The Iron Liddy Column

What a Kop Out

I was thinking about what Sean said in bed yesterday morning …. hmm, perhaps I should rephrase that. See the trouble that bad grammar can get you into?!

I was in bed yesterday morning thinking about the fact that Sean had just referred to the new East stand in the OS as ‘Kop style’ in his article on Claret & Hugh and as comments started to trickle in I could see that I’m not alone in being unhappy about the term. As a West Ham supporter who has already bought my seat in the East stand I have a particularly vested interest in what it’s called and I admit that it did rankle when the term ‘Kop’ was bandied about during Karren Brady’s marketing videos and at our presentation at the reservation centre back in May.

As I lay there pondering the issue I realised that I didn’t even know where the name ‘Kop’ originated. Being a bit of an anorak when it comes to etymology I decided to Google. No doubt many of you football buffs are already cognisant with its origin but I hope you’ll bear with me while I share the story for the benefit of those who aren’t, because it is actually quite an interesting piece of football history.

To me the Kop has always been synonymous with Anfield and I’ve always presumed that it was peculiar to that stadium; so I was surprised to learn that the first time the term was applied to a football stand was actually at Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in 1904. A local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop.

The Battle of Spion Kop had been fought four years earlier during the Second Boer War on 23rd and 24th January 1900. It was fought between the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces on the other, during the campaign to relieve the nearby city of Ladysmith. Spion Kop was the largest hill in the region, being over 430 metres (1,410 ft) in height and it lay almost exactly at the centre of the Boer line. If the British could capture this position and bring artillery to the hill then they would command the flanks of the surrounding Boer positions. As it transpired, it was a British defeat.

Of all the Boer War battles Spion Kop retains an appalling notoriety for the incompetence of British leadership and the slaughter of the small number of men engaged on each side in the struggle for the top of the hill. The battle graphically showed the failure of the British Army to understand the requirements of modern warfare as their tactics failed to cope with powerful long range artillery and magazine rifle fire. In addition it highlighted the need for proper systems of communications and reconnaissance, as well as maintenance of chains of command in action and training and leadership at all levels.

It is also famous for being the battle during which the young Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi found themselves on the same hillside. Churchill was a journalist stationed in South Africa and he had also been commissioned as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller after his well publicised escape from Boer captivity. Churchill acted as a courier to and from Spion Kop and General Buller’s HQ; while Gandhi performed the role of stretcher-bearer in the Indian Ambulance Corps he had organised.

Although the common English name for the battle is Spion Kop, throughout the Commonwealth and its historical literature the official South African English and Afrikaans name for the battle is Spioenkop. Spioen means “spy” or “look-out”, and kop means “hill” or "outcropping.”

In 1906 Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards pinched the London journalist’s term for Arsenal’s bank of earth when he wrote of a new open-air embankment at Anfield:

“This huge wall of earth has been termed ‘Spion Kop’, and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot.”

The name was formally applied in 1928 upon construction of a roof. Subsequently Liverpool FC fans have credited the Kop with being a memorial to the fact that it was members of the Lancashire regiments who fell during the battle but in fact regiments from all over the UK were present and also suffered losses.

Further research revealed a bigger gap in my knowledge of football grounds than I originally thought. Although it was the first terrace officially named Spion Kop, many other English football clubs and some Rugby league clubs applied the same name to stands in later years. Villa Park’s old Holte End was historically the largest of all Kop ends, closely followed by the old South Bank at Molineux, both once regularly holding crowds in excess of 30,000. In more modern times work was completed on Hillsborough’s Kop in the mid 1980s which, with a capacity of around 22,000, made it the biggest standing area in Europe at the time. After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the Kop was the last part of the Sheffield Wednesday ground to be converted to all-seater accommodation, the change finally coming in 1993 to comply with new FA Premier League regulations following the Taylor Report. This had the effect of halving the capacity, but the Hillsborough Kop remains one of the largest single tier stands in Britain.

A full list of British grounds with a history of a Kop stand can be found here: Spion Kop Stadiums

Worried that it was just me who was oblivious to the history and existence of Spion Kop stands in British football grounds and that my article would have you all tutting and yawning, I quizzed Mr Lids. He also didn’t know the origin of the term or that it was applicable to any ground other than Anfield. So cheers Sean, thanks to you I learned something new in bed yesterday morning that my husband couldn’t have taught me! ;)

So now we’re all up to speed on Spion Kop stands I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured with it as a name for our new East stand at the OS. ‘Iron Kop’ might have a bit of a ring to it in parodical terms but it’s not exactly auspicious is it? The site of a British defeat due to the incompetency of our leaders. Not only that, you can’t help but think of a seething mass of Scousers whenever the name is mentioned. Nah.

So we need a name for the East stand. The North and South stands are already taken care of and will proudly bear the names of our heroes Messrs Moore & Brooking as they do at the Boleyn. No doubt the West stand will be the Betway stand for the foreseeable future but the East remains nameless, as far as we know.

Inevitably the question has already been posed and I’ve seen many calls for it to be called the Chicken Run in order to retain the links with our past. As a sucker for nostalgia myself I can empathise with that desire but the compact, almost cosy image that the name conjures up seems too incongruous with the vastness of our new East stand somehow. Personally I think it would be good to have at least one stand with a brand new name to reflect both our history and our new era and that the ghosts of the Chicken Run are better left swaying gently in the past.

So instead of getting out of bed to feed the cats and make the tea I lay there thinking laterally. With a founder fortuitously named Arnold Hills that would seem an obvious choice, what with the word ‘kop’ being Afrikaans for ‘hill’. In your best Julie Andrews voice: “The Hills are alive with the sound of Bubbles ….” Perhaps not.

This set me off thinking about hills and high places in Newham ….. Beckton Ski Slope? Nope, that’s just taking the piste. Probably the highest points games at The Boleyn have been watched from are the flats in Priory Road or the block that used to stand behind the North Bank; which was famously, and dangerously, used as a grandstand when West Ham played Hereford in an FA Cup fourth round replay in 1972. ‘ealf and Safety? That’s for yer bloody pansies innit, as dear old Alf would say.

Hmm, The Priory? That sounds like an appropriate place for 20,000 poor souls hopelessly addicted to West Ham with little chance of recovery. I don’t think I want to sit in a stand with a name that’s synonymous with rehabilitation though ….. in the words of Luther Ingram, if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

What about our shipbuilding heritage? Surely that’s a rich vein of inspiration I pondered. A bit of horizontal Googling revealed that the final battleship to be built by Thames Ironworks was HMS Thunderer, the last and largest warship ever built on the River Thames. The Thunderer? That isn’t a bad name for a wall of noise. However, further reading revealed that before she was built Thames Ironworks had been struggling for some time, with most orders going to the Northern yards. Arnold Hills threatened parliament with the prospect of some awkward questions and as a result Thames Ironworks received the order for the Thunderer. Although it was a very important and prestigious order, the building of HMS Thunderer broke the shipyard. Even though Britain was in the grip of a massive naval shipbuilding race the banks withdrew their loans and the Thames Ironworks shipyard at Bow creek went into bankruptcy, causing massive unemployment in Blackwall and Canning Town. Not such a good omen then.

Next I began to think about the characteristics of the battleships themselves and hit upon the idea of The Broadside. As I’m sure you know, the broadside is the side of a ship and specifically the battery of cannon on one side of a warship. Additionally, the term broadside is a measurement of a vessel’s maximum simultaneous firepower which can be delivered upon a single target. This is calculated by multiplying the shell weight of the ship’s main armament shells times the number of barrels that can be brought to bear. Perfect, so our maximum simultaneous fan-power from The Broadside of our new stadium will be 20,000 x as loud as we can bloody sing. WE ARE SLAVEN’S CLARET AND BLUE NAVY!! That’ll confuse the buggers and blow them out of the water.

By now the cats were scratching the carpet in hunger and my husband was beginning to stir so it was time to abandon my solitary brainstorming session to the conclusion that there really is no better name than The Boleyn Wall, which is already a popular choice among many West Ham fans. It tells the story of an important part of our heritage and would ensure that the name of our home for over a century stays on the lips of our fans for generations to come. We may not be taking the castles with us physically but metaphorically we could create a formidable fortress of fans with The Boleyn Wall.

COME ON YOU IRONS!


The Iron Liddy Column

The Moore things change the Moore they stay the same

This week I’ve been leafing through some 1972 back copies of Shoot that I bought for Mr Lids on his 40th birthday three years ago. I was looking for some inspiration for an article to give you a bit of light relief from our current anxiety but I couldn’t help smiling wryly when I read Bobby Moore’s column in the 1st July issue. Forty-three years may have passed since he penned this article but Bobby could just as easily have been writing from his sun lounger in Spain this summer:

Bobby Moore writes for you:

Season 1971-72 is over. The Cups and trophies have been won. And while West Ham didn’t collect any of the honours, we didn’t have too bad a time. At least there weren’t any of the relegation fears we suffered the previous term, when we escaped the drop to Division Two by only one place. We ended up in a comfortable mid-table spot this time.

But don’t get the idea that we’re complacent, that we’re not setting our sights high enough. Our main aim is still to collect the Championship, and that’s not beyond us next season if we can eliminate our major fault …. inconsistency, the inability to maintain a level of good form.

Last season we’d play well in one game, and then slump in the next for no apparent reason, and that’s been a feature of West Ham performances for too many years now.

I don’t know why we have this weakness, but obviously we must rectify it.

After our match against Leeds at Upton Park last Easter, Manager Ron Greenwood said to us: “Why can’t we play like that all the time?”

In the opening-half of that match we played really well and established a two goal lead. The Yorkshire team, who had previously been carrying all before them with a string of impressive displays, looked to be well beaten. And even though we allowed them to come back and get two bad goals – from our point of view – there’s no doubt that we were the better team on the day and worth more than the one point we picked up.

In that match, and the League Cup Semi-Final games against Stoke, we gave our best performances of the season – against two of the most successful teams in the country you’ll note. And yet on several occasions we were disappointing when facing lesser opposition.

As I’ve said, we all wish we could find the reason. It’s a mystery to us that we’re so unpredictable. But West Ham supporters can rest assured that we’re working on the problem.

Our troubles began early last season – right at the beginning in fact. We lost our first three games without netting a goal, and we still didn’t manage to score in our fourth match – against Ipswich at Upton Park – although we collected our first point with a 0-0 draw.

At that stage we had the uneasy feeling that our bad luck was going to go on and on, continuing from the previous season, because quite honestly we had been a bit unfortunate. 0-1 defeats by West Brom and Nottingham Forest could easily have gone the other way.

Mind you the 2-0 beating Derby dished out to us at the Baseball Ground was fair enough. No arguments, they deserved to win.

Anyway, after those first four games the breaks started to go our way, I’m happy to say, and we lost only once in the next 11 League games – against Manchester United at Old Trafford – picking up 16 points in the process. And by then we’d climbed up to ninth place in the table, only six points behind United, the leaders.

But along came another of those inexplicable slumps, and we didn’t win any of our next seven League matches.

Things had gone better for us in the League Cup, though. We’d knocked out Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield United, and at that time were all square after two Semi-Final matches – at home and away – with Stoke City.

And although we eventually lost to Stoke – in that dramatic second-replay at Old Trafford – we felt we were unlucky not to reach Wembley.

Nevertheless, the League Cup run did us a lot of good. Take another look at the list of teams we beat and you’ll see that we overcame some formidable opposition. Leeds 1-0 on their own ground in a replay; powerful Liverpool; and Sheffield United, who had made a great start to the season and were in fourth place in the table when we met them. We beat Liverpool 2-1 and walloped United 5-0.

Yet for all that our League Cup-tie with Second Division Cardiff was even more encouraging. After drawing 1-1 against them at Upton Park, we were 0-1 down in the replay with only about 10 to 15 minutes left, and if the match had been played the previous season we’d have probably been beaten 3-0.

Having hit the woodwork, had several near misses and been thwarted by some good saves, we might have decided that it wasn’t our day and given up.

But not this time. We felt sure a goal would come, kept plugging away and in the end it all came out right with two late goals from Geoff Hurst.

In other words, we’d learned to believe in ourselves and our methods, the hallmark of all really good teams. We’d proved we have the resolution and determination to succeed.

I think a lot of my team-mates can feel pleased with their overall performances last season. Goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson, who struggled to find his best form for some time after joining us in 1967, finally proved his true worth. He consistently handled the ball well.

Our two young full-backs, Johnny McDowell and Frank Lampard, gained a lot of valuable experience, with Frank also winning England Under-23 caps.

And centre-half Tommy Taylor, in his first full season in the First Division, showed that he can develop into a really fine player. He’s strong, fast and good in the air – he has everything a player in his position needs.

In midfield Trevor Brooking, Pop Robson and Billy Bonds did exceptionally well.

Trevor is an accomplished midfield man. He doesn’t look to be very fast, but that’s deceptive. He glides past opponents easily enough. He had a wonderful season and fully deserved to be voted “Hammer of the Year” by our supporters.

Robson was a striker when West Ham bought him from Newcastle. He used to hover on the edge of the penalty-area, waiting for big Wyn Davies – now with Manchester City, of course – to set up openings with headed flicks.

But we play a different style to Newcastle and Pop operates deeper, running through from behind. He’s a great professional, the sort of player who does anything well, and seems to be enjoying his new role.

When people talk about Billy Bonds, people usually refer first to his enthusiasm, fitness and stamina, but take my word for it he also has a lot of skill. No-one at Upton Park underrates Billy’s vital contribution to our team.

We’ve had our successes up front too, especially Clyde Best. He made a great start, and although things didn’t go quite so well in the middle of the season – perhaps it was the effects of the heavy grounds – he regained his form as the pitches became firmer. His total of well over 20 goals for the season is an indication of his ability.

So as we wait for the new season we’re feeling pretty optimistic. If we continue our rate of improvement we could well be up among the front-runners.

At our best we know we’re a match for any team in the country – and we’re determined to be at our very best a lot more often in 1972-73!

But right now I’m determined to forget all about football. Much as I love the game, it’s great to have a break from it, and at the moment I’m enjoying a nice long holiday in Spain with my wife, two children and some friends.

Just relaxing, trying to build up a sun-tan, enjoying myself in the swimming pool and playing some golf.

It’s the best way I know of shrugging off all the pressures of a hard season, and I’m pleased that this year I have the opportunity of a fairly lengthy rest.

I know I’ll feel the benefit when next season begins.

So at present the only real work I’m doing is writing this column. That’s a job I enjoy and I hope you like reading it.

Until next week …

As I sit here quietly reflecting on our hero’s words as they echo down the years a few salutary thoughts come to mind.

Firstly, Bobby confirms something that all true Hammers know in their heart, that we are frustratingly, and sometimes mystifyingly, inconsistent. He didn’t know why we were then and I don’t know why we still are today, we just are. It’s an interesting and perplexing notion that it’s a trait that’s simply a part of the fabric of West Ham as much as our colours are claret and blue. How can a characteristic like inconsistency persist through different generations of players, managers and fans? I don’t know the answer but it’s the one thing that most West Ham fans agree on with a resigned shrug.

The second thought that came to mind is how many of those teams that Bobby wrote about are still in the top tier of English football today? Oh I know we’ve had our yo-yo years but we’re still contenders, we’re still in with a shout. Would you rather be a Derby fan or a Leeds fan today? I think a top 6 finish or a top 4 place and Champions League football are much smaller dots on their horizon than ours, don’t you? We still have something that Bobby had then, the comfort of a mid-table finish despite some unpredictable performances and the optimism that we can build upon that to achieve something better. At least some of us do.

As Bobby said, that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent, of course we shouldn’t, our current team should have the same ambition as he had back then; to play at our very best this season and to finish as high as possible. As it happens West Ham had a good start to our 1972/73 season but six games in we’d suffered three losses in a row and slipped back down to mid-table mediocrity again. Do you suppose that West Ham fans were booing Bobby, Billy, Trevor et al as soon as a few results didn’t go our way in 1972? I doubt it.

My overriding thoughts, however, were these. The day before Bobby’s article was published, on 30th June 1972 my husband came into this world; a tiny, squalling new-born, oblivious to the fact that his fate as a West Ham fan was already sealed and that he was in for a lifetime of highs and lows that he would share with his parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and wife.

Conversely, a few stops up the District Line my dad’s last days as a Hammer had sadly also been sealed as, unbeknown to him, he was already suffering from the same awful disease that killed Bobby Moore.

For all I know my dad may have read that article in Shoot and shared Bobby’s optimism for the coming season. He was probably still dreaming of our glory days in the mid-60s and hoping that they would soon come again. I never got the chance to ask him because he passed away on the 1st February 1973 at the age of 33 without ever knowing that West Ham would once again equal their highest ever league finish to date of 6th place that season or that FA Cup victory was just a couple of years away.

As one Hammer came into the world, another was just leaving. And so it goes.

What I’m trying to say is that I know how frustrating and disappointing it is when results don’t go our way and we don’t seem to be signing the right kind of players to progress as quickly as we might like. I also sit over Upton Park dumbfounded and pained when we stylishly and confidently beat Arsenal away one week and then look like the Keystone Kops at home against Leicester and Bournemouth two weeks later. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of being a West Ham fan and if we’re as consistently inconsistent in the coming decades as we have been in the past then we’ve plenty of highs and lows still to come.

Surely the most important thing is that we’re all still here, still in this together, still part of the West Ham family; dreaming dreams of glories past and those still to come. Imagine if you found out today that you only had six months left on this mortal coil. Would you look back on your time as a West Ham fan and think that the only times that mattered and that the only times you were happy were when we won something; or would you remember all the wonderful times you spent with your friends and families making memories through the ups and downs of supporting the Hammers together?

Of course results matter but there’s so much more to being a West Ham fan than that; it’s about that sense of belonging, knowing that you’re part of something bigger, something special with a rich and wonderful history that you will hopefully pass on to future generations if you’re lucky enough to be blessed with children. Try not to spend your days as a Hammer focused on the negative. Have a moan if you must but then celebrate the kinship that you share with your friends, family and even strangers; it’s one of the few authentic things left in our society today.

Whatever the outcome at the end of this season and however happy, disappointed or frustrated you might feel at our performance in the league and in the cups, please take a moment to reflect on it all with a little perspective. Try to remember that, no matter where we finish and whatever we have or haven’t won, Bobby and my dad, and many of your loved ones too, would have given anything to be here to share it all with us.


The Iron Liddy Column

Ghost Hunting in the Memorial Grounds

On a sunny Sunday afternoon 4 weeks ago Mr Lids and I decided to nip over to West Ham for a cup of tea with his mum and dad. As we emerged from West Ham station, instead of heading diagonally right for our usual trek up Manor Road, we decided to turn left along Memorial Avenue for a stroll through the park.

As I’m sure most of you will know, the Memorial Recreation Ground is the former site of the stadium occupied by West Ham before they moved to The Boleyn Ground in 1904.

The site was acquired by Thames Ironworks’ Chairman Arnold Hills in 1897 and he invested £20,000 of his own money to build the Memorial Grounds stadium. The new stadium was opened on Jubilee Day, 22nd June 1897, to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

The stadium was not merely a playing ground for the Thames Ironworks football team, it also contained a cycle track, a cinder running track, tennis courts and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in England. It also incorporated all Thames Ironworks’ societies as well as offering open access for the community at large. The grounds had a capacity of 100,000 spectators and it was said at the time that the stadium was “good enough to stage an English Cup Final.” On 11th September 1897 Thames Ironworks celebrated their first game at their new home by beating Brentford FC 1-0 to win the London League.

Such was Hills’ influence that, in November 1897, he managed to secure an agreement with London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) to build a station at Manor Road. The LT&SR board approved this in February 1898 and the Mowlem construction company was given the contract to build a four platform station, allowing for the proposed quadrupling of the line. West Ham station was completed in May 1900 but did not open until 1st February 1901, radically improving the stadium’s transport links.

In the meantime Thames Ironworks FC had resigned from the Southern League at the end of June 1900 and had been officially wound up. On 5th July 1900 they reformed under the new name of West Ham United FC and accepted an offer of the Southern League place left vacant by Thames Ironworks. West Ham United’s first game at the grounds was against Gravesend United on 1st September 1900 and they won 7-0 in front of 2,000 spectators; with Scottish forward Billy Grassam becoming the first West Ham United player to score a hat trick as he slotted home four goals on his debut. Unfortunately the Hammers couldn’t maintain that momentum and lost 7 of their next 13 games. This included a game at Millwall that attracted a crowd of 10,000. The best attendance that season at the Memorial Grounds was the game against Tottenham Hotspur; unfortunately for the home supporters they saw West Ham defeated 4-1. After such a promising start to the season too. Sound familiar?

As a bit of an anorak I was already aware of the grounds’ history but as we walked along in the sunshine I asked Mr Lids if he had been aware of it as he was growing up a stone’s throw away in one of the adjacent roads. Both of his parents also grew up in the same road they still live in today and their families have been there since the 1920s. He said that although he hadn’t known any detail and there wasn’t anything tangible in the park to say that West Ham had played there, he grew up with the knowledge that he was kicking his football where West Ham’s forefathers had played the beautiful game before him. In fact when he briefly joined West Ham Till I Die a few years ago his user ID was ‘Keep Off The Bowling Green’ in memory of the angry park keeper who used to regularly thwart his Wembley fantasies over ‘The Memos’ as a boy.

Until last month we hadn’t been to the Memorial Grounds together since the early days of our relationship; when he had showed me his childhood haunts one Sunday morning during a run along the sewer bank (now more appealingly called The Greenway) and around the perimeter of the park. Back then, despite being the home of East London Rugby Club, the park had an air of neglect and I could see how it had earned its reputation as a place to avoid after dark. Thirteen years later I was in for a pleasant surprise. As we turned into the park from Memorial Avenue we discovered that there has been a considerable amount of investment in the green space and it is now a well-equipped and attractive facility for the local community and importantly, there is now a memorial to our beloved Hammers.

The first thing we came upon were two smart modern pavilions which house the changing rooms and equipment for the sports teams who use the park today. I later discovered that the pavilions were designed by architects Saville Jones to be sustainable and include green roofs, as well as high levels of natural light and insulation. The external walls are faced with stone-filled gabion baskets, to minimize the buildings’ attraction to the graffiti artists who plague such buildings. The contract value for the pavilions and entrance works was £1.9m and the pitch works were procured on a separate contract to a value of £550,000. The project was completed in Summer 2009.

Beyond them we found an enclosed all weather five-a-side football pitch, as well as the traditional grass floodlit football and rugby pitches, both full-size and junior. My subsequent research revealed that the football pitches on the site also include a full-size floodlit 3rd Generation Artificial Grass Pitch.

‘The Memos’ has been home to the East London Rugby Club since 1982 and their club house still stands on the far side of the park. I was interested to read that this facility is now also shared by Newham Dockers RLFC, which was established in 2012; and that like West Ham United, their club badge also reflects the area’s shipbuilding and dockland heritage.

To our right was an enclosed all weather basketball court and ahead was a tree lined avenue leading to a nicely landscaped area which incorporates the children’s playground, a wild flower meadow and a kind of mini ‘amphitheatre’ suitable for small scale events.

Further exploration revealed a cleverly concealed structure called The Grassroots Centre, which has been built into a grass bank to minimise the visual and environmental impact of the structure. The planted roof forms part of a ‘grasscrete’ path network to allow park visitors to circulate around and over the building, and is linked into the new path network for the park. A bit of research revealed that this innovative building has been designed by Eger Architects with the emphasis on creating an environmentally friendly structure using alternative building materials. The design incorporates the minimisation of in-use energy, including on-site renewable energy generation and rainwater harvesting systems.

As well as a children’s nursery and crèche the centre houses The Green Sprout Café, which is operated by the NDC Community Food Enterprise. The café serves food from 9:00am – 3:00pm and, in keeping with the ethos of the building, the menu has a healthy eating agenda; something I’m sure that Arnold Hills would have approved of as first President of the London Vegetarian Society and the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club.

In the centre of the park we came across the commemorative sculpture which not only finally recognises the grounds as West Ham’s former home but is also a memorial to those who lost their lives in the docks during the launching of Thames Ironworks’ cruiser HMS Albion in 1898.

The inscription on the large steel plaque adjacent to the sculpture reads as follows:

HAMMERS

This site was once the recreation ground for The Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding employees and the home of their works football club. In 1900 the team turned professional and became West Ham United, moving from this site to The Boleyn Ground at Upton Park. Their emblem today still carries the image of the hammers used by the riveting gangs who built many great steel ships in one of Britain’s most important shipyards.

These eleven steel posts are laid out on the construction lines of the deck of HMS Albion, a cruiser built by the Thames Ironworks. At its launch in 1898 into Bow Creek, 38 people died as the tidal wave created by the launch caused chaos around the spectators close to the water. Many of the dead from this tragic event are buried in the cemetery next to this Recreation Ground.

This work is a memorial to those victims but also marks a once great local industry and the craft of its workers, bringing back the clang of hammer on steel. The sound of the riveting gangs of the Thames Ironworks is gone forever but the heritage is still celebrated today in the fans chant: “Come on you Irons!”

The sculpture was commissioned by West Ham and Plaistow New Deal for Communities during the regeneration of the Memorial Grounds and it was designed by Theresa Smith of Mooch, a creative practice based in East London who specialise in public realm art and design. A metalwork and design company called Fe26 was selected to fabricate the steelwork and the memorial sculpture was completed in 2008.

The eleven steel posts laid out in the shape of the hull of the ship each have a moveable riveting hammer attached to them by a chain. Inevitably we couldn’t resist banging one of the riveting hammers against the steel post with an accompanying cry of “Come on you Irons!” Although it doesn’t say so on the accompanying plaque or on the description of the sculpture on Mooch’s website I assumed that eleven posts were used to represent the players in West Ham’s football team.

Standing there in the sunshine on a peaceful summer’s afternoon with the sounds of children playing and the ringing bounce of the ball on the basketball court it was hard to imagine 2,000 West Ham fans cheering on those hardened shipbuilders as they slugged it out with a leaden football in the mud and rain 115 years ago. The ghosts of our forefathers are there though and we left the park feeling pleased that our club’s former home has such a fitting sporting legacy and that the land hasn’t been appropriated for yet more development. We were also glad that the name of West Ham United has finally been formally commemorated on the site so that future generations of Hammers will know that the Memorial Grounds are part of our rich history.

Hopefully our founding father Arnold Hills would be gratified that his vision for a sporting facility that promotes good health and a sense of community is still evident on the ground that he invested in over a century ago, even if it’s now on a much smaller scale. If you’re out there in the ether Mr Hills and you’re looking for West Ham’s impressive stadium with a running track around it you’ll find it just over a mile away these days, North-West as the spirit flies. Please come and join us, we could do with a guardian angel or two. Oh, and bring Bobby with you, there’s a good chap, you’ll probably find him hovering sadly over a pile of rubble in Green Street.

Photographs courtesy of:

Mooch Design
Saville Jones
Eger Architects


The Iron Liddy Column

Super Slav talks to the fans

On Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend a Fans’ Forum at The Boleyn ground which featured Slaven Bilic, James Tomkins, Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson. This was a free event made available to season ticket holders, Academy and corporate members, as well as those who have joined the new stadium season ticket priority list. The format of the evening was a Q&A session and attendees were invited to submit questions for the quartet via email before the event.

You’ll notice that I haven’t added much in the way of personal comment or analysis to this account and that it’s simply a transcription of the evening’s events. That’s partly because it would make an already long article far too cumbersome and also because my intention was to give those of you who weren’t able to attend the Forum the experience of being there by proxy. I hope the Q&A format doesn’t prove tedious to read.

On arrival we were shown into the Legends Lounge to await our audience with the trio of players and West Ham’s new manager. As the bar began to fill up it was obvious that I wasn’t alone in wanting to get up close and personal with our new saviour and that our victory over Arsenal on Sunday has inspired renewed optimism and enthusiasm among the fans. The audience was probably twice as big as that as last season’s Forum, despite the fact that it had featured fans’ favourite Carlton Cole and our charismatic keeper Adrian.

We were finally allowed into the adjacent conference room and there was a real air of expectancy as around 200 fans scrambled for the best seats. West Ham’s Press Manager Paul Stringer was there to oversee the event and when he introduced Super Slav and his boys there was a standing ovation as they filed slightly self-consciously on to the stage.

Despite his air of quiet confidence there’s also a degree of shyness about Slaven Bilic and he broke the ice by drawing attention away from himself and on to a fan’s lovely black Labrador guide dog. So he’s an animal lover ….. he just went up another notch in my estimation.

The first question was inevitably directed at Mr Bilic and a member of the audience asked him to give us some technical insight into his approach to the Arsenal game. He began by saying that we’ve made a great start; especially in view of the fact that it was a local derby against a side that we haven’t beaten for 9 years and one which has had a very good pre-season. He also hoped that we’ve all enjoyed having the bragging rights over our Arsenal supporting friends this week, which inevitably caused much mirth among the audience. He went on to say that he was particularly proud that we did it in such style and that he is very proud of our team.

As far as his tactics for the game were concerned he said he asked the team to focus on which Arsenal players they had to challenge so that they didn’t have a chance to do anything with the ball. He claimed that it wasn’t that difficult to keep the ball as Arsenal are not ‘ball takers’. He said that what our squad did brilliantly was to show such determination and to demonstrate an ability to play a real ‘thinking’ game. In other words, they engaged their football brains.

Slaven said the team had taken the day off on Monday so this was the first time they had been back together to celebrate our victory. He said that it had been a very special day and that we should all take confidence from it. However, he also said that we can’t afford to be complacent; and his actual words were:

“It was a great win but if we think we are that good then we are dead, dead, dead.”

The next question was aimed at Aaron Cresswell and James Tomkins and a fan wanted to know what they felt had changed at the club since Slaven’s arrival. Tonks answered for them both and his first comment was that Sam Allardyce did a great job at West Ham. He went on to say that the players’ priority now was to impress Slaven and that they were all embracing a new job and a new beginning. He said that Bilic gave them the confidence that they could beat Arsenal and that it had been a massive turnaround from their pre-season, especially as “the gaffer” and some of the squad members don’t yet know each other.

Slaven was then asked what the three biggest things are that he’d like to change at West Ham and what finish he is targeting in the Premier League. He was also at pains to say what a great job Sam did at the club and that he has given us great stability. He highlighted our fantastic start to last season and said that although the second half had not been so good he thought we had been very unlucky with injuries. He said that Sam has left him with a good situation to build upon and called it a “quality cornerstone.” He described West Ham as “a good club, not a massive club, but a good club” and said that he saw this as a great opportunity to bring in some new players who would help the existing squad members to improve by 10 or 15 per cent. He stressed that he wanted to hold on to the talent we have and that he was very disappointed that Stewart Downing left as he hadn’t wanted to lose him.

He went on to say that his aim is to play total football like Barcelona (!) and his priority is to “do the job properly.” He acknowledged that this Saturday’s game against Leicester could be difficult but that we will be attacking space and players as well as defending. He said that we will have ups and downs but he’s trying to instil self-belief into our squad. He said:

“Some players believe, some don’t, but we got the proof at Arsenal.”

The next member of the audience wanted to know what our points target will be for this season. Bilic said that he doesn’t think that way – he called it “the England way” and said that he finds that “very scary.” He doesn’t automatically think that if we don’t reach 40 points that we will go down and his approach to every game is to play good football rather than focusing on the points. He is obviously aiming as high as possible but hasn’t set himself a specific target. He was emphatic in his optimism that we won’t be facing relegation at the end of the season and he said that he “know(s) we can do it.”

Aaron Cresswell was then asked why he made the decision to stay at West Ham when he had had offers from other clubs such as Man City and Chelsea. It raised a great laugh in the audience when he quipped “you’re first person who’s told me I had offers.” He went on to say that he was immensely proud to have signed a new deal with us and that he was looking forward to exciting times ahead with the Slaven.

Carl Jenkinson was then grilled about the unusual move to sign two consecutive one year loan deals. He said that he always knew that he wanted to come back to us but that Arsenal “hold all the aces” and that the decision was really out of his hands. He was at great pains to say that he’s always wanted to stay at West Ham and that he’s loved his football here.

This was followed by a heart-warming moment when a very young fan called Finley, who has been a regular at these events and is known to some of the players, told James Tomkins how he had used him as his inspiration for a school project which had earned him top of the class and his head teacher’s special award. He then cheekily asked Tonks if he could trade his project for his match day boots, which earned a big laugh to go with his top marks. Inevitably James agreed, which resulted in one very happy little Hammer. Finley then went on to ask Tonks whether he expected us to qualify for the Europa League again this season (presumably through the front door this time) and Tomkins said they would be taking it one game at a time and trying not to get too carried away with the Arsenal result but that they were all hoping for a top half finish and to be pushing for the Europa League.

An older fan followed on from this by asking Slaven about the combination of ‘kids’ and more senior players that he selected for this season’s Europa League games. He wondered whether he had been “caught between two stalls” and if in hindsight Slaven thought he should have played the academy squad all through the competition. Slaven explained that it hadn’t been a normal pre-season and that many players had struggled to play three games a week. He admitted that his priority was “to not jeopardise the Premier League.” He said that ideally he would have liked players on the pitch for only 45 or 60 minutes at a time but that the depth of our squad meant that he’d had to play the majority of them for 90 minutes. His strategy was to try to qualify with our best squad at home but to go with ‘kids’ and a less strong team for the away games. He recapped the question ‘why not use all kids?’ and admitted that in hindsight he wished that he had used all academy players for the tournament but didn’t because he wanted to go through.

The next fan to speak said that the consensus on social media is that we need another winger and he asked Aaron Cresswell if he could see himself pushing forward to play on the left wing like Gareth Bale (I wish). Cressy said that he really prefers the left back position but that he would be happy to play anywhere that Slav asks of him.

All three defenders were then asked if they had enjoyed their stints playing out of their normal positions. James Tomkins responded by saying that he’d only played at right back a handful of times and that the position was still very new to him. He said that the gaffer had given him the confidence that he could play there and that the experience “didn’t get much tougher than playing at Arsenal at right back.” Despite finding it challenging he said that he had enjoyed it and that he could really see how playing in different positions could improve him as a player. It raised a few laughs when he and Jenks exchanged looks as he said that he understands Carl’s perspective much better now and that he was less likely to “have a go at him” on the pitch.

Aaron Cresswell was also asked if the left back spot in the Euros is in the back of his mind and he said that while he would love to play for his country he’s concentrating on his job at West Ham for now.

The subject then got on to the one and only Terminator: Julian Dicks. Slav was asked which of Dicksy’s qualities had convinced him that he was right for the role as assistant coach and he replied that there were so many. He cited the fact that they had played together as being very important and that he considered Julian to have been a great captain. He also said the fact that they had been roomies had made them very close. He explained that although the spine of his team came from Croatia and Germany he felt that it is always important to have a minimum of two ‘local’ members in his back room staff. He clearly feels a genuine bond with Julian Dicks and went on to describe him as a good and loyal man – “Mr West Ham United.” He said that although they were different players they share a very similar philosophy to football and to life and dramatically said:

“He is my gift from God.”

Unsurprisingly Slaven continued to be the focus of attention and the next person to pose a question asked him what clinched his decision to come to West Ham and this country. Slav said that although we had our ups and downs in the two seasons that he was here, he felt that he played the best football of his career at Upton Park and that he had even enjoyed the bad days. He said that West Ham was a good family club then and that’s still true today. It felt genuine when he said:

“I consider West Ham United as my club. I feel really connected to England – my son was born here.”

He added that every manager’s ambition is to work in the Premier League, so even though he felt very drained after his role in Turkey came to an end and that he had planned a period of rest, that plan was soon forgotten when he got the call from West Ham and he found a renewed sense of energy at the prospect of managing us.

The mention of Turkey took us on to the next question when a fan cited the fact that Bilic took Besiktas to the Champions League and Europa League. He wanted to know how far West Ham has to go before we can aspire to the same level. Slaven’s response was realistic and he said that it was important to realise that there are more chances to qualify in Turkey than there are in the Premier League in England. He assured the audience that he will do everything possible to qualify in the next few years but to bear in mind that it was easier to achieve in Turkey.

Next we were asked to cast our minds back to an episode of Saint and Greavsie when it was suggested that Slaven had chosen to move to Everton in 1997 because he thought they were a bigger club. This particular fan wanted to know if Slav still considered Everton to be a bigger club today. Mr Bilic squirmed a little at this question. He replied that at that time Croatia had a good national team and he admitted that when he was awarded Footballer of the Year in Croatia the accolade went to his head. He said that he had been impressed by the ambition of Everton’s Chairman, Peter Johnson, to win the league but that he had asked them to wait until the end of the season so that he could see out his term at West Ham. Initially Everton were annoyed by this and had wanted him to leave by the March deadline but ultimately they praised him for his loyalty when he insisted that he couldn’t leave West Ham until the end of the season. He smiled wryly when he said that the following season he’d got nowhere near the promised Champions League with Everton. He went on to say that he still wouldn’t say that West Ham is a bigger club than Everton but that we are in a growth period and our move to the Olympic Stadium coupled with our ambitious Chairmen will take us to the next level.

The next subject to come up was transfers, when a member of the audience asked Bilic if Carlton Cole is still on standby if we don’t sign Austin or Hernandez. Slav was quick to assure us that they are actively seeking to add a quality striker to the squad, particularly now that Enner Valencia is going to be out for 10-12 weeks. He called this a big blow but was also keen to report that Andy Carroll is now fit and injury free and his decision to use him will depend on his fitness level. Despite this he’s still very keen to add one more striker but admitted that it’s very frustrating when you can’t get what you want. He said unfortunately it feels like the whole world is trying to sign a striker and at times even those with a much bigger budget struggle in this pursuit. However, he did confirm that:

“We are close to finishing one deal.”

This prompted the question of whether he is looking for a regular starter or a backup striker and he described his choice as “not a typical backup.” He said that strikers are special people and that he doesn’t want too many. If they’re left on the bench for too long it begins to affect their confidence and the art is in trying to achieve a balance. He said he wants a versatile striker who will compete for a place; we already have quality and it’s important not to overload the squad.

The focus moved back to our trio of defenders and they were asked who they would consider to be the hardest striker to play against and which defender they would like playing alongside them in their dream team. Carl Jenkinson answered first and he said that Eden Hazard would be his most formidable opponent. He then mentioned ‘Robin’ and said that he was in a similar mould. Although he was meant to be choosing a fellow defender I can only think that he was referring to Robin van Persie as being in a similar mould to Hazard. James Tomkins then went on to choose Torres during his time at Liverpool as his most feared striker and he said that he was “on fire in his prime.” Tonks would most like our very own Rio Ferdinand alongside him in the defensive line and said that he would love a career like his. Aaron Cresswell also chose Hazard as his biggest hazard (pun completely intended) and made the morally debateable but technically understandable choice of John Terry as his dream team mate.

Next they were asked how close our centre backs are which caused a bit of laughter and innuendo that wouldn’t look out of place on WHTID. The questioner went on to clarify that he meant how they are helping new players to settle in? Tonks said that Angelo Ogbonna hadn’t needed any special help to settle in and he attributed this to the fact that West Ham really is like a family. He described the squad as being very close and tight-knit and laughed as he said:

“There must be something in the air at Chadwell Heath. I’m not a morning person but there I find myself high-fiving everyone in the mornings!”

The laughing continued when somebody asked James Tomkins which top centre halves he would compare Reece Oxford to and he replied “he’s a holding midfielder isn’t he?” In a more serious tone he said that Reece has proved himself to be a really versatile player and that he did exceptionally well on Sunday. He went on to say that with the right mind-set and discipline our prodigious talent can be as good as he wants to be.

The focus stayed on the younger members of our squad when Slaven Bilic was asked if he was going to blood more of our youngsters or if they would be going out on loan. He confirmed that some will be loaned out to other clubs as it would be selfish for him to keep them purely as backup to our first team. He said obviously he will be keeping Reece Oxford plus a few more who are looking promising but he didn’t name names.

Next Aaron Cresswell was asked how he motivated himself to work his way back into the Premier League after he found himself at Tranmere Rovers following his release by Liverpool. He said that at the age of 14 it’s not about money so it wasn’t the end of the world when Liverpool let him go. He used his time at Tranmere to learn his trade and then spent 3 really good years at Ipswich. He said his advice to young players in a similar position would be to never give up.

James Tomkins was highlighted as being one of the longest serving players at West Ham and a fan asked him how things have changed at the club since he joined. Tonks said that he has seen many different management ideas since he made his debut under Alan Curbishly, who he cited as a very stable manager. He said he felt that same stability with Sam Allardyce but now he was looking for us to grow into something better under the new gaffer and that things feel very good right now. As Tonks said:

“The only way is up.”

The evening took a more light hearted turn when somebody asked James Tomkins to choose his favourite crowd chant or song, apart from Bubbles, and whether he could entertain us with a verse. He claimed that the only ones he could remember were unrepeatable and that he has a terrible voice anyway but he did say that hearing Bubbles, especially at away games, always gives him goose bumps. He said that our support at Arsenal was brilliant (thank you James) and that it hadn’t gone unnoticed that every West Ham fan and even some of the Arsenal fans stayed in the stadium to applaud the players at the end of the game.

Staying with the Arsenal theme Jenks was then put under the spotlight when he was asked how it felt to see us beat them so emphatically. He didn’t hesitate in his response when he said:

“I’m a West Ham player now, I want a good season and I felt no mixed allegiance …. I was happy, over the moon.”

This lead on to Slaven being asked about what was going through his head at the final whistle on Sunday. He said:

“I was very happy. It’s hard to say …. up …. high. When I played Reece Oxford I knew what would happen if it didn’t work out …. I felt relief and very proud.

Bilic was then asked if he would be playing our strongest teams in the FA Cup this season. He replied that with a bit of good form and luck he thinks we have a good chance in the cups this year and that he’s ambitious and looking forward to both of them. He went on to say:

“We aren’t going to take those cups just like that. Maybe I’m crazy but if somebody said to me you should only aim for the semi-final of the FA Cup and League Cup I’d say ‘no thanks’ because I believe we can win.”

The last word of the evening went to the young Hammer called Finley who asked what had been the biggest impact of the new players. Slav’s response was that he needs all the players to do their job and his plan is to improve a squad that’s already good. He said that they all have good qualities but that his focus is on bringing in new players who can make those around them even better. He finished by saying how optimistic he is for the season.

Inevitably the questions were carefully vetted and selected by the club’s PR team beforehand so there was never going to be anything controversial thrown at Slaven and the players but I still felt a candidness and honesty that’s been somewhat missing from our manager’s rhetoric in recent years.

Formalities over, the evening concluded with the opportunity for the audience to speak to Slaven and the players and to obtain any photographs or autographs that they desired. There were a lot of people to get through so while Slaven held court in his seat on the stage our personable young defenders made their way along the queue chatting and laughing with the fans as they scribbled and posed. I waited patiently along with the rest of them and was rewarded by a warm handshake and a quick chat with Super Slav as he signed my bits and pieces …. and no, that’s not a euphemism. Mind you, my friend was considering asking him to sign some very unusual items. He’s a very charismatic man is our Slav.

On the way out we bumped into our trio of defenders in the foyer of the hotel and they were very happy to stop and chat some more. I couldn’t resist pulling Jenks’ leg about the Arsenal game and he said that he’d watched it on his own at home. I suggested that he was sitting there on his sofa in his Arsenal scarf which he took in very good humour but he insisted that he’s a Hammer now so we said we’d let him off with one of those horrible half and half scarves.

Obviously this was a PR exercise but I didn’t come away feeling ‘spun’. I was left with the impression that we now have a very honest and straightforward manager who values the thinking game and that our players are as impressed with him as I am. Slaven, I share your optimism for our future.

COYI


The Iron Liddy Column

The Football Brain: Nature or Nurture?

I’m not enjoying this writing to a deadline malarkey; it’s giving me more anxiety than last season’s penalty shoot-out against Everton!

I’m sitting here staring at the flashing cursor on a blank page trying to decide what to write about, with an equally blank mind. Although I said I was going to focus on the social and cultural side of things I know that in reality the majority of you just want to read and talk about what happens on the pitch. In fact, following my column last week, I was chatting with our very own Longtimelurker and he said that he was a little disappointed by my decision to not cover ‘on the pitch’ issues and that he hoped and expected that I would revisit that. The truth is that I just don’t have any confidence in my ability to analyse the game. I love watching it and I know what I like but I know that I don’t see the patterns on the field that my husband sees for example. Despite the fact that I can actually control a football and have demonstrated a decent level of skill, I just know that if I was playing alongside him that he would be screaming at me to pass and move and berating me for not finding space. It frustrates the hell out of me that I can’t be more analytical but I still enjoy watching it in my own way. As the Lurker said, he’s firmly in the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ school of Philistinism and he asked how many of us would be honest enough to say the same about football?

This got me thinking. Is my inability to read the game like the other ‘experts’ (ahem) on WHTID because I’ve never played proper 11-a-side myself or do I simply not have a football brain? I think not having anyone to watch games with and to explain the tactics to me when I was small is certainly a factor. Maybe if I’d had more input at an age when my brain was busy making all its neural connections and synapses it would be more football shaped. Then again maybe a football brain is an inherent thing that you’re born with and not something that can be learned? I decided to investigate.

Many legendary football players have been hailed for their ability to ‘read the game’, showing an uncanny genius for being able to predict where the ball will be as play unfolds. Our own Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking are regularly cited as prime examples. The best players see things earlier than everyone else. They react faster, they see passes and spaces and they can process everything more quickly than players who don’t have their gift. They instinctively know where their team-mates are … what foot an opponent has his weight on … where the goal keeper is … how much weight to put on a pass so it arrives in the strikers path.

Then there are others who have made it into high level professional football based on their ball control and/or pace but seem to have little capacity to apply their intellect as well as their physical dexterity to the game.

A high profile example of just such a player is Theo Walcott. In 2010 Chris Waddle publicly questioned Walcott’s England credentials and claimed that the Arsenal winger "doesn’t understand the game.” Speaking on Radio Five Live Waddle said:

“People keep saying he’s young but Wayne Rooney understood the game at 16, 17. I’ve never seen any difference in Theo Walcott since he was at Southampton and broke into the team at a very young age.

“I’ve never seen him develop. He just doesn’t understand the game for me – where to be running, when to run inside a full-back, when to just play a one-two.

“It’s all off the cuff. The ball comes to him and if he gets a good first touch he might be on his way if he shows pace. But he has a plan in his mind before the ball comes to him.

“He’s not looking as if to think, ‘This is where I want to be, this is where I want to go, and this is what I’m going to do.’

“People keep saying to me, ‘Oh he’s young and he’ll learn.’

“I keep thinking, ‘Fabregas has learnt and he’s young, Rooney has learnt … they all read the game so well.’

“I just don’t think he’s got a football brain and he’s going to have problems.

“Eventually he could play up front but would he know where to run? Let’s be honest, good defenders would catch him offside every time.

“I just don’t know whether he studies the game, learns the game, or what. He’s at a great club where they play fantastic football week-in, week-out, and I’m just surprised he’s never developed his game.”

Waddle’s assessment was backed up by former England boss Graham Taylor, who said:

“I’m not going to be in any disagreement at all. I haven’t seen the improvement of Theo Walcott in terms of what Chris is saying of reading the game. I just haven’t seen it. I just see a problem there.”

Waddle’s and Taylor’s misgivings were echoed by Alan Hansen in his column in The Telegraph when he said:

“With the pace and trickery he possesses in abundance, Walcott will always make a living from the game, but the big unknown is whether he has enough to make it right to the top and be remembered in 20 years’ time as a great player.

“It is no slight on a player to accuse them of not having a football brain. You either have one or you don’t.

“It is about natural instinct, the innate ability to see things before they happen. Wayne Rooney has it and Kenny Dalglish had it.

“When Bob Paisley used to say at Liverpool that, at the highest level, the first two yards were in the head, he was spot-on.

“If Theo Walcott had that ability to see the picture opening up, that football brain, he would be a world-beater, but he has a long way to go and we still don’t know how he will ultimately turn out.

“It is about seeing options, seeing them early and then being able to pick out the right pass at the right time. If he improves all those areas, he can be a 9 out of 10 player. At the moment, he is 7 out of 10.

“But it is not as simple as going out on the training pitch and practising every day. It is about instinct. There is no thought process when you have a football brain, you just see it and play it, so that’s why it is so difficult to add that to your game if you don’t have that natural instinct.”

Fast forward five years and despite his doubters and detractors Walcott has continued to compete at the top level and has just been rewarded with a lucrative new contract at Arsenal. He was also selected over Giroud to start up front in this weekend’s Community Shield; the second time that Arsene Wenger has pulled him in from the flanks to give him the centre-forward position at Wembley ahead of his French striker. At the end of last season the England international started in the FA Cup final against Aston Villa, scoring the opening goal in a 4-0 victory.

So has Walcott gone on to develop a football brain in the interim period and has his reading of the game improved? Reports on Sunday’s game suggest that it was still his pace rather than his footballing acuity which earned him his place, as he used his speed to pull Chelsea’s defenders into awkward positions. His only really meaningful contribution to the game was his well-timed pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain which led to the game’s only goal. Other commentators suggested that his appointment was a decision based on stats and I couldn’t help but smile at the irony when Wenger’s choice of Walcott over Giroud was described as a ‘no-brainer’.

When he was asked after the game whether Theo Walcott will keep that role during the new season, Wenger said:

“It depends on the games. I tried to see the options I have through the season.

“I felt today that I wanted to use Theo’s pace to go in behind. In the first half he worked very hard, didn’t get too much service, but he worked very hard.”

So it shows that you don’t necessarily need an innate ability to see the patterns in football to succeed as a professional but what could Walcott do to take his game to the next level and to be hailed for his comprehension as much as his blistering pace? Is it possible to acquire a football brain through the right kind of training?

A decade ago in an article in Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science Paul Ward, a psychologist at Florida State University, stated:

“Coaches haven’t quite caught on to the power of the mind, instead focusing on visual skills such as seeing a ball in peripheral vision. People try to train players’ eyes as opposed to their brains."

Ward believed then that ‘reading the game’ is not just a turn of phrase, top players’ brains really do work differently to those of the rest of us.

At the time it was common for progressive coaches to subject players to intense spatial-awareness tasks in an effort to hone their visual skills. However, Ward said that they might be better off getting players to focus on mental rather than visual improvement. Sports psychologists would test players’ reactions to the ball and eye movements using virtual-reality systems or giant video screens hooked up to joysticks. Ward claims that such studies suggest that visual skills account for only a small fraction of the difference between expert football players and novices.

He posited that elite players have "enhanced perceptual cognitive skills.” In footballing terms, they ‘read the game’ well. He went on to expound that these star players use the same amount of their brain for these tasks as a novice; but they use it better, for instance by perceiving the field as a unit or by looking at key body parts to anticipate an opponent’s moves. So much of what we recognize as footballing talent is down to the brain rather than the body.

Ward argued that perceptual cognitive skills can keep a player in the game as he ages and loses speed; and he cited Paolo Maldini as a perfect example. Maldini is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time. He played at a world class level for his entire career spanning two and a half decades, and won the Best Defender trophy at the UEFA Club Football Awards at the age of 39, as well as the Serie A Defender of the Year Award in 2004 at the age of 36.

At the time Ward admitted that some vision experts would disagree with him and say that visual perception is crucial to the sport. While coaches at the highest levels were persisting in hiring visual specialists, psychologists such as Ward were suggesting another approach. He had found that players can improve with the help of simulations that boost perceptual cognitive skills associated with the game.

Ten years on it seems that ‘brain training’ may still not be common practice among leading football coaches as scientists at London’s Brunel University are still working on the theory that the game’s elite players, such as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, have mental faculties that are better programmed to anticipate their opponents’ moves. Research published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2013 found that of 39 players tested, the more experienced footballers were able to suppress the urge to act instinctively, making them less susceptible to feints or tricks from their opponents.

Brunel’s study reinforces the view held by one of the greatest players of all time, Johan Cruyff, who said:

“Football is a game you play with your brain.”

Ward was clearly a man ahead of his time as the question of whether football clubs are missing a trick in overlooking dedicated training for the most important organ of all – the brain – is still being asked. Today’s football professionals have a battery of physios, fitness trainers and doctors all striving to fine-tune their players’ physique for optimum performance but I wonder how many of them are focused on ‘brain training’ and have added a neuroscientist to their backroom staff?

When he spoke to CNN in 2013, Dr Dan Bishop from Brunel’s Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance said:

“I can see top teams employing neuroscientists in the future. That’s because we have the skills and resources to witness very subtle changes in perceptual abilities that may not initially manifest in performance data, because people can change their mind midway through a task and therefore give an erroneous response, when in fact their initial ‘preattentive’ brain response was the correct one. I imagine that this will be most useful at academy level, to assess the development of young players.”

Bishop believes the findings could help nurture a new generation of young sports stars in Britain. He said:

“We believe this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high-quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents.”

During the trial, players ranging from novices to semi-professionals were placed in an MRI scanner and shown video clips of a player dribbling towards them. They then had to decide in which direction to move in order to tackle them. The study found the better players were more sensitive to moves and tricks by an opponent than those at the less talented end of the scale, which came as no surprise to Bishop when he said:

“I am confident the findings would be even stronger with professional players. Much of the activation we saw was comparable to the activations we had witnessed in our previous studies of badminton players — which included a large number of international athletes.”

There is a growing group of coaches who need no convincing of the power of the brain in developing top players. One of them is Kevin McGreskin, Technical Director at Soccer eyeQ, a company that specialises in elite performance coaching.

During an interview with football magazine The Blizzard McGreskin said:

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport. We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

Soccer eyeQ’s website explains how these studies are consistently showing that it is the mental abilities, not necessarily the physical prowess, that is the differentiating factor between elite and non-elite players; and that a holistic approach is required which gives the same attention to developing mental abilities as well as physical.

McGreskin’s views are shared by Michel Bruyninckx, formerly Academy Director for Belgian club Standard Liege and Qatar’s Aspire Academy, who is something of a pioneer when it comes to brain training in football players. He places huge value on “brain-centered learning” and devised a specific program designed to foster improvement in a young player’s cognitive skills. Bruyninckx places the same level of importance of neuroscience as he does football tactics.

Both Bruyninckx and McGreskin have embraced “overload” drills to help tune players’ brains. Some might be asked to speak in different languages during fitness training, while others are asked to throw a tennis ball around and call out colours during sessions involving a football.

Bruyninckx told The Blizzard:

“We need to develop an engram – a neurological track – in the brain. We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain. Jose Mourinho immediately understood what I’m trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions. He also noticed that the organisation of the drills requires a greater team involvement, more concentration, attention, a continuous inciting of perception and that intelligent playing could grow a lot.”

Bruyninckx’s brain training method, which he has developed in collaboration with the University of Louvain, is called CogiTraining and its key tool is SenseBall. According to Bruyninckx, the method’s objective is to generate intelligent players who can think and play faster and more accurately in a collective approach. In 2014 AC Milan adopted the CogiTraining/SenseBall system in order to emphasise brain centered education as part of its core training method for young players.

Presented with all this research and information, do you believe that a football brain can be created with cognitive training or do you think that it will always be something a player either just has or doesn’t have?

If it is a valid hypothesis, why is the game only now waking up to the importance of cognitive training, 50 years after England was lead to victory by arguably one of the greatest ‘football brains’ we’ve ever seen? Is it only something worth doing with academy players or can mature professionals also benefit from this approach?

Finally, which West Ham players, past and present, do you think had/have an innate ability to read the game much more effectively than their team mates?

Personally, I was particularly interested in Bruyninckx’s concept of overload drills and wondered whether we are inadvertently giving other countries an advantage over the England side by employing so many foreign players in the Premier League? Are their cognitive skills, and ergo their game, being improved simply by training in a foreign language? Would England’s fortunes improve if more of our players plied their trade overseas? It’s all food for thought.


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