Another Crucial Season
In this glorious summer of sport, English football's long tarnished image has suffered at the hands of British athletes performing heroic deeds, many for a fraction of the money thrown in the direction of what is often perceived as grasping, indifferent under achieving playboys.
But is this right? Last year's Premier league campaign was reckoned by many to be one of the finest seasons on record, highlighted by a nail-biting final day that had even the most lethargic and neutral armchair supporter, up and pumping the air in excitement. Ok the European Finals showed that England haven't progressed a jot in over 20 odd years but at least the domestic campaign offers us the exciting influx of at least a decent proportion of the world's best football talent… doesn't it?
It's in this muddled vein that West Ham United, newly returned to their rightful place in the Premiership and with their own eyes in the direction of the Olympic Stadium, begin a vitally important season.
If the club's owners succeed in their bid to move from Upton Park to Stratford, it is hugely important that they do so with a side secure in its place among the elite, ready to punch its weight – if not at the very top level yet – at least, in a place that doesn't involve a red line and three clubs below it.
Let's also not forget that West Ham had their own little bit of glory last May when they secured promotion via the Play-off final with one of the best days I've ever had supporting the Hammers. In fact, West Ham's whole demeanour during the play-offs was one of a team determined to get it right following a 'disappointing' run-in that really featured a quite impressive run of form. Barring Reading's slightly bizarre Mo Farah like sprint over the final two months of the campaign it should be understood that, in most seasons, West Ham's league points total alone would have seen them promoted.
Sam Allardyce and West Ham may have the air of a marriage of convenience about it, but there is no doubt that the former Bolton defender does have a way of eking out results, the like of which I've not seen from any other West Ham side in recent memory.
It's also true that Big Sam has upset many by standing like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story and pointing out that the king has no clothes on. There are still many who bristle with indignation when Allardyce looks puzzled at the fans clamour for playing the 'West Ham way' pointing out, without irony, that the 'way' has pretty much served up constant struggle, relegation and a host of the Hammer's footballing Academy doing little but providing top players for other clubs over the years. 'Is that what you want?' you sense Allardyce asking. It says much about the mentality of the West Ham fan that many still aren't sure of the answer.
Like many, I'm confused. I'll admit to getting a vicarious thrill at seeing West Ham come away with three points from a game in which they have contributed little but stout defence and hard work, yet I've seen it enough from opposing sides at Upton Park over the years to know that organisation of that sort isn't down to luck. Consequently, this Hammer's squad is probably the most professional I've seen in terms of team spirit and work ethic since the mid-80's, even if my heart does cry out for a Brooking, Devonshire or Cottee.
The return of James Collins to the defence – a player whose sale to Aston Villa probably bought about the demise of Gianfranco Zola and, it could be argued, eventual relegation – is good news and the man affectionately known as 'Ginge' should form a solid spine alongside the excellent and ever-improving James Tomkins. The equally dependable Winston Reid should provide good cover if he keeps up his form of last season.
I'm still disappointed that Rob Green thought his career would be furthered at Q.P.R. but Jussi Jaaskelainen is an able replacement with Stephen Henderson looking good as a long-term bet. West Ham's foolish attempts to play without full-backs is something I can – and still may – write a book about and we're probably hoping for another solid season from George McCartney to see us through. Right-back? Throw a dice! I'm hoping for solid movement in the transfer window in this area but I'm not holding my breath. Why successive managers ignore this position is a mystery up there with Conan Doyle's finest.
In midfield, we're well served if Noble, Collison and Nolan perform as well as they did last season. Jack Collison is the player to watch here, returning to the form that so marked him out a couple of years back as the season drew to a close. The addition of the two 'D's' Diame and Diarra can only improve the side further in the defensive part of midfield and I'm not expecting Sam's side to ship too many goals.
Modibo Maiga joins the strikers list and I'll freely admit I know nothing of the player to know if that is a good thing or not. Again, if Carlton Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te can reproduce their form in the latter half of the 2011/12 campaign then things could get interesting, although Cole's injury doubts will surely surface we should have good cover in Nicky Maynard and, hopefully, Sam Baldock.
I'm hoping the rumours surrounding Baldock are paper-talk (Baldockdash?) as I'd really like to see a season from the player who showed good touches in the Championship before he got injured. I've always though Nicky Maynard might have it in him to step up a level so this season will be vital for him and I hope he gets his chances.
With players like Joey O'Brien, Gary O'Neil, Guy Demel and Matthew Taylor around, this is a squad that looks to have a solid depth even if it's not wildly exciting. The lack of wide players is still evident and the side is crying out for someone of the calibre of a Yossi Benayoun or a Matthew Etherington, players who have never been adequately replaced from five years ago!
In truth, I might have more concerns about the squad if it wasn't for the Big Sam factor that ensures this group of players will be trained to within an inch of its life, well-organised, obdurate with an odd belief in their own ability to deliver.
The fact is, the major signing of 2012/13 for West Ham may arrive long after the transfer window has shut, with the autumn announcement of the bid for the Olympic Park. If that succeeds then expect what I believe will be a healthy mid-table finish this season to be backed solidly at season's end and going forward.
For West Ham United, the future really does start here.