Monday, 23 May 2011

That's Why We're Going Down

West Ham United’s dismal season ended in hugely disappointing fashion when the only team already relegated before the final games of the season suffered their 19th defeat of the campaign. Sunderland owed a rare win – only their third in 14 games – to goals from Asamoah Gyan, Stephane Sessegnon and Cristian Riveros. With a planned move to the Polympic Stadium, writes John Ley, this may have been the last top flight game to be witnessed at this famous old arena. Of more immediate concern, points out the Guardian, is that when Carlo Ancelotti states a desire to become your next manager, the last thing you want to do is blow your audition for the post. That, though, is what Kevin Keen may have done here; overseeing a defeat so listless in attack and lacking of defiance in defence, it was as if Avram Grant had never left.

Following the defeat by Wigan Athletic last week, which confirmed the club's relegation and Grant's sacking, Keen, promoted from first-team coach to caretaker manager for the third time, stated his intention to use this final fixture of a demoralising season to offer hope of better times ahead. It was supposed to mark the end of an error at Upton Park, notes Arindam Rej, with no sign of the sacked former "mistake" appointment. Yet, sadly the new dawn heralded the same old gloom: a West Ham defeat and a frustrated home crowd.

The omens had suggested that West Ham would win this. They had triumphed in their last six home games against Sunderland, keeping five clean sheets. Sunderland had lost their last five final-day Premier League fixtures. Trust West Ham to rewrite the form book to their disadvantage, though. On the pitch, there was also a feeling of "out with the old, in with the new" in a relatively youthful line-up. Keen was without Carlton Cole and Demba Ba, with neck and abdomen injuries respectively.Agent Robbie Keane, on loan recently from Tottenham, has returned to base. Matthew Upson, who was fit, was not included at all, a clear indication that the defender, whose contract expires this summer, has played his final game for the club. Wayne Bridge, on loan from Manchester City, did start, as did Danny Gabbidon, another of the seven players at the end of their current deals.

The opening moments of the game provided a host of chances, with Gyan testing Robert Green twice and Nedum Onuoha also thwarted by the former England goalkeeper. At the other end, Frederic Piquionne snatched at a shot and miss-kicked – a metaphor for West Ham’s season – while Freddie Sears was denied by the acrobatics of Simon Mignolet, who leapt to his right to punch a strong shot clear. The Sunderland goalkeeper was not so clinical seconds later when, from Thomas Hitzlsperger’s 30-yard free kick bounced off his chest but, eventually, the ball was cleared for a corner.

Sunderland responded again through Gyan and, again, Green was equal to the effort. Given the number of early chances, the fact that the first goal of the day came at Upton Park came as little surprise. In the 17th minute Ahmed Elmohamady crossed from the right and his delivery was met by a header from Boudewijn Zenden, which looped into the top corner. After the goal the game went flat, though before the interval Jack Collison threatened twice, and then Zavon Hines was denied by Mignolet.

Sadly for West Ham, after half-time, it only took Sunderland six minutes to extend their lead. Stéphane Sessègnon collected the ball in space and darted forward before producing a low, bobbling shot from 25 yards which beat Green via a slight deflection. Keen’s response was to make a double change, with Victor Obinna and Lars Jacobsen introduced, for Hines and James Tomkins. A subdued atmosphere was punctuated occasionally by a group of fans in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand determined to have a disco. A conga also broke out among them following the second goal and another began in the east stand with 20 minutes to go before stewards failed to see the funny side and sent the fans back. The fans booed the front of the PA announcer when, with four minutes to go, he began to name the man of the match. They laid off, though, when he read out the name of popular Jack Collison.

Scott Parker had been introduced after an hour to an emotional ovation. He came on for Luis Boa Morte, for what is in all probability the Footballer of the Year’s final game in a claret and blue shirt. He had spoken to the crowd before kick-off, thanking them for their support this season; his departure will be much lamented. When Sunderland substitute Cristian Riveros converted Jordan Henderson’s last minute cross to make it 3-0 it only served to extend the agony. It capped a seventh defeat in eight games for the Hammers and induced the home supporters to cry: "That's why we're going down." After the season the club have had the players thought better of a lap of honour. Most did stay to applaud the fans that had stuck with them through this troubled season before they disappeared down the tunnel, many of them for pastures new.

Those same fans had awoken to a story outlining Ancelotti's openness to taking over at Upton Park should Chelsea sack him. Though the Italian heard his fate swiftly last night, it seems unlikely he will be seen here. His dismissal has made it onto the front pages of the Italian press today. The Rome-based Corriere dello Sport welcomed Ancelotti's sacking because they are now linking the coach to Roma; the club where he won the Italian title as a player in 1983. Roma are looking to replace Vincenzo Montella this summer and Ancelotti has made no secret of his desire to manage the club one day.

Similarly, Alex McLeish also appears out of the running for the West Ham job. It was confirmed today he is to remain as Birmingham manager despite their relegation from the Barclays Premier League. Blues acting chairman Peter Pannu told the club's official website that McLeish's job is "safe"; although the Scot has been told the board expect him to lead the team back to the top flight at the first attempt next season. The Independent claims Chris Hughton is still the most realistic candidate to succeed Grant, while Kevin Keen has not given up hope of beating them all to the post. "This club is in my blood and I feel I can take it forward," he reiterated after the game yesterday. "It's a tough ask but I expect to speak to the owners this week and we'll see what happens."

Keen's blueprint for life in the Championship is based on giving youth a chance and in that respect there were positives here, with James Tomkins, Jack Collison and Freddie Sears all impressing in spells. That said, the caretaker manager admitted West Ham must learn to adapt quickly to the rigours of the npower Championship if they are to stand any chance of bouncing back to the Barclays Premier League at the first attempt. "It will be a tough, tough season in the Championship," he warned. "It's more physical than the Premier League - but not as much as it used to be - and there are more games. We have fantastic young players here and if we can keep hold of them, we have a fantastic base to build from and we can play the kind of football our fans believe in."

Keen was realistic about his chances of leading that revival, saying: "If I'm up against Martin O'Neill, Steve McClaren, Sam Allardyce, Neil Warnock, then it's going to be a tough ask. Because those boys have got a lot of experience, they've got a better record than my losses of two and wins of nil in the Premier League. So, it's up to the owners. I'm sure whichever way they go, they'll make the right decision." Despite fluffing his audition for the job, the former West Ham winger insisted he was up to the challenge. "Some people say I'm too nice to manage," he moaned. "Always a nice boy, played football in a nice way." When asked if he could be nasty as well, he added: "Yes, I can be fucking nasty if I have to be. I want the job. My record in two spells as caretaker isn't great - two defeats from two games - but the traditions of this club have slipped away and I can do a good job. Spread the word. I love the club. I played for them for nine years. It's in my blood. I feel I can really take the club on and contribute. If you ask the players if they want me to take the job, I think you'd get an affirmative answer from the majority of the players."

Sunderland manager Steve Bruce knows all about relegation, having suffered it with Birmingham while West Ham's current owners David Gold and David Sullivan were at the helm. His advice to his former bosses was: "You have to have a manager who has been there and done it. And you have to get rid of the players that will not stay. But you have to be careful that you don't strip it - that you have enough to get that balance right."

According to the Evening Standard, goalkeeper Robert Green is expected to be the first player sold by the club following their relegation from the Premier League. The England star will hold talks with Aston Villa this week with a view to a £4million move to the Midlands. Scott Parker will almost certainly follow Green out of the Upton Park exit door, with Tottenham the favourites to sign the Footballer of the Year. West Ham, though, will want at least £10m for the 30-year-old midfielder, who has been linked with several other top clubs, including Arsenal and Liverpool.

Club captain Matthew Upson is at the end of his contract and is expected to go. There also remains uncertainty over the futures of both Demba Ba, who was signed from German Bundesliga club Hoffenheim in January, and Thomas Hitzlsperger, who joined on a free transfer from Lazio last summer. The pair are thought to have escape clauses in their contracts in the event of relegation but the club's hierarchy would like to keep both players. Keen made Hitzlsperger captain for the match against Sunderland and the Germany international is known to feel some loyalty towards the club, particularly after missing the first six months of the season with a thigh injury.

Striker Carlton Cole could be the third player to be sold, with Newcastle manager Alan Pardew keen to take him to Tyneside as a replacement for Andy Carroll. Elsewhere, Victor Obinna is ready to quit Upton Park to join Stoke reports today's Sun. Obinna, 24, was a target for Potters boss Tony Pulis last summer before joining the Hammers on a season's loan from Inter Milan. Facing up to life away from the Premier League, co-owner David Sullivan today insisted there will be no fire sale of players. "We have had no bids yet for any players but we'll probably only sell three and, when they are gone, that's it," he insisted. "If we don't get a realistic price, whoever the player is and if he is under contract, then he'll start next season playing for West Ham."

Meanwhile, the eunuch in the harem insists West Ham are a laughing stock and there are three sets of people to blame for the club's demise this season; the players, the board and of course the management team. "There will be players distraught at relegation like they were last Sunday at Wigan, but there will also be those who are not bothered, because they know they will move on and find another club," Constant Critic Cottee writes in his weekly column. "This has been probably the worst season for West Ham since the Bond-scheme debacle and one we must draw a line under the sand." Ah ha, who's laughing now Mr Idiom Schism? Probably no one who has actually read this far, but who am I to pick stones or throw holes?

"I know we were relegated eight years ago, but at least that side produced some decent results playing decent football and the first four games when we lost every one really set the tone.," continues Cottee. "Sunday’s result and flat performance against Sunderland really summed up West Ham’s campaign. It was a real end of season game and although everyone was trying it was a poor performance and Sunderland were by far the better side. I’m disappointed, but especially for Kevin Keen. I spoke to Kevin before the match and he was so excited about the prospect of taking charge of the game."

Finally, if you're going to be a laughing stock then it would be just West Ham's luck to do it on an international scale. A report on the BBC states Fulham are likely to have to wait until Thursday to find out if they have qualified for the Europa League through the fair play table. The top-ranked team that has not already qualified for Europe gains entry to the competition. Fulham were leaders when the fair play table was last published on 30 April, but Zoltan Gera was sent off in their final game, the 2-2 draw with Arsenal. Blackpool were the next highest eligible team, followed by West Ham.

There had been speculation that Blackpool will now take the qualify spot for the Europa League once the reports from Sunday's final round of Premier League matches have been filed and independently audited. However, conflicting reports suggest the Lancashire side do not actually hold a Europa Licence and so would be unable to take up the invitation. The BBC explains that match delegates award points depending on a range of factors, not only the number of yellow and red cards a side receives. They also consider "positive play", respect towards opponents and the behaviour of a club's officials. Fulham boss Mark Hughes remains confident Fulham will qualify for Europe, despite the sending off. "I don't think it will have any bearing on our standing," he said. "We are still hopeful of being in Europe."

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