Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Are You Listening, Mr Pardew?

West Ham United have officially announced the signing of Mali international forward Modibo Maiga. The 24-year-old joins the Hammers from French side FC Sochaux-Montbeliard for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £5million, putting pen to paper on a four-year contract with an option for a further two years. The player, who becomes West Ham's fifth summer arrival following Mohamed Diame, George McCartney, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Henderson, will be the second Malian to represent the club. He follows in the footsteps of fellow forward Frederic Kanoute, who scored 33 goals in 92 appearances for the Hammers between March 2000 and May 2003.

A beaming Maiga could not contain his pleasure at completing his move to the Boleyn Ground; the culmination of a long cherished dream to play in the Premier League. "I am really happy and excited about joining West Ham United," he told "I know West Ham are a big club in England and I'm really looking forward to representing them. They have huge tradition and it is like joining part of a family and that is one of the main reasons I wanted to come here. I know some of the big names that have played for the club in the past and I am proud to be part of a new team back in the Premier League."

The excitement, of course, is likely to be reciprocated by the expectant West Ham fans. These are days of hope and optimism, when our team is still level on points with the great powers and we dream impossible dreams. On the beaches of Spain and Portugal, Turkey and Greece, the great diaspora of Hammers followers pores over English newspapers, gorging on the transfer tittle-tattle that tells of the impending arrival of the one player who is going to transform our team. He bears the exotic stamp of some faraway place, his foreign passport enough to convince us of his credentials as a footballer to stir the heart.

So it was that Modibo Maiga stepped out of St Pancras station two days ago, over-sized suitcase in hand. The latest stop on an eventful journey that started in the back alleys of Djicoroni Para before wending its way through North Africa and then across France. "Shy, a little. Modest, certainly," says Gilles Santalucia on first meeting the man. It is, he thinks, the natural result of an education learnt on the streets of one of the poorest districts in one of the most deprived countries in the world. Mali has an estimated population of 12 million with over 50 percent of the country located in the Sahara Desert and with 64 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. It is a time and place, admits Maiga, where nothing in life is simple. "It is a region where things are very, very difficult," he concedes. "It must be said, it is a mess over there."

The young Malian is the third son in a family of ten children (six girls, 4 boys), yet grew up with a football almost stuck to his foot (especially the left one) and always smiling. "My father was a driver and my mother has long had a cafe. Even if it is was not always clear to us growing up in Mali, despite everything, there is still a zest for life that never disappears." Maiga has, he says, found less joy in people in France. "Everyone there has their own life but with us, we all live together. Among locals, there is a lot of solidarity, a common shared experience."

Growing up on those dusty plains, football was Maiga's first and only love. "I went to school through high school," he explains. "Afterwards, I changed my path. I chose football. In the neighbourhood we knew there was a lot of African players that were doing well in Europe. It made us envious. I was always one of the best in Djicoroni Para when doing competitions and technical stuff." Then he pauses as if to give full flight to his memory, "but we did not think, right then, of our futures. Football, it was fun, a kind of love. Yes, that's love. Only later did I start to see it otherwise."

Maiga started out at Stade Malien, based in Bamako and one of the two dominant clubs in Malian football. It was 2003 and he was 15 years of age, rubbing shoulders with several Mali internationals past, present and future. Just over a year later, and after only three club appearances, he was spotted by famed recruiter Philippe Romieu. Maiga initially moved to Raja Casablanca on a six-month loan with option to purchase and ended up staying for three seasons; winning several awards including the Moroccan League, the Throne Cup and the Arab Champions League. "I think the move to one of the biggest clubs in Africa certainly facilitated my integration in France," reflects Maiga. "I have only good memories. You do not forget the first steps you take out of your country."

For an ambitious and talented footballer, small motivation was required to leave Mali. "You do not know where you want to go," he says, "but you feel you want to go to progress." In Casablanca, Maiga had little choice but to embrace the madness. "The Moroccan people are crazy about football. With 60 000 to 70 000 spectators per match, there was an incredible atmosphere." Such an experience would leave an indelible mark on any impressionable young player. "It made me want to go even higher," he recalls, before admitting that he never found in France anything to match what he encountered in North Africa. "I miss it because the atmosphere in the stadiums there is very motivating for the player."

The move to Europe would prove to be a culture shock in more ways than one. The raw 20 year old landed in a snow dusted Le Mans shivering in the depths of a unseasonably harsh winter. Alone and uncomfortable in a strange land, he quickly confronted the unpalatable truth that a successful football career would "force him to consent" to sacrifice, to change his lifestyle. "It's very hard to deal with it all when you come from where I come from," he says. "For Brazilians, I think it's even worse. Them, they need to come with their entire family for everything to be happy around them. They need it. Yet we must face this new life to succeed. You are forced to fight against adversity."

Under the watchful eye of Daniel Jeandupeux, Maiga initially faced a severe test of resolve which would endure for almost a year. "When I arrived at Le Mans from Casablanca, I was a little hurt," he admits. "I took the time to heal and then had to gradually integrate myself into the group as well. So I started with the team of CFA (Championnat de France amateur fourth division)." He eventually joined the first team under the management of Rudi Garcia but featured only intermittently. "I fought through it," he states, before insisting he never lost belief in his ability even when he was not playing. "I told myself that I would play full-time the following season and be in great physical shape."

Garcia's subsequent departure for Lille and the promotion of Yves Bertucci coincided with Maiga's rapid rise. "My ambition to be successful at the club would have been the same no matter the coach," thinks Maiga. "I wanted to play more than anything. I worked very hard for it and I'm really ambitious. But it's true that Yves [Bertucci] knew me very well since I developed under his command in CFA. He knew me more than Rudi [Garcia] elsewhere. Yves gave me my chance. So I tried to return it to the fullest and to earn his trust."

Le Mans also had a strong contingent of French-speaking African players and Maiga believes that it eased his progress. "The presence of certain players was a very good thing for me," he says. "When I landed in the Sarthe, there was Romaric and Stephane Sessegnon. There was a lot of Africans. It was fun. We worked together and I could learn from their experience, and always listen to their advice." Playing alongside Ivory Coast player Gervinho, Maiga's talent slowly blossomed into full glory across the football fields of France. Despite Le Mans' ultimate relegation to Ligue 2, he bagged 15 goals in 88 games over a three year period; including eight goals in 30 games in the 2008-2009 season. Unwilling to drop a division, Maiga jumped at a transfer to FC Sochaux-Montbéliard for an estimated three million euros. "I could not forget that relegation," he says. "Even now it's hard to return to this disappointment. As Sochaux had followed me for a few months, I did not hesitate and I immediately gave my consent because it was a good challenge ahead for me."

Signing a four-year contract, Maiga informed the media that at Sochaux he felt respected. "Frankly, since the beginning I liked the place a lot," he says. "I really do not care about the surroundings, what interests me is the club environment. At Sochaux I felt more respected, more relevant and that made me more confident. The staff were very human and made me want to get involved. With them I felt able to make much progress. What they said, what they did, could only make people want to give of their best." That was then though.

During the 2010–11 Les Lionceaux coach Francis Gillot moved Maiga more central and teamed him up with Nigerian striker Ideye Brown to devastating effect. The pair struck up a 30 goal partnership, each scoring 15 goals. Between them, they accounted for half of FC Sochaux's league goals. Maiga and Brown were assisted by playmakers Marvin Martin and Ryad Boudebouz as Sochaux finish fifth in Ligue 1 and qualified for the UEFA Europa League. By the following August, Maiga had announced that he would never play for the club again. In the interim strike partner Brown had been sold to Dynamo Kyiv and coach Gillot departed for Bordeaux. A frustrated Maiga expressed his interest in moving, but with one star striker gone Sporting Director Alexandre Lacombe wasn’t keen to see his other forward leave the Stade Auguste-Bonal.

Maiga's subsequent refusal to make himself available for selection for several matches of the new season launched its own public "soap opera"; played out against the backdrop of an impending transfer to Newcastle United that the player desperately wanted, but which Lacombe categorically refused. The Mali international told L'Equipe: "I want it to be done with Newcastle. I want to leave, it is necessary that the president agrees to negotiate. I met everybody, they want me and it is not any club. England is a dream. I want to go." For their part, Sochaux accused Newcastle of speaking to Maiga without their permission and confirmed they had contacted Fifa to intervene. A few days after the transfer window slammed shut, a frustrated Maiga- who had already missed games against Malherbe de Caen and AS Nancy- went for a 'Sunday drive', claiming sickness and without informing anyone of his absence. He missed further games before eventually returning to the first team and scoring four goals in three games.

Yet resentment was still raging in Maiga as the unforgiving fans continued to whistle his every move. Things came to a head in a televised match against Toulouse when Maiga was shown apoplectic with rage and hurling insults at the supporters who had once idolized him. "It was a good answer to the people who do not know football," he told the media after the game. "This will make them shut their big mouths. When you see what I did last year and the fans for whom I have always played do not try to understand, they hiss you. [...] I say 'fuck you' to the supporters. My answer is on the field. I have always been strong in my head, thank God."

An exasperated Lacombe was moved to extinguish the fire again. "He has in him a strong vengeful side," he told assembled journalists. "He really has it deep in his guts, and I think he spoke without thinking. It's our fault, we should not have let the press so quickly in the locker room. I do not know exactly how it happened, but I take it upon myself. We made a mistake, I take responsibility." Within months, the man who had resisted Newcastle’s repeated attempts to sign the 24-year-old in the summer conceded there was no point trying to do so again in January. "I have had enough of being booed by supporters, but anyway it does not stop me scoring goals for the club and making them happy," added Maiga in response. "I will not finish my career in Sochaux if I am scoring every week - that is the reality of football. I have not invented that. At the moment I am here and scoring goals. I do not know when the transfer window opens what there will be. It depends also on the club, but in the near future I want to ply my trade in another top league. It is a genuine ambition, I will accept being booed for that."

By October several newspapers were reporting that Maiga was again close to sealing a £7 million transfer to move to Tyneside, before L'Equipe revealed in December that he had failed a medical ahead of his proposed move amid concerns over a 'knee problem'. "I am disappointed at this turn of events," responded the player’s agent, Karim Aklil at the time. "Modibo is in perfect physical condition, which was confirmed by one of the leading experts in the field." Aklil was referring to a report of the player performed and submitted by Professor Jaeger, an independent medical practitioner in France. "I was surprised that Newcastle’s medical team employed a very shallow observation before reaching a conclusion. I’m quite convinced that the future will prove us right. Modibo is one of the best strikers in the French Ligue 1," he added.

Maiga says the failed medical was due to lingering thigh injury he had picked up earlier in the Ligue 1 campaign and which he had been dragging around for several weeks. He points to the presence of Demba Ba in the Newcastle squad a year after he was turned down by Stoke for a similar reason, and argues Alan Pardew may live to regret the decision to pull the plug on a deal that had been in place for months. "I am mentally fine, I wanted that move to Newcastle badly," he says. "However, it did not happen as they said my knee has a problem. There is a player at Newcastle now, he was told at a Premier League medical that he had a knee problem, he then went to another and started scoring goals before his move to Newcastle. Me... I feel better than anything."

By February Maiga had time enough to revisit those words, sweating in a Libreville hospital bed having contracted malaria while representing Mali at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. His absence had originally been attributed to a mystery ankle injury, partly at the behest of the player himself who had neglected to take the preventative measures as prescribed by his club doctors prior to the tournament. Fevered and tired, he would miss the 1-0 semi defeat against Côte d'Ivoire, with manager Alain Giresse lamenting he had no resource to compensate for losing Maiga's speed and trickery. When Maiga eventually returned to France, severely weakened and incapacitated for several more weeks, he was in no position to help his team-mates by now embroiled in a desperate relegation struggle.

By the end of April, Maiga had returned with 4 goals in as many games: against Lyon, Brest, Montpellier and Dijon. Seemingly keen to repair his damaged reputation, or else realizing that his personal interests coincided with those of the team, Maiga had taken full advantage of a serious knee injury to Edouard Butin to remind sceptical fans of his talent. His relieved coach, Eric Hely, told a curious media that his wayward star had 'fallen into line'. "These last few weeks, he has been working hard," he said. "He has demonstrated he wants to play and, above all, he has acquired a good level of physical fitness. He is now being rewarded for his efforts."

In addition to Maiga's natural finishing and exceptional heading ability, Sochaux captain and goalkeeper Teddy Richert believes Maiga has developed a new found physicality which enables him to disrupt and bully defences. "It doesn't surprise me at all," he says. "You can see it on the pitch and in training that he wants to give everything to show what he is capable of and that's what he is now doing." Maiga has developed into a versatile player; possessed of power and technique that means he is as comfortable playing a lone central striker role as he is a "more facilitating role in which I pull out towards the wing." He has, he believes, mastered both positions. "It really does not matter what position I play," he promises. "I can give my full potential through the middle or out wide. So I have no preference. I play where the coach asks me."

While off the field Modibo Maiga had largely been a disaster last season: throwing tantrums, insulting his own supporters, missing training and refusing to play, acknowledges Jonathan Fadugba, it stemmed from a burning desire to leave the Ligue 1 strugglers for a bigger club which, in fairness, his abundant talent probably warrants. Writing for, the chief correspondent for FFT's United States of Africa states: "Nevertheless his shenanigans have been quite disheartening to witness and one wonders to what extent it was his misbehaviour, rather than worries over the state of his knee, that caused Newcastle United to pull out of the deal." It's a shame, thinks Fadugba, because when on his game the Mali international is a real handful – aggressive, alert, strong in the air and a good finisher. Scoring 24 goals in 59 games for Sochaux certainly suggests he can do it at a high level, and having been rejected by the Magpies he always remained desperate to impress watching scouts to finally rescue him from his nightmare in Montbéliard.

Cursory statistical analysis certainly supports this assertion. A recent post on the English Premier League Index compared Maiga to the other top scoring strikers in Ligue 1 last season. Montpellier's Olivier Giroud (now of Arsenal) led the league in most stats, goals, total shots, assists and shots on target; while the league's second best scorer, St Etienne's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was second to Giroud in all the stats that he led. "Maiga was second in shooting accuracy with 53%, behind Lyon striker Lisandro Lopez who had 58% of his shots hitting the target," reveals the article. "He was also third in conversion percentage with 18%, behind Yoan Gouffran (24%) and Lopez again (23%). A key Stat to look at here is appearances, Maiga made the least amount of appearances last year with 23, which would mean he would score less goals."

Not that Modibo Maiga is one of life's natural number-crunchers. "I just believe in myself and I always want to go higher," he says, with the same conviction he had as a kid growing up in Bamako that one day Barcelona would come calling. "Seydou Keita (former Lens and Barcelona midfielder) is like a big brother to me and when I was young he gave me good advice. He told me that I have all the qualities that I need to achieve great things but that I have to work hard and God must be willing." He then raises his eyes as if to scan the sky. "My first name is that of an ancient religion and I am a devout Muslim," he reveals. "It's like that in Mali. I was born into it, and it is what gives me my mental strength. Even when I was having a difficult time in Sochaux and the fans did not understand me, I never gave up faith that I would one day make it to Premier League. I always wanted to play here and now I have a chance. What is more, my health is very good and so are my knees!" Are you listening, Mr Pardew?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Southend United 0 v 3 West Ham United

If you're looking for a thrill that's new
Take in Fords , Dartford Tunnel and the river too
Go motorin' on the A13
Pre-season games are not supposed to be like this. Usually these games are played in blazing sunshine in front of shirt-sleeved fans, but this was strictly umbrellas, rainhoods and bovril as the West Ham fans descended on rain-lashed Roots Hall for a trip to the seaside. Away from the summer fete atmosphere that has recently dominated domestic sport at Wimbledon and Silverstone, there could be no clearer sign that the football machine is beginning to churn. At times this game looked more like a water polo match as the Hammers negotiated puddles as well as League Two opposition to record their first victory since returning to action.

Having failed to win either of their opening two fixtures of pre-season - losing 3-1 against Austria Wien and drawing 1-1 at Boreham Wood in midweek - the win was a welcome one. It was also thoroughly enjoyed by the travelling Hammers fans who filled the away end plus had many more supporters in the home stands. Of the official capacity of 7,135, at least half were supporting the visitors. They watched West Ham warm up for their Premier League campaign with a commanding performance that saw Sam Baldock score his third goal in successive matches.

Manager Sam Allardyce had opted for a strong team in the first half. Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, Winston Reid, George McCartney and Ricardo Vaz Te were all in the starting line-up and the difference in class showed as Jussi Jaaskelainen was hardly called upon in that opening 45 minutes. After just two minutes, Nolan's close range effort was ruled out for offside before Vaz Te's neat near post flick from Matt Taylor's right wing corner was tipped wide of the target by Blues' trialist goalkeeper Rhys Taylor. The Southend shot-stopper then did well to smother a long range shot from Taylor before the former Rotherham keeper denied the winger again with a solid stop low down to his right hand side.

With the Hammers in full control their efforts were rewarded with 22 minutes on the clock; finally making their pressure count as Taylor's right wing corner picked out an unmarked Nicky Maynard and the striker thundered a header in to the roof of the net from close range. West Ham did not stop there though and Jordan Spence doubled the lead in the 34th minute with a fine solo strike. The young defender charged from the halfway line down the right flank and unleashed a powerful long range shot in to the bottom left hand corner of the net. It was a goal of some class, though Southend boss Paul Sturrock will surely have been disappointed by the defending, or lack of it.

Allardyce made only one change at the break with Sam Baldock replacing Maynard as he looked to step up the game time of many of his first-choice players. Paul Sturrock countered with 10 changes with only one-time Hammers target Kane Ferdinand remaining on the field from the first half. If the aim was to help stem the flow then it seemed to have the desired effect, as the Hammers initially struggled to re-assert themselves after the interval. Allardyce eventually rang the changes on the hour with five more substitutions to give the youngsters a chance and it was one of them who created the third West Ham goal just four minutes later. Former MK Dons frontman Baldock reacted quickest when Southend's second half goalkeeper Phil Smith failed to hold a low 20 yard shot from Elliot Lee and chipped the rebound in to the back of the North Bank net.

The goal killed off any remaining hopes of a Blues fightback and from then on the Hammers were comfortable. Guy Demel and Ravel Morrison were both given run-outs, while youngster Amos Nasha stood out at the back, but as the pitch deteriorated, so did the game as the Hammers settled for three. The only sour note for boss Allardyce was the sight of young left-back Dan Potts being stretchered off after a nasty clash of heads with Southend's Mark Phillips. As an eloquent postscript, the biggest cheer of the day from the downbeat home fans came when former Hammers trainee Freddy Eastwood replaced trialist Joe Yoffe in attack with nine minutes remaining.

Speaking after the game, Neil McDonald said he was delighted to see West Ham United secure such a comfortable victory but was even happier to report encouraging news about stricken left-back Dan Potts. The youngster was knocked out cold for a short period before regaining consciousness and being tended to by the Club's medical staff and paramedics. He was carefully fitted with a neck brace before being stretchered off the pitch to an ovation. Thankfully, the 18-year-old was up on his feet again in the dressing room a short time later and was able to have a shower. Potts, who was voted Man of the Match, was taken to hospital for a precautionary scan and will be kept in overnight for observation.

McDonald told West Ham TV: "Pottsy is fine. He is going to stay overnight in hospital just to double-check he is all right but he's up and walking about. He's got showered and now he'll be taken into hospital for observation. He's come round and he's got a bit of a sore head which is only natural from a clash where he's made a fantastic defensive header. We'll make sure he's OK and, all things going well, he'll be back to work on Monday."

While the news about Potts' health provided a boost for everybody associated with the Club, the assistant manager was also pleased with the way West Ham played in testing conditions at Roots Hall. Heavy rain left the pitch sodden in places, with puddles holding the ball up in the corners, but the Hammers moved the ball quickly and relatively easily to open up Southend and score three fine goals. McDonald put West Ham's impressive performance down to the hard work that has been done on the training field since the Club returned for pre-season on 1 July. "They're getting stronger and they're getting fitter, which is what pre-season is all about. It was nice to get some goals as well, which was great," he confirmed. "With another good week of work under their belts and having played two games this week, it's building up well in pre-season. We passed the ball really well and kept it moving. We've been working on keeping the ball and passing and moving during the past two weeks and we now just need to build their fitness up. We played some really nice stuff at times."

Southend United manager Paul Sturrock felt the manner of his side’s defeat showed the friendly had come too early in Blues’ pre-season preparations. "The game was a bit too early for us in our preparations and I think everyone saw that," said Sturrock. "West Ham are also 17 days ahead of us in their training and you have to take that in to consideration. We were also up against a Premier League side, so it was always going to be a difficult game." The wet weather also played havoc with the Roots Hall pitch and Sturrock felt the match would have been called off if it had been a league contest. "If this was a normal game then it would definitely not have taken place," said the Scotsman. "But because it’s a friendly you just have to get on with it. The biggest plus point for me was that we got no injuries and we can now look forward to continuing our pre-season because we’re in the middle of some very hard work at the moment."

Shrimpers midfielder Kane Ferdinand felt Southend United were outclassed and never looked like troubling the Hammers. "I think the difference in class between the two teams was there to see but it was good for us to get out there again," said Ferdinand, 19. "West Ham have been back in training a few more weeks than we have and that showed as well, but it was nice to get a game in. The matches help to break up the hard runs and training we’re doing and I’m sure this will have done us good."

West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spence, Potts (Mavilla), McCartney (Demel), Reid (Nasha), Nolan (Bywater), Noble (Morrison), Hall (O’Neil), Taylor, Vaz Te (Lee), Maynard (Baldock)

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Boreham Wood 1 v 1 West Ham United

I was living in a Devil Town
Didn't know it was a Devil Town
Oh, Lord, it really brings me down
About the Devil Town

West Ham United respected the point with a 1-1 draw against Blue Square Bet South behemoths Boreham Wood in their opening pre-season friendly on English soil. Venturing into darkest Hertfordshire, to the town that inspired Urban Dead's quarantined gameworld in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, Sam Baldock and Ravel Morrison provided the stand-out moments in a game the Premier League outfit controlled for long spells but could never quite kill off.

The visitors got off to a good start as George McCartney and Ricardo Vaz Te combined well down the left before the former Portugal Under-21 international found George Moncur, whose first-time curling effort was palmed away well by the goalkeeper. Pelly Ruddock, who joined the Hammers from Boreham Wood last winter after coming through the non-league club's Programme for Academic and Sporting Excellence scheme, was handed the captaincy on his return. He almost opened the scoring as he attempted a volley from Matthew Fanimo’s pinpoint cross, but the midfielder sliced his effort when he should have controlled the delivery.

With 21 minutes on the clock, the home side almost took the lead from a corner, but Callum Reynold’s powerful header went straight over Jaaskelainen’s bar and out for a goal-kick. Six minutes later Boreham Wood were left ruing that miss as Sam Allardyce’s side took the lead through Baldock. The tireless striker had scored the Hammers’ only goal in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat against Austria Vienna and playing here up front largely on his own, he caused the home team plenty of problems. First, hitting the base of the post from a first-time left foot shot, then eventually breaking the deadlock when Vaz Te unselfishly laid the ball into his path and he struck a crisp shot into the corner of the net via a deflection.

As the first half came to a conclusion, Jaaskelainen was finding himself more and more involved, first stopping Graeme Montgomery's free-kick from the corner of the penalty area, then diving down to his left to stop a low strike from left-back Mark Jones as the hosts showed that they were determined to make an impression in front of a bumper crowd that included the local Mayor. Flickering consciousness lurched into animated revivification six minutes into the second half when giant forward Inih Effiong seized on some calamitous defending by Sam Allardyce’s team. Young defender Eoin Wearen saw his weak back pass intercepted by Omer Riza and when he squared it to the cyclopean substitute, the striker beat Jake Larkins from just inside the box.

Manager Allardyce, back in the dugout after spending last week working on bringing in new recruits, cut an unconcerned figure on the night as he ambled around the ground signing autographs. The relaxed atmosphere was underlined by the presence of Rob Burgess-Allen, his 'Assistant Manager for the Day', who had successfully bid for the right to spend all day at Chadwell Heath, before mixing with the squad on the team coach and in the dressing room pre and post-match. Just as Neil McDonald had done in Vienna, Big Sam was using the night to give his full squad more valuable game time in the run up to the big kick-off at home to Aston Villa on 18 August. He opted to play two different teams in each half, providing a mix of youth and experience throughout. For the second period Winston Reid, Gary O’Neil, Kevin Nolan and Nicky Maynard were the senior players; replacing Vaz Te, Noble, McCartney, Jaaskelainen and Baldock. They were joined by talented former Manchester United midfielder Morrison.

Indeed it was Morrison, partnering Nolan in the middle of the park, who seemed the most likely to produce something after the break for West Ham. The 19-year-old looked sharp spreading the play nicely and probing for openings, while Maynard played the lone striking role, with little success. He did have one shot saved after latching on to Morrison’s pass, while he should have scored right at the death when Morrison’s long-ranger was parried into his path, only to stab the rebound wide. Nolan had come even closer a few minutes earlier. Following more good work from Morrison, Matt Taylor’s cross from the left picked him out perfectly, but the skipper’s shot hit the ground and bounced up on to the bar as Boreham Wood held on for a creditable draw.

In the absence of Burgess-Allen, Neil McDonald declared himself happy with proceedings. "It was a good workout and though it would have been nice to have won, it is not about results," he said. "This is all about building up the fitness, building up the endurance as well which we have been working on for the last week and a half." McDonald did have some words of praise for Morrison after his second-half showing. "I think he is an exciting sort of player, especially when we have got the ball," he said. "He can play that final pass and drive on with the ball, which is certainly what you need in the Premiership. It was a good workout for him, another 45 minutes under his belt after 90 against Austria Vienna, so that is a good week for him and he has got to know the other players a little better."

West Ham (first half): Jaaskelainen, Driver, McCartney, K Lee, Spence, Vaz Te, Moncur, Noble, Ruddock, Fanimo, Baldock.

Second half: Larkins, Chambers, Potts, Reid, Wearen, Turgott, O’Neil, Nolan, Morrison, Taylor, Maynard.

The Hammers travel to Southend United this weekend.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Fußballklub Austria Wien 3 v 1 West Ham United

I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.

West Ham United were beaten 3-1 by Fußballklub Austria Wien in their opening pre-season friendly fixture. An experimental side featuring new signings Mohamed Diame and Stephen Henderson plus youngsters Seb Lletget and Ravel Morrison deployed in a conventional 4-4-2, was comfortably beaten in the Austrian capital by a team three weeks ahead of the Hammers in their pre season preparations. Sam Baldock gave the Premier League newcomers a fourth minute lead at the 10,850-capacity Franz Horr Stadium, getting his head to a hanging Carlton Cole cross to force the ball past Lindner in the Wien goal. Cole then looked poised to record the Hammers' second of the match just before the 15-minute mark, the former Chelsea striker leaping for a cross in the box but taking a defender down in the process, resulting in a free-kick to the home side.

Yet that would prove to be as good as it got for the visitors, managed for this game and the entirety of the five day training camp in Bad Waltersdorf by assistant Neil McDonald. Blistering sunshine and temperatures in excess of 80 degrees forced a short break in play 20 minutes in, and then with Cole off the field receiving treatment, the revitalised 23-time Austrian Bundesliga champions levelled midway through the first half, Roland Linz evading a challenge on the edge of the box and beating Henderson. Three minutes later Tomas Simkovic burst down the left and picked out Dare Vrsic, who finished well to give Die Vielchen the lead. Cole was subsequently replaced with just 26 minutes on the clock by Nicky Maynard - however the damage is not thought to be serious. Cole tweeted after the game: "I had slight calf injury but came off for precautionary reasons! We got about 10 games this preseason so plenty of games to get match fit."

Shortly after the restart West Ham thought they had equalised when Ricardo Vaz Te nodded down Gary O'Neill's cross for Maynard to finish, but Kevin Nolan had already been penalised for a foul in the build-up. The Hammers had introduced several new faces, including recently re-signed George McCartney and new boy Jussi Jaaskelainen and the Londoners did start to enjoy a stronger spell of possession midway through the second half. Luck was not on their side, however, as Wien added another onto the scoresheet against the run of play 15 minutes from time. A strong push upfield saw Tomas Jun wriggle free from the Hammers defence before firing home a cracking effort from outside the box. The strike left Jaaskelainen- who had earlier made a flying save to deny the Czech Republic international from no more than ten yards- with little chance. The third goal gave the home side a new lease of life, cancelling out West Ham's period of domination and allowing them to kill the game off.

While the jubilent Wien Fanatics were in good voice at the final whistle, the general consensus was it had been a good workout for both teams. Playing against a near full strength team that begin their Bundesliga campaign in less than two weeks, the Hammers started brightly before their opponents' greater fitness levels saw them come back to claim victory. "The game went very much the way I thought it would go," McDonald confirmed to West Ham TV. "We started off well and scored a really good goal through Sam and then their passing and moving took over. We conceded two poor goals in the first half. The goal they scored in the second half was a really good strike so probably, all in all, we're pleased. We said before the game that it was all about improving our fitness and getting our endurance up and a lot of them played 45 minutes-plus so it finished off a good week, even though we got beaten 3-1."

Among those to give their all for the cause after just six days on the training pitch were teenagers Lletget, who played at right-back in the second half, Morrison and Dan Potts, who featured at centre-back during the closing 45 minutes. "They did very well," thought McDonald. "We asked them to play in different positions as well because of the lack of numbers and they've done OK. We're happy with their performances and it was a great experience for them coming away with the first team on pre-season, some of them for the first time, and to play against a very strong and sharp team. There are plenty of positives."

Not least in the way Baldock took his goal. "I think the goal was fantastic," stated McDonald. "Carlton Cole has run down the line and put in a good cross to the back post and Sam was in the right place at the right time." The diminutive striker had been left out of the starting lineup for much of the second half of last season, but insists he is itching to force his way back into manager Sam Allardyce's thoughts and make an impact in the Barclays Premier League. "I don't see why I can't take this opportunity to stake my claim," said Baldock. "Everyone knows that during the second half of last year I was very frustrated. I'm a footballer who wants to play football at the end of the day. I've been working hard and hopefully I'll be given a chance to show what I can do."

Focusing on his goal, Baldock revealed that he had been slightly fortunate to score, but that there was no luck involved in him being in the right place at the right time to meet Carlton Cole's far-post cross. Having worked on movement in the opposition penalty area on the training pitch the previous day, it was pleasing for the forward to see his hard work pay off. "I wasn't particularly pleased with my performance but I don't think anyone can say they played particularly well - it was more about getting a run out and seeing if you can get that match-sharpness after six days of training. It was a good end to the trip in a nice stadium with a good atmosphere and quite a few travelling fans, which was nice to see. I saw Coley made a great run and he got pretty much to the byline. I thought I'd lose my marker by making a run to the back stick where he hung it up and to be honest it just hit me! It hit the defender and came off my shoulder but it's a goal and strikers love goals, don't they."

For McDonald the positives included a good week's training as well as the climate. "They are three weeks ahead of us - they start in two weeks' time so they were always going to be a lot brighter and a lot fitter and fresher," he admitted. "The lads have done what they were asked to do, considering that was their first week. It's been lovely in Austria - the weather has been perfect from when we arrived to when we flew back home and that's the weather you want for pre-season. It's hot to run about in, of course, but I think the lads have acquitted themselves really well considering we have only had one week of training."

Two players to miss the game were Jack Collison and Joey O'Brien, who have been on special individual training programmes due to the long-term knee injuries they suffered earlier in their careers. McDonald also suggested Cole's premature departure had been pre-planned as the medical staff continue to manage his own well-documented knee issue. While all three could not play their full part in the game, there was great value in them being present for the whole week in Austria. "The majority of the senior staff are here so, even though they were never going to play or be involved in the first game, it was important for them to come with the lads and do all the training sessions. They've got through all that so they'll be ready to move on to the next stage when we go back home."

That next stage is a return to the UK for Tuesday’s friendly clash at Boreham Wood of the Conference South. The midweek fixture will see the return of Sam Allardyce to the dugout after the manager missed the Austrian training camp to work on bringing in new recruits back in London. McDonald confirmed that the Club would be working hard to strengthen the squad ahead of the opening Barclays Premier League fixture at home to Aston Villa on 18 August. "That was the reason Sam didn't come. He's been very busy over the summer. He's been on the phone trying to get deals done and I'm sure he'll be trying even harder in the next few weeks to try and freshen the squad up because we need competition for every place in the lineup."

West Ham Utd: Henderson (Jaaskelainen 46), Spence, Tomkins (McCartney 46), Reid (Noble 46), Potts, Taylor (O'Neil 46), Diame (Nolan 46), Morrison, Lletget, Cole (Maynard 26), Baldock (Vaz Te 46).

Subs not used: None.

FK Austria Wien: Lindner; Dilaver, Margreitter (Rogulj 83), Ortlechner (Rotpuller 76), Suttner (Wimmer 83); Gorgon (Murg 68), Vrsic (Mader 59), Holland (Spiridonovic 76), Simkovic; Linz (Kienast 76), Stankovic.

Subs not used: None.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Permanent Insurrection In The Transfer Circus

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
You find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another
A little over a year ago I wrote a piece about the friction between social media and the written press as it pertains to the transfer circus. It was inspired by a disgruntled football journalist from the Birmingham Mail who bemoaned the fact that such is the power of social media these days that a 'ridiculous story' about Peter Odemwingie failing to agree terms with Arsenal - based on two 'friends' of his - was run by a Nigerian website. Not a usual news source, he pointed out, just one which anyone of any age could set up in their bedroom and portray as a reputable provider of news. Trouble is that people get sucked in. They see the reports on NewsNow and assume it might, just might, be true. Who can blame them, he asked, not least when a UK-based agent is also repeating the false rumour on national radio to millions of listeners. Such was the power of that particular report that both clubs were moved to issue a statement denying it all. As it happens Albion and Arsenal never had discussions over Odemwingie, let alone got to a stage where the player was quibbling over personal terms.

At the time I was writing that original article Herita Ilunga was reportedly a £1.5m target for Greek champions Olympiakos. Except he wasn't. Nor had he ever been. Julien Faubert was also alledgedly poised to move to Lazio; a piece of rampant speculation extrapolated from a solitary snippet of second-hand information that a club official at the time had reportedly met with the Frenchman's representative, but that was as far as it went. We now know that both stories were little more than educated guesswork, which more often than not, is what fuels social media panic, be it on Twitter or on Facebook. A couple of websites in Italy subsequently reported the Faubert story and then it was picked up and reported as news by the website branch of a national radio station.

I was reminded of this today when reading an account of how a group of football supporters attempted to get a completely fabricated transfer rumour started last week; eventually choosing Newcastle United as the 'interested' club, and naming North Korean striker Jong Il-Gwan as the transfer target. The formative stage of their plan, such as it was, initially involved doctoring an article from a Korean newspaper. They claimed Newcastle had been tracking the player ever since 'he was named Asian Footballer of the Year', bemusingly adding 'he is the best young prospect since Kim Jong-Il'.

They subsequently tweeted the said article (accompanied by a YouTube video of Gwan scoring a hat trick against Australia) to a select number of Newcastle blogs and fansites, who voraciously swallowed the bait and promulgated the rumour. It wasn't long before a respected north-east journalist, Mark Douglas, was reporting "he didn't know about Gwan specifically but that he knew that the Mags were actively scouting in Asia for talent". From here it was a short step to the rumour being disseminated on the major Newcastle forums and members there enthusiastically discussing how he could be a bargain considering Carr's recent scouting record. Within hours one of the most popular Newcastle ITKs took to Twitter to claim he had heard from his 'sources' that Gwan would be signed for the club's development squad.

A couple of days later and the Daily Mail 'Insider' was attributing a score of 3/5 to the possibility of the transfer being concluded. The paper stated: "Newcastle rewarded scout Graham Carr with a new eight-year contract today and he continues to have that knack of finding talent. One of the latest targets of his attention is North Korea international striker Jong Il-Gwan. The 19-year-old has been linked with PSV Eindhoven and Partizan Belgrade but Newcastle have been keeping an eye on him since his hat-trick for North Korea in the Asian Youth Championship against Australia in 2010. Alan Pardew wants to build up his squad and will invest around £10m on second string players who can step up. The added bonus would be the commercial revenue a player such as Il-Gwan could generate."

The following morning a Serbian news site took the doctored article and printed it, adding that Partizan Belgrade were now keen to snatch Gwan away from Newcastle United's grasp. By the afternoon, other outlets were crediting PSV and Trazponspor with interest in the player; some claiming the former has a manager with good contacts within the Korean market. The story kept rolling for another week before eventually fizzling out; although not before ensuring a little-known player from behind the modern Bamboo Curtain had punctured Western consciousness and over 20,000 people had viewed his little-seen exploits on YouTube.

Self-publicists and shop-windows, the trouble these days is that people are in such a rush to break stories that diligence no longer applies, argued the Birmingham mail journalist. Nobody bothers checking with clubs to see if a story is true. They might check with an agent to see if it's true - and you can count on the fingers of one foot the number of agents you can truly trust - but even then they might not bother. Social media has not so much changed the way sports journalists work, it's shredded the rule book too. The growth of Internet and, more so, Twitter and Facebook leads to frenzied excitement and fevered panic, so that a large proportion of the local beat writer's job becomes sorting out the truth from the non-truths, half-truths or the not-yet-truths.

It's how the news business is supposed to work, when you're not in the market for 'Internet hits' or 'website traffic'. Which is not to say these websites and social media networks do not have a place in society. The recent sacking of Kenny Dalglish, for example, highlighted how far ahead breaking news on social media is when compared to traditional TV outlets. Almost a whole hour after Twitter had gone into overdrive and the news had broken, Sky and their special little yellow runner for 'breaking news' reported what hundreds of thousands, possibly millions had already discovered. Granted, it may not have been officially confirmed by the club until a little later but when you have reliable sources confirming reports, leading news outlets should be going public with news of this magnitude a lot faster, thinks Football and Social Media's Matthew Scott.

The reluctance to report anything until it is set in stone is surely a huge factor in the success of social media in attracting those who want to be the first to know. Surveys have shown that over 50% of people have learned about breaking news via social media rather than official news sources. Indeed, Twitter would be perfect and almost certainly replace rolling TV news if, adds Scott, it could be cleansed of people who, upon seeing genuine reports or rumours with some substance, take it upon themselves to add little white lies that then spread like wild fire, working its way down the IQ numbers. It is, he says, frustrating and saddening that genuine users or professionals can end up having their timeline tarnished with tweets that have been subject to a Chinese whisper-like effect.

These are social media's kite-flyers; occupying a hinterland somewhere between truth and lies, disseminating unsubstantiated whispers as fact and uncorroborated hearsay as indubitable certainty. They profess to be in constant contact with their 'sources' and titillate their followers with hourly updates concerning transfer targets, price negotiations, contract discussions and planned medicals; desperately searching for the one true dart among a hundred thrown that will validate their existence as 'In The Know' and thus perpetuate their myth. For these people Twitter is a parasitic persuit, promoting a never-ending discourse of what Llosa termed 'permanent insurrection'. They feast on their ability to arouse, to disturb and to alarm; to keep fans in a constant state of dissatisfaction and apprehension. Yet it is a symbiotic relationship. Their followers, hot with anticipation, constantly hector for the latest tidbit, each new detail firing the imagination and encouraging discourse. It is why my own Twitter timeline constantly pulsates to the latest disclosures of ‏@bradley_whufc @WHUFC News @WHUFC_ITK @WHUFC_News @BackPage @TheInsider_2012 and @WestHamDaily. I welcome the speculation because it ameliorates the lull of the summer months and because I want to be the among the first to hear about the next West Ham bound Jong Il-Gwan and how he is the best young prospect since Kim Jong-un. I just don't expect to actually learn anything.

For the years spent working on this blog, the constant scouring, filtering, checking and cross-referencing has taught me that there are no more than a handful of truly ITK people in the online West Ham United community and none of these post on Twitter. So I could tell you we are going to sign one of Grant Holt, Steven Naismith, Wilfried Zaha, Nicolas Anelka, Michael Kightly, Johan Djourou, Abdoulaye Ba, Victor Wanyama, Modibo Maiga, Matt Jarvis, Eljero Elia, Milos Krasic, Fabio Quagliarella, Dimitris Salpingidis, Chris Solly, Samuel Souprayen, Danny Simpson, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Guti, Reto Ziegler, Luc Castaignos, Jonas Olsson, Clarence Seedorf, Burak Yilmaz, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Joselu, Abdul Kader Mangane, Nathaniel Clyne, Christopher Samba, Keiron Richardson, Alessandro Del Piero, William Gallas, Marco Capuano or Dejan Stankovic, and the chances are one of those names will stick.

Or I could alternatively tell you Kevin Nolan isn't going anywhere. That Carlton Cole's knee is not getting any better and that he will be used sparingly next season. That Grant Holt isn't coming unless Norwich change their stance. That Freddie Piquionne is being offered around but his high wages are proving prohibitive for interested teams in the Championship. That Joey O'Brien has been told he will not be first choice next season but he still wants to stay. That we have three main targets before kick-off; namely, another central defender, a central striker and a winger with pace who can 'score as well as create'. That Abdul Kader Mangane has taken a medical. That full backs are not an absolute priority but considerable effort has been made to land Nathaniel Clyne. That we are very happy with our two goalkeepers and won't actively be looking for a third. That Ravel Morrison will get a lot of pre-season action to determine the level of his participation for the opening months of the season.

I could tell you all these things and be fairly confident that the percentage of truth contained within will be substantially higher that anything you will read on your Twitter timelines tomorrow morning. It is provided by people who do not seek recognition or adulation and the information they impart is given in good faith and without fuss; even if it it is invariably sporadic and often frustratingly vague. In short it is rarely as interesting, exciting or as neatly packaged as the revelations provided by their Twitter counterparts, but that is because truth seldom is stranger than fiction.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Streaked With Sweat

It is an imperative that you transform yourself from a consumer of the rich man's bullshit, to a manufacturer of the people's truth. Yeah, sticking it to the man with some more paywall pilfery. The fabric is not mine but the stitching is...

O good old man, how well in thee appears the constant service of the antique world, when service sweat for duty, not for meed! Thou art not for the fashion of these times, when none will sweat but for promotion
It was in a hotel in Docklands where we last met, a few hundred metres from his apartment, ten minutes away from Upton Park. On the eve of the the £100 million play-off final Kevin Nolan talked about Wembley and the bus he had hired to ferry his family and friends down from Liverpool to London that weekend, about honesty and legacy, about winning people over "bit by bit". Yet he had also been elsewhere, living in that untethered state where a season's endeavour is condensed into a single blissful or brutal moment.

Weeks on from the 'richest match in world football' and West Ham United beat Blackpool to return to the Barclays Premier League; had they lost, as their captain put it, "it would've been a fail". It is that simple, that stark. Ninety minutes separated Nolan from proving something, or from knuckling down and starting again. It is a surreal position, yet one he understands, because proving and knuckling down, grafting and starting again, earning and demanding trust, is precisely who Nolan is, as a footballer and as a man. On that Wembley-bound bus that day was Nolan's nan, who had not seen a game since the play-off final of 2001, when Kevin was in the Bolton side that defeated Preston North End. His uncle was there, his cousins, his grandad, who has travelled all around the country to follow his grandson for Bolton, Newcastle and now West Ham. His brother James, friends from school, the works.

His family, as he calls them all – the people who have instilled old-fashioned virtues of trust, loyalty and honesty, a set of beliefs he has put into the dressing rooms at his two former clubs and one that has helped lead his present side back to the rarefied climes of the top flight. "My mam brought me up with good manners, a good surrounding, she has always been there for me, and my dad as well. They wanted me to be grounded. There's not many people in my life I hate. There might be people who stab me in the back along the way or have done something to upset me but I don't really carry grudges. It’s the way I am, with everyone who knows me," he says. "When they’ve got me, when they’ve got my friendship, they’ve got me 110 per cent in whatever I do. I’m never really light-hearted in anything."

If that makes time in Nolan’s presence sound grim, the impression is misleading. The 29-year-old has a lightness about him, a love of company, laughter and chat. He speaks with relish about taking his family to see Ghost and Shrek at the theatre, about introducing Jasmine, his daughter, to Hammerhead, the West Ham mascot, and how she is now demanding an audience with the Queen. "Life away from the football has been decent," he says, despite the fact he has lived, in the main, away from his wife and two young children. He has yearned for the day when they will move permanently to Essex this summer — "my missus is blonde, so that’s a head start," he says — when he will truly feel as if he can "throw myself at it". And this is the point about Nolan; no half-measures with anything.

It is 15 years now since Nolan, then 14, made his first start for the City of Liverpool Boys team. Only Francis Jeffers from that side played in the Premier League, and he has not done so since February 2007. For Nolan, the date is far more recent – Saturday 7 May 2011, when Newcastle beat Birmingham at St James' Park. Just under two years prior to then he famously stood up in the tight confines of the crestfallen away dressing room at Leyton Orient, following a 6-1 defeat in a pre-season friendly for Newcastle, and demanded the truth: who wants out? "Right, this can't go on," he said. "I have never been so embarrassed on a football pitch. You're either in or you're out. We need everyone to pull together to turn this club around and if you don't want to do that, and you want to leave, then put your hand up and we'll help find you somewhere else."

It was an episode of cleansing and re-commitment that formed the bedrock of promotion. A new team forged in the fires of adversity. Four players- including Sébastien Bassong and Habib Beye- raised their arms. As it turned out, five from that room left. Newcastle had found team spirit and incredibly, from that starting point, on the back of a draining relegation campaign, came the Championship title, then came a strong return season in the top flight. Nolan scored 12 goals and talks for a new, extended deal started. It was an era of turmoil on Tyneside, but as a Scouser nurtured by Bolton Wanderers, he was at ease with Newcastle’s industrial identity, the history of longing. He felt at home, until contract negotiations fell apart abruptly in June and Nolan felt he had no alternative but seek acceptance elsewhere, loyalty and trust had diminished.

He did not want to leave to further his career, he was not looking for more money to feather his already luxurious nest and at the time had not contemplated looking for a new challenge at a new club. Nolan knew there would come a day when Newcastle United no longer needed him, but as the club’s captain, felt he had a responsibility to help the team progress until they reached a point where he no longer had to help bind things together. "The most disappointing thing was thinking I was going to be at the club for a long, long time," he says. "Being very much part of Alan Pardew’s plans, signing off to make sure we were ready for next season and a couple of days later, what was on the table is now off the table. My only regret is not being able to see everything through that we started and that's probably what I'm more disappointed about. I went to Newcastle and we got relegated and then you become part of this great story. It was just great to be a big part of that."

Nolan is not the type to stick around where he is no longer wanted. "I’m not going to hang around picking up my money," he says. "If I’m not playing, I’m one of those players who will move on. I have respect for what Mike [Ashley] and Derek [Llambias] are doing up there because that's how they want to do it. If I see either of them, I'd shake their hands and I'm happy Newcastle are doing well. It's a club I have really fond memories of. As I said, I don't hold grudges. I thank them for letting me get away and join another fantastic club."

West Ham and Sam Allardyce called, and Nolan left. "It was just, West Ham? Yeah, get me there, it's another challenge," he adds. "Being able to link up with Sam and having David Gold and Mr Sullivan, the way they were about getting me here and the lengths they went to, I thought I owe them. I owe them 110 per cent from the moment I walk in the door to the moment I leave. That really drives me on because people have put so much faith and trust in me. I want the people who put trust in me to go, 'Yeah, that lad gave us everything.'

At West Ham, he joined up with Sam Allardyce, his former manager at Bolton. For him and the club, it has meant a change of culture. "I walked in the first couple of days and no matter what, I was a Sam Allardyce signing because I had worked with him before and I had nine great years at Bolton. For the first few weeks, it was a case of, 'Do the lads trust me?' They only knew me on the pitch and they probably didn't like me because I'm not a friendly guy on the pitch! I'm a moaner but I think the lads have taken to me. I think they know they can trust me 100 per cent because I am here for them and I'm not Sam's spy. I want them to be the best they can be for West Ham and as the weeks and months have gone by, I think we have got stronger as a group. I just hope to be sharing more great moments with them all."

Meeting again in a hotel foyer in Canary Wharf, Nolan is as always engaging company but now seems understandably more relaxed. Settling in at a new club, rarely an easy experience to begin with, has been eased by scoring 13 goals on the path to promotion. He has also taken, to his own surprise, to the big city. "I've enjoyed being able to go for a walk around and have a cup of tea. It's been really nice. You can sit and watch the hustle and bustle and watch the world go by. It's great. I always thought when I used to come down here that two days would be enough but I've moulded in and became one of those people that goes hustling and bustling past everyone else! My wife likes X Factor and she went with a couple of her friends to watch the results. She hasn't roped me into doing anything like that!"

When he got down in the early months Nolan admits he would go home [to Liverpool], to be with people "who love you and don't see you as Kevin Nolan the West Ham footballer. They see you as their son, their brother, as their cousin, as their best mate, as their husband and as their dad and that sort of helped me and you say to yourself, 'Just do your stuff and bit by bit, you will prove them wrong and make this work.'

Nolan had a fantastic nine years at Bolton and then went to Newcastle. "We got relegated and then you become part of this great story. If I could choose one club in London that would be perfect for me, it would be West Ham. It reminds me so much of Liverpool and Everton, a working man’s club, similar to Newcastle. Some have been here for 25 years. You meet all the people who work behind the scenes; Pete, the kitman, Shirley in the kitchen, who’s been here for 37 or 38 years. To hear her excitement, knowing she was going to Wembley is what it's all about. People like them deserve to be in the Premier League."

They also deserve the right to voice their discontent as they did often and loudly last season; debate over the style of Sam Allardyce’s football causing as much frustration as dropped points. "There are sections of the crowd who complain but it’s why they come to the ground. These fellas get shit off the wife all week and they come to football to let it out. They are full-blooded people who want the best for West Ham. If you think about it, a lot of them have been wounded by things like relegation in the last couple of years. They have gone through a lot. So to have 30,000 at home games is amazing. I’d rather have 30,000 fans moaning at me than no one there at all. It shows the loyalty and love for the club." It is, he says, why everyone tried their best to ensure the fans got back to where they belong.

For the boy from Toxteth, playing in the East End is a home from home just as the booing is water off a duck’s back. "Although I am a Northerner I respect what West Ham is all about and I am learning more as a I go along. I haven’t cracked the accent yet but I know what a ‘sweep’ haircut is. I’ve had pie and mash and it’s quite nice — up there with Scouse. The fans don’t hold back in what they want to tell you and I am from that background myself."

Nolan understands the fans have got expectations of the way football should be played, but is also keen to follow his manager's line. "I remember as a lad all the players Harry Redknapp had here and they underachieved. But with the flowing football they had, it was probably considered enough. We want to get away from that and be the club which gets into Europe, goes on fantastic cup runs, and then wins it. That is my vision of West Ham in the next five to 10 years. We won the battle to get promoted but there is also one to change the culture. Sometimes we have got to be able to win ugly as well as as beautiful."

And winning can be in and of itself beautiful as Shirley, Pete, his nan, the Nolan bus and 38,000 West Ham fans who watched that momentous play-off victory can testify. They witnessed the captain of their side lead the club out at Wembley for the first time since before he was born, back in 1980. It was Nolan’s first visit to there as a player, although he was part of the Bolton side who beat Preston North End 3-0 in the 2001 play-off final at the Millennium Stadium when he was just 18. "I remember being on the pitch and it was starting to sink in that we were going up to the Premier League," he says. "I was only a young pup then. I remember the last two minutes of that game. We were 3-0 up and it was so surreal. You're just waiting for the final whistle so you can go and celebrate. Then I just remember running around like an absolute idiot after it. I had scarves around my head and around my waist. I had everything hanging off me. I still have a lot of the memorabilia. It was such a magic day."

It was, smiles Nolan, even more special this time. "It was amazing to lead the team out in front of 38,000 West Ham fans, having all my family there, but it wouldn't be remembered unless we won. That was the main thing for me. We deserved to go up, but Blackpool weren’t going to give it to us. If any team in that league can have a day of wonders, it’s them. It is a massive game. You have to turn up and you have to produce your best to get to where you want to be."

Something Nolan knows well. Whatever happened, he was always going to streak the turf with his sweat. "I’m not the type of lad where everyone will go ‘look at him, isn’t he elegant?’" he says. "I’m a hard worker, a grafter and it’s from my roots. I’m someone you can lean on, someone who’ll give everything, someone who’ll say it to your face and not behind your back. I feel, wherever I go, I have to put everything into it, because leaving some form of legacy is a drive. Not that the end is in sight, but because every day, when I walk out of the room, I’d like people to say ‘there’s a lovely, grounded lad who works his socks off’. To everyone who ever doubted you, you just do your stuff and, bit by bit, you will prove them wrong. I want people to say he was a very good player in the Premier League, he was a very good player for us, and when people see me they shake my hand and say thanks, you were a proper sportsman for our club."

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

I’d Rather Eat My Own Eyeballs

The following is an amalgam of a couple of related articles liberated from the Times paywall dungeon when the sentinels averted their gaze a few weeks ago...

The vice-chairman of West Ham is trying to be nice, and she needs to be, because the last time she met Times journalist Andrew Davidson it all ended badly, with her promising that he would never work in journalism again. "Did I?" says Karren Brady, making very large eyes at him over her hamster cheeks. Yes, she phoned, she swore, she shouted, she threatened. But that was in May 1995, and they’ve both moved on. But what had he written about her? Only that fans of Birmingham, where she was chief executive, were unhappy with her running of the football club, and the fact that the money that put her there, supplied by David Gold and David Sullivan, had been made in the porn industry. Sullivan had once been convicted of living off immoral earnings.

It sounds quaint now — football worrying about where the money comes from. But the unexpected menace in Brady’s call is still fresh in his memory. She sighs. "I think experience brings an element of patience. Back then, I just wanted to win everything." Then she crosses and uncrosses her 2in platform shoes, flicks back her hair, and turns her attention to her computer. Brady, 43, is funny and frank, but eventually distracted, taking calls, fiddling with her Macbook, studying emails, punching replies then turning back to say: "What did you ask?"

We are in her office, all light, leather and contemporary prints — a little bit of Soho inside West Ham’s dilapidated ground, squeezed by terraces and tower blocks in impoverished Newham, east London. Brady wakes at her apartment in London’s Knightsbridge at 6.30am before being driven here before 9am in her Bentley Continental to oversee the club for Gold and Sullivan; they bought control from the Icelandic bank Straumur in 2010, months after selling Birmingham. Since then West Ham’s fortunes have nose-dived, out of the Premier League, into the Championship, totally reliant on its owners’ cash to prop up its £80m revenues. But Brady’s fortunes have soared — a regular on BBC1’s The Apprentice, she has an autobiography out and her profile has never been higher. Television producers are her latest fans. "I get offered a new series three times a week," she mock-moans. "Come to the jungle, trek to the North Pole, dine with me, Ready Steady Cook, Celebrity Family Fortunes — I’d rather eat my own eyeballs."

What’s not clear is whether she really is a good business manager. Birmingham’s fortunes were mixed, but Brady — whom many thought a 'gimmick' when appointed managing director aged 23 — proved resilient. Her reward, after her bosses sold Birmingham for a profit, was West Ham — the boyhood club of both Gold and Sullivan — where she is vice-chairman, but in effect chief executive. "Every day is different, but fundamentally it is finance and marketing," she says. Eight executives report direct to her and she also heads West Ham’s attempts to move to the Olympic stadium, as well as liaising with team manager Sam Allardyce. All player sales are handled by Sullivan. She says she enjoyed Birmingham. "I ran a tight and happy ship." But she was never loved by its supporters. "Never loved? I don’t know. On reflection I think people appreciate..." The phone rings (yet again). "Hello, can I call you back? Oh, I hadn’t seen that, leave it with me ..."

Brady has a small shareholding in West Ham, and takes director fees from Arcadia and Syco. The surprise is that she never returned to the advertising world where she started. She was a trainee at Saatchi & Saatchi aged 18, and describes it as "the most influential year of my life". She learnt about brand building, communication and "being on-message". She left to sell ads for LBC, the radio station, where she so impressed Sullivan, a client, that he put her in charge of Sport Newspapers. Later she persuaded him that football was an opportunity. Brady prefers to work for entrepreneurs. She now advises Sir Philip Green and Simon Cowell — sitting on their boards — and she loves Lord Sugar, the reason she joined The Apprentice. You can see where she gets her brittle directness. She nods. "Self-made decision-makers, those are the people I work best with as I prefer the direct approach. My dad was an entrepreneur."

Her father Terry, who made money from printing and owned a box at Arsenal, was her introduction to the football world. Two years in the sixth-form at a boys’ boarding school in Aldenham, Hertfordshire hardened her approach. She had to be tough to withstand the inevitable gossip that followed her relationship with Sullivan, but she never toned down, appearing designered and coiffed, like a rich man’s girlfriend. She still gets stick, with reviewers of her book — Strong Woman — asking how she can claim to be a feminist after working in the porn industry. "But I’ve never worked in it, and things have changed. David Gold’s daughter runs his Ann Summers business, Sullivan’s property portfolio is overseen by a woman." She throws a look, as if to say, who’s the victim? Her argument is that, in many ways, women are better managers than men, and men should acknowledge it. "The great thing is that we are natural nurturers of people."

The book, she insists, is not self-promotion but "I have to get my plug in somewhere"; nor is her popping up as judge for this year’s Nectar small business awards. She is now, as the award blurb claims, 'one of the UK’s leading businesswomen' — she is also unique, a female pioneer in the fiercely chauvinistic world of football, who wants to encourage other women in business. And what about the day job? "I’d never do television if it compromised my work here." Some wonder whose brand she is building, however. She shrugs. "It comes back to working out who you are. I had brain surgery in 2006" — for an aneurysm — "and it made me realise life is very short."

Brady's time is shorter and more stricty regimented than most. She uses a personal shopper to buy her clothes. "So Harvey Nichols comes to me. But I don’t spend as much as you think." She works four days a week in London while her husband oversees their home in Knowle, near Birmingham. Married with two children, her first call of the day is "from my kids on the way to school at 7.15." Brady frequently works till 10pm, "but that’s usually because I am at a function, not at West Ham." In what little downtime there is she will happily "spend my money on travel," (Mexico is a favourite) and she says, "I never begrudge the school fees." Most weekends she is "supporting my 13-year-old son’s rugby team or working as a taxi driver for my 16-year-old daughter."

David Gold says he has no qualms if her other obligations reflects well on his club. As for Brady eyeing opportunities elsewhere, he says determination and loyalty are her key character traits. "She is the first lady of football — she wouldn’t be that in advertising or media." Yet she isn’t a football fan. Her husband Paul Peschisolido, recently sacked as manager of Burton Albion, is far more engaged. One newspaper claimed she fell asleep during West Ham’s recent game against Cardiff City. "I was tweeting," she protests.

So, if West Ham had lost against Blackpool at Wembley? "It would have frustrating but I would not have walked away. What frustrates me more is the Olympic stadium." West Ham was selected as preferred bidder, then deselected when the process changed. The decision has been delayed again. It has been an excruciating period for Gold and Sullivan, who are putting £35m a year of their own money into the club. Some supporters would rather eat their own eyeballs than use them to watch their team across a running track, which is a non-negotiable feature after the Government’s promise to leave a legacy for athletics. Brady pulls out the latest stadium plans, showing stands extended over the athletics track for matches, and brushes aside quibbles about a lack of atmosphere. "David and David wouldn’t allow it if it didn’t work. It will be amazing." The West Ham executives believe it will be a "piece of history" that will attract new fans if the club relocated from Upton Park to Stratford after the London Games.

It is the second time West Ham have been in the frame after the first process, which resulted in the club being chosen as preferred bidder in partnership with Newham Council, collapsed in red tape following a complaint to the European Commission about illegal state aid. The lengthy exercise, which pitted West Ham against Tottenham Hotspur, cost about £300,000 in fees. Brady insists it was worth bidding again because the opportunity to increase the gate from 35,000 to 60,000 in a new stadium with better transport links is "too good to miss". But their offer to become the anchor winter tenant in a multi-use stadium is conditional on it being a "world-class" venue for football, she adds.

West Ham maintain the sightlines "stack up" and that the top tiers will be closer to the action than at Wembley. Brady says her supporter advisory board had seen details of the bid, which is subject to confidentiality agreements, and approved although she understood the general scepticism of some fans. "I don’t blame them, to be honest, but they cannot see what we can see," she says. "Everybody who has seen our vision has voted in favour, even those who write for fanzines and have been very negative."

She insists the new commercial terms on offer, which would mean West Ham will become a 'concessionaire' paying an annual rent to the government under a 99-year lease, would secure the club’s long-term future. This is presently dependent on the backing of Gold and Sullivan. The sale of Upton Park would be expected to repay the estimated £70 million debt. The downside of simply leasing the ground would be offset by not having the burden of the upfront capital costs — an estimated £100 million — of making it fit for professional sport with corporate hospitality suites, toilets, offices, merchandising outlets and catering. "Ownership gives you a certain level of completeness because you make your own decisions," she says. "We will be a tenant but overall, we still think the commercial package is viable."

The Olympic Park Legacy Company, now merged into the London Legacy Development Corporation, is offering tenants the chance to bid for naming rights. Brady points out these could be worth about £10 million a year if football was the main activity. West Ham, who have the support of UK Athletics, hope to attract more fans by offering cheaper tickets and a taste of British sporting heritage. They claim to have 850,000 registered supporters and enough demand to fill 60,000 seats. The nearby corporate market in Canary Wharf will also be targeted now the club has returned to the Premier League. "It’s a piece of history," insists Brady, repeating the new mantra. "It’s the only Olympic stadium in the UK and it will attract crowds. You cannot bully the Government. They are not going to be strong-armed into decisions under the threat of judicial review. The most important thing for them is usage, community, jobs and revenue and we tick all boxes."

And that will be "job done" if they secure it? "My remit here is to reduce debt, introduce process, and get the Olympic stadium. In my first year, we reduced the debt to £70m, made a trading profit and won the stadium, then we got relegated, fell back into loss, debt went up, we lost the stadium..." But she never quits. Suddenly Davidson feels the need to apologise that their last meeting didn’t go as well. He's not sure what he did, but whatever he did, he's sorry. And she smiles back through whitened, gritted teeth before playfully reaching for her phone.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Remembrance Of Things Owed

It was 12.24am, local time, when Alessandro Diamanti walked forward for the final, decisive kick and, when it was all done, sparked the match that would exsiccate English Euro dreams to ashes. Little did the Italian know that 1300 miles away he was also about to reignite a domestic feud that has been quietly smouldering for two years. Perhaps it was the deja vu that comes with another harrowing disappointment in a penalty shoot-out that prompted David Gold to take to Twitter; or else something in the ecstasy-rapted face of the screaming Diamanti as he wheeled away in celebration that pricked into consciousness- like the tea-socked madeleine- frustrations that had recently lay dormant. Within hours of England crashing out of Euro 2012 in Kiev on Sunday night, the West Ham co-owner publicly announced the club intended to sue Brescia Calcio for the £1.5million he says they are owed from the sale of Diamanti from the Italian club to Bologna FC 1909. The process will begin with a visit to the Court of Arbitration for Sport as early as next week.

The Italy international signed for the Hammers on a five-year contract in August 2009 from Livorno for £6million, before he was allowed to move back to Italy after just one season in the English Premier League. It is, though, the player's subsequent transfer to Bologna in a 50% co-ownership deal following Brescia's relegation to Serie B (an eventuality believed to have cost United a further €300,000 because of a 'survival clause') that has left the Hammers incensed. Brescia are not only receiving a £1.2m transfer fee but they are also entitled to a percentage of the player's future rights under the terms of the co-ownership agreement. In July last year West Ham United asked the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) to suspend Diamanti's player registration with Brescia Calcio with immediate effect. Due to the failure of Brescia to pay the latest instalment fee, the club also requested that the national association and FIFA impose sporting sanctions until the matter is resolved. There was at the time a swift response from the Biancoazzurri, with a official press declaration, signed by sport director Andrea Iaconi, stating: "This is pure bullshit, we're paying the installments as by arrangements. Some are still to be paid, but we will do with no doubt. This will not, in any case, prejudice the eventual selling of the player to Bologna."

An article from October last year revealed just how far the situation had escalated, with West Ham United reported at the time to be refusing to pay transfer fees for three other players they bought from overseas clubs as a direct result of the bitter dispute with Fifa. Writing in the Telegraph, Jason Burt said the club were furious that their Diamanti claim had still not been dealt with by world football’s governing body. It meant that West Ham were now themselves the subject of a formal complaint to Fifa and the Football Association because they withheld payment of €1million (£875,000) for the defender Winston Reid.

The New Zealander was signed in August 2010 on a three-year contract from the small Danish club FC Midtjylland but West Ham have, so far, not paid any money for him. The identity of the other players has not been revealed but West Ham have signed the likes of Frederic Piquionne from Lyon, Pablo Barrera from Pumas, Guy Demel from Hamburg and Ruud Boffin from MVV Maastricht in the past couple of years. It’s thought that the Piquionne fee could be one that has not been paid in full yet.

West Ham do not dispute that they owe Midtjylland money for Reid but believe that there is a point of principle at stake because Fifa have so far not dealt with their dispute. The money West Ham were owed should have been paid last July with the money they then owed paid to the other clubs in late August. West Ham therefore argue the Diamanti cash was, as that point of principle, rightfully theirs to fund the fees they owed. West Ham believe that unless they take such a strong stance they will not receive the money they are owed for Diamanti. The club has honoured all payments to other British clubs for players it has signed.

The Hammers have urged Midtjylland to put pressure on Fifa to sort out their case. Once it is dealt with they will pay the Danes immediately what they are owed. Midtjylland have become the unwitting victims of the row — as, West Ham will argue, have they — and Soren Bach, the club’s chief executive officer, confirmed to The Telegraph in a statement: "We did not receive any payment — and we can confirm that we have filed a complaint to Fifa and the Football Association over an unpaid transfer fee for the sale of Winston Reid." It’s understood that the total amount being withheld is equivalent to what West Ham are owed by Brescia.

Meanwhile, Football Italia reports Diamanti will now remain permanently at the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara after a blind auction process, which his present club confirms was “like a poker game.” In effect, the clubs involved write a figure in a sealed envelope and the highest bid wins the full contract. “It was like a long and tiring poker game,” said Bologna President Albano Guaraldi after his €3.36m offer won. "We had prepared one envelope first, then had a second one with a slightly changed amount inside. We would’ve won with the first envelope too, but we didn’t want to run any risks. We could not and did not want to lose him. We sought an agreement with Brescia at all costs to avoid the auction. Diamanti is a player who gave us a great deal last season and will continue to help Bologna this term, next term and in future. We are aware of his value and will therefore endeavour to improve his contract."

The Italian originally arrived in east London in controversial circumstances when it was revealed by Livorno Director of Sport Nelso Ricci that his transfer fee had been partly paid by club sponsors SBOBet. After just 29 first team appearances - and eights goals - Diamanti was subsequently shipped out by new owners Sullivan and Gold in the 2010 summer transfer window, despite having been named the Best Signing 2009/10 by the club's online fanbase, and voted runner-up as Hammer of the Year by the club's supporters. It was widely suspected at the time that the unusual circumstances surrounding his signing had sparked that decision. Following his return to his homeland with Brescia, Diamanti scored six goals in 31 Serie A appearances and earned his first Italy cap.

West Ham’s frustration is all the more annoying for them given the tough stance Fifa said they were going to adopt on clubs who are found guilty of being slow to pay transfer fees. There has been the threat of points deductions as well as fines for guilty parties. Speaking in October last year, West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady told The Sun that chasing your money in Europe is hard work. "£450,000 has been due for so long we've been in touch with the Italian federation and FIFA to impose some kind of sanction, but the money still isn't immediately forthcoming. Another million plus is due and there's still no sign of the first payment. FIFA have done nothing more than yawn. It isn't as if Brescia don't have the funds. They have just sold the Italian international to Bologna. In England, our leagues would be down on us like a ton of Mike Ashleys."

The following March, Brady revealed she was still bulldogging away at the relevent authorities concerning the missing payments. Brescia have now appealed a FIFA verdict that they should pay up at once but Brady promised she would never let it drop. "Why should wheedlers and welshers from Brescia treat us as though we’re their private charity?" she asked in her Football Diary. Gold is similarly adamant they will not allow the matter to end and is now taking legal action. Speaking on his twitter site last night, he said: "We sold Diamanti to Brescia because he was desperate to return to Italy. He was then sold to Bologna. We are suing Brescia for the money."

For the fan shorn of material consideration, the cameo of Diamanti on Sunday night remains a reminder of things owed. The maverick genius that the adoring Boleyn gallery apotheosizes and deserves but all too rarely enjoys. To those watching eyes Diamanti bestrode the verdant glebe of Kiev's Olympic Stadium and elicited an undated memory as vivid as Stendhal's fragmented frescoes surrounded by the blank brickwork of oblivion. Fists clenched, veins bulging, eyes to the sky, celebrating a goal in West Ham colours. It could be a flashback to when Di Canio ruled the same rectangle of East End turf. "We share the same way to play football," Diamanti once said. "We both give everything on the pitch for the team and the fans. I always play with passion. I am a passionate man. Not just about the goals but about the football. I try to put everything on to the field."

Like Di Canio before him, the man they call Il Mago seems the embodiment of the player who from the moment he learns to walk, he knows how to play. As Galeano would have it, the player in his early years who brings joy to empty lots and in his early manhood takes flight and the stadium flies with him. The ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him. She rests and rocks on top of his foot. He caresses her and makes her speak, and in that tete-a-tete millions of mutes converse. Nostalgia, of course, has a meaning less connected with suffering and more with emotional indulgence. You can wallow in it because the territory is thick with shared memories, with mnemonic solidarity. Like the memory of a lover who came into your life and left footprints on your heart, the distance of time has diminished the flaws of the past. So it is that you forget those games when the fountain of public adulation became the lightening rod of public rancour. Diamanti, they said, one-paced, one-footed, one-trick; too lazy, too lightweight, too slow. Yet we still long for the day when we can see his like again, only better. In the words of Rupert Brooke...

"And I shall find some girl perhaps, and a better one than you,
With eyes as wise, but kindlier, and lips as soft,
but true, and I daresay she will do"

Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari