I love the way football plays with your emotions and sensibilities. Take a bog standard 1-0 win, for example (assuming you can remember such a thing!); There are 90 minutes plus stoppage time to put the ball into the net and it counts exactly the same if the goal is scored in the first minute or the last and, on paper at least, tells exactly the same story. But in the stadium it’s so different.
That first minute goal could herald a bit of early pressure and then a frustrating afternoon searching for a second or an early break against the run of the rest of the game in a backs-to-the-wall defensive fight that could shred your nerves. On the other hand, a last minute counter could indicate a lucky win or a well-deserved break for an afternoon of solid pressure and missed chances. Similarly, your emotions – relief, joy, frustration, pain – can all be played out by the timing of the goal. Think of any win that has come about as a result of a last minute goal and remember how that felt.
So it is with the league. A bad start always sticks with you no matter where you finish. 'If only we’d taken a point or two from the first four games’ we think as we look at the teams above us. But we’ve all seen how a good start can lead to misplaced confidence – witness how many promoted sides fall away in the second half of the season. It’s an age old cliché admittedly but sometimes you really do need to stand back and see the bigger picture.
I still find it hard to reconcile how I felt on the opening day of last season when the Hammers got an immediate away win that wasn’t reproduced again during the whole campaign. On the other hand those three points made a helluva lot of difference when it came down to the dogfight in May.
So I won’t pretend I’m happy with the start West Ham have made this year but I am prepared to keep the powder dry until I can see where it goes from here. After all there are a many types of bad starts as there are 1-0 wins. One indicates you’ve got problems and you never really recover – most of us would have put a mortgage on Portsmouth last season before a ball had even been kicked – but another gives the Manager a chance to iron out a few issues and spot weaknesses that only new personnel can solve before gradually turning it round. I’m banking on the latter at the moment.
Avram Grant’s not everybody’s cup of Earl Grey but those who complained about Zola’s lack of experience can hardly complain of Grant’s pedigree. Apart from anything else, aren’t we running out of options?
What concerns me more about Saturday’s result is the fact that the 3-1 defeat represents the seventh consecutive defeat we’ve had to suffer at the hands of Bolton. I mean, that’s SEVEN and BOLTON. “I wish it were a two-team league” quipped amusing Bolton boss Owen Coyle after the game (What a s**t league that would be, eh?). How embarrassing. Even allowing for having a bogey side that just doesn’t make sense and if you want to blame Grant and the two David’s for Saturday then what are we going to do about last season and the season before that and.... You can’t even blame the players really. When we started on that run of seven most of them weren’t even playing for us. I mean the only constant during that whole sequence of losses is us, the fans. So is it my fault or yours? Well it may be both, because none of us have told the coaching staff what we have all witnessed in those games; in short, Bolton bombard us with high balls our defence cannot cope with.
What I simply can’t get my head around is the fact that regardless of board, manager or players, West Ham seems doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again like some type of Buddhist football club. The argument against that is that eventually in Buddhism you’re supposed to correct your faults and attain Nirvana. We can’t even beat bloody Bolton let alone Nirvana.
Take the full-back position, for example. When Glenn Roeder took over from Harry we all feared the worst. OK the worst did arrive eventually I know, but don’t forget before that, Roeder took us to a very-respectable 6th place and who was the Hammer of the Year that season? One, Sebastian Schemmel who turned in a gargantuan season at full-back. The following year, in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries since Lord Lucan jumped on Shergar clutching Joanna Southcott’s box and disappeared, never to be seen again, into the sunset (Google it!) Schemmel went missing and West Ham stumbled to the brink of relegation before a young kid called Glen Johnson was called up from the Academy and results started to turn. Too late, unfortunately, but there’s no doubt had Johnson been introduced earlier in the season, Bolton would be playing Colchester by now.
The end of that season was so awful that most of us try to expunge it from our memory but it’s worth recalling that Johnson was snatched up before any of the other ‘Golden Generation’ and that included Joe Cole.
Now take 2006 when Koncheskey and Scaloni formed a solid full-back defensive unit. I mean, on paper, would you fancy our chances with Gabbidon and Ferdinand now? Yet, but for the lack of one defensive boot into the stand by the Argentinean, we would have won the FA cup that year.
It’s not as if it’s any great tactical revelation either. Full-backs can close down wide players and stop crosses coming in. If the number of crosses is cut-down, the central defenders can concentrate on marking the centre-forwards and the keeper knows better when to come out or not. Similarly, an attacking full-back can occupy a midfield player and create space in the middle. I’ve not got a Coaching badge but when you get headers like Elmander’s on Saturday, they nearly always result from wide crosses where the forward player is able to attack the ball. Football is a team game and if one or two players are ‘missing’ (of sorts) then the rest of the side suffers.
What is genuinely scary here is that you can virtually chart the rise and fall of West Ham by the full-backs. Whenever we’ve had good full-backs we’ve always done better while whenever we’ve struggled we haven’t and I’m not just talking over since the turn of the century or even the start of the Premier League, I’m talking decades here. Seriously, get out your football books and chart our success and failures and then correlate them with the players wearing No: 2 or 3 (showing my age there, I know, but you get my drift).
This is nonsense. If Avram Grant can find one or, better, two full-backs before Deadline Day then it will make all the difference to not only those positions but also to virtually all the other areas of the team. Quite why this hasn’t been done yet – does the coaching squad really think Faubert, Gabbidon, IIunga, Spector et al are the answer? – is a mystery. But it needs to be sorted now. The jury is out on Grant and his team at the moment. The best thing he can do is assemble a defence.