leeds United, whilst Josh Cullen has been playing at Bradford City.  Whilst the Europa League run last season gave us a taste of the potential future talent at the club, few have been regulars in the first team squad yet.  The fabled West Ham academy production line seems to have temporarily gone on strike, although the purposes of youth development for Premier League clubs has changed so much in such a short period of time to almost being defensive in approach rather than looking to polish the diamonds of tomorrow.

As the rain and sleet fell at the end of the game there were a few fans shedding a tear as they posed for one last photo next to the pitch.  For my final visit there was no queue at the bar at The Boleyn nor was there one to get into the tube station at Upton Park – hardly like old times then.

The Boleyn Ground – 1904 to 2016 – Rest in Pieces

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail


Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of tactics and what appeared to be a naivety in the way West Ham approached their first leg Europa League tie against the Maltese team Birkirkara.  With an injury time, fortuitous goal being the only thing that separated the two teams as they headed for Malta, there was an assumption that The Hammers would raise their game on the night and comfortably progress.  After all, no English team had ever lost to a Maltese side in European competition, and the odds on a West Ham defeat were still as long as South Eastern Trains running my train on time for a week.  But West Ham once again showed their lack of discipline, and what appeared to be once again a lack of preparation.  Tomkins became the second West Ham player in this season’s competition to be sent off for an “off the ball” incident, with Noble incredibly lucky not to follow him for some pathetic, childish behaviour, mocking Birkirkara’s Fabrizio Miccoli for his weight (all captured on camera)…Miccoli’s response was to score the only goal of the game.

Fortunately, the only credit (bar the support from the fans) The Hammers could take from the game was their ability to take penalties meaning they progressed into the Third Qualifying Round by the skin of their teeth.  Drawn to play Romanian side FC Astra Giurgui you would expect Bilic to have learnt his lesson, prepared correctly and told the team to keep their discipline..right.

FullSizeRender (2)Once again the fans took advantage of the £10 tickets.  There is a lesson here for all clubs.  Whilst it has been nearly a decade since the fans tasted European football, it is clearly the right thing to do to bring in potential new fans or those simply priced out of the Premier League games.  Two interesting side points to this.  Despite marketing the fact (to death already) that this is the Club’s last season at The Boleyn, the first two home games have not yet sold out despite being on general sale.  Perhaps it is the fact that the cheapest ticket is £42 (and £25 for an Under16), or that potentially the games may move from their 3pm on a Saturday slot due to progress in the Europa League.  The second will be the crowd for the friendly game on Sunday versus Werder Bremen.  The last pre-season friendly has traditionally been played at The Boleyn, always versus a foreign side and nearly always for some strange-named cup.  This Sunday it is the Betway Cup (Last season West Ham beat Sampdoria in the Marathonbet Cup) with ticket prices £20 for Adults (£15 for STH) – it will be interesting to see how many will come to that game.

IMG_5164Bilic shuffled his team around for this game against FC Astra with new signings Angelo Ogbonna and Dimitri Payet coming in for their home debuts, whilst James Collins replaced the suspended James Tomkins.  In midfield youngster Reece Oxford was given another chance after performing so well in the first round against the Andorrans.  The Romanians had filled their section of the stadium, their number boosted by locals from London.  They are on an upward trajectory thanks to the investment in the club by owner Ioan Niculae, who bought the club in 2010 and moved them from Ploiești to Giurgiu in 2012.  Whilst this was potentially the biggest game in their history, they weren’t coming to London just to make up the numbers.

West Ham United 2 FC Astra Giurgui 2 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 30th July 2015
It was as if West Ham had learnt nothing from the four games already played in this competition in the end and the boos that echoed around the stadium at full-time suggested that the fans felt the same.  Yes you could put it down to a “bad day in the office” but that would be the third bad day in a row with no idea how to make it better.  The icing on the cake was Bilic’s dismissal from the technical area near the end.  Quite why he got himself is a mystery in a game which wasn’t dirty nor did the officials get much wrong.  Worrying early signs of a temperament issue?

Two-nil up and in control of the game and we f@#k it up…royally.  It could have been worse I suppose.  We could have lost.  But the complete lack of discipline, tactical awareness and reliance on a striker that gives us all hope we could still play in the Premier League lays bare the fact the Hammers simply got this all wrong, again.

FullSizeRenderThe first half domination was plain to see as corner after corner was delivered into the box.  It wasn’t a question of if but when they would score.  Valencia finally broke the deadlock with a smart header before departing on a stretcher after a nasty fall.  With Carroll on permanent sick leave and Sakho still suspended from his lack of discipline in Andorra, the only real option was Maiga.  That is worrying for the season ahead.  Still, if we need an attacking midfielder we are fine – we can field a full XI of those at the moment as the club seem reluctant to sell any of them.

The second half started well with Zarate dancing through the defence before slotting home a fine second goal for The Hammers.  Then it all went wrong.  Yellow’s for Noble (no surprise), Payat and Collins as the West Ham domination failed to materialise into any further changes.  Then Collins picked up a second yellow and off he went.  Three red cards in five games.  Whilst there is irony in the fact of how we got into the competition, it more importantly shows the lack of discipline and awareness of how playing European opponents differs from Premier League teams.

Within minutes the Romanians were back in the game when Boldrin’s stunning strike from distance cannoned off Adrian’s bar and over the line.  Many of the West Ham fans could not help applauding – it was a superb strike.  The visitors grew in confidence, forcing corner after corner before Ogbonna headed into his own net ten minutes later to level the tie.

Despite having over 66% of possession, 15 shots on target and 15 corners West Ham travel to deepest, darkest Romania in a week’s time knowing they have to out score their opponents.  A draw will see The Hammers exit the competition and potentially the last chance to play in Europe for a very long time.  That regret may take a while to sink in.

So how do they prepare for next week?  For starters, watch this game time and time again.  Look at how the Romanians exposed the defensive weaknesses after the loss of O’Brien in the first half and Collins in the second.  Fortunately Sakho will be available but unless he gets the service from the midfield it will be tough.  Payat showed some promise but he is a player used to playing with more intelligent footballers around him.  And please, no more red cards!

Just bloody shoot!


West Ham United 1 Birkirkara FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 16th July 2015
FullSizeRender (1)
For the second consecutive Europa League home game, West Ham flattered to deceive against a team they were expected to beat comfortably.  If it wasn’t for James Tompkins stomach the Hammers would have been travelling to Malta next week with the tie all square and the Maltese team recording possibly the greatest result in the countries European history.  West Ham didn’t play well, per se.  The stats don’t lie – 74% of the possession, 8 corners, 18 crosses successfully delivered but for all of those positives, they could only muster 7 shots on target.  All of a sudden, West Ham seem to have become Arsenal overnight.

It seems that someone didn’t do their homework on Birkirkara. Their strength was the centre-back pairing including the vastly experienced Argentinian Mauricio Mazzetti, especially in the air.  So what did West Ham do? Pepper the box with crosses.  Perhaps is Sakho would have been available it may have worked but The Hammers started with Modibo Maiga, a man most of us had forgotten was still at the club after spending the last eighteen months out on loan.  Ineffective is probably a kind description of Modibo’s efforts although he did come closest to scoring when he hit the post in the first half.

FullSizeRender (2)West Ham had a couple of good shouts for penalties in the first period when Birkirkara rode their luck.  Maltese National keeper Justin Haber made a couple of saves, although he was a keeper who loved a dramatic punch when he could have stood up and simply caught the ball but apart from a Zarate first half free-kick he was rarely troubled.  Jarvis and Almafitano had the beating of their full-backs time after time but how West Ham longed for the creative spark and ability to shoot from distance that Stewart Downing brought to the side last season.  Alas, as the game was progressing, Downing was making his way up the A19 with his new Middlesbrough shirt in his bag. The neat passing play across the box was nice to watch but with no one willing to take a shot, the moves broke down much to the increasing annoyance of the 33,500 crowd.

The frustration started to show in the second half as O’Brien, Cresswell and Reid all went into the referees book for late challenges, which gave the Maltese players even more opportunity to waste time.  Nolan was replaced in 79th minute to a chorus of muted boos, the fans not appreciating his defensive approach to the game.

The Maltese fans had chartered a plane to bring them to London for arguably the biggest game in their history and they brought colour and noise to the away section that some Premier League clubs would be proud of.  However, their hopes of a famous result were thwarted in injury time when Cresswell’s corner was missed by Haber and smacked the onrushing Tomkins in the mid-rift and bounced over the line.

So West Ham simply need to avoid defeat next week in Malta, which they should do.  No Maltese team has ever beaten an English team in European competition – that in itself is a fact that should motivate the Hammers to get the job done and progress to Round Three and a tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle or FC Astra Giurgiu.

 

So where are we going next – Birkirkara FC


After the low-key win in Andorra it was a relative surprise that our next opponents turned out to be Birkirkara from Malta.  After their goal-less draw in Malta two weeks ago against the Armenians, Ulisses FC, the odds were stacked against the “Stripes” when they traveled to Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan.  But they won 3-1 meaning that they progressed in European competition for just the third time in their history.  In fact the game was only their fifth victory in thirty eight European games and a spot in the Second Qualifying Round gives them a chance to equal their best ever run in the competition.  Their finest moment came in 2010/11 when they got to the Second Qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Slovakian Champions MŠK Zilina, although they did win the first leg of that tie in Malta.

The club were formed in 1950 and are four times winners of the Maltese Premier League as well as winning the Maltese Cup five times, the last of which was back in May when they beat Hibernians to qualify for the Europa League.  Ten years ago the club were coached by former Arsenal striker Alan Sunderland.  Whilst their UEFA ranking is 356th, they have a relatively impressive squad with 10 players capped at full international level by Malta, including captain Gareth Scriberras whilst defender Alejandro Moreno has over 40 caps for Venezuala.  Their danger man is the very experienced Fabrizio Miccoli who has played for Fiorentina, Juventus and Lecce although he is best known for his 74 goals in 165 games with Palermo.  Coach Gionvanni Tesesco also had a decent career in Serie A and was actually an unused sub when West Ham lost to Palermo in their last European adventure back in 2006.

4581521355_858677dc11_bThe club play in the centrally-located town of the same name which with over 22,000 people, is the biggest town on the island.  Their ground, the Infetti (meaning “infected” in Italian by the way!), is an athletics stadium with basic facilities and a capacity of just 2,500 but the good news is that the game will actually be played 3 miles down the road at the 18,000 Ta’Qali National Stadium is just 3 miles away – Ta’Qali is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”.  Birkirkana itself is just 5 miles from the airport and 4 miles from Valletta and Sliema.  Regular bus services run between the towns, including the N21 and N38 although very little routes (just the 106 from the University every 30 mins)  seem to run to the ground meaning a walk along dusty roads to get there from civilization.  It is located next door to a large vineyard and the Aviation Museum.

Malta is the only other country apart from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) that drives on the left. Drive is a loose term as speeding as fast as you can, not using your breaks and overtaking three abreast is not exactly something we see on single carriage roads in SE9. Accidents are common place, which makes travelling by big sturdy buses all the more appealing. As 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet you wont struggle if you need anything.

With the Hammers host the first leg, they will be looking to build up a comfortable lead before they head to the sunshine in Malta.

 

 

 

 

And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.

 

Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.