Friday, 9 August 2013

Tightrope To Redemption

I'm on a tightrope, baby, nine miles high
Striding through the clouds, on my ribbon in the sky
I'm on a tightrope, one thing I've found
I don't know how to stop, and it's a
Long, long, long, long way down...
A solicitous Ravel Morrison stood in the dock at Salford magistrates' court nervously eying the tangible prospect of being sent to Strangeways prison. After falling out with his then 16 year old girlfriend, he had thrown her phone out of an open window during a heated argument at her parents' house. He was already on a 12-month referral order having been convicted (along with two other teenagers) on two counts of witness intimidation a few months earlier. Then there was an incident described as a "domestic assault" and a year before that the police caution for assaulting his own mother. "I'm sure you appreciate that behaviour like this is not acceptable," the judge gravely intoned. "You're obviously someone with a considerable future and you must at all times understand that a loss of temper, no matter what the provocation, is not acceptable." The Manchester United starlet — seen as the most exciting product of the club's famed academy in many years — risked substituting fame and fortune for an altogether bleaker future.

Morrison eventually walked free, wearing a £600 fine for criminal damage but escaping a charge of assault. For the second time in two years, his ­girlfriend refused to make a statement. In a snapshot of a schizophrenic life, just two days previously he had been starring in the final of the 2011 FA Youth Cup. Described as "a rough, glittering diamond" in the Independent's match report, Morrison's first goal of the game had been impressive; a couple of touches and a rasping shot. The second was even better – running at the defence, before picking his spot and scoring. One way or other, it seems, Ravel Morrison was born to make headlines.

Long tipped to be one of the pre-eminent English footballers of his generation, there is little doubt, in terms of ability, that he is the real deal: balance, speed, control, vision, flair, strong on either foot, an eye for a pass and a prolific scorer. One clip on YouTube encapsulates what he does best: a preposterous trick to bamboozle an opponent from the Blackburn youth team, incorporating a triple drag-back and a backheeled nutmeg. Let's not judge a player on internet footage, but this was a moment that would have brought Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to their feet. "Silks", as Rio Ferdinand calls it. He has played for England's Young Lions at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level and made his United debut, at the tender age of 17, as a substitute in a Carling Cup tie against Wolves. One FA Youth Cup tie in 2008 prompted the Times to wonder "when [we] last saw such balance and daring from an English 15-year-old". The Daily Telegraph tipped him as "a potential gem for 2014 [World Cup]."

Brought up in Wythenshawe, a sprawling, uncompromising council estate on the southern tip of Manchester, Morrison was arrested for the first time within a week of signing academy forms on his 17th birthday. A child of the streets, glowering out at the world beneath a hoodie, he had admitted two charges of intimidating a witness. He had, reported Daniel Taylor, subjected the victim of a knifepoint robbery to a two-day ordeal in an attempt to stop him giving evidence at the trial of his muggers. The court was told Morrison made threatening phone calls ("you don't know what I'm capable of") and was among three teenagers who threatened the boy on the street. The three later appeared in the victim's front garden in the early hours. They were chased away but then came back in a mob of 15 to 20 people. A brick was thrown through the window. The victim was so traumatised his family put the house up for sale and wanted to leave Manchester. There was no emotion when the judge told him he was being spared detention, recalls Taylor. However, he notes, Morrison seemed appalled when he was informed he had to pay costs, including compensation to the victim. The court was told United's No 49, described on the club's website as a "supremely gifted talent", had nothing in the bank despite receiving £3,400, after tax, on the 25th of every month, as part of the professional contract he had signed.

Goodness knows, football has had its bad boys, its rebels and its malcontents over the years, observed Sam Wallace. Some have had to fall a long way before the penny dropped and some ran out of chances. Elite sport discriminates only on grounds of talent and in football, the nation's wealthiest, most intensely competitive sport, that means people will put up with a lot. While careful not to make light of the actions of the player Old Trafford insiders had lined up as Paul Scholes’ long-term replacement, the club issued a public show of support: "We do not in any way condone Ravel's actions, but he is a very talented player with a bright future ahead of him," a spokesman said. "The right thing to do now is to support him and help him in the process of his rehabilitation." Privately, notes Taylor, Sir Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff spent many hours debating how to handle the teenager. There were numerous stories of Morrison missing training, or turning up late for matches. "There's always something going on with him," became a popular refrain. More seriously, his temperamental nature and apparent dislike of authority manifested themselves on the training ground. It is said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then the reserve-team manager, had to intervene in one incident. The teenager described as someone who acts impulsively and does not think of the consequences, a fragile personality in need of a role model.

This is not a story of a talented player with trouble attached, concluded Wallace. This had become a narrative of trouble with talent tagging along for the ride. Writing in the National, Andy Mitten states that the majority of the coaching staff at Manchester United lost patience with Morrison long before his eventual exit, persevering only on the behest of their manager. It is easy to be cynical to suggest the quality of ­mercy is linked to the rarity of the talent, but one of the traits of Sir Alex's management was his devotion to the club’s duty of care. United’s tradition of youth development, established by Sir Matt Busby, occasionally involves the application of peer pressure. Yet even the senior players were exasperated with their 18 year old. How could someone so talented, they wondered, be at fault so often? They had all made the necessary sacrifices to become a footballer and they had reached the top. The rewards were there for Morrison to see every single day, the status, respect and accoutrements of wealth. It frustrated the players even more that someone with more natural talent than most of them appeared to be throwing it away in a series of mishaps, misdemeanours and more - far more - serious issues.

There is a strong grapevine in Manchester, notes Mitten. It helps people in the city cut through the media image of footballers. Most players score quite well, ratings based on chance meetings in shops and clubs, on the words of friends and work colleagues, of little anecdotes which help piece together a profile. Not so Morrison. Almost every story - and there were many - concerned him being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. His influences appeared to be gangster chic rather than Gary Neville. The principal lesson of Neville’s career – that in ­football as in life, you get out what you put in – has never been more relevant or assiduously ignored. Morrison came across like he didn't care, not about now nor the future. Some sympathy must be extended because he's endured a difficult upbringing, reasons Mitten, but then so have many other footballers. What sets them apart is that they are prepared to learn and listen to people like Ferguson, one of the best protectors and developers of youthful talent in football. Morrison was not and Ferguson, his greatest ally, finally lost patience.

Maybe it was when he asked Rio Ferdinand on Twitter to confirm he hadn't pick-pocketed from the dressing room. Perhaps it was after he described the end-of-season awards ceremony, attended by assorted club luminaries, in excremental terms. On the back of just three first-team appearances he is said to have left Ferguson outraged by wildly 'unrealistic' wage demands when negotiating a contract renewal. In truth, the argument goes, playing at Old Trafford, with the celebrity it entails, may have simply come too soon for Morrison. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly arrived at the conclusion that the impressionable youngster would be "better out of Manchester" with all its attendant distractions. His friends, like many lads of 17 and 18, tended to "hang around on bikes, wearing hooded tops and dark clothing", reported Taylor. Morrison himself wore similar garb to one court appearance. For his sentencing, he looked what he was: a teenager in Nike trainers and a tie knotted Grange Hill-style.

For all this time Morrison lived with his grandparents, Chris and Maureen Carlway, in Denton, five miles to the east of Manchester, while his mother, Sharon Ryan, still taking an active part in his life, lived in another part of the city with her two younger boys, Rio and Zeon. Morrison would frequently contemplate moving out, complaining that he did not like being under the watch of his grandmother, although the club insisted he stayed in the company of adults. It is said that Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville both offered to take him in at different points. All of which made West Ham's subsequent decision to put the then teenager in a four-star east London hotel instead of a host family to keep him out of trouble all the more baffling, wrote the Mail's Laura Williamson at the time.

The move that eventually took Morrison to West Ham in January last year was for an initial £650,000, with the fee rising to a reputed £2.5million depending on performances. A solitary 10 minute substitute appearance in the ensuing six months, as well as hushed intimations of fractious relationships with both squad members and coaching staff, seemed to suggest they would not be seeing any extra cash in Manchester. Within a month, as predictable as the rain that falls on the streets of Whalley Range, he was back under the spotlight after being charged for using 'homophobic' language on Twitter. The England prodigy claimed he was reacting to vile racist abuse which had been directed at him. Even now it seems affording Morrison the medium of social networking is akin to prodding an angry bear with a stick and expecting it to behave, noted Bleacher Report's Alex Shaw. "With all due respect, when he first came from Manchester United he thought he was the top kid and he was going to walk straight into our team and it certainly doesn't work like that," observed West Ham assistant manager Neil McDonald when discussing those early months.. "We sent him away with the hope he would come back and use that experience."

Morrison started slowly upon joining Birmingham on loan at the start of last season, but his performance in their draw against Leicester that October, wrote Shaw, hinted at what we could expect: intelligent passing— often too clever for his own team-mates—and a willingness to stay true to aesthetics in the hurly-burly combat of the Championship. He went on to make 30 appearances in all competitions at St Andrew's, scoring three goals. "It was really good," Morrison states of the chance to grow up out of the Premier League spotlight. "I think I needed the year out and I think it went well, because I enjoyed my year at Birmingham a lot." Not that it was all plain sailing; the signs that things were initially going worryingly to form apparent in the fact manager Lee Clark considered ending his loan after three months because of an attitude problem. After the Birmingham manager held showdown talks with the midfielder, Allardyce believes the player's positive response was indicative of real personal growth. "It’s nice to see he overcame those early ­problems he suffered by not playing," said ­Big Sam. "We bought him for ­development. So first-team football hopefully will have given him enough ­experience so he can learn to put that ability into the game on a regular basis. A player is always much better when he is in the team as well."

Rather than write him off, Clark had decided to be honest with him about what was happening and his words had the desired effect, with Morrison shining for the rest of his loan spell. "Since we had that conversation, he’s been a super kid," states Clark. "I know there’s been headlines about him and things that have happened off the field. But I haven’t had a problem with him off the field. He loves his football, you see a big smile on his face when he’s playing and training. Early on in the season, when things weren’t going his way, in terms of getting in the team, his level of performance in training was affected. And he was on a little bit of a downward spiral in terms of that. So we had the watershed moment when we had the conversation and I said to him I didn’t bring him to the football club just to be a sub, or not even a sub at times. I brought him to be one of the main players. And he has knuckled down, his training has been excellent."

Morrison admits to having "missed West Ham a lot" but insists it was still good in the Championship. "It was different to the Premier League, obviously, but it was a good challenge," he said recently. "Lee Clark is a great manager and he helped me through a lot. He talked me through my rights and wrongs and he helped me through the season. I probably enjoyed the game against Millwall the most, when we came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3. That was probably the best game because the whole team worked hard. I also scored a couple of good goals." It says much about the relation that developed between the two that Clark went on record last month to say he would love to work with Morrison again. All summer he has maintained dialogue with Allardyce and the Hammers to ensure if West Ham decide not to include Morrison in their fold, then his Blues will be at the head of the queue for his services.

Those hopes appear to be receding with the midfielder determined to force his way into the reckoning at Upton Park. "Pre-season has been good and I've enjoyed the whole trip so far," Morrison told the club's official website. "I've just enjoyed the work and the whole group has done well. Hopefully I can get an opportunity. I've just got to carry on working hard and show the manager what I can do." An impressive run of form has followed, which includes two goals against Sporting Lisbon and a string of excellent displays as he continues preparation for the coming campaign. McDonald, now working closely with the 'problem prodigy', detects a significant change in the player's attitude that could finally see him flourish at Upton Park. "He’s settled in and he’s come back a different player," he told Talksport. "I think it’s done him the world of good going to Birmingham to play some games. He can certainly do a really good job in midfield. He’s got the ability. You don’t play for Manchester United if you’re not a good player. As each game goes along he’s looking good. He has had some experience around him as well [in midfield] with Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble pulling and pushing him, as you'd expect. If we can get him on the ball in the final third then he can produce."

Now Hammers skipper Nolan is ready to continue playing father figure to keep the starlet on the straight and narrow. "He has grown up and I think he has come back with a renewed approach," he told assembled journalists a few days ago. "I am going to help him as much as I can by talking to him on and off the pitch. Hopefully he's seen the benefit of being around us all the time and going on loan and seeing what it's about. Last year he started like that, but it was all the off-field stuff and his mental attitude to the game. He let himself down with not turning up and things like that. But speaking to Lee Clark at Birmingham, he said he really worked hard on him and towards the end had him on board. That's what you've got to have with Rav. If he can get it all right, he will be a top player for years to come."

There's the rub. On the pitch, wrote Michael Calvin, great players are defined by the quality of the decisions they take, under pressure. Off it, the same principle applies. There are small signs of hope, but the choice is ­Morrison’s alone. For his sake, pray he makes the right one. He will either be one of English football’s greatest treasures, concludes Calvin, or its ­latest tragedy. In many ways it is strange to think he is still only 20. As Shaw points out, those GIFs of him displaying his precocious talent in Manchester United's reserve matches have circulated on the Internet for years now, and everyone has an opinion on him, even Barcelona. Camp Nou officials were well aware of Morrison's quality when his time at United was hurtling towards a premature conclusion back in 2011. Nothing materialised from their interest — but he has the ability, if given the chance, to be noticed again. The choice between fame and oblivion is his. He can repay the faith, defy the ­demons and become rich beyond reason. Or he can revert to type, succumb to self-destructive anger and become just ­another doomed youth. There are many who hope Ravel Morrison proves the doubters wrong, but they won't be surprised if he doesn't.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Happiness Through Acceptance

Happiness can exist only in acceptance...
Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Maybe you can go back home to your family, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to lyricism, to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist' and the all-sufficiency of 'art' and 'beauty' and 'love,' away from all the strife and conflict to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time, back home to the escapes of Time and Memory. As Joe Cole settled back into the familiar bosom of West Ham United on an 18-month deal in January, still bright-eyed but no longer fresh of face as he returned to where it all began, a couple of stories came to mind recalls Oliver Kay.

The first, courtesy of a former team-mate, concerns a training-ground conversation about the best players in world football. Cole was gushing about Paul Gascoigne, Roberto Baggio and Zinedine Zidane and was asked what he admired most about them. "The flicks, the tricks, the skills," came the misty-eyed reply. The second is a tale from Chelsea’s training ground some years later as Cole, by now aware that his trickery on the ball would only get him so far in English football, was putting himself through a new daily routine in the gym. José Mourinho looked in. "What are you doing?" the coach asked. Building up the strength to start playing in the centre, a smiling Cole replied. Mourinho, straight-faced, could not resist the opportunity: "Back in Setubal, I have a donkey. It can run all day but it will never be a racehorse."

They are the tales that always come to mind, along with images of dragbacks and pirouettes, usually as a teenager in West Ham colours, when Kay thinks of Cole. Perhaps it is because they seem to say something about the journey on which his career has taken him, from wide-eyed ingénue at West Ham to his battle for acceptance at Chelsea, through the injuries, the ill-judged move to Liverpool, the flickering hint of a renaissance at Lille, back to misery at Anfield and finally, full circle and back to Upton Park for a new start in the most reassuring of surroundings. This is not how it was meant to be for Cole, widely identified in his youth by those at the top of the game, never mind by a captivated media or public, as the world-class No 10 that English football had been crying out for. The medal count tells us he has had a very good career (three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups for Chelsea, 56 England caps) but he cannot be developed in line with the expectations he or others had for him.

Cole’s story will be cited in some quarters as another black mark against English football, where tactical orthodoxy dictates that the game is played in straight lines, stifling the creativity of such a maverick talent — "too lightweight, chuck him on the wing", that kind of thing. The flaw in this argument is that the managers who have chucked Cole on the wing have tended to be foreigners (Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello) with the exception of Steve McClaren. When he has been indulged in central positions, it has been by English managers (Harry Redknapp and Glenn Roeder at West Ham, Roy Hodgson, briefly, at Liverpool) and it has rarely been successful. Does this not suggest that English football’s great missed opportunity with Cole was less in his deployment than with his development and, thereafter, with perception? Did the teenage Cole truly have all the attributes — mental, physical, technical, tactical — to be a world-class player or did he just, by English standards, have extraordinary skill on the ball? Did he, in other words, have the tricks and flicks that he admired in Zidane and Baggio but lack the vision or the game-intelligence, quite apart from the physique and hard-nosed determination, that made them into players of the highest class?

English football has a strange relationship with what a generation of players like to refer to on Twitter as #tekkers, argues Kay. Our sadness is not the searing kind but more a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us when such a talent arrives, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind. The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our national game remains. It is why there is distrust at times, but there is also, at times, a misplaced awe. After Cole’s arrival at Liverpool in 2010, Steven Gerrard drooled about the tricks that his new team-mate could perform, saying that "Lionel Messi can do some amazing things, but anything he can do, Joe can do as well, if not better". It comes down to more than skills on the ball. The idea that Cole could have been English football’s Zidane or Andrés Iniesta seems a little misplaced. Zidane and Iniesta are two of the most intelligent, artistic footballers European football has seen — more intelligent and more artistic than Gascoigne and the like. Whether it is an issue of nature or nurture or something of both, Cole did not seem to develop, whether in his youth or his later career, the all-round game that would have made him the player that English football wanted him to be. Nobody can particularly be blamed for that.

Indeed, thinks Daniel Taylor, perhaps we were all a little bit guilty of expecting too much. Maybe we were too seduced by the hype. The first time he came across Cole was back in those days when everybody had heard of him but very few had actually seen him play. Cole, he explains, was part of a youth team at West Ham that had brought in journalists to advise on media training and, though it's going back a few years, a couple of things still stand out. One was that, out of everyone, he seemed the most eager to understand the mechanics of the newspaper industry. One player, no older than 16 or 17, got himself into a hole during the mocked-up interviews, questioning whether Ian Wright, 34 at the time, was past it – "he can't have long, can he?" – and cheerfully debating the possibility of taking his place until another boy let him know, with an expertly administered dead leg, that he had better stop talking. Cole was far more savvy. He had, he explained, already been taking advice, anticipating all the attention coming his way.

Secondly, the West Ham academy at the time, run by Tony Carr, was one of the best in English football, if not the very best and it would be hard to find too many clubs that developed players as astute as Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe in the same era. Yet it was Cole, notes Taylor, who all the other players looked up to. By that stage he had already scored seven times in an England youth international against Spain. Ferdinand tells the story of going to see Cole, then 13, in a schoolboys' game in Southend. "He flicked the ball over his head, then over another player, ran round the other side and collected it. The only time I'd seen anyone do that was Ossie Ardíles in Escape to Victory." Except Ardíles, one imagines, didn't do it in one take. At 15, Cole was invited to train with West Ham's first team. "He was the best player out there," Ferdinand confirms. John Moncur nicknamed him "the Conjuror". For Cole, by far the most hyped of West Ham's Bright Young Things recalls Jacob Steinberg, the limelight was blinding. A year before he had even made his professional debut, Redknapp was writing about him in his programme notes, dismissing reports linking a 16-year-old boy with Manchester United, and on his 17th birthday Cole signed his first professional contract on the pitch at Upton Park before a game against Chelsea. The date was 8 November 1998. "You can tell your grandchildren you were here when Joe Cole signed," said the pitch announcer, Jeremy Nicholas. No pressure, kid.

The other youngsters were all appreciated but none were as adored as much as Cole. He was not Joe Cole, he was Joey Cole. He made his debut in January the following year, coming off the bench in the third round of the FA Cup against Swansea City and a week later he made his first appearance in the league in a 4-1 defeat against United at Old Trafford, where he grabbed the attention with his fearlessness, showing off the flicks and tricks that define him. By now he was impossible to ignore, writes Steinberg, and in May of that year he helped West Ham win the FA Youth Cup. In a hopeless mismatch Coventry City were beaten 9-0 over two legs in the final, West Ham winning the second leg 6-0 at a packed Upton Park. By the time he had turned 21, Cole had played for England eight times and was about to be named captain of his club. Frank Lampard, to put it into context, was still waiting for his first cap at that age. Carrick had two.

It's funny how it works out sometimes, thinks Taylor. By now, you might have seen the archived footage that has found its way on to the internet, from 1996, of a question-and-answer session with West Ham supporters when Redknapp was manager. It's glorious stuff, with one gentleman trying to pin down Harry about how on earth he could justify selling a young lad by the name of Scott Canham – "for peanuts" – when Lampard was in the team and "not good enough". Canham's story after West Ham is an undistinguished journey via Brentford, Leyton Orient, Chesham, Woking, Farnborough and a few others. But nobody in the audience spoke up for the young Lampard when Redknapp was being accused of picking him for no other reason than being his uncle. The camera cuts to where Lampard is sitting and it's all a bit awkward, to say the least. He's smiling, but it's a default smile, the kind of smile when someone has just had bad news and is trying to tell everyone it's OK.

As it turned out, Lampard didn't do too badly, still with an outstanding chance of playing in the next World Cup even though he will turn 36 during the tournament. Carrick, another player who could polarise opinion among the West Ham crowd, has similar aspirations, playing with the control and authority for Manchester United that makes it difficult to understand why Roy Hodgson did not try harder to involve him in Euro 2012. Cole, meanwhile, has found himself in decline for longer than he probably wants to remember. As much as he had the crowd on their feet when the ball was at his, there was also a feeling that a lack of football intelligence and tactical discipline meant he did not make the most of his talent at West Ham. Despite Redknapp playing Cole behind two strikers, his end-product often left much to be desired; there were not enough assists and he only scored 13 goals in his five years with the club. Cole ended up playing some of the best football of his career when Roeder made him West Ham's captain in December 2002 and moved him to a deeper midfield role. The player flourished but, despite his manic efforts, West Ham still went down at the end of that season, unable to reel in Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers side.

So would Cole have done better had he been raised by Spain, as the popular argument goes? Possibly, thinks Kay, but it is a hypothesis that ignores the reality that, in Spain, his technical abilities would seem less exceptional, something to work around rather than something that would make him a superstar. Cole has had some great moments in his career — a personal Kay favourite is an Iniesta-like pass that set up Didier Drogba for a goal against Valencia in the Champions League in 2007 — and he has a handsome medal collection. What he has not had is a true sense of belonging in any team — since leaving West Ham as a 21-year-old, in 2003, he has only twice started more than half of his team’s league matches in a season — and therefore the opportunity to make a sustained impression.

Kay and Taylor were both at Roots Hall on the night that Cole ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in an FA Cup third-round replay against Southend United four years ago. He has never been anything like the same player since — his performances in a turbulent 2½ years at Liverpool, during which he made only nine Barclays Premier League starts, were sad to watch — but even before that injury there was a sense, at the age of 27, that his career had already come to a crossroads. He also lost his place in the England set-up and has not played for his country since the 2010 World Cup finals, even if he believes he still has plenty to offer club and country. "I’ve had a great career but by no means am I finished," Cole insists. "There will always be the England thing in the back of my mind because I played 56 times for my country. I haven’t played since the World Cup in 2010, so something is missing there. I still want to be part of that, but you can’t talk yourself into England squads, you’ve got to perform." Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, beat Redknapp, his Queens Park Rangers counterpart, to Cole’s signature in January and believes the midfielder can force his way into Roy Hodgson’s plans. "If he can recapture his old form and plays on a regular basis for us, Joe is bound to get a bit of interest from Roy," he said at the time. "But his main focus will be making sure he plays for West Ham on a regular basis and producing the form we know he can."

If Cole's career went down a cul-de-sac then the sincere hope is that a return to Upton Park will eventually help him rediscover the spark that made him such a joy to watch in his teenage years. For we depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them, noted de Botton in his study on how human needs and desires manifest their ideals in our environs. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. As Cole explained to Graham Moody: "It’s very inspiring being back and, at the moment, it all feels like a dream, seeing the same old faces and the same places. It’s different but it’s the same. I can picture myself when I was young sitting in the same places and playing on the same pitches. It’s amazing. I will be inspired here and I can feel how I felt as a youngster again. I play my best football when I’m happy. The 18 months at Liverpool were difficult because I didn’t play as much as I would like. I need to play consistently, and if I’m playing consistently and I’m happy I’m sure I will be the same player I was."

Cole's second coming as a Hammer began encouragingly, delivering the crosses for both goals against Manchester United and playing with the sureness of touch, football intelligence and penetration that wasn't seen enough at Liverpool, bar his time on loan at Lille. West Ham certainly feels like a snug fit thinks Taylor, and it would be nice, too, to trust in Allardyce's famous restorative powers; even if we have reached the point in Cole's career when we probably just have to accept he may never be the player English football wanted him to be. Back where it all began, where they have always thought of him as one of their own, he should benefit from knowing he has the club's trust and affection. This time, however, the expectations have to be considerably lower. Moving back to London may have therapeutic effects but, for all the nostalgic qualities about returning to his first club, the bottom line is Cole would not be back in claret and blue if his career had turned out as everybody thought.

As harsh as it sounds, it boils down to this: When Joe Cole came on the market in January the Premier League's then 11th-placed club gazumped the bottom one, QPR, while the "serious clubs" kept out of it. Not only that, it needed Liverpool to write off a small fortune in the process. You know things haven't been going well when a club would rather give you a £3m payoff than wait any longer on the off-chance it might work out. Of those nine league games Cole actually started for Liverpool, he was sent off in the first and played the full 90 minutes in only three. The last time he started and finished a Premier League match prior to his Upton Park return was two years to the day of his second debut as a West Ham player. The other two occasions go back to September 2010. Cole, earning £92,000 a week, didn't get so much as player of the month. Or even a single man of the match. They paid him off in the end because the alternative was stumping up another £7m in wages over the remainder of his contract. However it is dressed up, it represents an astoundingly bad piece of business.

Perhaps we will always be left wondering why he never fully realised all that rare potential. Maybe he will never properly bridge the gap between a player who can dictate football matches rather than one who merely decorates them, laments Taylor. Yet he is plainly taking the business of reinventing himself seriously and it is enough for now to see him reminding us all why so many people care in the first place. More than anything, it would feel like a terrible waste if, at 31, we have to talk about his gifts in the past tense. Even if he will never be the player English football wanted him to be, suggests Kay, it would just be nice for him to remind himself, as well as the rest of us, of the player he was — that he is a thoroughbred, with some running left in him, rather than a donkey ready to be out to pasture.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Lancashire’s Loss, London’s Gain

"One thing about London is that when you step out into the night, it swallows you..."
It is now well over two and a half years since Sam Allardyce’s chicken-brained sacking by Blackburn. "I didn’t know it was quite that long," Sam smiles, raising an ironic glass. "To Venky’s!" He’s laughing now — and so are West Ham. Lancashire’s loss, London’s gain. Afterall, asked Charlotte Bronte, who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity? Not Big Sam, who has resurrected his club while enjoying a rebirth as Metropolitan Man. Now happily settled in Canary Wharf and looking forward to building on two successful seasons in the Hammers hot seat, the manager is relishing what promises to be an exciting and challenging 2013/14 campaign; his tenth as a Barclays Premier League boss following spells with Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Rovers prior to joining the Hammers in July 2011. "It has been a really good couple of years for me, not just from a football point of view, but from the fact that we're enjoying our time living in Canary Wharf," Allardyce told the official club site today. "The big city has been great to explore and it takes the pressure off when you want to get out and get away from it all, you've got plenty to do and plenty to see."

The decision to move had to be right for Lynn, his wife, whose mother — after living with the Allardyces for 30 years — died just before the West Ham job came up. Happily the switch felt right, personally and professionally, from the start. Sam and Lynn love West End shows and East End life. Near the gastropub where Allardyce frequently holds court over lunch is their 40th-floor apartment, with amazing views. The perfect vantage point to watch those marbled clouds go scudding by in the many-steepled London sky. "The windows are ceiling to floor," he says, "and now when we go back to the house in Bolton, we have to put on all the lights. ‘Dingy, innit?’ we say." In a recent typically meandering lunch-fuelled interview with Jonathan Northcroft, Sam digresses on the benefits of natural light (he had a Bolton dressing room built with roof and pitched windows). He discusses algorithms in player-analysis software, the science behind improving athletes’ sleep. "All that stuff British Cycling gets praised for — microscopic detail, marginal gains — Sam was doing it 10 years ago," a former assistant told Northcroft. Allardyce has been an innovator (he was the first coach to use 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League). And he’s been a success — improving the league position of every club managed, even his supposed failure, Newcastle.

Yet critics don’t want to hear that and they don’t want to hear Allardyce, as can be his wont, expressing confidence in his abilities. "If Mourinho says it, you all speak about it in the highest esteem. It’s him talking about himself again and isn’t he good? But if a Midlander talks about it, with his Midlands accent that he’s nearly lost, he gets berated," muses Allardyce. He still harbours dreams of England, "though you can see Roy’s going to be there quite a while. But the desire to win, the desire to do as well as I possibly can in my career, is never relinquished." The Big Sam dichotomy — the man who thinks outside the box yet has the old values of English management running through his core — is something not everyone gets. But West Ham, promoted and made a competitive Premier League unit within 18 months of his arrival, feel the benefits. "Obviously with the football side going well as well, it has been a really good two years," he says with uncharacteristic understatement. "And hopefully it will be more successful, building up to getting in that new Olympic Stadium. I think the fans will all be itching to get the season started again. When they see everybody coming back for pre-season, everyone starts looking forward to the start of the season. With great expectation, every club will be expected do better than they did last season."

While the pressure-filled Barclays Premier League is still a fortnight away, Big Sam has been working tirelessly with the Board and his recruitment staff all summer, identifying and attempting to sign transfer targets. Four new players have already joined - Andy Carroll, Razvan Rat, Adrian and Danny Whitehead - while the Club have made no secret of their desire to bring in one more forward. Only today a signing the club were increasingly confident they had landed slipped agonizingly through the net. Yet, notes Northcroft, if there’s one area where Allardyce’s blend of originality and commonsense come together, it’s recruitment. Like Harry Redknapp, he’s a great assembler of squads. He keeps the right players (Mark Noble, Winston Reid); buys "pros" in key areas (Kevin Nolan, James Collins, Matt Jarvis); spots potential (Mohamed Diame, Mobido Maiga); and finds value in players others don’t even consider. Ricardo Vaz Te cost £500,000 from Barnsley and scored the £50m playoff final goal that returned West Ham to the Premier League. Joey O’Brien hadn’t played for Bolton in almost three years when he was released and then snapped up by Sam.

Moneyball? He knew all about that in 2001 when Mike Forde, his former performance director, went to America to investigate Billy Beane. "We started doing it: physical, psychological, technical and tactical; boxes players had to tick," explains Allardyce. "You work with what I call the ghosts of football, the scouts and analysts nobody sees. I don’t want to know what a player can’t do. What can he do? I’ll find other players for the other stuff. The biggest problem any manager has is recruitment. Half the time in this job you’re fighting to make sure you don’t sign the wrong players. Because everybody’s giving you players, all the time, every day of the week, in this ferocious transfer world."

It was, he states, a transfer that made him realise he’d made a good decision to work for David Sullivan and David Gold at Upton Park. "Steve [Bruce] is my best mate and he said, ‘You’ll have no problems’. They’re West Ham fans who want the same as me — to do well," says Allardyce. "The first thing was to bring a winning culture back to the club. Nolan was the central plank. We talked about Kevin and two days later it was done. Kev’s walking through the door and I’m like that [jaw hitting the floor]. Generally where I’ve been it’s been weeks and months [to complete signings], people putting up obstacles. Some clubs have transfer committees! With them [Sullivan and Gold] it was bosh, get in, deal done."

He needed his owners’ help in the previous transfer window when injuries had robbed Allardyce of seven leading players including Andy Carroll, out until the February and Diame who would return quicker than expected. Then, as now, Allardyce was looking "at players in Europe coming towards the end of their contracts and at loans" and to keep his midfield dynamo. "He won’t go anywhere. He likes it here," Allardyce says of Diame. "[His improvement] is down to the challenge he’s taken on. The size of a club demands a certain size of performance and we’re a sell-out club, with 35,000 people, great tradition. He’s responded. We changed his role [to attacking midfielder]. The ability he has to break through the opposition’s midfield is rare. Other players have to pass their way through. He has similar capabilities to Yaya Toure though, unbelievably, Manchester City don’t seem to be using those capabilities at the moment. That’s why West Ham fans love him — those long, penetrating, weavey runs. He gets into the positions so often that if we can work on the finishing and final pass we could be talking about a really top player."

That said, the manager is delighted that he has not had to overhaul his squad to the same extent that he did in the summers of 2011 and 2012. "It has been one of the quietest pre-seasons I've had for about eight years I'm glad to say," smiles Allardyce. "We have done some good business, obviously the Andy deal was the first one. We've got a new goalkeeper, Adrian, from Real Betis, who seems to be settling in very well. We've got Razvan Rat from a defensive point of view, so we're probably looking at securing one more player within the budget we've got available this summer. And hopefully that will make us a little bit better than last year. From our point of view, we have to look at everybody else's spending throughout the summer up until the deadline. Then we'll have a better idea of if the Premier League is going to be any stronger from last season and that's the challenge you have to face up to."

It is important, thinks Sam, that his squad make the same strong start that stood them so well last term. With home games against Cardiff and Stoke City and away matches at Newcastle United, Southampton and Hull City to begin, the manager believes the Hammers can put points on the board again in August and September. The caveat, he acknowledges, is an improvement on an away record that saw them win just three times in 19 games on the road last term. "Yes, they are [winnable games]. Our home form was the key to our success and our away form, in the end, wasn't very good, considering that when we got promoted the year before our away form was better than our home form. So it was quite strange from that point of view. The fixtures have been reasonably kind but there are no easy games in the Premier League as everybody knows. A good start for us like last season, we got 14 points out of the first eight games, is something that we need to target yet again if we want to be as good as we were last year. With that group of fixtures, not that I'm saying that they're easy, but if you started off with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City in the first eight, that would be difficult. But we haven't got that to begin with and we need that strong start yet again."

And West Ham’s potential? "I’d like to win a cup," admits Allardyce. "I’ve been in two semis and the Carling Cup final. That, for this club, is the target: sustain itself in the Premier League and, as the squad grows, start thinking about [winning cups]." A bigger prize lies beyond. Allardyce and his players have seen drawings of the football arena with retractable seats for 54,000-60,000 fans that West Ham intend at the Olympic stadium. "Awesome," Allardyce says. "We cannot let it become a white elephant. And the only way to fill it is by being an established Premier League football club by the time we get there. It would give the chance to create a new history for West Ham United, to be mega in Europe. It would demand more from the manager and players and that’s what the club has to build towards now. I’d love to be there but that’s a long time in the future, isn’t it?"

Which brings us back to that baffling Blackburn exit that has taught Allardyce not to look too far ahead. His contract with West Ham was due to expire this summer and it is true that renewal was wholly dependent on the club's survival. "It was all about being safe," he says. "But me and the Davids had always been talking about next season, as well as the transfer window; sort of talking as if the contract’s wasn't up. Ten years ago I’d have been panicking, now I don’t. I knew we needed to be safe or virtually safe ... and at that stage we would get down to negotiation." Allardyce natters about "unbelievable" experiences, as a young Bolton centre-half, of playing in a Fulham side featuring Bobby Moore. He might never be "West Ham enough" for ultra-diehards but his mix of the down-to-earth and aspirational chimes with the club.

"West Ham is like Newcastle," he feels. "The fans always turn out. They might not always be patient but they’ll always be there. And contrary to what people have said to me about 'the West Ham way', they want to win. They want passionate, committed players who give their best. They want entertaining football but most of all they want to win and at the end of the day you can’t hide behind a certain way of playing [to justify] failure." If Paris is a woman then London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub, noted Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler. With that Metropolitan Man sips his wine of choice (Saint Emilion: involved in a wine business run by Ryan Nelsen, Sam knows his stuff) and tucks into his food. It’s gourmet, observes Northcroft, but still pie and mash.

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