Hammers on Song to hunt the Foxes

IMG_2313Parkes, Stewart, Walford, Gale, Martin, Devonshire, Ward, Dickens, Orr, McAvennie, Cottee. The best ever West Ham line up? Obviously there’s no Moore, no Brooking, no Di Canio and no Dicks. But those eleven players took West Ham United to third place in Football League Division One in 1985/86, or 6 BPL ( Before Premier League). Under the leadership of John Lyall, the Hammers ran Liverpool and Everton to the last Saturday of the season.

Amazingly, they only used 18 players in the whole season, of which five played two games or less – so a squad of 13 players, all British and featuring five home-grown players, exceeded all expectations. That was the last season that the club were in the top four at this stage of the season. Today, there was a possibility that they could go into Christmas in third place. West Ham in the Champions League spots. Watch out Barcelona, West Ham are coming for you.

We all say “it won’t last”. Last week I wrote about Regression Theory which tries to explain that over the long term teams always settle in their “natural” positions, whilst the next two games see them take on rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, matches they would probably not expect to win. But this isn’t a normal side. I’ve no idea who has got into the heads of some of the squad but they’ve turned fair to middling players into world beaters. There are few better midfielders in the Premier League at the moment than Stewart Downing, given free-reign to drift across the pitch. Winston Reid looks like a rock at the back. Arsenal don’t know what they are missing in Carl Jenkinson, whilst on the other side, Aaron Cresswell has stepped up from the Championship without a look back.

IMG_2310Whilst today was the Lewes Lunatic Fringe’s Christmas party away at Harrow Borough, I’d be heading to The Boleyn aground for the second time in two weeks thanks to Barclays and their weekly ticket give away. My tickets were in the name of Mr Barclays Premier League – not a title that sits easy with me but I was willing to play the part for the visit of bottom of the table Leicester City. Getting anything free from Messrs Sullivan and Gold (and not forgetting Dame Brady) is almost unheard of. In the week before the game the club had hit the headlines, for the wrong reasons again, after it was revealed that at £600 a head, they offer the most expensive mascot package in the Premier League (and likely, the whole world). Only seven hard-up takers for today’s game, according to the programme. Fancy a season ticket for next season’s last one at The Boleyn? Well you can add your name to the waiting list now for just a tenner. Or perhaps spending £50 on the limited edition purple FA Cup shirt, which because they are playing Everton away in the 3rd Round will mean they can’t wear it anyway.

Back in 1985/86 the success of the team was build around the pace of Cottee and McAvennie up front, a midfield play maker in Alan Dickens, a decent wide an in pint-sized Mark Ward and an outstanding keeper in Phil Parkes. Fast forward 29 years and it was Sahko, Carroll, Song, Downing and Adrian. All on fire at the moment, playing at the top of their game. That’s why West Ham were in the top 4. Hard to beat but always looking likely to score. Or as someone said to me post-match, it’s all because we are wearing Adidas again.

Last May, with the Football League Championship secured, Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha said he expected to see The Foxes in the position West Ham held. A rumoured transfer kitty of over £150 million was to be made available. The future was bright, the future was the Premier League.

After a decent start in their return to the Premier League, Leicester haven’t been enjoying the last few months. Coming into this game they were without a win in three months in all competitions – in fact their last win was the high point in their season, the 5-3 victory over Man Utd. They didn’t need reminding about the fable of the bottom team at Christmas, although it appeared Radio 5Live needed to include it in every pre-match report just in case we had developed a goldfish-like memory.

West Ham United 2 Leicester City 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Saturday 20th December 2014
Once again, the Man of the Match award, announced on the 85th minute, was greeted with muted applause. Just as it was two weeks ago, goal-scorer Andy Carroll had been given the honour, despite two or three players shining brighter. Carroll’s firm since return from serious injury has been impressive. It seems the striker thrives when the focus of the side’s play doesn’t focus on him. Last season he was rushed back from another injury, pressure building with every game he was absent. Allardyce, Gold and Sullivan (junior of course as he seems to be the official spokesperson of the club via Twitter despite only being about 13) all told us things would be better when Carroll was fit.

IMG_2325The visitors certainly started the brighter, belying their lowly position. They’d done their homework, targeting the ineffective Tompkins, who looks as out of depth in the Premier League as he did on his debut back in 2008. Some may also question whether he should still be playing after pleading guilty to assaulting a policeman as well as being drunk and disorderly. But then we all know football doesn’t reflect the same moral code as real life.

Adrian was the busier keeper in the opening exchanges but it was West Ham who took the lead in the 24th minute after Leicester had been pressuring the West Ham goal. Downing set up Carroll, who blasted the ball over from 8 yards but less than sixty seconds later he got his goal. Carl Jenkinson hoofed the ball clear from almost on his own touch line, ex-Hammer Paul Konchesky gathered the ball on the half-way line and tried to play the ball back to the keeper but it was short, allowing Carroll to get in between the keeper and defender and chipped the ball home.

The difference between the two midfields was Alex Song. “We’ve only got one Song” the West Ham fans sung as the Barcelona loanee bossed the midfield. How he failed to end up at The Emirates, Anfield or The Etihad is a mystery but he seems to love playing at Upton Park, and the Upton Park faithful love him. Strength, balance, poise and vision. Add in a rejuvenated Downing and that’s one hell of a partnership.

IMG_2324The two combined ten minutes into the second period, with Downing showing great control before curling the ball home from the edge of the area. It was a fine goal to cap a fine performance from a player who is now finally living up to his potential he showed as a youngster at Middlesbrough.

Adrian then pulled off two world class saves to deny Leicester a deserved consolation goal. Whilst they would head back up the M1 wondering what the future held, West Ham would enjoy their Christmas dinner sitting above Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal almost at the half way stage of the season. Whilst we can but dream of another season like 1985/86, deep-down we know natural selection, or Regression Theory, will eventually determine our fate. Carroll is no Frank McAvennie, Winston Reid is no Alvin Martin, Cheikhou Kouyate is no Neill Orr and of course Allardyce is no John Lyall. But that was then and this is now.

My first game – Ryan Hubbard

Leicester City 0 – 4 Manchester United
The Premier League
Filbert Street, Leicester
April 15th 1995
Attendance: 21,281

My father was a devout egg-chaser. Competing in the local Rugby Union leagues on a Saturday afternoon meant that my football fix as a youngster came from Grandstand and – if I was allowed to stay up late enough – Match of the Day.

My only footballing influences as a youngster came from my Uncle and Cousin who, unfortunately were Manchester United fans. For a while, this was to lead me down a path of red shirts and Ryan Giggs posters torn from Match magazine. But I never really felt comfortable as a Red Devil.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I realised that I was Luke Skywalker being pulled to the Dark Side by my Uncle Vader and Cousin Moff Tarkin (although there was less killing and planet destroying). My home-town team Leicester City had been playing well in Division One, and with the whole city on a football-high, they capped it off with a Play-Off Final victory over local rivals Derby County. The Empire had started to fall.

It was only fitting that, during the Foxes’ first foray into the Premiership, my Aunt received free tickets from her company to Leicester City’s game against Alex Ferguson’s reigning Premiership champions.

Upon receiving the tickets, I remember being disappointed that our tickets were for the “Double Decker” Kop rather than the season-old Carling Stand. I was even more disappointed when – after walking along Burnmoor Street, passing the electricity sub-station, and trekking up the stairs to the second tier – I found out that the “Obstructed View” printed onto my ticket actually meant that the East Stand covered the entire right side of the pitch.

Goals from Lee Sharpe, Paul Ince and an Andy Cole brace ensured that Manchester United ran out 4-0 winners, but the game couldn’t have been fantastic as I don’t remember a single one of the goals.

However I do retain a memory of the crowd holding it’s breath as the ball fell to Mark Draper at the edge of the United box. And with a shot that made the Rebels glad that they didn’t put him in charge of the laser for destroying the Death Star, Draper somehow scooped the ball right over the top of the North Stand.

I can still imagine that ball rolling down Filbert Street…

Ryan Hubbard


Step one, flatten land, Step two unpack IKEA stadium, step three think up silly name

It amazes me that given a blank canvas people paint the same picture.  Imitation is supposedly the best form of flattery but in the case of football stadiums it is simply dull and unimaginative.  Look at all of the new stadiums built in the lower leagues in the past fifteen years and you would be hard pushed to tell them apart if you were colourblind and could not see the seat colours.  There have been a couple of exceptions such as the magnificent McAlpine / Galpharm in Huddersfield but these are really few and far between.  These new stadiums come in two varieties.

1. The “wrap around” stadium where all of the stands join together.  Examples of these include the Ricoh Arena, the Madejski Stadium, the Liberty Stadium, the Keepmoat Stadium and of course my personal favourite the Balfour Webnet Arena.

2. The “separates” where all four stands are identical and the concept of filling in the corners is forgotten.  Examples of this are the Deva Stadium, The Fitness First Stadium, Adams Park, Sixfields and of course the imaginatively named New Stadium.

As you can see from the above the identity of the club is completely lost, primarily due to cash.  Naming rights did not exist 20 years ago.  The first club to “sell its soul” was Middlesbrough who sold the rights to their new stadium in 1995 to BT Cellnet.  Since then we have had a procession of stupid names being attached to grounds to provide some short term cash.  With new stadiums due in the next few years at Cardiff City, Liverpool and Everton it will be with interest we see what companies decide to throw ridiculous sums of money to have their name in lights.

So, what relevance is all of this?  Well as part of my quest to tick off all new stadiums this season I was due to pay a visit to Cuckoo Farm, the brand new home of Colchester United.  Or not as the case may be.  Because the cheque book had already been taken out and the cash from Weston Homes had already been banked and their name adorned the stadium on the edge of the A12 in Essex. Their choice of stadium was the second variety.  Four almost identical stands, with windy gaps in each corner and the soul less sterile feel of football in the 21st century.

The club had been relegated at the end of last season from the Championship, punching above their weight for most of this two season spell and cheered on by crowds of less than 5,000 in their tiny Layer Road ground.  So this new stadium was seen as a new dawn for the club.  Unfortunately, nobody told the team.  and two points from their first three games at the stadium was hardly inspirational stuff.  The last thing you really need in such a situation is a visit from one of the pre-season favourites, who could go top if they won, Leicester City.

Colchester United 0 Leicester City 1 – Tuesday 30th September 2008

The Weston Homes Community Stadium

The Weston Homes Community Stadium

Despite only being located in Essex, Colchester is in the far corner, and so it is actually 70 miles from home.  That is the bad news, but the good news was that from the end of the road it was 65 miles of dual carriageway and motorway, meaning that I passed the floodlights of the stadium in just over an hour from home.  I expected to see signs on the A12 showing drivers where to get off, but these were completely lacking, so I had to use my initiative and followed directions for the town centre.  I had some luck in seeing a car with a Leicester City flag in, so I followed them, down a residential road, through two miles of business parks until I saw the first sign post for the stadium – some 2 miles from the main road.  Hardly inspiring or welcoming visitors.  I had booked a parking space, and although it wasn’t quite the same closeness as at Crawley on Saturday, it was less than 30 seconds away from the turnstiles.  With Autumn arriving with vengence I stayed in the car until 10 minutes before kick off, hardly worrying about a last minute rush.

The stadium was a basic and sterile inside as it was from the outside.  All four stands sat on their own, with the corners being left empty.  Three stands were almost uniform in design, with the main stand having a row of executive boxes at the top.  The crowd was very poor.  Leicester City had been given the whole of the South Stand, which they filled 3/4.  The “hardcore” Colchester fans were located in the side (West) stand although they barely raised a shout all evening.

I had a ticket in the corner of the North stand, and took my seat along with a dozen or so other fans.  There was more stewards in the stand than fans at kick off time, and there job was to stop fans migrating from this end block into the middle, which was also just as empty as these tickets actually cost £2 more.  However, most fans realised that if you went down to the concourse area, walked along and came out of a different entrance, they didn’t notice!  Utter pointless!!!

This was another first half to forget.  Leicester’s squad is so far ahead of everyone else’s in this division that it is hard to see who would’nt back them for promotion.  In goal they had David Martin, son of Alvin and currently on loan from Liverpool.  Chris Powell, the veteran fullback, was their first choice left hand side defender, and up front was Steve Howard, the man who powered Derby to the Premier League.  Other players in the squad included Paul Dickov, that Bulgarian who played for Charlton Athletic and Barry Hayles.  They played the ball around well but without any cutting edge, and most fans seemed to be more interested in listening on their radios to the action from the Emirates in the Champions League.

At half time I went down to the breezeblock concourse and bought a chicken burger for £3.50 which had obviously been cooked when the club played at Layer Road, and left in an oven when they relocated.  It was almost inedible, as hard and tasteless as a rock.  It set me up with enthusiasm for the second half, but not before I had ventured back to see the Colchester dancing girls.  It took me back to the golden period of West Ham entertainment with the Hammarettes.  Inappropriately dressed, false sexual writhing and out of time dancing – oh hang on – they WERE the Hammarettes – obviously transfered by our current board (or perhaps owned by a third party and thus subject to an independent review).

The second half started much better, although it was Leicester who took the game by the scruff of the neck, realising that they could win this without really breaking into a sweat.  The only goal came on the 50th minute when Lloyd Dyer cut in from the left hand side and hammered the ball home.

Both teams then tried to work an opening but with little joy.  With five minutes to go I had seen enough and headed back to the car.  Some 4.5 miles later I was passing the ground on the main A12, and saw that a number of fans had the right idea, parking in a lay by and then simply climbing up the embankment to get to the stadium and save themselves £10 parking fee and a 9 mile round trip.

The crowd was announced as 5,109 which is probably as good as it is going to get there this year.  It is certainly unclear as to how the club can attract more fans, or even if they want more fans.  More effort could have been made in terms of public transport, and certainly some basic signage.  I would also say that £20 for the cheapest ticket was again 25% too expensive, but then again what do I know about running a football club.  Perhaps they could get a refund on the stadium and buy something a bit smaller and more central.  I hear there is still some land vacant to the south of the town in Layer Road.

About the Weston Homes Community Stadium – Capacity: 10,000 All Seater
Colchester United moved out of their one hundred year old Layer Road ground in July 2008 for the soleless monstrosity on the northern edge of the town centre on land ajacent to the A12.  The 10,000 box style stadium has the capacity to be developed by 8,000 by building an additional tier on the West Stand.  However, based on the fact that the club failed to fill the old Layer Road which only had a capacity of 6,000 when the club had two seasons in the Championship I doubt there will come a day when this is required.  The stadium was largely paid for by Colchester Borough Council and a number of grants.  The club also sold the naming rights to the ground for £2m (for a ten year deal) to Weston Homes.

The stadium’s first game was versus Althetic Bilbao in August 2008 which they lost 2-1.

How to get to the Weston Homes Community Stadium
Despite sitting next to the A12 there are no directions from this main arterial route to the stadium.  Car drivers are not encouraged to use cars although the stadium has 600 spaces that can be pre-booked at a cost of £10 per game.  There are a number of units on the surrounding Business Park that also allowing parking from anything from £2 to £5 although these are at least 1/2 mile away.

As part of your ticket you get free transport to and from the stadium on buses which run from the main station, and wait outside the ground on the final whistle.

How to get a ticket for the Weston Homes Community Stadium
With a capacity of 10,000 and an average attendance of less than 4,500 buying tickets in advance is not necessary.  Away fans are allocated the whole of the south stand.  Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.cu-fc.premiumtv.co.uk or by calling the club on 0845 437 9089.  Ticket prices range from £20 in the outer blocks of each stand, to £24 in the centres of the stands.  My tip is to buy the former and then move to the latter when you are inside!