Monday, 23 February 2009

West Ham v Bolton (John Simkin)

It could be argued that fans of West Ham will only be convinced that we are on the right track when we manage to win at Bolton. So far we have never won at the Reebok Stadium and have only beaten Bolton away on one occasion in fifty years. Our last victory was at Burnden Park when Tony Cottee was on the score-sheet. As we were unbeaten away from home since October, and Bolton had only won once in seven games, this seemed to be the game that was going to change the record books.

Optimism grew when it was announced that Cole was fit enough to play. Jonathan Spector came in for the suspended Lucas Neill but there was still no place for our record signing, Nsereko Savio. At the time we were told that the Ugandan-born, German striker was a replacement for Bellamy. It now becomes clear that Zola sees David Di Michele as Cole’s strike-partner with Savio coming on as a wide-midfield player late in the game.

Bolton has one of the best records in the division for scoring in the first fifteen minutes of a game. One would have expected the West Ham team to be prepared for the onslaught. However, they were slow to start and Collison sloppily gave away a free-kick when he brought down Mark Davies in the 10th minute. Green was poorly positioned and Taylor beautifully curled his effort over the wall and just below the cross-bar.

West Ham lost the ball in their next attack and Kevin Davies managed to get his head to a hopeful ball forward. Elmander kept control of the ball up before crossing it across the 18-yard-box. It broke nicely for Davies whose first time strike flew past Green’s outstretched right-hand.

A few minutes later, an attempted sliding-tackle by Collins left the tall central defender writhing in pain. Zola must have realized it was not going to be his day as he watched Collins being stretched off for what appeared to be a bad hamstring injury.

However, from this point on, West Ham dominated the match and had enough chances to win the game comfortably. Bolton kept a high-line based on the position of Cole. A team playing this way is always vulnerable to late runs from other players. Several times Di Michele was caught offside when he failed to time his run properly but in the 35th minute Cole made a clever reverse pass and Noble managed to beat the off-side trap. Noble only had the goalkeeper to beat but inexplicably he decided to square the ball back to a group of players trying to get into the Bolton penalty area. The pass was intercepted but it bounced back to Noble whose attempted lob was knocked over the bar by Jaaskelainen.

A few minutes later Noble hit a superb long pass that enabled Di Michele to beat the off-side trap for a second time. As Di Michele closed in on Jaaskelainen he decided against the easy option of passing the ball past the goalkeeper. Instead he tried to curve it around him with the outside of his foot. However, he got it terribly wrong and the ball sailed well-wide of the far post. It was nearly as bad as his miss against Middlesbrough. In many ways it was even worse because this time he failed to score because he was trying to show off his skills.

At the beginning of the second-half West Ham forced an early corner. Tomkins, who was proving himself an able deputy in both penalty areas, got his head to Noble’s corner. Cole adjusted his jump to send the ball towards the goal but it was cleared from just under the bar by a Bolton defender.

Admirably led by Scott Parker, the Hammers had nearly total control of the midfield. We all know what a great defensive player Parker is but against Bolton he also passed the ball well. It was no real surprise that the terrier midfielder was the instigator of West Ham’s goal. In the 66th minute he ran with the ball out of defence. Cole failed to control the forward pass and it ran loose to Spector on the right-wing. Parker ran past Cole and arrived in the penalty area to knock the full-back’s accurate cross into the net.

Eight minutes later Parker made another penetrating run into the box. He was brought down by Ricardo Gardner but the referee played the advantage rule as the ball ran free to Di Michele who once again faced an open goal. Instead of hitting it first-time he decided to show off his skills by taking the ball around the goalkeeper. He did this successfully but by this time two Bolton defenders were back on the line and his weak shot was easily blocked by Gary Cahill.

Di Michele might have been a great player in his prime. However, he is definitely not a replacement for Bellamy. After the game Zola told Sky that Di Michele had promised to make it up to his manager by scoring two goals in his next game. Given the loyal way that Zola looks after Di Michele, it would not surprise me if the Italian forward is given another chance against Middlesbrough in next weeks cup tie.

I had been hoping that Zola would have brought on Sears at half-time. But he left him on the bench. On the hour mark Zola did at last bring on Savio. However, it was to replace Collison rather than Di Michele. Sears did not enter the fray until the 85th minute. Even so, it was for Spector, and so the young striker again had to play out of position. Sears must be feeling terribly frustrated by the way he is being treated by Zola. At the moment he is not being given a fair chance to show what he can do. I would not be surprised to see him picketing outside Upton Park with a placard saying: “Equal opportunities for English jobs”.

West Ham had 62.3% possession of the ball and their dominance was reflected by their 13 corners and 18 shots on the Bolton goal. However, this is meaningless when you have difficulty in scoring. It is now apparently clear that Zola made a terrible mistake in not replacing Bellamy with a proven goalscorer.

Player Ratings

Green: At fault for the first goal and had little to do after we went 2-0 down (5)

Spector: Far more assured that Neill and provided Parker with an excellent pass for the goal. (7)

Collins: Was taken off after only 15 minutes so it is unfair to give him a rating.

Upson: Bruising battle with Kevin Davies. (6)

Ilunga: Couple of good attacking runs but was caught out of position for the second goal. (6)

Behrami: Spector did not need the kind of protection usually provided for Neill. Fairly quiet game and did not look like he had fully recovered from his injury. (5)

Parker: Probably his best game for the club. A captain who leads from the front, he totally controlled the midfield. We all know what a great defensive player Parker is but against Bolton he also passed the ball well. (9)

Noble: A return to form and a great pass to set-up Di Michele in the 39th minute. However, his decision to pass when put through by Cole was inexplicable. (7)

Collison: Seemed to lose his confidence after giving away the free-kick that led to the first-goal. (6)

Cole: An impressive performance considering he did not train all week. Unfortunately, all the good chances fell to his fellow striker. (7)

Di Michele: Missed the best two chances of the game. He rejected the easy options in order to show off the skills that he has apparently lost. (4)


Nsereko (61 minutes): Couple of nice touches but it is not easy to come on and make an impact. Would like to see what he can do when he starts a game. (6)

Tomkins (16th minute): Never looked in trouble after coming on for the injured Collins. I am sure he will become a regular first-team player next season. (7)

Sears: (85 minutes): Sears must be feeling terribly frustrated by the way he is being treated by Zola. At the moment he is not being given a fair chance to show what he can do.

Monday, 16 February 2009

West Ham v Middlesbrough (John Simkin)

In my report on the Arsenal game I argued that the real test will be when Zola is forced to make changes to a team that was performing well. I raised doubts about the quality of the players in the squad who will need to come in if anyone gets injured.

In the game against Middlesbrough, Zola was forced to replace Behrami with Boa Morte. This was a strange decision since he could have called upon Savio. I know he is untried at this level but surely this would have been a better option than Boa Morte, who has shown time and time again that he can no longer deliver the goods in the premier league.

The inclusion of Boa Morte considerably weakened our midfield, as over the last few weeks, Behrami has played a vital role in winning the ball from the opposition. Boa Morte is not only very poor as this task, he consistently gives the ball away and even against a very moderate Middlesbrough side, we found ourselves for long periods without the ball.

To make matters worse, Cole injured his left ankle early in the match and was virtually a passenger before he was eventually taken off in the 33rd minute. Therefore, for most of the game we were without two of our key players.

West Ham started off badly and a mistake by Collison and a poor clearance from Upson led to Johnson shooting just wide. This was followed by a period where the Hammers had difficulty keeping hold of the ball. In the 10th minute Di Michele was easily brushed off the ball by Digard and his cross found Downing, whose shot from 25 yards out flashed wide of Green's left post.

After good work from Collison in the 16th minute, Noble attempted to curl the ball past Jones but it instead went straight to the goalkeeper. A couple of minutes later Noble had a much better effort tipped around the post. The corner led to a second and from that a powerful drive by Collins forced Jones to make another good save.

It seemed it was just a matter of time before the Hammers took the lead but after a Middlesbrough breakaway, O’Neil put in a great cross that just escaped Collins and Downing arrived late to head in at the far post.

With Cole a passenger, it was left to Di Michele to lead the fight-back. In the 24th minute he cleverly flicked the ball over Digard head before volleying from the edge of the box, but it flew just wide of Jones' left post. On occasions like this he looks like a good acquisition, however, for most of the time he struggles to cope with the speed and power of the English game.

Just after the half-hour mark Di Michele was joined by another foreign import that seems well past his sell-by date. It is difficult to see what Diego Tristan has to offer the team. He rarely beat the Middlesbrough central defenders in the air and his first touch is lamentable. He is a ponderous runner with the ball and panics when in sight of the goal.

Despite the weakness of our strikers, the West Ham midfield drove the team forward and in the 38th minute Boa Morte managed to find a teammate with a pass. Noble miss-hit the ball 12 yards out, but a deflection made the save difficult for Jones, who could only push the ball weakly into the path of Collison, who instead of passing it to an unmarked Di Michelle standing in front of the goal, he wildly shot over the bar.

Just before half-time a Middlesbrough free-kick resulted in a quick breakaway. Di Michele’s path was blocked and he carefully teed it up for the late-arriving Tristan. It looked like a certain goal but Tristan visibly panicked and he blasted the ball well over the bar.

James Collins later said: “We were shocking in the first half, terrible, the worst we’ve been for a long time. We’ve been playing so well and to go out and perform like that we were speechless at half-time.”

Scott Parker and Mark Noble both had games where they failed to dominate the midfield. It was Stewart Downing, who abandoned his usual winger’s role on the left, to play just behind Afonso Alves, that was the influential player on the pitch. Despite the fact that we played so badly, we could, and should, have been 3-1 up at the break.

In the 48th minute Zola brought on Sears for Boa Morte. After the game Zola said that: “The first 50 minutes was the worst we have played recently… Their bodies were there, but their minds sometimes weren’t… It was not near our standards. After that we picked up a bit.” I disagree. Unfortunately, the arrival of Sears did not make much difference to the performance of the team.

West Ham increasingly resorted to the long-ball game in the second-half. This was absurd as David Wheater won everything in the air. This is rarely a profitable strategy even when Carlton Cole is in the team. However, with Diego Tristan playing up front, it bordered on the ridiculous. For the first time since the game against Spurs on 8th December, the Hammers began to look desperate.

It was not until the 72nd minute that West Ham created their next chance. Illunga, who was West Ham’s best attacker, overlapped on the left and after reaching the byline he crossed to the unmarked Di Michele, who faced with an open goal, scooped the ball over the bar from eight yards out. It was probably the team’s worse miss of the season.

This was immediately followed by Zola bringing on Savio for the disappointing Noble. Although his passes are not always accurate, Savio does everything at speed and he helps to create a sense of urgency. He is also a great deliverer of crosses and his corners were a marked improvement on those provided by Noble.

In the 81st minute O’Neil used his hand to stop the ball reaching Savio. After the booking of O’Neil, the Ugandan-born, German striker, whipped in a dangerous free-kick that was missed by the big men on the edge of the penalty area and Ilunga, running-in behind, headed home from close-range.

The confidence of the Middlesbrough team seeped away but despite the pressure from the revitalized Hammers, they could only manage one more shot and that was from Sears who fired over from the edge of the box.

After the game, Zola said “Boro were organized and caused as problems. It is a good lesson for us.” He then added: “I am delighted for Ilunga. There are not many full-backs in the league better than him.” There is no doubt that Ilunga is one of the best loan signings of the season. However, on the few occasions we have seen him, Diego Tristan, seems to fall into a very different category altogether.

Player Ratings

Green: Made some excellent saves from Downing and Alves. (7)

Neill: For the first time in several games he was not targeted by the opposition. Benefited by the fact that Downing played in the centre instead of wide left. (6)

Collins: At fault for the goal but was generally solid. (6)

Upson: A poor clearance in the opening minutes led to Johnson shooting just wide. After that, he comfortable dealt with Alves. (6)

Ilunga: His overlapping on the left caused constant problems for the Middlesbrough defence. Capped off a fine performance with the equalizing goal. (8)

Collison: Lively as always but it was a terrible miss in the 38th minute. (6)

Parker: A very quiet afternoon for a player who usually dominates midfield. (5)

Noble: Another disappointing performance from a player who could be carrying an injury. (5)

Boa Morte: Tried hard as usual but is still to achieve the standards he regularly showed at Fulham. His passing was extremely poor. The worst moment was when he was under no pressure at all he passed the ball to the centre of a group of three Middlesbrough players. (4)

Di Michele: Showed some nice touches but is still too easily knocked off the ball. Probable the miss of the season when he blazed over in the 72nd minute. (6)

Cole: Injured early on and it was foolish to keep him on the pitch for so long. (5)


Tristan (35th): He rarely beat the Middlesbrough central defenders in the air and his first touch is lamentable. He is a ponderous runner with the ball and panics when in sight of the goal. (4)

Sears (49th): Fairly lively but unfortunately none of the real chances came to him. Needs to play from the beginning if he is to show what he can do. (6)

Savio (74th): Despite the injury to Behrami he was left on the bench. He was also ignored when Cole had to come off and he was only given the last 16 minutes to show what he could do. A good dead ball kicker, his corners were a marked improvement on those provided by Noble. Provided the cross for Illunga’s equalizing goal. (7)

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Zola’s Management Style: The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

It soon became clear that in post-match interviews that Zola is not the sort of manager that criticized his team in public. At first I found this slightly irritating, especially when he insisted that his team had played well, when clearly this had not been the case. In recent weeks this approach has become much more acceptable as Zola post-match comments have mirrored reality.

It is true that most managers do not criticize individual players about their performances. Harry Redknapp’s comments about Darren Bent after the game against Portsmouth was considered to be fairly unusual and received a great deal of attention in the media. With 10 minutes left and the score at 1-1, Bent headed wide from six yards. Redknapp said: "You will never get a better chance to win a match than that. My missus could have scored that one. Bent did not only have part of the goal to aim for, but he had the entire net - and he put it wide. Unbelievable."

It is hard to believe that outburst like this actually improve the performance of a player. Nor did it help the confidence of Hull City players when Phil Brown conducted his half-time team talk against Manchester City on the pitch with the team railing 4-0. He defended himself against his critics by claiming: “It was the right thing to do. There is no doubt about it. I have got no regrets about it whatsoever. If it bruised one or two egos then so be it, although it wasn't intended to be that way... Hopefully, the mentality of the group will be stronger for the experience.” This defence of his “public humiliation” strategy is not helped by the fact that Hull City have not won a game since this incident took place.

Coaching football players is like any form of teaching. The main objective is to improve the performance of the individual. A lot of research has been carried out into discovering the most effective methods of educating young people. These methods fall into two main categories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Or in football coaching terms, “putting your arm around a player” or “kicking him up the backside”. It is often claimed that good managers know the right-time to use either of these two strategies. However, the research suggests that it is positive reinforcement that is far and away the most effective way of improving the student’s performance.

Of course, all teachers lose their temper and resort to negative reinforcement. They will try to justify this by saying that the students benefit from this behaviour. This is what Harry Redknapp and Phil Brown did after their outbursts. However, in reality, the reason they acted in this way was because they lost control of their emotions. It was relieving frustrations rather than applying logic to solving a problem.

Zola clearly is a believer in positive reinforcement. He concentrates on praising rather than criticizing behaviour. Great teachers treat each student as an individual that they honestly care about. This is clearly Zola’s approach. In a recent interview Jack Collison claimed that the recent improvement in his performances on the pitch is a result of one-on-one tuition from Zola.

Interviews with other players such as Carlton Cole and Matthew Upson reveal that Zola spends a great deal of time building up player’s confidence.

It is no coincidence that everybody who has had any contact with Zola describes him as a “loveable” man. Zola has that fairly unique ability of making people feel good about themselves. That is because he praises rather than criticizes. In his everyday relationships he uses positive rather than negative reinforcement. So many people, especially those suffering from an inferiority complex, are more concerned with putting people down than raising them up.

Zola is not the first football coach/manager to use this approach. The greatest exponent in the use of positive reinforcement was Herbert Chapman. He used his extensive scouting network to identify young players with potential. Chapman would then watch them play and carry out an investigation into their personalities. When he was convinced that they had the necessary requirements he would go in and sign them.

In 1927 Eddie Hapgood was a 19 year-old playing for non-league Kettering Town. In his autobiography, Football Ambassador (1945), Hapgood describes meeting Chapman for the first time: “After a dozen games, Bill Collier, the Kettering manager, called me into his office and introduced me to a chubby man in tweeds, whose spectacles failed to hide the shrewd, appraising look from his blue eyes.”

After he had confirmed that he did not smoke or drink, Chapman signed him for Arsenal. The following day, Chapman told Hapgood he was going to make him the best left-back in England. Like Zola, Chapman and his trainer, Tom Whittaker, went in for one-to-one tuition. Gradually, they built up his confidence until he was the best left-back in the country, illustrated by the fact that he played 30 times for England.

Chapman told everyone he signed that he was going to make them the best player in that position in the country. He even told Whittaker, who was forced to give up the game because of a serious leg injury, that he was going to make him the best trainer in the world.

In May 1929 Chapman signed the 17 year old Cliff Bastin from Exeter City for £2,000. Bastin did not initially want to leave Devon but was persuaded by Chapman's manner: "There was an aura of greatness about Chapman. I was impressed with him straight away. He possessed a cheery self-confidence, which communicated itself to those around him. This power of inspiration and the remarkable gift of foresight, which never seemed to desert him, were his greatest attributes."

As Stephen Studd pointed out in Herbert Chapman: Football Emperor (1981): "He (Chapman) set great store by what he regarded as the dignity of the athlete, treating his players as human beings instead of mere paid servants, which was how most other players were regarded elsewhere."

Chapman also rarely made changes to the team. Even when individual players were in poor form he was reluctant to drop them. According to Chapman it was a matter of confidence and he saw it as his job to build up self-belief in his players. That is why he always criticised supporters if they barracked one of his players. "When they (team changes) are necessary I try to arrange that they cause as little disturbance as possible." Drastic changes only unsettled the players and if the side was not playing well, "the moderate course is always the best".

Jack Lambert was one of the players who was often barracked by the Highbury crowd. Chapman was furious and proposed that barrackers should be thrown out of the ground if they did not respond to an appeal for fairness over the loud-speaker. Lambert, very much like Carlton Cole, and only scored one goal in his first sixteen appearances. However, Chapman refused to lose confidence in him, despite only getting 4 goals in 22 games the following season.

Herbert Chapman gave Lambert another opportunity to show him what he could do by giving him a good run in the 1929-30 season. This time he did well and scored 18 goals in 20 appearances. After that, there was no stopping him and by the time he had left the club he had the excellent record of 109 league and cup goals in 159 appearances.

Chapman was not always successful in persuading the Highbury crowd to lay off his players. He later admitted that Arsenal crowd destroyed the confidence of one young player. The 20 year-old player told Chapman: "I'm no use to anyone in football and I had better get out. The crowd are always getting at me... I hope I shall never kick a ball again." Chapman eventually allowed the young man to leave the club "though it meant sacrificing a player who, I was convinced, had exceptional possibilities of development".

Chapman’s methods brought great success and his teams won the First Division championship six times with two different clubs before he died in 1934 at the early age of 56.

Let us hope that Zola’s methods also brings the same success as achieved by Herbert Chapman.

West Ham v Manchester United (John Simkin)

The newspaper reports of the game against Manchester United will do doubt be dominated by the activities of their aging stars. The 35-year-old Ryan Giggs will rightly be praised for scoring in every Premier League season since the competition's inaugural campaign of 1992-93. Edwin van der Sar will also dominant the headlines with his 13th consecutive clean sheet in the league that sets a new British record.

The hacks will also go on about how the league leaders and arguably the best football team of the world were below their best. This is what they did when the Hammers achieved draws against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. It seems to be beyond the logic of these journalists that teams are only as good as they are allowed to be. Despite the fact that they had an attack that included Ronaldo, Giggs, Tevez, Berbatov and Ronaldo, Green only had one save to make.

After the game, Gianfranco Zola said: "It was a close match. Unfortunately for us they have some great players and if you make a mistake they punish you." In truth, the goal followed a series of small errors that resulted in Green being beaten for the first time in 400 minutes.

In the 61st minute a harmless lob forward caused confusion between Collins and Neill and the former gave away a needless corner. Upson headed-out Giggs corner to Noble who tried to set-up a quick counter-attack. He lost the ball to Vidic, and the ball broke to Paul Scholes. Meanwhile, the rest of the defence had moved forward to catch United’s forwards offside. However, Neill walked rather than ran, and he played Giggs on, who gratefully received a delightful cross-field pass from Scholes.

With Neill rooted to the spot, Carlton Cole made a dash for Giggs. Unfortunately, instead of holding-up Giggs, he dived in and he veteran winger coolly side-stepped him and headed for the penalty area. Parker had also sensed the danger and he raced towards Giggs. He anticipated that Giggs would move the ball to his favoured left-foot, however, he saw Parker’s intended tackle and moved to his right. Behrami, who obviously expected Parker to stop Giggs in his tracks, failed to close him down and he was able to send a right-foot shot through a crowd of players and past Green into the bottom corner of the net.

Six small mistakes and two great pieces of skill caused the Hammers to be beaten by a single goal. However, it should not be forgotten that for the game was evenly matched. Upson and Collins restricted Tevez and Berbatov to the odd long-range shot.

Ilunga and Collison ably defended the left-flank and both Ronaldo and Giggs were forced to try their luck on the opposite wing. Here they found Behrami in inspired form and his protection of Neill was outstanding. His importance to the defensive set-up was illustrated when he was replaced by Diego Tristan in the 88th minute. Within sixty seconds Ronaldo took on Neill who stuck out a leg and brought the winger down. Dowd took pity on the hapless full-back and waved away his rightful claim for a penalty.

Carlton Cole posed a constant threat to Ferdinand and Vidic. In the 13th minute Cole ran onto an excellent through-ball from Noble. Ferdinand struggled to match his pace and was forced to hold onto his arm. Cole, unbalanced by Ferdinand’s tug attempted to lob the goalkeeper. This is a difficult thing to do against a tall goalkeeper like Edwin van der Sar and he was able to make a comfortable save. Most observers will claim that Cole should have hit the ball as hard as he could, but with Ferdinand holding onto him he would have found it virtually impossible to get any real power behind the shot.

Cole was even more impressive in the second-half. One moment in particular stands out in my mind. In the 59th minute Cole received the ball 30 years from goal. Even though Vidic had hold of his shirt, Cole was still strong enough to turn the central defender. With Cole heading for the United penalty area, Vidic decided to take a yellow-card by hauling him to the ground.

The problem for Cole is that he received very little support from Di Michele. Although the Italian was neat and tidy and successfully found his teammates with 29 of his 37 passes, he never posed a threat to the United defence. In fact, according to the Guardian’s chalkboard analysis, he only made one successful forward pass throughout the game. The other passes went either sideways or backwards.

According to Kevin McCarra: “The United method is to exhaust teams and then defeat them. There is such confidence in the passing that the opposition's lungs burn as they chase after the ball that is being withheld from them.” That never worked against West Ham who now seem to be one of the fittest teams in the league.

Savio came on for Noble in the 76th minute. One of the problems of bringing him on late is that he tries too hard to impress. Instead of keeping it simple he tries ambitious passes that at the moment are not coming off. As a result four of his fourteen passes did not reach a teammate. Hopefully, he will be given the opportunity to start in the game against Middlesbrough. With Neill playing in Japan for Australia on Wednesday, it might be a good idea to give him a rest for next week’s game.

Green: Good reaction save when Scholes shot that was going wide was diverted by Ronaldo. Had no chance with Giggs’ goal. (7)

Neill: Nearly 25% of his passes went astray but did manage to get two shots on target. (6)

Collins: Managed to get in the way of most things thrown at him (8)

Upson: Along with Collins kept Berbatov and Tevez fairly quiet. (8)

Ilunga: His reputation goes before him and Giggs and Ronaldo spent their time working on Neill’s failings. (7)

Behrami: Another all-action performance who provided excellent cover for Neill. The danger of Ronaldo meant he could make few forages upfield.

Parker: Exemplary game except for the failed tackle against Giggs that led to the goal. (8)

Noble: Lovely pass to Cole offered West Ham best chance of scoring. However, overall, his passing was not up to his normal standard with a 25% failure-rate. (6)

Collison: Doubled-up with Illunga against Giggs and still found time to help the attack. (8)

Friday, 6 February 2009

West Ham United: The Making of a Football Club by Charles P. Korr

In 1970, I became an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri, an institution that was only seven years old at that time. My teaching responsibilities included advanced level and M. A. courses in Tudor-Stuart England and 17th century Europe. One of the many advantages of being in a new, and growing, department was the chance to develop new courses and get away from the traditional syllabus. In 1972, I organized a very successful conference dealing with the role that sports played in contemporary American society. Two things about it stand out in my mind – the range of serious non-sports issues that were discussed and that I got to be Jackie Robinson’s host for two days. It’s a great thrill to see that the heroes of one’s youth can be even better people that one imagines. Three years later, I started teaching a social history of sports course, one of the first taught in any department of history at an American university.

As a result of the conference, I tried to do some serious reading about sports (especially football) in English society and was very disappointed to see how little there was at that time. That’s when I decided to see if I could start research of my own on the subject. I was returning to England in the summer, 1973 and wrote the secretaries of all the London League clubs to ask if I could talk with them about a possible subject for my research. I got invitations to visit all but two clubs and I met with the secretaries of seven of them. My original plan was to do a social history of football in London after 1945. When I realized that was too big a subject, I decided to focus on one club. Since I wanted a club that had a distinctive, recognizable community, I limited the final choice to West Ham United and Charlton.

It’s no exaggeration to say that my career and my life were changed by an afternoon I spent at Upton Park in July, 1973. I was with Eddie Chapman, the club secretary for a couple of hours. The club had a history that would make it a perfect study for me. Eddie was enthusiastic about the idea and convinced Reg Pratt, the chairman, to help me. I ended up with a historian’s treasure trove. I got free access to all of the club’s financial records and the minute books of meetings from 1895 to 1970. When I began the research in 1974, it was the start of a new career, an involvement for me with both the club and football, and the beginning of friendships that last to this day. I have to emphasize that I did not choose West Ham because I was a fan. The dynamic was just the opposite. I became a fan because I got involved with the club and the people around it. I worked at the club for months over three summers before I saw my first match there in 1976. Over the years, I got to know remarkable people like Eddie, John Lyall, Ron Greenwood, Frank O’Farrell, other former players and a number of long time supporters. I interviewed scores of former players, club officials, and journalists.

Over the years, the club has offered me hospitality and I get to a few matches each autumn. One thrill was to attend the 1980 Cup Final and to be able to buy a ticket for my friend and mentor, S. T. Bindoff. It was his second Cup Final, the first one being in 1923. At that match, I sat behind Jimmy Ruffell, the West Ham winger in 1923.

From the time I got involved with the research in football, I had a couple of things that marked me as unusual in the minds of Englishmen and women who learned of my work – I had no background in football and I had an accent that made clear I was “that Yank who wants to write about West Ham.” I’m sure those peculiarities brought me to the attention of other academics who did research in football and other aspects of British and European sports. When I decided to do all my academic research in the field of sport history, there were very few academics involved in it. Thirty years later, the field has a solid academic base, even though some of the academic snobbery towards “it’s only sports” remains.

My West Ham United book was published in 1986 and went through four editions. I had a wonderful publisher in Colin Haycroft at Duckworth, but he made one small mistake. They let the book go out of print in 1994, the year before the centenary of the club when it was boasting that it was the “club with a special history”.

Charles Korr

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Success and Conservatism: The Manager’s Dilemma

In his book “The Mackericks English Football When Flair Wore Flares” (1994), Rob Steen suggested that winning the World Cup in 1966 was the worst thing that could have happened to English football because “it established deep in the English footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsay’s side was the only way to achieve success”. Steen was making the important point that the problem with success is that it breeds conservatism.

In his brilliant book, “Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics” (2008), Jonathan Wilson argues that really great managers in the past never allowed themselves to become conservative football managers. Wilson provides a short-list of these managers that includes two Scotsman, Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson. It is no coincidence that these two great managers were brought up in working-class areas by parents who were active socialists. They grew up in a tradition that believed in the need for permanent revolution. The same could also be said of Brian Clough, another manager who constantly reminded people of his socialist beliefs.

The main point about great managers is that they are never satisfied with success. This is what gives Ferguson such an advantage over Arsene Wenger, who sticks rigidly to a formula that in the past brought success. Ferguson carefully analyzes every match and even when his club is winning easily, he will still make changes if he observes a weakness in his team. The vast majority of managers cannot do this. They will only replace players when their individual mistakes have resulted in the team dropping points. In other words, the great manager takes pre-emptive action.

There is no doubt that Zola and Clarke have done a great job so far at the club. Since losing to Spurs on 8th December, West Ham’s form has been very consistent, winning six, drawing three and losing only once (rather unluckily against Aston Villa). It has been a tremendous effort when you consider the quality of the players in the team. I would argue that if you studied the squads of all the premiership clubs, West Ham is the most over-achieving side in the league. In the language of an Ofsted inspection, Zola and Clarke are providing “added-value”.

Despite this good run I have observed two serious problems that needed to be addressed in the transfer window. First of all, in every game, the opposition targets Lucas Neill as the team’s weak-link. This could be seen in the game against Arsenal on Saturday. Samir Nasri causing a great deal of panic in the opening stages with his pace down the left flank. Valon Behrami did what he could to help Neill but there is little he can do when the full-back gives the ball away, as he does on numerous occasions. This problem is reflected in the statistics. So far this season Neill has an average rating of 6.10. This is the lowest rating of any first-team regular. There is nothing new in this. Last season Neill had an averaging rating of 6.06, also the worst figure anyone who played over 30 games.

The problem for Zola is that the only squad member who he has so far considered to play at right-back other than Neill, is Julian Faubert, who has an average rating of 5.65 this season. As there has been talk for sometime that Faubert would leave during the transfer window, it is strange that the club has not lined-up anyone to take his place. It seems that the club had been talking to Bryce Moon and Radiu Homei, but Scott Duxbury failed to conclude either deal. As both players have struggled to get in their club’s first-team, it is hard to see how they would have added much to the current squad.

The second problem concerns the first-team pool of players. It has often been said that one way you can accurately judge a team is by looking at the quality on the bench. On Saturday, the West Ham bench consisted of Lastuvka, Lopez, Savio, Boa Morte, Spector, Tristan and Sears. It is hard to think of any other premiership side that has a weaker group of players waiting to be called into the first-team.

I am sure that Zola and Clarke have identified these two problems. The only answer is that West Ham does not have any money to buy or take players on loan. It would seem that they do not think enough of Lopez or Spector to start them in games or even bring them on as substitutes. One possibility is to coach Tomkins to play in this position. Last season Curbishley had Tomkins playing at full-back in a couple of reserve games.

I believe that Zola has already done enough this season to suggest that he has the potential to be extremely successful in this terribly difficult profession. However, he has so far been very lucky with injuries. The quality of the current squad means that Zola has no chance this season to show that he has the potential to reach the standards of managers such as Shankly, Clough and Ferguson.

John Simkin

Sunday, 1 February 2009

West Ham v Arsenal (John Simkin)

Two years ago, when West Ham became the first visiting team to win at the Emirates, Robert Green was in outstanding form. This time Arsenal only managed three shots on target and two of these were straight at the goalkeeper. The Hammers have now drawn at Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal and Steve Clarke, speaking after the game rightly pointed out that: "It's very important for the players' confidence to come to these places and get a draw. There has been significant progress from October."

However, the game once again highlighted problems that have not been completely solved by the Zola/Clarke regime. As always, the opposition targeted Lucas Neill. Samir Nasri causing a great deal of panic in the opening stages with his pace down the left flank. Valon Behrami did what he could to help Neill but there is little he can do when the full-back gives the ball away in dangerous positions.

Even against a team like Arsenal, Neill loves to go forward and there are times when he can actually deliver a dangerous ball into the opposition half. The problem is that he is extremely slow to get back when the attack breaks-down. The sight of him jogging or walking back to his position during a counter-attack increases my blood-pressure. This is in direct contrast to Illunga, who is just as fast going back as he is going forward.

The other major problem concerns the substitutes. For example, Noble was in poor form and as well as badly directed passes he was rarely able to get forward to support Cole and Di Michele. I suspect that he had not fully recovered from the knock he got on Wednesday and it was no real surprise when he was brought off in the 72nd minute. However, his replacement was Savio, a striker, who had to play in the centre of midfield. As it happens he did a fine job and I felt the team performed better after his introduction, but it does highlight the need for more options on the bench. So far this season we have not had too many injuries to first-team players, but if our luck changes, with the current squad, we are going to struggle to maintain our position in the top half of the league. I know we will have Radoslav Kovac available next week but we still need a couple more defenders, especially a high-quality right-back.

Clarke’s summary of the game was fairly accurate: "It's always difficult when you come here against a team who pass so well, you have to be disciplined and do the right things. Maybe I'm disappointed we didn't do more with the ball, but today was more a defensive performance. We came here with the intention of playing as we have been playing recently and didn't concede too many clear-cut chances which was pleasing.”

What he did not say was that West Ham gave the ball away too much against Arsenal. When this happens against a quality team, it takes you sometime to get the ball back. This is reflected in the stats with the Hammers only achieving a 75.6% pass completion compared to the 81.2% achieved against Hull. The 37% possession figure was also not very impressive.

Clarke was right to point out that it was a good defensive performance and Collins, Upson, Parker, Illunga, Collison and Behrami all had impressive games. Although Green only had to save two shots (Collins headed the other off the line), eleven were blocked by West Ham defenders.

Cole, closely marshaled by Toure and Gallas, had few opportunities but still managed to get two shots on target, which was only one less than the whole of the Arsenal team managed. Di Michele was very disappointing and was unable to hold onto the ball against a tough-tackling midfield. This was to be expected but it would have been very difficult for Zola to have dropped him after his great performance against Hull. Only the really great managers have the confidence to do that sort of thing.

West Ham have shown that they are capable of getting draws away from home against top clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Next Sunday they have the opportunity to prove themselves against the best team in the league. Hopefully, Zola will play Savio alongside Cole in the game against Manchester United. I would also like to see him take a chance in playing Tomkins at right-back but I suspect Zola will opt for incompetence over inexperience.

Player Ratings

Green: Little to do but a poor punch at a corner resulted in Collins having to head the ball of the line. (6)

Neill: Given a torrid time against Samir Nasri. Also gave the ball away several times. (5)

Collins: Put his body in the way of numerous shots on target. Also headed off the line when Green found himself out of his goal. (8)

Upson: Another commanding performance from someone who fully deserves his place in the England squad. (8)

Ilunga: Was not able to go forward as often as normal but rarely looked like he was going to be beaten in defensive positions. (7)

Behrami: Spent most of the match covering for Neill and therefore made very few offensive breaks. One of the most important players in the side at the moment. (8)

Parker: Another inspiring performance from the man who controls everything in the centre of midfield. (8)

Noble: Well below his best. Distribution was poor and he gave very little support to Di Michele and Cole. I suspect he had not recovered from the knock he took against Hull. (6)

Collison: Except for a couple of poor passes in advanced positions, he had another highly promising game. (7)

Cole: Closely marked by Toure and Gallas he had few opportunities but still managed to get two shots on target. (6)

Di Michele: Found it difficult to get in the game and was fairly anonymous until he was taken off near the end. (5)