More farce than footwork

Imagine a club where there is more farce in the off-field antics than an average Carry On film, the dressing-room politics would shame ancient Rome and the back four appear to be the Keystone Cops of premiership defending.

Put it all together and you have the shambolic, upside-down world of West Ham United.

It is a strange, increasingly troubled place where the manager defends his star player for swearing at him in public and the chairman sends fans polite e-mails detailing which first teamers he blames for the ongoing chaos.

Amid such perversity, it seems inevitable that the caretaker boss chosen to oversee the club’s three most important games since joining the top flight a decade ago is not a proven motivator, such as George Graham, but is Trevor Brooking, an Upton Park legend turned television pundit. With no previous managerial experience, he made his debut in the dug-out in the recent win at Maine Road.

With the close season just a fortnight away, the Cockney club, who most neutrals can scarcely believe are in danger of the drop given their abundance of talent that includes five England personnel, seem to be heading for one of those tragic, acrimonious endings beloved of soap opera scriptwriters.

Relegation still looks inevitable, manager Glenn Roeder has spent the past week and a half in intensive care and Upton Park’s best squad of players in years will be sold in a desperate attempt to prevent the Hammers’ already-serious financial drama becoming a real crisis.

Frustrated fans who have spent the season demanding the board’s removal of Roeder are as baffled as they are angry at the incompetence that has engulfed their club, both on and off the pitch.

West Ham’s plight is one of the greatest mysteries in recent football history. How can a club that boasts talent such as Joe Cole, Jermaine Defoe, Trevor Sinclair, Freddie Kanoute and Paolo di Canio, operates one of the best youth systems in the country and in the past two-and-a-half years banked £29-million for the sale of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, be in such a sorry state, especially after finishing seventh last season?

The answers indict almost everyone at the club, from David James, the would-be England first-choice goalkeeper who this season has combined new peaks of brilliance with new depths of blundering, through the media-phobic chairman, Terence Brown, to whoever’s lack of foresight meant fans queuing to watch the beam-back of last month’s six-pointer from Bolton’s Reebok stadium didn’t gain entry to Upton Park until 3.30pm. Sad to say, they even include Roeder, the decent but ineffective boss who suffered a stroke soon after the 1-0 Easter Monday home win over Middlesbrough.

If West Ham are relegated, they will deserve it. Since August they have spent all but four weeks in the bottom three, have never been higher than fourteenth and have remained a constant presence in the drop zone since losing 4-3 at home to Leeds United on November 10 in a match that epitomised their chronic defensive frailties. Despite being almost unbeatable at Upton Park last season, they did not win a home game until January 29. And they have leaked more goals than the two teams below them, Sunderland and West Bromwich — many self-inflicted.

‘To be honest, it’s been a surprise that we are where we are, given the players we’ve got, most of them internationals. Ability-wise, we’ve got enough not to be down there,” says one senior player, articulating the widespread bewilderment at West Ham’s annus horribilis.

He identifies the team’s terrible start, ensuing loss of confidence, collective failure to defend from the front and an overly heavy burden on the young players such as Cole, Defoe and Michael Carrick as key factors.

‘We began badly losing 4-0 at Newcastle, should have beaten Arsenal with a great performance the week after but only drew 2-2 and then didn’t actually win a game until we beat Chelsea away at the end of September,” he says, wincing as he recalls a series of results that left the club scratching around the bottom right after the August kick-off.

‘If you’re down there early on, the pressure mounts. They say winning is a habit, but losing becomes a pattern too. Once you’ve gone a few games without winning, it becomes a confidence thing and it can drag you down. Our confidence went after our bad start.”

A run of home games at the start of the season, which he says would have been ‘bankers” the year beforehand — against Charlton, West Brom, Manchester City, Birmingham City and Everton — ended in four defeats and one draw.

Oldham Athletic of the second division won at Upton Park in the Worthington Cup. The opportunity to pull out of an already perilous slump over the Christmas period with critical home matches against Bolton and Fulham yielded just two measly points. Fan anger, although directed more at Brown than Roeder, grew. Some began to boo and barrack individual players, such as James and the erratic Czech centre-half Tomas Repka.

Despite central defence being the obvious source of the side’s collective judders, the January transfer market brought only the ageing striker Les Ferdinand from Tottenham, the country’s most infamous midfielder, Lee Bowyer, from Leeds, and the left-back Rufus Brevett from Fulham. The 6-0 FA Cup rout at Old Trafford at the end of January confirmed the ill-wisdom of that.

Throughout it all, Roeder, arms folded, adopted the same polite, defensive posture when asked to explain his team’s shortcomings, choosing not to criticise them or his employers for not providing the funds to overhaul the defence.

‘Roeder’s a nice guy and a good coach, but he’s not a manager,” says the agent for another West Ham player. ‘He lost the dressing room the previous season after they lost 7-1 at Blackburn, and never regained their respect.”

Players’ representatives offer a disturbingly long list of reasons for their clients’ disillusionment with West Ham under Roeder.

His decision to make Cole captain, for example, annoyed many who felt the midfielder was too inexperienced. Naive tactics, poor use of substitutes, inability to handle strong characters such as Di Canio, Repka and Gary Breen, and failure to instil defensive organisation are also mentioned. Ferdinand and Brevett both remarked on how backward West Ham’s diet, fitness and match-preparation techniques are compared to their former clubs.

On the positive side, once Roeder did stop playing Di Canio — the club’s most talented player but regarded as a disruptive influence — results began improving. An undeserved 2-1 win in another six-pointer at the Hawthorns in February sparked a mini revival that continued until last weekend’s potentially fatal 1-0 loss at Bolton.

‘The real nightmare has been that since we began winning or at least drawing, all the other teams around us, like Bolton and Birmingham, have begun winning too, and even other teams who might have been dragged into it, like Fulham, Villa and Leeds, have pulled off results when they had to, so our position hasn’t improved,” says the senior player.

So is everyone resigned to relegation? ‘We’ve still got to believe, haven’t we?” he replied before the Main Road game.

‘I could lie and say we’ve got a great chance. We have got a chance, but I wouldn’t call it great. Everyone reckons we’re going down, but it’s not over yet. We only need to win three games, or win two and draw one, and we can do that.”

They did that with the win over Manchester City. —

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