The Allardyce conundrum
It would be too grandiose to say that there is a battle for the soul of West Ham going on -- that one was fought when Terence Brown introduced the Bond Scheme during the tenure of Billy Bonds -- but there is at least a definite movement in place; one that would appear to the outsider to be something of an oddity.
Fans are often turning on the board and the manager -- there's nothing strange about that and, in fact, a rather high-flying example is going on right now over in the North-west of England -- but the one at Upton Park is something of a curiosity to anyone not involved in the club.
Hammers fans, many of whom have never seen any major success bar a cup final runners-up place and a couple of nail-biting Play-off victories, are striking out at a manager who has the temerity to bring them something fans of many other clubs have hankered after for a long time: Premier league mid-table tedium. Sound harsh? Perhaps, but let's look at the real facts.
West Ham United are a club built around a foundation laid in the late 1950s. Promotion under Ted Fenton in 1958 and the Academy ideals under the coaching of Malcolm Allison -- including the mentoring of a young defender named Bobby Moore -- led to the revolutionary ideas of a forward-thinking manager called Ron Greenwood. When the Hammers won the 1964 Cup final and the 1965 Cup Winners Cup -- the latter playing an entirely new brand of football -- they were part of the zeitgeist, even before they provided the backbone of the 1966 World Cup team.
Only the second team after Spurs to win a European competition, West Ham were at the forefront of a new social phenomena, where working-class kids suddenly become celebrities, role models, men to be admired and feted. With it came advertising, sponsorship and world-wide fame. The Sixties was a defining decade and West Ham were its glamour club.
The football though, strained through the beliefs of Fenton, Allison, Greenwood and then John Lyall, provided a legacy that generations of east Londoners have never forgotten. Although that first line of heroes eventually retired, the likes of Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire simply took up the mantle and later came Tony Cottee and Alvin Martin, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole. The idea of the Academy legacy became so ingrained that even neutrals would speak of imports like Trevor Sinclair, Paolo di Canio and even Carlos Tevez as being 'West Ham players' playing 'the right way'.
The long-term league table
Yet the Hammers have no real league success to speak of. In a league table of clubs who have played the most seasons in the top division, West Ham sit 22nd with 56. Almost out on their own in many ways, they loiter just below Nottingham Forest (European and League winners under Brian Clough), who they will overtake next season. The Hammers closest rivals in this table are teams like Birmingham (20th - 57) and Stoke (19th - 58), winners of a League Cup or so but nothing else. Bolton in 12th are the only club with comparable cup success but no league title -- and they have never won a European competition.
But it's at the other end of this scale where things get interesting. Leeds United (24th - 50), Aston Villa (2nd - 103), and Manchester City (6th - 85) are all clubs that have won the league, a European trophy and have lost their top tier status relatively recently. In fact, all have sunk even further.
When the Hammers have dropped out of the top flight they have always returned in a couple of seasons, always in the running for a quick reinstatement to 'where they belong' even when they have fallen short. They've never dropped into the third tier, never even come close. It depends how you measure your success, of course -- supporters of some clubs may snicker behind their hands here -- but West Ham have been moderately successful for a long time.
But how would some from outside the club view this? Someone from Chelsea or Newcastle or even Bolton, for example? Would they see West Ham as a 'big and successful' club ? Or a middleweight club that once punched above its weight? Of course it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, and there's an excellent argument that says West Ham have suffered historically from poor decisions at the very top and chronic under-investment elsewhere -- they could and should be bigger than they actually are. But the truth is that West Ham's real status is very much what they can expect from their board and manager. Let's not forget that financially, Upton Park is still very much in the pocket of the bank.
I'd argue that as it stands the Hammers are a mid-table team -- comfortably so with the right manager in charge -- and the board are only asking one thing of that man. The remit here is pretty simple. West Ham United are leaving their home of the last century and are moving into a smart new pad down the road. Some want to go, some don't -- but that's another argument. What is certain, though, is that the Hammers need to go into their new stadium in Stratford as a Premier League club and to do that they need to avoid the type of seasons that occurred only too recently under Glenn Roeder and Avram Grant. And if Roeder can claim he was unlucky to be at the helm when the club were relegated with a record 42 points -- just pipped ironically by Sam Allardyce's Bolton -- then Gianfranco Zola might have to admit he grabbed some of that luck back by surviving with 35 points. When you factor in Alan Curbishley’s Tevez-led Great Escape, you have to admit there's something of a trend here.
Sam Allardyce was bought in to get the Hammers back to the Premiership -- something he achieved at the first time of asking albeit via a Play-off -- and to make sure they stay there. Allardyce is a pragmatist who plays a percentage game. He's always looking to make sure his teams score more points than games played because he knows 40 odd points normally secures safety. If his team are 2-1 up with five minutes to play, he will not want his players chasing a third to make sure -- something West Ham fans of all ages would have grown up with -- he knows that under his coaching his team should be able to defend for that time and that almost guarantees three points.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and in fact it's something any successful manager would instil into his players. It's also the reason I have more time for Big Sam than some. I like to see a side defend well and I'm wearied by years of watching good positions thrown away in a kamikaze attempt to blitz opponents off the pitch with superior skill and tactics -- not because I wouldn't want to see that, you understand -- but rather because West Ham have rarely had the players to do it.
So if Sam has instilled a sound defensive mentality, what is everyone complaining about? Well, the problem is that the defensive aspect seems to have overridden everything else. The Hammers only route forward seems to be a high ball and there were times against 10-man Hull on Wednesday night when it looked as if the home side were the team a man down. Hull found men in forward space frequently, West Ham only looked behind them.
In fact, some players seem utterly incapable of finding someone with a forward pass and it's awful to see. The fans decided to show their displeasure at the end of the Hull game and, though I can understand Sam's shock at the reception, I'd never deny any fan the right to show what they think. Too many people forget that the only people who actually pay in football are the supporters, and managers, board and players would do well to remember it.
Is the alternative worse?
But is dull, 'successful' (bearing in mind what I've said above) football good enough? What do West Ham fans want? Well, surprisingly, it's not European football. Everyone knows the club is not capable of achieving or sustaining that. Rather I suspect most supporters are casting their eyes just a few places further up the division at Southampton, who have very much become the old-style West Ham equivalent; attractive flowing football, young players coming through the ranks and a forward-thinking manager.
But let's not forget that in the years after the Dell closed and the Saints moved to St Mary's, third-tier football was the order of the day on the south coast -- and that's the very thing West Ham are trying to avoid. If the club continue in mid-table -- dull football or not -- and are still there a couple of years after moving to the Olympic Park, then I think the fans can look at Southampton and think 'at least we didn't have to sink that low to rise up'.
A headline in a London newspaper perhaps unwittingly summed up West Ham’s plight: 'Can the Hammers sack Allardyce and survive?' Notice that -- it's not sack and prosper, but survive. Because survival is what it is all about, and I simply don't understand anyone who wants to see relegation in order to get 'better football'.
Firstly, who says it will come? Really, apart from the 2006 season under Alan Pardew, have West Ham played much 'Academy football' since Harry Redknapp was sacked? And secondly -- and this is an important point -- how is losing football entertaining or better? I was frustrated on Wednesday night, but if I could replay that game in some type of X-box style world, would I have felt worse if West Ham had drawn or lost? I sure would have.
So when Sam Allardyce says "But we won!", I'm fully behind him because I've seen a lot of the rest and it's no fun either. Anyone who thinks Hammers teams of the past would have torn Hull apart haven't been watching the same side I've seen season after season.
So is there a way out of this conundrum? I believe there is, because, though Allardyce will always build his teams around a solid, defensive base, I genuinely don't believe he wants to see the type of inability to get forward he saw in mid-week. He knew Hull couldn't score from 20-30 yards out, but he also knows that given enough space at that distance a killer ball is likely to find its way in, and the pragmatist in him won't want that. It's also painfully obvious that -- cupped ear aside -- Allardyce has been extremely annoyed this season at his side's inability to get forward.
So I believe the two Davids will stick with Sam. Allardyce protects their investment and it's simply good business sense. But money will be made available for the manager to buy a couple of players who can use the ball in those situations. Despite what some fans seem to think, wholesale changes aren't required. I believe a forward with some pace and midfield player comfortable on the ball would make all the difference to the side that struggled so woefully against Hull. Even two wing-backs who could break up play and get forward would stop the type of thing we saw in mid-week.
There will be many then who will disagree, but my argument for sticking with Sam Allardyce is pretty much the same as it was when he was appointed. He's not a West Ham man and he doesn't play Academy football, but no-one else has played it either since Paolo last threw a strop. So if I get angry, frustrated, and want to show my dissatisfaction about the poor return for my financial outlay -- and that's my prerogative -- I'm at least doing it against a man who is likely to get results, however unpalatable.
When West Ham are ensconced in the Budweiser Bobby Moore Stadium and Pep Guardiola is playing the new-style Academy football, then I might look back at dear old Samuel and laugh. Right now, though, I believe -- ironically, it seems -- Sam Allardyce is the only way forward.