Thursday, 22 March 2007

Not Insular, Just Amateur

I was listening to a Madrid radio station this morning when I heard an interview with Argentine journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo. She was talking about the Javier Mascherano Affair and how the player was always destined to fail at West Ham because of the intrinsic ‘Englishness’ of the club. She said the player is a completely different personality to Carlos Tevez and that he needed an environment that would nurture and refine his talent, as well as a manager who understood the tactical nuances required to best integrate him into the team. She accused West Ham of being the quintessence of parochial insularity, while insisting “Liverpool will provide a much better home for Mascherano. They speak Spanish and play a style of football that suits him.”

In many ways West Ham has always been a club defined by its Englishness. In the 111 years of its existence there have only been eleven managers, ten of who have been English. The one aberration, Lou Macari, lasted just one year. When West Ham won the FA Cup in 1964 they were the last all-English side to do so. A year later, the players who lifted the Cup-winners’ Cup became the first and last all-English team to win a European trophy. In 1966 when England lifted the World Cup and reached the pinnacle of it’s achievement on the world stage, West Ham made the single greatest contribution of any club to that defining moment. It was a vindication of ‘The Academy of Football’ ethos that has served to nurture a rich stream of home-grown talent through the ranks and onto the international scene. No club delights more in the emergence of ‘one of their own’. The famed youth academy has long been the envy of nearly every other club in the country. The top ten West Ham record holders for appearances and goals are also all English, and when Danny Gabbidon picked up last season’s Player of the Year award he became only the sixth non-English player in fifty years to receive that honour.

Few will forget the furious ‘racism’ row that erupted between Alan Pardew and Arsene Wenger over the former West Ham’s manager assertion that an English team should at least contain a back bone of English talent. As West Ham rounded off a thrilling first season back at the top level with a desperately narrow defeat in the FA Cup final, much was made of their Britishness. And not without reason, for Alan Pardew had gathered an unusually indigenous group. Of the 14 who did duty against Liverpool in the Millennium Stadium, only Yossi Benayoun and Lionel Scaloni were foreigners. Of the 12 Britons in the squad (to narrow it further), only Danny Gabbidon and Christian Dailly came from outside England. And (to narrow it even further than that) no fewer than eight of Pardew's team were London-born. Few teams have ever mirrored so closely on the pitch the demographic of their support of it.

It is not hard, therefore, to see why Marcela Mora y Araujo could reach the conclusion that she did even if the assertion is not entirely accurate. Indeed, far from the epitome of provinciality, Brian Belton argues that West Ham have a rich tradition of inventiveness and cultural assimilation.

West Ham United football club started life as an entertainment or distraction for the working men of East London’s riverside community in the wake of the 1889 dock strike. Their first manager was the consummate showman Syd King. Syd was behind ‘the electric tram’ that toured East London lit up by a constellation of light bulbs celebrating the Hammers’ achievement of reaching the 1923 FA Cup Final. If you look at the original architecture of the Hammers’ first home, the Memorial Ground and later Upton Park, you will see certain echoes in the structures, reminiscent of a showground, a hybrid of the racecourse, the fairground and the circus. The enclosures and stands which housed the supporters wee close to the pitch, painted in loud claret and blue. The football produced by King and his progeny and his successor, Charlie Paynter, was dynamic and muscular. Paynter also introduced the Cockney patrons of the Boleyn Ground to teams from mainland Europe and even more exotic climbs. He also organized European tours like the one of Norway in 1927.

Ted Fenton continued the tradition of inventiveness. With the encouragement and motivation of Malcolm Allison, Fenton continued to bring the best of European sides to Upton Park and a few good South American teams. He created a modern youth policy and opened the team’s horizons in terms of foreign innovation, which influenced the team’s shirts, boots and tactics. Gradually the effort to entertain incorporated the search for success through the adaptation of science, logic and mathematics to the requirements of football excellence.

With the arrival of Ron Greenwood at the club, a moral and ethical philosophy, which at times became close to being a religion, was added to the social make-up of West Ham. Greenwood, although not too far from Fenton in terms of his intellectual response to the game, was part of a modern European ‘church’ of football, which included the likes of England managers Walter Winterbottom and Alf Ramsey. Greenwood himself had been the England Under-23 coach before joining the Hammers.

As such, Greenwood’s effort to take the traditional physical strengths of English football and merge these with the best of continental and South American ideas were soon taken up at national level. West Ham thus became a kind of laboratory of football in the early to mid-1960’s, an ‘academy’ of soccer development.

In reality, there is a dichotomy between West Ham’s historical receptiveness to foreign ideas on the pitch and the club’s struggle to integrate foreign players off it. The problem is not one of insularity though. It is rather a question of education (of both the club and the overseas players) and the provision of adequate networks of support. At Arsenal and Chelsea, for example, there are on-site facilities with structured language programmes and personal tutors for all of their imported players. When Mascherano left West Ham he admitted he gave up on privately arranged English lessons after just a few weeks of trying. Why was that allowed to happen? At Bolton, surely the modern template for the successful assimilation of foreign players, there is a concerted effort to locate all the players in the same small community where integrated support is always on hand.

When Clyde Best arrived for a trial at West Ham back in the late 1960’s he recalls that nobody was there to meet him at Heathrow and how he wished at that moment he'd never come. He describes how he got off the Tube at West Ham, not realising he really needed Upton Park, and how it took a random Hammers fan on the street to direct a lonely, confused kid to the home of Clive Charles, another black player with whom he was supposed to lodge. From that appalling start, the club’s welfare care of its foreign imports never really recovered. When Samassi Abou was at the club in the late 90’s he could regularly be spotted around east London sat on his own in restaurants and clubs- a lonely figure unable to communicate with any one. When we had the Portuguese starlet Dani the club did little else but move him from the Swallow Hotel to the Tower Hotel so he could have bigger and more debaucherous parties. Then there was the case of Javier Margas who was living off uncooked garlic bread in the early days of his arrival because he didn’t speak a word of English and was wary of doing any shopping.

Generally speaking, the overseas players who have succeeded at West Ham have tended to be those who joined the club having already settled in the country or else those who arrived already capable of speaking the language. Nick Raistrick, who acted as a language tutor to Javier Margas, states that it is still difficult for fans to imagine that a player at their club can be anything other than permanently ecstatic, particularly on the astronomical wages they receive. However the change of climate, food, language and lifestyle can be difficult for players to deal with. From ViƱa Del Mar to Chigwell is a big step. And being constantly in the public eye doesn't help. To a certain extent, the club has been just as culpable when it comes to assuming that responsibility towards a player extends only to what is produced on the pitch.

It is only recently that the club began employing an education officer to help new arrivals settle in as painlessly as possible. In many cases, especially with the younger players, that is still not enough. All this is to say, that if Javier Mascherano was always destined to fail at West Ham then it has little to do with the Englishness of the club and everything to do with the amateurishness of our approach.

1 comment:

marcela said...

hello there. i am marcela mora y araujo, and stumbled accross this quite by chance...
really enjoyed your analysis of 'englishness' and wondered - which madrid radio station were you listening to? i don't recall giving any interviews to any.
still, never said, nor meant to suggest, that west ham are too parochial. but i do think, having seen javi there and subsequently at anfield, that my instinct was right. the east end environment was harder for him to adapt to, and the tactics point i think is also important.
anyway, best discussion of all of this is in the comments here:
(i'm afraid i don't know how to hyperlink in blogger!)
hope to see you join a guardian fray sometime. unless you already do under a different name...


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