Monday, 9 May 2011

The Bubbles Of Drowning Men

West Ham United continue to blow the bubbles of drowning men, wrote David Lacey in the Guardian. Any relief at having avoided a home defeat by Blackburn Rovers was soon overtaken by the realisation that they now have to win their remaining two matches to have any chance of staying up, and only once this season have Avram Grant's side won back-to-back games in the Premier League. In truth, the fact some hope is retained is starting to feel cruel. The Hammers have not won a league game in two months and travel to Wigan, a team hinting heavily at recovery, in the desperate hope that cramming into their final two fixtures the victories that have proved so elusive will be enough to prolong a six-year stay in the top flight. In the context of recent form, that scenario feels distinctly unlikely.

Avram Grant conceded that only success at the DW stadium, where Wigan are unbeaten since February, will extend his team's chances to the final weekend. "But I think I'm confident," he said, rather unconvincingly. "We have a chance to stay up, of course. But we need to win at Wigan." Regardless, a shudder of grim acceptance must have gone through the directors' box at the final whistle here. Even the boos from the neighbouring stands felt half-hearted. To that end, the club board, in one of their smarter PR moves, are laying on free transport for those 4,500 fans intending to travel next weekend.

Yet so fine are the margins. With the seconds ticking down on West Ham United’s fragile hold on Premier League status, Frédéric Piquionne found space down the left wing. The West Ham’s substitute’s low cross was perfect and Robbie Keane was faced with a simple tap in from close range. Somehow he managed only to graze the passing ball. That miss cost his side two points, and how important might those become the reckoning? Keane’s was just one mistake in the multitude but coming at such a crucial moment, in front of the Bobby Moore stand, it was freighted with meaning. Could that have been the defining moment of West Ham’s season?

"Absolutely," said Avram Grant. "But I cannot kill him. We made an intelligent move, creating that chance, something we didn’t have a lot of in the first half of the season, but it is about putting the ball in the net. There’s no one more frustrated than me." Of course, one mistake alone does not mar a whole campaign. A goof in August can be as guilty as a howler in May. Yet when the Irishman missed the sitter of all sitters it was hard to avoid the feeling that West Ham's grip on a place in the Premier League was loosened, perhaps fatally. A winner then and the Hammers' task, although still daunting, would have looked less like mission impossible.

Clearly West Ham had Keane's experience as a penalty‑area predator in mind when he joined them on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in January. For most of his career he has been putting away the sort of chance which presented itself on Saturday without a blink of hesitation. "I wish I knew why I missed," was the substitute’s response to his manager after somehow failing to apply a simple touch to Piquionne’s gift-wrapped cross. It has been a wretched run for the man borrowed from Tottenham in January for a reported £65,000 a week to provide sting up front. Six days earlier he missed in a one-on-one with goalkeeper Joe Hart as West Ham lost narrowly at Manchester City.

The week before, Keane, for whom West Ham have agreed to pay Spurs £6 million to make his move permanent if they do survive, spurned his side’s best chance at Chelsea. It was not how it was meant to be. "When I went on loan at Celtic, I scored 17 goals in 19 games. If I do half as well here, I will be happy," he said upon arriving in January. Three-and-a-half months on and it’s two goals in nine league appearances. "He is not happy," the West Ham manager sympathised. In that the striker was not alone. "He came here to score. The last three games he had three big chances but I cannot blame him that he doesn’t work."

The roads to relegation are always littered with such sorry series of 'if onlys’. In the 12th minute Jason Roberts, presented with a similar opportunity for Blackburn after the West Ham defence had allowed Brett Emerton an inordinate amount of time and space to centre from the right, did not miss and not until Thomas Hitzlsperger's mighty left foot had brought the scores level with 12 minutes remaining did Upton Park sense salvation. When the home side finally mounted their late rally, Rovers showed that they had the fighting spirit that West Ham, with Scott Parker still out injured, did not. Christopher Samba, throwing himself in the way of a series of crosses and shots, provided the on-field leadership that was missing in the claret-and-blue ranks.

If profligacy remains a problem, more worrying even than Keane's late miss was the general lethargy that infected West Ham's play for long periods. This team wore the haunted look of condemned men at times, the frantic late pressure whipped up after Hitzlsperger's skimmed equaliser masking a pedestrian display. The lengthy list of absentees may have included the side's better players – Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble, Gary O'Neil, Victor Obinna – but the locals were still justified in expecting more. 'Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, we're going to Coventry!' they sang. Their mood turned against the management early in the second half, when Luis Boa Morte, one of the few home players to offer urgency as he snapped relentlessly and sometimes wildly into tackles, was replaced. There was a chorus of abuse, aimed specifically at Grant. The beleaguered manager appears more isolated by the week.

The Israeli's insistence that "we were on top of them for most of the game" was at eccentric odds with reality. Until that last quarter-hour Blackburn played the more composed football and were usually quicker to the ball when it was not being given to them by the opposition's lackadaisical passing. They may have the worst defensive record in the Premier League away from home but this was not evident in the way they kept West Ham out at the last, with Samba's block on a goalbound shot from Carlton Cole in stoppage time capping an exceptional performance by the defender. You wonder where West Ham would be if they had a central defender of similar quality and determination.

As Crisis hour looms, Grant remains unrepentant about his team's approach and, in any case, unless Parker recovers from his Achilles injury, he does not have the personnel to make changes. "We don't know any other way," he said. "You don't want us to kick the ball and run. This is not the nature of West Ham. We cannot do it and I don't believe it will bring points. But football is a game of chances. All the season we are not [taking] even 20 per cent of chances. Maybe this is the story of our year."

Before the game Grant was reckoning that seven points would be enough to avoid relegation so the draw on Saturday was a small step in the right direction. But expecting a team that have taken one point out of a possible 18 to win twice to order is a big ask. West Ham, moreover, are likely still to be without Parker for the visit to Wigan and without his cerebral influence in midfield their attack appeared lobotomised until Hitzlsperger scored. Grant admits his side are feeling the absence of the influential midfielder in the battle to retain their Barclays Premier League status. "Every week we say 'next week' with Scott," he said. "No one more than me wants him to play, but if he cannot, he cannot. I didn't think it was such a bad injury, but we've missed him since Manchester United. We want him to play. There is no one more than me who wants him to play. He's more than a player for me."

His post-match assertion that his team are playing "the football we more or less wanted to play this season" was baffling. If there is sympathy to be had in the reality that he has been denied three of his first-choice midfield quartet then Grant's inability to stoke confidence and conviction in this squad is damning. The co-owners' willingness to offer public criticisms may not have helped, but a sense of under-achievement prevails.

"It's my responsibility," said Grant. "I cannot argue with the position we are in. I can argue that the football we are playing is positive and good, and that we're dealing as well as we can without key players. But I'm not looking for excuses or saying we have no luck... though we do need a bit of this. It would help. Every-one, from the kit man to the owner, wants West Ham to succeed. This was our target. We thought things would be different. But sometimes people make mistakes."

Facing up to reality, West Ham's co-owner David Sullivan said today that he and David Gold are likely to have to inject loans of £20m-£40m to keep the club in business should they be relegated from the Premier League. The club is already carrying about £80m of debt and the co-chairmen has said they will sell heavily from the first-team squad. This fact shouldn't unduly concern Hammers fans though, thinks The Sun. The last time West Ham were relegated the big fear was their players would all leave, the paper snarks. The concern this time is that they might stay. Even if they gift-wrapped this lot with a pretty pink bow, they would still be hard pressed to give them away.

That said, Sullivan believes the departures of most international players will still not be enough to satisfy the banks. In his opinion, West Ham United's financial position is the worst in English football. "The fans should know this club is in a worse financial position than any other in the country," he told the Evening Standard. "All the debts are football or bank debts secured on the stadium and training ground so there is no route via administration. West Ham really is a club where the football and bank debts exceed the value of the club.

"It's a pretty thankless task and the criticism hurts. Should the worst happen, we will have to inject loans of £20m-£40m, depending on circumstances, which will probably never be repaid. I don't believe the supporters realise the potential real cost to us. Nobody out there wants to take on the burden of West Ham United. We do, as we are supporters but our resources don't match foreign-based oligarchs who pay no UK tax."

Sullivan and Gold were both boyhood fans of the Hammers and he says that should the club be relegated it will be the most painful event in the 18 years since buying Birmingham City the pair have been actively involved in the game. "We're not down yet but I admit it's not looking good," Sullivan said. "I've been relegated three times before, on every occasion gaining automatic promotion the following season but this one will hurt me the most if it happens. David and I have taken criticism and, should we be relegated, will accept the responsibility."

That criticism will not be in short supply. As Churchill observed, it may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. Criticism fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. Speaking on Talksport this afternoon, Tony Cottee insisted West Ham's co-owners have to take the blame for the club’s plight – as they should never have appointed the manager. "Do I blame Avram Grant?" he asked. "Yes, I do, but who appointed Avram Grant? The answer to that is the board, the owners. I honestly believe a board should have football people involved, you should have a football person you can refer to. If West Ham would have appointed Martin O’Neill or Sam Allardyce they would not have got relegated this season. They are business people. There’s a complete difference between business people and football people. [They need] someone who knows about football and if they would have had someone who knows about football they would have said ‘don’t appoint Avram Grant’.

Having thus appointed the Israeli, Cottee insisted the board compounded the error by not getting rid of him midway through the season, like West Brom did with Roberto Di Matteo. He continued: "If you look at what West Brom have done, they made a decision and everyone went ‘wow, I can’t believe that’. But it was the correct decision. If West Ham would have appointed Martin O’Neill or Sam Allardyce they would not have got relegated this season."

That rather sums up the muddled nature of life at this club. "My position is not important," said Avram Grant when he was asked about his future as the West Ham manager yesterday. Which brings us back to Lacey, who argues that having previously plummeted with Portsmouth Grant remains football's answer to Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer for whom the only way was down. "No one can say that we don't play good football," he said after Saturday's game as his bathysphere prepared for the next descent. The problem is West Ham have not played enough of it to keep up with the rest.


Anonymous said...

It makes you cry doesn't it? I genuinely can't understand how we've ended up in this position with the squad we've got even allowing for managerial incompetance and wretched injuries.

Paul said...

Indeed, Trilby: we simply have had an overinflated idea of ourselves all season long.

Anonymous - as for crying - yes. It appears the sum of the parts IS greater than the whole at West Ham right now...


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