Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Road To POMOtion

"It's not about results, it's about entertainment," says Sam Allardyce. Pause a moment to take that in. The man often portrayed as the ultimate no-frills manager announcing that, actually, he quite fancies frills and thrills. Except that's not exactly what he's saying. Because it is clear that, for Allardyce, entertainment has always meant getting good results and getting good results means entertainment. All else, writes Paul Doyle, is whimsy and piffle.

Results are certainly all Allardyce's employers wanted when they hired him last summer to replace Avram Grant following West Ham's relegation from the Premier League. Of the 36 teams to have been relegated from the top-flight since the turn of the century, only seven had gone straight back up. "Bouncing straight back is one of the most difficult tasks in football because the catastrophic fall-out of relegation devastates clubs," says Allardyce. "Normally it can't happen in just one season because of the difficulty of having to adjust."

After spending six straight seasons in the top flight that period of adjustment was always going to be considerable for the Hammers. Writing in Forbes magazine, Zach Slaton's statistical analysis shows West Ham were relegated in 2011 with the 10th ranked squad in terms of total valuation (cTTV = $243M/€191M/£154M) that translated to an mTTV of 1.08. Such a team valuation, he argues, should have been good enough to see them finish mid table and comfortably avoid relegation. Instead, Grant was unable to improve on the club’s 17th place finish in 2009/10, and the club finished rock bottom the following year.

Having an expensive side that had a number of players with substantial Premier League experience and aspirations to stay in the top flight meant the club was due for a bit of an overhaul once relegated. The overhaul inevitably extended to the front office, where Grant was sacked and replaced by Allardyce. Yet it’s the story of how Sam Allardyce became available to West Ham in the first place, argues Slaton, that makes this story of redemption even more intriguing.

It is no secret that Allardyce has been known as an overachieving manager for some time now. How he’s done it – via the use of analytics – means that he also holds a place in most quants’ hearts since his days at Bolton Wanderers. "It was his partnership with men like Gavin Fleig that ensured Bolton knew what it took to not only stay up in the Premier League, but also grossly overachieve versus what the expectations their wage and transfer bill would normally set," notes Slaton.

Fleig states that at Bolton Wanderers they identified what Allardyce used to call the 'fantastic four'. "There were four key areas which we knew that you look at it statistically, and that would define successful teams and unsuccessful teams in the league," he reveals. "But most importantly [the statistical model was] based around our game model. To apply a generic set of set of statistics and philosophies to every football team is very difficult. We had a very unique set of players, we worked on very low budgets, and the collective of all of our individuals as a team was far more than the collective of the individuals."

Those Bolton teams would go on to overachieve their predicted performance by nearly four table positions over their 5 plus years at the club. "Such overperformance translated to Allardyce-led teams earning 5 points more per season than their valuation suggested they should," Slaton calculates, which was "good enough to be ranked the 15th all-time best manager against the metric. The second edition of Soccernomics uses a slightly different method to arrive at a similar conclusion, as Allardyce ranks 20th out of the 699 managers in the last 40 years of the English game."

His final four years of his six year tenure at Bolton saw him improve team performance versus the m£XIR model each year, with his final year generating a 0.522 points per match overperformance (+19.84 points over a 38 match season). Allardyce’s half season at Newcastle United was tumultuous, with a poor run of form around Christmas sealing his fate. Even with that poor run of form he was still on track to earn 0.226 points per match more than his transfer expenditures suggested (+8.59 points per season).

It was under this premise that Big Sam was hired to manage Blackburn Rovers in 2009, as Blackburn were facing the need to get more out of a declining wage and transfer spend. Slaton states Allardyce coaxed a 10th place finish and a League Cup semi-final appearance out of a squad that was predicted to finish in the bottom third of the table based upon TTV expectations and had been relegation fodder the season prior. What was a promising start to his Blackburn tenure quickly turned into a nightmare for him and Blackburn’s fans with the purchase of the team by Venky’s Limited in the summer of 2010. Sitting thirteenth in the table in mid-December 2010 – right where they were expected to be based upon their TTV – the club sacked Allardyce after only a year-and-a-half in charge. News of the firing sent shockwaves throughout the Premier League managerial ranks, with Alex Fergusson emphatically stating: "I’ve never heard of such a stupid decision in all my life. I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but deary me. It confounds common sense. Absolutely ridiculous."

It was just the first of many decisions by the Venky’s ownership team that seemed to indicate they understood very little about the business in which their club participated. By the end of the 2010/11 season the club had continued to sink to 15th, and continued poor performance this season meant the club was relegated after 11 straight seasons in the top flight. The ironic cruelty of West Ham’s promotion with Sam Allardyce at the helm cannot be understated, thinks Slaton. "Blackburn’s loss was West Ham’s gain, and after only a single season out of the top flight they’ll be back for more in the 2012/13 Premier League campaign. Meanwhile, both of Allardyce’s former clubs with which he spent at least one full season, Bolton and Blackburn, were relegated at the same time that West Ham was promoted."

The last time West Ham went down, in 2003, it took them two campaigns to return but the club's co-owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, could ill-afford to wait that long this time so they took the (ultimately successful) expensive gamble on getting back at the first attempt. West Ham may have shed 14 players from that 10th ranked squad following relegation, with the likes of Demba Ba, Matthew Upson and Scott Parker leaving, but they also recruited almost as many and Sullivan recently put their trading loss for this past season at £17m – and, given the scale of the debts that he and his business partner inherited when they took over the club in 2010, failure to secure promotion would have severely endangered West Ham's future.

It is one of many reasons why Allardyce could never understand the boos he and his team had to endure at several points during the season. Yes, West Ham had disappointed by drawing too many matches at home to slip them out of the automatic promotion places but, reasons the manager, they still reached where they needed to go thanks mainly to outstanding away form – their league victories on the road surpassing a club record that had stood since 1958. "We have created a winning environment at this club for the first time in donkey's years," says Allardyce. "Last time West Ham got up [in 2005] they had to do it by scraping into sixth spot and then going through the play-offs. So I don't know why people listen to the small minority who are discontent with this season."

The Middlesbrough manager, Tony Mowbray, suggested after his side's recent draw at Upton Park that triggered another outburst of booing from the locals, that the discontent was down to the West Ham fans having ideas above their station and "thinking it is an insult to be in the Championship". Another factor, however, is West Ham fans' traditional fondness for the sort of slick and exciting football with which Allardyce is not commonly associated. The 57-year-old does not believe West Ham are associated with it either. "When did they play like that?" he asks. "I don't remember it. Is outpassing teams and losing matches entertaining?"

He has a point. But so do his detractors. At times during the season West Ham had been gruelling to watch. They defended well with Rob Green enjoying a fine season, had largely resolved the long-standing full-back problems (until the playoff final) and the blossoming centre-back partnership of James Tomkins (once he reverted to defence from the holding midfield berth that he filled with distinction) and latterly Winston Reid has been a joy to watch. In contrast, notes Doyle, it is going forward where West Ham have laboured. The much-vaunted Ravel Morrison was entrusted with just nine minutes of action since his January arrival from Manchester United, Ricardo Vaz TĂȘ has, in fairness, injected a dash of trickery but the team's preferred method of attack remained long diagonal passes into the fabled 'Position of Maximum Opportunity'. In a sense, this campaign has been about automatic Pomo-tion.

It is not an approach that appears to suit the side's forwards. Carlton Cole is big and strong yet looked nowhere near the force that he had threatened to become under Gianfranco Zola for most of the season. John Carew was a flop. Sam Baldock and Nicky Maynard looked lost. Midfielder Kevin Nolan, though on the wane, can still read knock-downs and was the club's second top scorer in the league with 13 goals. There is a feeling that the crudeness of the team's build-ups reduces the chances of finishing with finesse. West Ham hit more shots off target in the Championship this season than anyone bar Burnley. Invariably, Allardyce concludes the blame does not therefore lie with the build-up, but with the strikers.

"The simple facts are we have created the chances and delivered what we've needed to deliver but the one thing we haven't done often enough is put the ball in the back of the net," he says. "The achilles heel is the goalscorers and that's why we've drawn so many because you can't always ask your defenders to keep clean sheets." Allardyce, of course, is fond of statistics. Using them, he could tell you that West Ham lost the least amount of games - eight - in the Championship this season. That they scored the third most goals. That 13 wins away from home represents West Ham’s best record on their travels in their entire history. That 86 points would normally have been enough to go up automatically.

Except it wasn't this season. Southampton got 88. So they had do it via the playoffs. It is the route they took under Alan Pardew in 2005, when Bobby Zamora’s winner against Preston North End in the final erased the disappointment of defeat to Crystal Palace a year earlier. Then there was a palpable sense of relief and elation, recalls Jacob Steinberg. Under Pardew, West Ham had never seriously challenged for the title and, indeed, only scraped into the top six thanks to a remorseless late charge to haul themselves into the top six. This time, with the no-nonsense Allardyce in charge, they were meant to do it the easy way. Straight back up as champions, no questions asked.

The Championship season is a notorious slog however and West Ham did not always cope well with the weight of expectation. That they would finish in a play-off position at least was never in any doubt, but it ought to have been so much more. Four defeats and eight draws - a statistic Allardyce does not care for so much - at home put paid to that. Away from East London, teams were forced to come out and play. To attack. West Ham are a scalp. That suits the Allardycian style. Soak up the pressure and then take a grip on proceedings. But visitors to Upton Park took a more cautious approach.

Ask West Ham to take the initiative and they have frequently come up short. Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Doncaster and Watford, among others, all came for a point and got one, West Ham unable to pick the lock. Blackpool and Brighton both came to play; both were torn to shreds, beaten 4-0 and 6-0 respectively. A lesson learned. Otherwise entertainment has not been high on the agenda and accusations of long-ball football abound. Allardyce bristles at that, calling the fans "deluded" and criticism of him "bollocks". Out come the statistics. Look how many passes we completed. Look at the chances we created. Look at the number of shots on goal.

To a certain degree, he is right. The long-ball tag is one that follows him around unfairly at times. The problem is more a creativity dearth and a lack of width in the face of stubborn defending. Apart from Vaz Te, West Ham can be one-paced and predictable in midfield, with no one else comfortable at running with the ball and taking on defenders. If West Ham do not necessarily set out to hoof it, thinks Steinberg, they are too hasty to resort to rudimentary tactics when Plan A has failed. Lost leads and lax moments in defence have been a hindrance, and Allardyce was supposed to solve the unprofessional habits that have come to define West Ham. Yet win promotion and the complexion is inexorably altered. "There has been much to admire in this West Ham side, not least their resilience," admits Steinberg, before noting they went unbeaten for three games in February despite having a man sent off in each of them.

In that respect, this West Ham team are very much in the image of their manager. "I have to make sure this sinks in, because this is a memory for life," Allardyce said, after Ricardo Vaz Te had snatched victory in the death throes of that nerve-shredding Wembley match. "It’s an outstanding achievement." Perhaps his greatest ever he thinks. Allardyce, who guided Bolton to promotion via the play-offs at the Millennium Stadium in 2001, said: "It's probably bettered that because it's West Ham United, with the size of the club and the pressure, and because it's at Wembley. It's the first time I have come here and won - not that I've been here very often. It's been an outstanding, thrilling season compared to where we came from."

For Allardyce, the accomplishment was also personal. While he has often been ridiculed for his inflated sense of self-worth — who recalls the touting for a job at Inter Milan and Real Madrid? — the 57 year-old, even in the immediate aftermath of that momentous win, was not shy of reminding critics of his record since taking over at Upton Park a little under 12 months ago. "Having had two sackings, at Newcastle and Blackburn, that were unjust to say the least, people seem to believe that I’m not as good as I was when I managed Bolton," he claimed. "But I’m still achieving great things. I don’t like seeing Bolton go down, Blackburn go down, or Newcastle go down — but they have all gone down since I managed them. There are times when people consider you to be at the top of your industry. For me, those were the heights to which I took Bolton: fifth in the Premier League, four seasons in succession in the top eight."

Big Sam maintains his job is about entertaining the fans, even if that means giving them what they need as oppose to what they want. "It’s everything to me, because I had been in the Premier League for 10 years, and I wanted to come and experience a successful season," he said. "It was difficult at the start to turn the club around, because of the relegation we experienced, but we did it. We came good right at the very end." The relief was magnified by Allardyce’s conviction that the Financial Fair Play regulations, due to come into force this summer, would have "decimated" his squad in the event of failure at the final hurdle. "We would have had to cut our wage bill by £10 million," he said. As it transpired, the thoughts of the season to come could be left for another day. "I’m looking forward to the celebrations first," he beamed, as he prepared to be drenched in champagne.

In the sober light of day, argues Slaton, Allardyce and West Ham still don’t come back to the Premier League without their fair share of critics. "Allardyce has been accused of taking bungs while building the successful Bolton sides of the early- to mid-naughts, a claim he denies," he notes. "His teams’ style of play also aren’t typically considered the most beautiful, with even some West Ham fans calling for him to spice things up as the team closed in on promotion. It’s certainly earned him some pushback from fellow managers who play very different styles of soccer." Nonetheless, no one can take away what Big Sam and the Hammers have been able to accomplish, and they have much to throw back in the critics’ faces who just one year ago wondered if the man and club would make it back to the top tier of English football. Now it’s up to Sam Allardyce’s team to deliver on what Slaton coins the most expensive side the Englishman has ever managed. "I just know what's good for the players at West Ham, I know what's good for West Ham as a football club, and I know how to win football matches," argues Allardyce, before insisting he "turns dreams into reality". More accurately, like Huxley's pragmatic dreamer, perhaps Big Sam's single greatest achievement at West Ham has been to inject a little reality into the fantasy.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Mistakes Are A Portal Of Discovery

West Ham's Wembley matchwinner Ricardo Vaz Te is determined to make the most of his second chance. The Portuguese winger was on the football scrapheap two years ago after being released by Bolton, but the Hammers' £500,000 January recruit looks like a bargain after scoring that dramatic late play-off final winner to sink Blackpool 2-1 and earn West Ham the estimated £90million promotion to the Barclays Premier League brings. Yet the Hammers hero is not just satisfied with firing the club back into the Premier League – he insists they must stay there. "We must get there with the mentality that we’re a Premier League side and not there to fight for relegation," he insists. "It is another step, a big challenge. West Ham is a great club. We are all going to go there and give it our best. I started the season at Barnsley and I’ve been blessed with a second chance in my career and I'm cherishing it."

Vaz Te's redemptive journey back to the Promised Land has been rocky in more ways than one. This time last year, he had just been told by Hibernian that he was surplus to requirements, as clubs tend to put it, and over the course of the next few months, it transpired that nobody else wanted him either. Fast forward exactly a year later and Vaz Te was playing at Wembley in front of seventy eight thousand people. "Which all goes to show that football’s not just a funny game, it’s fucking hilarious at times," chuckles former teammate David Preece, before adding, "at this very precise moment, Ricardo Vaz Te should be pissing himself laughing." Preece spent six months playing alongside Vaz at Barnsley and within that time saw him transform from a bit part player to goalscoring hero.

That’s not to say this was a straight forward story of a footballer swigging from a bottle in the Last Chance saloon and ending up with him resurrecting his career. There’s much more to it than that, reveals Preece. If anything, he says, you could describe it as Rocky-esque as he recalls how his breaking became his making. Beneath the top tier of English football where it’s awash with the riches of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Sheiks, you can still unearth the odd fairytale that continues to make us refer to it as the beautiful game. Vaz Te is exactly that. "Last summer when he turned up at Barnsley it was his last throw of the dice," recalls Preece. "Not only had he arrived at Oakwell on the back of rejection from Greek side Panionios and the SPL’s Hibernian, he’d ended up stranded in South Yorkshire after a proposed trial at Sheffield United had been withdrawn after they decided he just wasn’t what they were after." It will gladden the hearts of Hammers fans everywhere they have again indirectly profited at the expense of the Blades, but in truth it was concerns over Vaz Te's troublesome knees that scuppered a move to Bramall Lane.

Down and almost out, Tykes manager Keith Hill decided to invite him to train so he could have a look at him. There was no catch, it was a risk free opportunity to see if he could add something to the squad that they were lacking. So in he came. "I didn’t know much about him to be honest and what I had been told was that he was all show and no substance," admits Preece. "In that first training session he proceeded to drift in from the left wing and smash the ball past Luke Steele and myself. There was no doubting he definitely had something. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to compare him to the likes of Ronaldo and Nani as his long loping stride, lightening step-overs and the preposterous amount of deviation he got the ball to do was totally reminiscent of them both."

It’s the way Vaz Te strikes the ball that’s his biggest asset. "The power and movement he can generate means any shot on target is a difficult for the goalkeeper to deal with," agrees Preece. "If he didn’t score directly, other players would mop up the seconds after the keeper had failed to deal with it adequately. Skill, he had in abundance, but there was obviously something missing and as quickly as I picked up on his strengths, his weaknesses were glaringly obvious too. Defending and simple passes were alien to him. As a goalkeeper, I abhor anyone who neglects defensive duties as it’s usually us who pays the price for it. We’d fall out after he’d failed to track his man which would often result in me calling him a c**t."

In the heat of a game there isn’t time for pleasantries and this seemed to get the point across. Preece states: "People make mistakes, you have to accept that but when someone decides not to defend because it’s too much like hard work, I tend to blow a gasket. The first ten minutes after training was usually spent apologising to him for making it so personal but that was my way and I tended to be harshest on those I truly want to succeed and Vaz was one of them because I knew that he did care, just not enough to chase back after he’d lost possession. It wasn’t just those occasions where I would explode with rage at him either, as he’d often make me look a fool with some of the tricks he’d pull off when coming through one-on-one with me. And that was Vaz to a tee: hugely frustrating but occasionally genius-like."

His teammates past and present agree you couldn’t meet anyone nicer and, to a certain degree, more unfootballer-like. "He’s a quiet, humble, almost shy character," says Preece. "It’s probably not the image everyone has of him because of his flamboyant hairstyle and seemingly egotistical style of play but that’s him. He wouldn’t even give interviews to the media guys at Barnsley for the match day programme so as to not bring attention on himself." Similarly, in a radio interview two days ago, West Ham's Matt Taylor spoke of how Vaz Te could be found alone and in tears in the dressing room after Saturday's Wembley victory while the other players celebrated on the pitch. "It was a hugely emotional day for Vaz," said Taylor. "He's had alot of injuries and I think it meant so much because he thought maybe his career was over."

It all serves to make the authority with which Vaz Te now addresses the media all the more surprising, given the freedom and joy that have underpinned many of his performances in a claret and blue shirt. It’s also unexpected, writes The Mail's Laura Williamson, from a quick, 6ft 2in player who is most relaxed when talking about his trademark Mohican hairstyle, love of Disney films (Beauty and the Beast is his favourite), travelling on the bus or tube ('I love it') and energetic goal celebrations. Vaz Te recently took his three younger sisters to see the musical The Lion King when they visited him in London. The forward has already been once before and thought it was 'amazing'. "How the lions greet each other is by doing this movement," he says, demonstrating by scooping his head upwards, in the manner of a big cat cleaning itself after devouring its prey. "They came to watch the game so I thought, 'If I score today I’m going to do it'".

At Barnsley he used to do a celebration with team-mate, Jim O’Brien. "There is this song called 'All Day, all night...' (Loca People by Sak Noel)," he enthuses. "When the beats kicked in he just pulled these crazy moves, so I thought we should do this in a game. And the one I did against Cardiff: one of my older brothers, Fernando, he says when he scores he gives a concert. So I just did that for him." Having plundered 12 goals in 18 league and play-off games since his move in January, Vaz Te's creative ingenuity continues to be sorely tested.

Still only 25, Vaz Te grew up in Guinea-Bissau in west Africa with his father before moving back to Lisbon just before his 12th birthday. There he met Manchester United winger Nani. The pair used to play five-a-side together in the street and still keep in touch. "In Portugal that’s where you learn," said Vaz Te. "You get kids aged 13 playing with 18- year-olds. But if you’re good enough, you play. You get bullied at times but it toughens you up." The youngster spent three months being professionally coached at Sporting Lisbon, then moved to the Algarve and joined the under-19 team of SC Farense. "I was at Sporting Lisbon when I was eleven but didn't last long because it was a hassle for my mum to take me to training. It was tough for her because she was at home with these kids - seven of them, by the way. So I just played locally, and started playing five-a-side. I did a pre-season with Sporting and stayed for three months but when school started and the results weren't so good, my mum said enough is enough. They would train a couple of days a week. At that time, (for me] football was a serious thing, but I just think it's a fun thing."

His fun-loving outlook translates into an often-languid style on the pitch that certainly impressed Bolton scouts in Portugal and in England's north-west in 2003. "I went on trial at Bolton for a day, and signed the same day," recalls Vaz Te. "Obviously, my mum didn't want to let me go. But she came, she saw the club, and they guaranteed to look after me." In truth, his first experience of football on these shores was a bewildering one. A callow Portuguese kid who had developed his game mainly on the streets of his homeland and Africa was being urged by a Bolton youth team coach to track his runner, use the channels, and apply tactics to his play.

"When I came (to Bolton] I was a bit lost," he admits. "(They said] track your runner, you need to play with that ball. For me, I had no responsibility - I just did my own thing. I had to grow, basically, had to take it seriously. I never took (football] so seriously, only when I came to Bolton. You have to run backwards, forwards, (do things] tactical-wise." The forward, who has scored 24 goals in all this season, said: "I was always a mummy’s boy and I always had one of my older brothers with me, but I had to lose all that, to be alone. I couldn’t speak any English and it was really tough because I’m quite a talkative person, I like to socialise. But I dealt with that in three months and I loved it. Every day, at my digs, I used to eat pasta and tomato sauce — with cheese on top. And every Sunday was roast dinner. It was great."

Vaz Te quickly metamorphosed into a talented enough player to make his Premiership debut at Old Trafford a year later. Mother Maria doesn't normally travel to see her son play, but one of her proudest moments was watching him score a late equaliser to pinch a point for Bolton in the UEFA Cup - a game against Vitoria Guimaraes, based near Lisbon, that she attended on the insistence of one of Ricardo's brothers. A succession of knee injuries curtailed his rapid progress at the Reebok Stadium and eventually put paid to a new contract, the then-winger leaving after 88 first-team appearances and eight goals.

He started only 10 league games in seven years at Bolton. "I had injuries in my career which didn't help," reflected the 25-year-old. "I had one knee injury after another, a niggle here, another there. Then it was like, "Woah, you haven't played for two-and-a-half years" - and you start losing it. They said it was something to do with my leg length difference, but I wear insoles now." He says the physiotherapists 'lost faith' in him after a final 'career-threatening' knee ligament injury, which prompted that underwhelming spell at Hibernian and one in Greece with Panionios, where he went 4 months without receiving any wages. A career that had shown such promise, including an appearance at Wembley in 2008 for Portugal Under 21s, was in danger of dying out before it was resurrected this season. "It was very tough," he said. "I remember going to see specialists and them telling me, 'That’s a career-threatening injury. There’s a possibility of you not getting fit again.' I was only 21 or 22. A lot of people lost faith in me: the physios lost faith in me and obviously I struggled to come back. But you learn to deal with it. I had to do it the hard way, but it made me learn and appreciate football more."

These days, Vaz Te seems desperate to justify his talent, openly reciting the mantra: mistakes are a portal of discovery. "No matter what they tell you, you have to learn for yourself," he says. "There are many things I could have done differently. There was so much I could learn from all these people (at Bolton] who had been everywhere and won so many things, but I was so young. You're naive, you don't think two steps ahead, only one. I learned as much as I could in time, but there was so much more I could have achieved and learned, just by being humble and being able to listen, to try harder. I'm much older now, but when there's too much information at once it's hard to digest - there's a lot going on, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Obviously, it's hard because everywhere you go people know who you are, you do something and everybody worships you. Me and one other kid (Joey O'Brien, now a West Ham teammate] were the only ones who made it to the first team aged 17. It can get to you. Although I was never 'big time', looking back there were moments when I was too much there or too much here."

After eventually signing a year long contract with Barnsley, things still didn’t go too well for Vaz. The manager and his assistant, David Flitcroft, recognised this and set about rectifying a perceived lack of team ethic on the pitch. "They knew they had a job on their hands but they did it the only way they knew how," recalls Preece. "They broke him. They quite literally ground him down so they could begin rebuilding him from scratch. Every day in training, whenever he didn’t do as they asked they would give him dogs abuse. Some days it was so ferocious even the rest of us thought they were taking it too far but in retrospect it was a calculated gamble. They wanted to drill into him the importance of becoming a team player and thought that their policy of totally stripping him of confidence would either make him or break him. It was military-like. If it didn’t work, as he had been brought in on a fairly modest salary then they could’ve just shrugged their shoulders and admitted defeated. On the other hand, if he responded then all their psychological games with him would have paid dividends."

The watershed moment for Vaz Te was to be the 15th of October and it came in the shape of his worst performance of the season. "In that first forty five minutes in Portsmouth, Vaz’s feet did everything to evade any ball that was passed in his direction," remembers Preece. "Every attempt he made to control the ball either rolled under his foot or bobbled over it and it became too much for the gaffer who had seen enough and somewhat inevitably produced the old shepherd’s crook and dragged him at half-time. All of us sitting on the bench looked at one another and thought 'That’s it. He’s finished now.' and I’m positive that’s what the manager thought too. I think he even intimated to Vaz that week that perhaps he should start looking for another club." That was the week Ricardo Vaz Te’s professional floor had been reached.

He was dropped back to the bench for the next game but after a prolonged pep talk on the sideline from David Flitcroft, he managed to come on late in the game and score in a 2-0 win at home to Burnley. Then it all just clicked. "He scored in our 2-1 win over Leeds United at Elland Road and then later proceeded to smash the ball past Julian Speroni after barely nine seconds of the game against Crystal Palace," says Preece. It was the fastest goal in Barnsley’s history and the goal that began to elicit interest from other clubs. "I suppose the moment I knew it had all turned full circle for him was when we came up against Leeds again in December," continues Preece. "After speaking to a couple of the their boys we discovered how relieved they were that he was starting on the bench." Unluckily for them, Vaz had to replace the injured Jacob Butterfield after fifteen minutes and proceeded to help himself to a hat-trick.

Teams began fearing him and when that happens, you can bet the managers of those begin to shoot admiring glances in his direction too. "It happens so often in football," reveals Preece. "A player might just have two great performances a year but if they are against the same team, their manager will sign them on the back of that. Back at Oakwell, it was now panic stations. People were declaring their interest in Vaz whilst simultaneously, we were desperately trying to put together a package which would keep him at Oakwell but it was a lost cause. If you’re at Barnsley, once a club like West Ham come in for you with their Premier League ambitions and superior financial clout then it’s as good as a done deal. And although there was initial uproar from the fans accusing Vaz of abandoning the club which gave him a chance when no-one else would, the rest of the squad didn’t begrudge him his move and even the manager couldn’t bring himself to stand in his way."

Not that there weren't regrets. Barnsley boss Keith Hill says he has learned a lot from the departure of his star striker. "It's important when we have good players at the club that we can retain them," he told BBC Radio Sheffield. "In hindsight we would have kept Ricardo, but I don't know what frame of mind he'd have been in. It was difficult because if we'd sold him and gone down then we would have lost a lot more money than we'd have made on the transfer. We need to look at getting our better players on longer term contracts so that when we sell them it's because it's right for us."

Getting half a million pounds for a player who had arrived on a free transfer and had hardly drained the club of it’s financial sources whilst giving the same player a realistic chance of Premier League football, seemed to be a good deal for everyone. "It’s difficult to accept when your club can’t compete financially with many teams in the same division but it’s just a fact of life that you will lose your best players," thinks Preece. "It’s all well and good saying he should’ve stayed loyal to the Tykes and rewarded us by adding to the eleven goals that played such a huge part in our survival but chances like his need to be grabbed not only with both hands but all ten toes too, when they eventually come along."

Preece states he has seen it so many times when a big club comes in for a player and a bid is turned down, there are no guarantees that he will get that kind of opportunity again. "When I was in the youth team at Sunderland, one of my teammates was the subject of a £250,000 from Man Utd and the club rebuffed the offer saying he was the future of the club and would not be letting him go for less than £1 million. Eighteen months later and he was playing for Whitley Bay in the Northern League."

It’s a 'Sliding Doors' moment in a player’s life where the fork in the road leads to the exact opposite of ends of the scale. "I watched Vaz slam home the winner at Wembley and I almost celebrated as much as he did," admits Preece. "A few of us were texting one another other saying how pleased we were for him. Surprisingly and very unstereotypically, not one of us actually used the phrase 'we were over the moon' for him but every single one us was glad to see that someone who had suffered such hard times in his career, had been catapulted in to the stratosphere of the Premier League and proved that sometimes, just sometimes, the good guys do win."

Thursday, 24 May 2012

False Clock Ticking

Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumors covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn...

With promotion in the bag West Ham United have wasted no time in reshaping the squad for the forthcoming Premier League campaign. Ahead of the expected influx of new talent that will be needed to retain our regained top flight status, four players- Julien Faubert, Abdoulaye Faye, Papa Bouba Diop and John Carew- will be departing at the end of their current contracts on June 30th. A further two- Frank Nouble and Olly Lee- have been deemed surplus to requirements and will also be released. "We have sat down and resolved some issues with players," said manager Sam Allardyce. "We obviously need to strengthen some areas and although I would expect significant changes, it won’t be anything like last summer, when 26 players went and 19 came in."

Faubert is the longest serving player to be leaving the club. The Frenchman made 34 league appearances for West Ham this season, and is the only one of the six to have been involved in the Hammers' 2-1 win over Blackpool at Wembley on Saturday. The 28-year-old was signed for £6m from Bordeaux in 2007 under Alan Curbishley, and spent time on loan at Real Madridin 2009, but there is no room for him in Allardyce's squad next season.

Interestingly, three of those released were brought to the club on one year contracts by Allardyce. Carew and Diop have not started a game for West Ham since January, while Faye's last match for the club was the 3-3 home draw against Birmingham in April. Striker Carew only managed two goals in his 21 appearances for the club since his arrival from Aston Villa in 2011. The experienced Senagalese pair Diop and Faye, both 34-years-old, missed significant periods through injury.

Nouble spent much of West Ham's campaign on loan at Gillingham and Barnsley, but failed to score in his only league start for the Hammers against Derby on New Year's Eve. The 20-year-old had made a promising start to his West Ham career, and was handed his Premier League debut after signing from Chelsea in 2009. Young midfielder Olly Lee, the son of former Hammers and England star Rob Lee, never made a senior appearance for the club. They will now not be returning to the top-flight with West Ham, as neither has not done enough to impress Allardyce.

A statement on West Ham's official club website read: "Julien Faubert, Abdoulaye Faye, Papa Bouba Diop, John Carew, Frank Nouble and Olly Lee will all leave West Ham when their current contracts end on 30 June. The six professionals have all played their part in a successful 2011-12 season which saw the Hammers gain promotion back to the Barclays Premier League. West Ham would like to thank all of the aforementioned players for their hard work and dedication and wish them luck in their future careers."

Goalkeeper Rob Green is also out of contract and he was certain to leave if the club had stayed in the Championship. The Hammers hope he can now be persuaded to sign a new deal with promotion back to the Premier League having been secured. Co-chairman David Gold said today there was now a good chance of Green staying. "The offer we could have made to Rob would obviously not have met his requirements if we had still been in the Championship," said Gold. "But now there will be one on the table which should be acceptable and hopefully we will wrap that up in the next five weeks." There is bound to be other interest in England’s No2 choice goalkeeper this summer. Big-spending Spanish club Malaga have been linked with Green while Queens Park Rangers could also make a move.

Finally, Henri Lansbury has also left the club to return to Arsenal after a season-long loan. The England Under-21 international enjoyed his time at Upton Park last season, featuring in 22 league games over the course of their promotion campaign and was impressed with the quality that he saw within the squad. "There are some good players here and they all want to do well," Lansbury told West Ham's official website. "People were talking about pressure and being favourites for the final and all of that, but that has been around all season. I think the lads can do well next year, there is no reason why not."

Lansbury also praised the Hammers' fans for perservering through a season in the second tier and believes they have now been rewarded with a day out at Wembley and a return to top-flight football. "It is massive for the club obviously as it means being back in the Premier League. It is also massive for the West Ham fans," he continued. "You know they would have made sure they had a good day out at Wembley whatever happened as it is such a great place to come to. But the fact that their team won means so much and we are all glad that this could happen for them as they deserve it. They have certainly been fantastic in my time here." After helping Norwich and West Ham to gain promotion out of the npower Championship in consecutive seasons Lansbury will now be looking to establish himself in the Arsenal first team.

• John Carew - 21 appearances
• Julien Faubert - 121 appearances
• Abdoulaye Faye - 29 appearances
• Papa Bouba Diop - 16 appearances
• Frank Nouble - 19 appearances
• Olly Lee - 0 appearances

• Bob Dylan - 71 years old today

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Days Of Decline Are Finished?

No legacy is so rich as honesty...
West Ham supporters were not the only ones celebrating the Hammers’ victory in the Championship play-off final on Saturday, writes the Telegraph's Paul Kelso. The beleaguered London Legacy Development Corporation (the new name for the Olympic Park Legacy Company) and its political paymasters will also have been relieved as it should, in theory, make a viable solution to the Olympic Stadium saga more likely. Promotion means West Ham now only need to confirm approval from the Premier League for their proposed move to Stratford, rather than the Football League, which was proving far harder to convince. Among those cheering on the Hammers on Saturday was the Newham Council chief executive, Kim Bromley-Derry, who is ready to authorise the injection of £40 million of taxpayers’ money into the stadium project.

The LLDC rewrote the tender process last week for the third time in 18 months, and if you didn't know anything about this tortuous story you might have thought this was a response to a dramatic, late intervention from a big player offering a viable, long term alternative to West Ham - the first and only real credible long term tenant for the stadium. Unfortunately for the LLDC nothing could have been further from the truth. Primarily it is an attempt to try and avoid a challenge from Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn, which can only further damage the credibility of the officials and lawyers involved in the arduous process.

Hearn has objected to West Ham moving on the grounds that the club do not have permission from the Football League. West Ham have not applied for permission from the league board, which would have to feel it had the support of a majority of the 72 clubs before approving the switch to Stratford. Hearn has considerable influence on the Football League, and his argument that West Ham moving to within a mile of Brisbane Road will kill his club has support among owners of other small clubs. The Premier League, by contrast, has already given permission for West Ham’s move, though Orient are challenging that decision in an FA arbitration process. An irony not missed by Hearn’s camp is that West Ham are relying on some of the same arguments they deployed in objecting to Tottenham’s plans to move to Stratford.

West Ham's pointed failure to obtain permission from the Football League for their move to the Olympic Stadium- even though it was a clear requirement of the LLDC's Invitation to Tender (ITT)- was seemingly a calculated risk. Although privately some sources argue the legacy corporation should have made the requirement more flexible, it seems extraordinary, notes David Bond, that the club would either overlook or simply choose to ignore a clear requirement of the tender process. If the reason West Ham didn't go to the League for permission was because they already felt they had sufficient support for the move from Upton Park in the form of the backing of the Premier League, argues Bond, then one imagines a good lawyer wouldn't find it too difficult to make a case that the permission is required from the league in which the club was playing at the time the application went in, not at the time of the decision. The deadline for bids, of course, was back in March.

In any case West Ham were relying on a permission granted by the Premier League for the original bidding process back in 2011, which ran into the long grass following a legal challenge from Tottenham. On the question of the Football League's support at that time, it is understood West Ham received a letter from the competition's head of legal affairs Nick Craig which appeared to back up the Premier League's position.

The letter, dated 18 July 2011, says:

"The Football League board has been advised that the Premier League's decision would be highly relevant to its own deliberations and that a different decision would only be justified if there had been a material change of circumstances since the Premier League board decision."

West Ham might say there has been no "material change of circumstances". But the decision to terminate the deal with West Ham last autumn and take the stadium back into public ownership would seem like a pretty significant change of circumstances to the casual observer. Surely it would have been sensible for West Ham to go back to the Football League and seek approval for its move. It has been suggested that one of the reasons they didn't go back to them is that they knew Hearn would have used his support on the League's board to refuse permission and that may well be the case. More likely it was the League's requirement to have certainty over their fixtures which prevented them from giving their blessing. This is problematic because the legacy tender this time around was focused on getting a number of tenants to share a publicly owned stadium rather than one anchor tenant effectively taking charge of the venue.

Another problem which was overlooked in the legacy corporation's announcement last week was its requirement to clarify technical improvements to the stadium. Although it is the legacy corporation's responsibility to adapt the stadium from its 80,000 seater Olympics mode to its legacy configuration after the Games, it is up to the bidders to submit clear proposals as to how they want the stadium fitted out. It is understood that there are serious questions about West Ham's technical proposals and exactly how they would like to see the athletics stadium adapted for football.

London mayor Boris Johnson insists it is still "overwhelmingly likely" that West Ham will end up as tenants of the Olympic Stadium despite the latest delay to the error-strewn process of securing its long-term future. Two weeks ago the LLDC, which is responsible for finding a legacy solution and reports to Johnson, delayed the final decision for at least eight weeks, meaning no solution will be finalised until after the Olympics. It had originally been due to make a final decision about the stadium’s future on May 21, but insisted it still hoped to have the stadium reopen as scheduled in 2014. The LLDC denied that the new process, which includes new terms that give bidders more leeway over the stadium’s configuration, could see the running track removed after the 2017 World Athletics Championships. "The LLDC remains fully committed to retaining an athletics track within the Olympic Stadium for the lifetime of the concession agreement of up to 99 years," a spokesman said.

The LLDC, struggling to retain its credibility, has not simply restarted the entire process, but has also been forced to reopen bids to all interested parties. West Ham and the University of East London have been preparing offers to become tenants of the stadium, along with two other bidders, one of whom is thought to be event organiser Live Nation. They will now have to submit new bids in line with revised terms, and could face competition from the 12 interested parties who walked away from the process in March. The terms of the tender have been rewritten. Bidders will have more time to get permission for a move from their sport’s governing body, will have more latitude to make changes inside the stadium and can take part in naming-rights negotiations. All three changes appear designed to make it easier for West Ham to complete their bid successfully.

The Hammers have long been in pole position to take on the stadium, but have now twice been told to resubmit their bid because of legal challenges from others. There is huge frustration within the club's hierachy at the delays, but Johnson believes they will still end up occupying the arena from 2014. "I don’t think we should read too much into these delays,” he said. “It is very important to get all the legal nails hit squarely on the head so that the thing does not come unstuck. That is taking a bit of time. I still think it is overwhelmingly likely that there will be a footballing solution and that would be a good thing, but it is not in my view absolutely essential. I can envisage all sorts of other legacy solutions for the stadium.

“It is very important that it should be legally watertight, and if you look at the fate of stadiums around the world, look at Beijing and Athens, stadiums are the most difficult things to make sure you get a serious legacy proposition for. In London we are incredibly far advanced compared to other Olympic cities and it is important that we button it down, and that is what this process is about. This is a difficult process. This is a major piece of public infrastructure with big state aid implications that we are trying to transfer to commercial concerns and that is always going to evoke very complicated legal problems."

Johnson said he would consider negotiating directly with Hearn, but was not prepared to discuss on what terms. "There may or may not be a negotiation with Barry Hearn but I am not going to discuss it now," he said. "The point for me is that its is overwhelmingly likely that football will be part of the solution and it will open on time in October 2014." Sports minister Hugh Robertson ruled out spending public money to buy off Hearn’s objections. "You cannot use public money to make the problem go away. We would be forever reaching for the chequebook were that the case," he said.

If the London Mayor remains confident that a football club (ie West Ham) would still end up as the main tenant at the stadium after the Games, other senior figures are not ruling out the possibility of yet another rethink or a return to the 25,000 seater athletics "base case" which the venue was originally designed for in legacy mode. The departure of former OPLC chairman Baroness Margaret Ford and her replacement by the Mayor's close political ally Daniel Moylan and six new board members could lead to a completely fresh approach to the long running problem.

All of which leads back to where we started and the Hammers’ victory in the Championship play-off final on Saturday. Clearly this is not only a matter of obtaining permission from whichever League West Ham happen to be playing in, but is an issue of cold, hard cash. The truth is promotion to the Premier League has made West Ham's business case much more convincing. Remember, states Bond, this is a club with £91million of debts according to their 2011 accounts. Servicing interest payments on that lot plus an annual lease payment to the legacy corporation becomes much harder if you are still in the Football League. Promotion to the Premier League guarantees more than £30m a season making the annual rent much more comfortable. Time the move right and West Ham would also be able to reduce their debts by £20m through the sale of Upton Park.

Hammers Chairman David Gold reiterated yesterday that West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium remains on course, despite showing some confusion with regards to the level of public support for it. Last month, Gold insisted that he had the backing of "70 per cent of our fan base", but in an interview with Talksport that figure had dropped by a substantial margin. "Our surveys suggest that better than 50 per cent of fans are wanting to go to the new stadium," he told the Breakfast Show. "Also, over the years, clubs that move to new stadiums and build new stadiums have always been successful in their move. They've always increased fanbase, it's always worked out. It's very hard to pick a move that's beeen a failure".

The latest independent poll on the move, conducted by campaign group WHU's View in April, resulted in 87 per cent of those polled voting against the move to Stratford. Their poll asked: "Based on all available information do you agree with West Ham United’s proposed move to the Olympic Stadium?" Of the 2,431 supporters asked before entering the stadium 13.4% said ‘Yes’, while 86.6% said ‘No’. The results have been sent to the LLDC, Mayor’s Office, FA, DCMS, and the club itself.

"There has been no widespread consultation or attempt to seek the views of the vast majority of supporters," a WHU View spokesperson said. "Prior to the initial bid in 2011, West Ham United invited comments from supporters by email, but there has been no publication of the views submitted, the number of emails received, nor any indication that supporters’ comments had been acted upon. West Ham United have relied upon a single meeting with 49 members of the Supporters Advisory Board (SAB) Olympic Group for ‘consultation’. At the SAB meeting on 23rd February 2012, the club presented some information about its bid for the Olympic Stadium. Those members present were required to sign a confidentiality agreement so were unable to discuss this with other supporters."

WHU View state the club appointed one SAB member to collate comments from supporters, but did not make a general request for feedback, for example a statement on its website. "Many fans are concerned that the club’s comments in the media with regards the level of support for a move have been made without consultation, ignores the SAB report, previous polls and as such may misrepresent the views of the majority of fans.” Meanwhile the most recent poll - conducted in February of this year - resulted in 60 per cent of supporters voting against the move to Stratford, with a further 17 per cent stating they were 'unsure'.

Last month West Ham United vice-chairman Karren Brady claimed fans who were presented detailed plans of the planned stadium move, were supportive of the idea. The club has previously denied the need for any public opinion survey, be it a poll run at Upton Park gates on matchdays or independent research within the club's fanbase. "We're very excited about the future of the Olympic Stadium and of course we don't want to move there as you see it now," revealed Gold yesterday. "We're all bound by rules not to discuss this but the hint is that there will be changes. You're not going to go into the stadium when the Olympics finish. There's a whole programme of changes [planned]."

An ebullient Sam Allardyce just wants the stadium tied up as quickly as possible. "I just feel it's an unbelievable stadium for the football club to move in there," he stated after Saturday's victory. "I know a lot of diehard West Ham fans would like to stay where we are but, believe you me, the way forward is to go to a venue like that. It would be like playing at Wembley every week. The atmosphere would be electric as long as it gets converted the right way."

Speaking on Sunday, David Sullivan insisted that if West Ham fans enjoyed their Wembley experience, they would 'like our new stadium'. "The similarities are amazing and, if we get the plan we want, it will be very special and our fans will be very proud of it," he said. "It will be great for East London. It's a wonderful stadium and if we are going to compete with Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United and Man City then we have to have a bigger stadium. And that is the aim. It might be five or six years away but I don’t think the aim is to survive every year and scrap along at the bottom and pray you have a cup run. There is a very big gulf to jump but that is what we must aim for. And once we get all the debt paid off, which we hope we can do in three or four years, we can then build a team to take on the bigger clubs. West Ham are coming again. The days of decline are finished."

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Long Ball Ma Fangul

I was born under a bad sign with a claret and blue moon in my eyes, but Lordy a-things ain't been the same since Big Sam walked in-a town...

"I've got the world by the balls and yet I can’t stop feeling that I'm still the mortadella," confesses Sam Allardyce. "It's the nagging feeling that I came in at the end; that the best is over... I think about my old managers... Ian Greaves, Brian Talbot, Les Chapman, Peter Reid. They never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways these Moustache Petes had it better. See, they had their people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got? I mean I've read Brilliant Orange. I understand why the Pyramid got Inverted. It's just that nowadays, every jamook's got a newspaper column, and a twitter account, and go on football forums and talk about their theories. What happened to George Graham? The strong, silent type. That was a football manager. He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn't know was once they got George Graham in touch with his feelings that they wouldn't be able to shut him up! And then it's one dimensional this, and neanderthal that, and long ball ma fangul! Before you know it there are football fans like the oobatz with a Virginia ham under each arm, crying because he hasn't got any bread..."


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