The Four Days that defined Sam Allardyce at West Ham

In an article about Dennis Bergkamp’s career-defining goal against Argentina in 1998, Rob Smyth summarised that ‘adulthood is what happens when you’re busy making compromises on your youthful ideals’.

This is essentially correct; we are all familiar with taking jobs you hate to pay the bills, sacrificing your body at the altar of cheap and convenient foods and silently loathing yourself in the process. Quite frankly, it’s a truth most of us would rather not ponder on.

Smyth’s theory can also be applied to watching Sam Allardyce manage your football club. The game essentially exists as escapism for the masses, no matter how much the latest bombastic Sky Sports advert tries to convince you it’s a matter of life and death.

Turning up on a Saturday to see Allardyce prowling the touchline is the equivalent of hearing your joyless supervisor chunter on about hitting targets at the expense of enjoyment. This feeling was amplified at West Ham, a club more protective over their ideology of skilful football than most.

It can be argued this is slightly harsh on Dudley’s answer to Rinus Michels. Having inherited a fractious and demoralised squad in 2011, Allardyce got West Ham promoted from the Championship and ensured three mid-table finishes afterwards.

There’s also the consensus that the memorable final season at Upton Park could not have happened without the defensive discipline installed under Allardyce. Once this started to unravel during the run-in, his replacement Slaven Bilic was effectively doomed.

Yet this ignores the numerous flashpoints that marked Allardyce’s spell in east London such as dismissing the ‘West Ham way’ in his very first interview, the fan’s revolt at Peterborough and cupping his ear to the dissatisfied home crowd after a mind-numbing win over Hull.

Like most relationships, there is often a point of no return – where the benefits of the union are significantly outweighed by the cost to your self-esteem. For many this occurred during when West Ham shipped 11 unanswered goals to Nottingham Forest and Manchester City over four bleak January days in 2014.

Most Hammers fans, realising their chances of winning the league title are slimmer than the chance of dating Maya Jama, cling to the cup competitions as a beacon of hope. Allardyce not only mangled these dreams, he drove over them in a jeep and reversed over the twitching carcass to make sure any sign of ambition was extinguished.

Such miserable pragmatism was rendered necessary due to a disappointing start to the 2013-14 season. Having finished 10th the year before, most supporters expected another year of no-thrills consolidation.

Things would quickly deteriorate. Having spent the majority of that summer’s transfer budget on Andy Carroll, with the spare change used to buy Stewart Downing to supply him, there was precisely zero amazement when the Geordie artillery gun was decommissioned until the new year. Carlton Cole, having been released in the summer, was hastily re-signed.

West Ham toiled without him. By December, the team were floundering around the relegation zone having been involved in more goalless draws than the entire Bundesliga.
Having secured an impressive victory at Tottenham with a strikerless formation, Allardyce persisted with the experiment for another six matches with diminishing returns. Rumours have circulated that clips of November’s stalemate against Aston Villa are still used as insomnia medication in some countries.

Amid this gloom, the League Cup was providing some unexpected relief – the crowning point being Modibo Maiga securing cult hero status with his winner at White Hart Lane in the quarter-final. The semi-final draw was unkind – their opponents would be the prolific Manchester City rather than David Moyes’ Manchester United or Sunderland, but it was still an occasion worth awaiting.

Before then, West Ham faced a tricky FA Cup tie at Championship side Nottingham Forest. ITV, licking their lips in expectation of an upset, decided to make the match the centrepiece of their Sunday afternoon output.

In the event, West Ham negotiated the game with all the finesse of an alcoholic tackling a garlic naan in Wetherspoons. Allardyce chose to rest most of his first-team regulars for the challenges ahead, giving debuts to youngsters Danny Whitehead, Callum Driver and Sebastian Lletget, as well as handing George Moncur his first start.

As a statement of intent, the team sheet may as well have come in the form of a hand-delivered white flag. Forest attacked with relish and were quickly ahead – Moncur, proving he was a chip off the old block, tripped Jamie Paterson in the area and Djamel Abdoun nonchalantly chipped home the penalty.

The afternoon passed in a blizzard of apathy and resignation. Paterson helped himself to a hat-trick, while 2004’s Andy Reid capped West Ham’s misery with the fifth and final goal. The camera operators frequently cut away from the action to show visiting fans yawning and one young fan crying in the stands. Allardyce was unrepentant about sacrificing both the club’s chances of Cup success and the well-being of his academy players.

Therefore, the away support travelled to Manchester for the first leg of their League Cup semi a few days later with the confidence of Mark Corrigan taking on Busta Rhymes in a rap battle; City were destined to win the Premier League title that season, scoring over 100 goals in the process. West Ham lined-up with George McCartney at centre-back and Mohamed Diame up front.

If it were a boxing bout, the two opponents would never have been allowed in the same ring. Given the pantomime they would serve up, it was fitting West Ham were wearing their snow-white away kit.

The demolition job started early, with Alvaro Negredo scoring twice in the game’s first quarter. Yaya Toure, in the form of his career, lofted a perfect long pass over Negredo’s shoulder for the Spaniard to lash home the first, while his second was a fine angled finish that exploited the absence of any defensive nous from his opponents.

The game was already a write-off for the thousands that had trekked across the country to watch this midweek massacre. Having already celebrated winning an early corner with the enthusiasm of a goal, City’s next strike would prove to be night’s defining moment.

In a desperate attempt to reinforce his injury-hit squad, Allardyce had bought in Wolves defender Roger Johnson on a short-term loan deal. Johnson had been relegated in the previous three seasons, once with Birmingham and twice at Molineux. Having turned up to training drunk during his time as club captain, it doesn’t take Captain Hindsight to tell you that Wolves wanted rid.

In time-honoured fashion, West Ham took the bait. With the appearance of a snooker player and carrying the nickname ‘The Relegator’, Johnson was precisely the last person to inspire confidence in a team already full of jobbing triers.

So when Toure advanced down the centre of the pitch, the new centre-back panicked. Inching backwards, like a crab doing the moonwalk, Johnson failed to close the marauding midfielder down. Barely having to break into third gear, Toure progressed to the edge of the penalty area before tucking home City’s third goal.

As a sign of sheer ineptitude, Johnson’s backward shuffle was impossible to beat and a strong contender for the worst piece of defending of all-time. Supporters of Sam Allardyce point to his ability to install defensive resolve in his teams, yet the sight of one of his backline making a wretched attempt at stopping the opposition was enough to dispel the myth entirely.

Johnson became the subject of countless internet memes and suffered the ignominy of having his shirt thrown back to him at the end of the match. His spell at Upton Park was understandably short-lived.

By now the patience of the away support had snapped. As the match continued, with City settling for only three more goals, the words ‘F*** off Sam Allardyce’ echoed around the Etihad Stadium. Standing on the rain-swept touchline, the manager could be forgiven for reaching for his bottle of brandy and a revolver.

The press reports were damning. Phil McNulty, writing for the BBC, described the performance as a betrayal to the club’s supporters and said: ‘the lack of resistance or passion on show was nothing short of pathetic.’

The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor went further by saying: ‘the most alarming part for West Ham was that their opponents were still a good notch or two below their optimum. The bottom line is that City did not have to be at their best when the gulf was so considerable.’

To illustrate the chasm between the teams, Edin Dzeko thought City had only scored five and had to be corrected in his post-match interview.

With the club in turmoil, owners David Gold and David Sullivan reasoned that the best man to help West Ham avoid relegation was still Sam Allardyce. This assumption would be proven right; with Carroll returning to fitness, the team scrapped 40 points and a 13th place finish. Within the year, Allardyce would be gone.

While Big Sam did a solid enough job for West Ham, memories of those four days in January 2014 ensure he’s never been missed by the club’s supporters.


The Formative West Ham Matches Of My Childhood

Growing up as a West Ham fan in Bristol during the 2000s was to actively make yourself a target for playground mockery. With fans of City and Rovers as rare as a magnanimous press conference from Jose Mourinho, my Big Red Club supporting classmates took delight in countless defeats against teams few primary school children have any real conception of (Rotherham, Gillingham, Oldham).

It was no exaggeration to suggest that supporting the club accounted for 90% of my personality during school, my enthusiasm for the Hammers directly inverse to my own footballing ability. After years of discovery at university, conservative estimates say this proportion now stands at 70%.

Like many young fans, football was the portal through which a multitude of emotions were first discovered and life lessons learnt – even today, watching West Ham regularly provides one with the mild disappointment of a middle-aged man discovering his favourite song on the radio is by Ed Sheeran. However, it also taught you about pride, belonging and sticking together through thin and thinner.

This last point cannot be stressed enough – once relegation was confirmed in 2011 (the day before my sixteenth birthday), one friend idly asked me which team I was going to support now. While the merits of competitive tiddlywinks had never seemed so tempting, it was a question only a person not indoctrinated into football fandom could ask.

Ultimately, supporting a team as frequently hapless as West Ham provides an early grounding in the realities of life. Here are five matches that shaped my own outlook:

West Ham United 2-2 Arsenal – Saturday 24th August 2002 (Premiership)

I have vague recollections of watching this on The Premiership, ITV’s ill-fated highlights show that fuelled a short-lived appreciation of U2. Sadly, Andy Townsend and his tactics truck were absent. This was a thrilling match and one that distilled the essence of supporting West Ham into ninety minutes – you cannot say I wasn’t warned from an early age.

Facing the league and cup holders Arsenal, a team packed full of talented individuals were excellent for over an hour and led 2-0 through Joe Cole and Freddie Kanoute. As so often, West Ham had raised their performance to ‘obscene levels’ against superior opposition – the trio of Cole, Michael Carrick and Trevor Sinclair less of a midfield than a symphony orchestra.

Despite Thierry Henry netting a spectacular goal, West Ham quickly won a penalty to restore their two-goal lead only for Kanoute to scuff a mole murdering effort down the throat of David Seaman. It was probable that an incapacitated badger would also have saved it.

Cue a time-honoured collapse. Arsenal equalised two minutes before the end and defeat was only avoided through a string of saves from David James. This was arguably the game that saw romantic notions of the West Ham Way die. Minutes away from an impressive victory, the Hammers did not win at home until late January and were relegated with a points total unmatched since. The playing squad has rarely possessed similar levels of potential as on that sunny August afternoon.

An early lesson in suppressing premature excitement.

Reading 3-1 West Ham United – Saturday 12th March 2005 (Championship)

Last November a housemate accompanied me to our match at Burnley. The resulting afternoon provided numerous tropes of West Ham awayday that are strangely reassuring in a constantly changing world: a freezing cold day in northern England, insipid defending, meek surrender on the pitch, gallows humour in the stands and a delayed train back home. It seems unwritten that for every awayday success, there will be five more which provoke a similar reaction to banging your head on a door frame. My housemate had a great time.

This match was the first of such days, also cementing my irrational dislike of Reading Football Club that supersedes almost all others. Rivals in the play-off race, Reading had not won a league game since Boxing Day and faced a West Ham team whose efforts that season redefined the word ‘underwhelming’. With depressing predictability, the following ninety minutes left the Reading fans more gleeful than Montgomery Burns after a hit of laughing gas.

Dave Kitson, the type of striker for whom playing against the Hammers is akin to discovering water in the Sahara, scored a hat-trick – the first of which involved leaning over a hopelessly mismatched Hayden Mullins to nod home. The consolation effort from Teddy Sheringham was deemed so irrelevant it was not included on the season review DVD.

Yet, my main memory from the day was of our supporters themselves. Whether acting from belligerence, perverse pride or protest, the song ‘We are West Ham’s Claret and Blue Army’ reverberated around the Madjeski Stadium, pointedly excluding manager Alan Pardew. Here, the lesson was that the performances of the team and actions of the club rarely deserve the loyal backing they receive.

Liverpool 3-3 West Ham United – Saturday 13th May 2006 (FA Cup Final)

F*** sake.

West Ham United 3-4 Tottenham Hotspur – Sunday 4th March 2007 (Premier League)

Inadvertently, the sentiment behind supporting an unsuccessful club was best described by John Cleese. During the 1986 film Clockwise, in which Cleese plays a strictly punctual headmaster called Brian, the apparent West Ham ‘fanatic’ utters the immortal line ‘it’s not the despair. I can cope with the despair. It’s the hope that kills you’. It is a quote that speaks to your very soul and the very essence of human experience. It also perfectly encapsulated a staggering late winter’s afternoon over a decade ago.

Even by West Ham standards, this match was ridiculous. Rooted in the relegation zone, having been winless in the league since Christmas, the Hammers took the game directly to their North London opponents. Having been fortunate not to have fallen behind early on, a sprightly Mark Noble opened the scoring after rifling home from a deft touch from the Adam’s Apple of Carlos Tevez.

Minutes before half-time, Tevez hooked home a free-kick to double West Ham’s lead. After a tumultuous experience in East London, the Argentine’s first goal for the club was met with rapturous celebration – in scenes reminiscent of a slightly flabby Hulk, Tevez ripped off his shirt and jumped joyously into the crowd, the striker quickly buried under a sea of Burberry.

The mood at half-time felt too close to over-confidence for comfort, a sense of cockiness usually held by those walking directly into the path of a banana skin. So it proved. Tottenham started the second-half reinvigorated and were soon level – firstly from a Jermain Defoe penalty, mindlessly conceded by Lee Bowyer, which was followed by a classy team effort finished by Teemu Tainio. As if delivered by an overseeing power keen to reinforce order, the decision to live briefly in the moment had been ruthlessly punished.

Just when events appeared to be heading one way, another twist. With ten minutes remaining, another Tevez delivery was met by the bald head of Bobby Zamora, diverting the ball into the net. 3-2. Having diced with disaster, it appeared it would be West Ham’s day after all.

Not quite. As the clock ticked into its final sixty seconds, Tottenham won a cheap free kick on the very edge of the penalty area. Dimitar Berbatov, a player so languid he appeared to be without bones whatsoever, proceeded to curl an exquisite effort beyond the despairing efforts of Paul Konchesky on the line.

Two more vital points dropped? If only. As West Ham frantically searched for a winner, a wasted corner led to Defoe racing up the pitch with only one defender to beat. His shot was saved but ran desperately into the path of the trundling Paul Stalteri, who bundled home an improbable winner. Having been denied Champions League football the previous season after defeat at Upton Park, Tottenham proved that revenge is a dish best served cruel.

West Ham, having performed so valiantly, had produced a masterclass in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A cartoon in the following day’s Daily Mail depicted fans leaving the stadium and walking straight into the Samaritans office. Objectively speaking, this was one of the most thrilling matches of the Premier League era and one that provided the impetus for West Ham’s miraculous escape from relegation.

Objectivity does not stop an eleven-year-old boy weeping into his Sunday dinner.

West Ham United 4-0 Manchester United – Tuesday 30th November 2010 (League Cup)

Tony Pulis is not usually renowned as one of life’s great philosophers. However, when addressing fan disgruntlement during his time at Stoke City, the Welshman observed that ‘if you’re given steak and chips every day, steak and chips become the norm’. Ignoring the fact Pulisball is about as appetising as uncooked rice, Tony had hit upon an essential truism: that most joys of life are dulled by repetition. Many great moments and experiences are magnified by their rarity.

Take football. Witness Chelsea supporters regarding finals as the minimum expectation rather than generational events. Witness Manchester City greeting domestic cup success with an increasingly indifferent shrug. As incomprehensible as this opinion must be to the spoilt element of their online fanbases, they are missing out. Success is enhanced by the tribulations that precede it. Finishing tenth one season does not count.

Which leads me to my final choice. As exasperating as West Ham ultimately are, they do have the redeeming tendency to produce unexpected triumphs. None more so than this League Cup quarter-final in 2010 – hosting Manchester United, who had won the competition in the two previous years, West Ham demolished the league leaders 4-0 with a display described by The Guardian as ‘rampant’.

Jonathan Spector, an extraordinarily unremarkable utility man, opened the scoring with a header that was his first career goal in English football. His second arrived fifteen minutes later. The unforeseen transformation of Spector and the falling snow that dusted the pitch added to the surreal nature of the occasion. The only object redder than Ferguson’s nose was his United branded bobble hat.

This time West Ham did not collapse when two goals ahead. Assisted by the sporadically decent Victor Obinna, Carlton Cole achieved his own double in the second half and gave Jonny Evans such a roasting that the Northern Irishman could have been served with potatoes and seasonal veg.

It must be stated that this was not a vintage Manchester United team – their title winning team that year was forgettable by their standards and their reserves played in this game. However, our own line-up contained Hammers legends such as Pablo Barrera, Radoslav Kovac and Tal Ben-Haim and finished rock bottom of the league. This was still a thrashing more shocking than a January heatwave.

Best of all, it riled the hordes of plastic United fans at my secondary school. Upon walking into class the next day, the smile across my face betraying efforts to exude an air of false modesty, one lad exclaimed ‘pipe down you runt!’, indication that my very presence had gotten under the thinnest of skins. Sadly, the success of your football team does not stop some people from being irredeemable pricks.

My emotions that day provided my final childhood lesson – that, despite it all, I wouldn’t swap supporting West Ham for anyone else.

Talking Point

Would Sean Dyche be an upgrade on David Moyes?

One of Green Street’s great qualities (the place before anybody thinks I am about to endorse one of the worst Cockney accents in the history of film) is its timelessness. Upon leaving the station, a short walk past the various takeaway shops, open-air market and the remaining eclectic establishments makes you feel this could be any year since 1970.

With the world slowly disintegrating into squabbling factions, each convinced of their own righteousness and despising the other, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Nostalgia can be an effective method of coping with the present.

Of course, this timelessness can extend to the performances of the team once found on Green Street. Wednesday’s defeat to Burnley was as frustrating as it was predictable. Comfortable in their own skin, organised and competent, Burnley are exactly the kind of team West Ham have traditionally hated to play against. For Burnley, read Big Sam’s Bolton or Wimbledon in years gone by.

A chance to put clear day light between the Hammers and the relegation zone was missed, evidence of the club’s commitment to taking one step forward and two steps back.

For many supporters, this confirmed everything they believed about David Moyes. While his team created numerous chances in the first-half, the longer the game went on the more likely defeat appeared.

No change in tactics to stem the inevitable tide, substitutions ineffective and pointless – the Scot could be seen standing on the touchline looking unerringly like Moe Syzslak. Creative players such as Lanzini and Wilshere left on the bench in the manner of an Action Man figurine that the owner refuses to take out of the box for fear of damage (justified in the case of Wilshere). His game management can best be described as timid and reactive.

While Moyes may well ensure survival this season, largely down to the awfulness of the other bottom dwellers, the conventional wisdom is that he and West Ham will be fighting relegation again next year, the proverbial turd circling the toilet bowl before eventually being flushed away. Any sense of optimism surrounding the club has long since been punctured, hope and ambition lying dormant beneath the crushing sense of reality and weariness.

However, just as cod-liver oil medicine is unpleasant but ultimately beneficial, it can be argued that Moyes could be the man to lay some solid foundations for the future.

The signings of Soucek and Bowen, that have injected some desperately needed dynamism into a previously moribund midfield, demonstrate that he can spot a player. While results have not dramatically improved, the team are more organised and determined than the final months under Pellegrini. Underneath the desolate wasteland of misplaced expectation it is possible to see some green shots of recovery.

Indeed, there are intriguing reports that Moyes wishes to construct a recruitment model based upon RB Leipzig, which would target young and talented players with significant re-sale value. Music to the ears of those who witnessed the trundling performances of Patrice Evra in claret-and-blue, but it should be noted that the source of this information is Joe Cole. While it is endearing that former Chelsea employee Cole still refers to our club as ‘we’, it must also be remembered that he previously endorsed Glen Roeder’s management skills.

Despite this, it is admirable that Moyes has such vision for the long-term future of the club. Personally, if I had been through his experiences with Manchester United and Sunderland, I would have given up football management and made a career out of placating Roy Keane on Sky Sports.

While some wags on social media label Moyes as the ‘dementor of football’, sucking all the joy out of his surroundings, I believe he is notably more optimistic at West Ham than he has been for years. Speaking as somebody whose personality does not scream ‘sunshine’, this trait should be admired, especially after so many setbacks.

It interested me recently to see that Sean Dyche has been linked with the West Ham job. There are murmurs of discontent coming out of Burnley that suggest Dyche is unhappy with the size of his squad as stalwart players are released and belts tightened. He has undeniably worked miracles in Lancashire, establishing the small-town club in the Premier League in the age of huge budgets and even bigger hubris is no small achievement. No team in the division relishes a trip to Turf Moor.

For his own part, Dyche has appeared extremely interested in working at West Ham. Rumours linking him to the job first appeared when Slaven Bilic was sacked in 2017. Two years later, Dyche was reported to be eager to speak with the club when Pellegrini was ousted. Certainly, one recent interview in which he failed to rule out leaving Burnley spoke volumes, offering all the reassurance of a dissatisfied wife who believes she has outgrown her current relationship and has decided to offer veiled threats to her partner.

Another factor is Dyche’s friendship with Karren Brady, which does not reflect upon his managerial skills but does demonstrate questionable taste. Using her reprehensible column in The Sun, Brady has frequently praised the Burnley man, often in strange ways.

In 2017 she wrote that ‘with a trim goatee, together with his well-razored hairline, Dyche has the air of a man in complete control’, ignoring the fact that the incompetent contestants on The Apprentice are often manicured to within an inch of their lives. Later, Brady wrote that Dyche ‘looks even more of a Spanish grandee than Rafa Benitez’, obviously recalling how the carrot-topped midfield of Xavi and Iniesta dominated world football ten years ago.

More seriously, it can be argued that Dyche would simply not be a good fit for West Ham. His tactics, while more refined than Tony Pulis, can be most kindly described as direct. Dyche preaches simplicity, which sounds like bad news for Felipe Anderson. Casting my mind back to the reign of Sam Allardyce, where the travelling fans serenaded the team with ‘we’re West Ham, we play on the floor’ during one match at Peterborough, it is hard to believe the fanbase would tolerate Dyche’s brand of football for long if results were not forthcoming. Rightly or wrongly, belief in the ‘West Ham way’ still underpins this club.

While undeniably effective, Burnley are usually one the league’s lowest scorers. West Ham are addicted to flair players. Most of Dyche’s marquee signings have failed to pay off, from Joe Hart to Ben Gibson and Matej Vydra, although this trait suggests he would fit right in with us. Call me cynical, but this does not sound a substantial upgrade on what Moyes offers.

It goes without saying that there are a myriad of issues at West Ham. For all the owners point to the amount of money invested, this becomes irrelevant when glancing through our lopsided squad that contains so many holes you would believe it was constructed by Dominic Cummings. This is without even bringing up our spectacularly ill-conceived stadium.

Our club will never progress while we possess the worst pair of full-backs in the league. Too many players have been bought on reputation rather than suitability. It is damning that Mark Noble, thirty-three going on fifty, still commands a regular spot in midfield despite having the mobility of custard. Clubs of similar stature such as Wolves or Leicester have much more effective recruitment policies and a clear ethos that underpins every decision made. The comparison with West Ham is night and day.

Moyes is making the right noises about tackling these problems and has taken baby steps towards solving them. While offering support for him on some social media platforms is met incredulously, it is hardly as if the alternative is Pochettino. West Ham are simply not an attractive club to manage in its present state. After keeping us up once and being two results away from doing so again, it would hardly be fair upon Moyes to sack him for achieving what he was asked to do.

Of course, this would become a footnote if the current season ended in relegation. However, if the worst-case scenario were to be avoided, there are worse choices than David Moyes to stabilise the club. Until the ownership of the club changes, there is simply not much more to aspire to.


The Night Upton Park Shook

It is often said that supporting a football team, like being in love or life itself, is like riding a rollercoaster. There is some logic to this – rather than become annoyed by events ultimately outside our control, it can be best simply to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Of course, there are moments during the ride where we curse ourselves for being foolish enough to step on in the first place. However, it cannot be denied that riding the rollercoaster makes us feel alive and lives are ultimately enriched for the experience.

David Squires saw it differently. The Guardian cartoonist labelled the experience of supporting Swindon Town as more akin to fellow fairground attraction whack-a-mole: fleeting moments of hope swiftly smacked down by the mallet of reality, something that chimes with the life experience of countless individuals across the globe.

Telling this to West Ham fans is almost preaching to the converted: we are aware our team is not as successful or trophy-laden as other clubs. Therefore, moments where tangible achievement seem elusively close become cherished and celebrated in compensation, times where the bubbles nearly reach the sky.

One of those moments occurred in May 2004. On a sweltering spring night under the Upton Park floodlights, West Ham overpowered Ipswich Town to reach the Division One Play-Off Final. The match has become remembered in East London folklore for the raw emotive atmosphere stoked by the home support, the type that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and sends tingles down your spine.

For a generation of supporters, this was a night to rival Eintracht Frankfurt in 1976 or Everton in 1991. The fact the Hammers subsequently missed out on promotion has almost become a footnote.

Perhaps the atmosphere that night was the release of two seasons worth of frustration. After an avoidable relegation the year before, West Ham were hopelessly inconsistent in Division One during the 2003/04 season – When Saturday Comes described the attempt at instant promotion back to the Premier League as a ‘catalogue of disasters’.

After sticking by Glenn Roeder following his stroke the previous April, the manager was sacked after an August defeat at Rotherham that was preceded by West Ham’s refusal to use the dressing room facilities at Milmoor. In securing Alan Pardew as his replacement, the board managed to enter an acrimonious dispute with Pardew’s former employers and promotion rivals Reading. The impression that the club considered themselves above Division One football intensified.

This arrogance was misplaced. The star-studded team that had played in the Premier League had been ripped apart by circling vultures and a hastily assembled collection of free transfers, loanees and bargain buys took their place. Call this author cynical, but the likes of Robbie Stockdale, Wayne Quinn and Niclas Alexandersson are never likely to be considered Hammers legends.

The disjointedness of the squad was reflected in the team’s results. Pardew failed to win a match for well over a month upon his arrival, a sequence that saw countless mind-numbing draws and a humiliating collapse at home to West Brom. One match that sticks in the memory was a home defeat to Stoke, where the performance was spineless and inept even by West Ham standards.

Alongside this, star striker Jermaine Defoe was busy collecting red cards like they were Monopoly properties. Eventually, he left the club in the January transfer window alongside England goalkeeper David James. Only Michael Carrick remained of West Ham’s vaunted collection of home-grown players.

Nevertheless, the mood music was not all negative. With the ability of hindsight, it was possible to see tentative green shoots of recovery amongst the barren wasteland of mediocrity.

Pardew’s first signing was Crystal Palace captain Hayden Mullins, while forward Marlon Harewood joined after a prolific spell at Nottingham Forest. In January, Pardew secured the services of Bobby Zamora from Tottenham in exchange for the departing Defoe while Nigel Reo-Coker arrived from basket-case Wimbledon. All four would be key members of the squad that eventually secured promotion and an appearance in the FA Cup final.

However, the good times still seemed impossibly distant. The onset of spring saw embarrassing away reverses at Sunderland, Reading and arch-rivals Millwall, the latter an occasion where centre backs Christian Dailly and Andy Melville were less of a defence than a tearful confession. After an Easter period that saw a stultifying goalless home draw with Derby County and defeat at Palace, it seemed unlikely the pre-season promotion favourites would even make the play-offs.

Alas, the team eventually stumbled across some semblance of form and a collection of late-season wins saw the team finish fourth. A late Brian Deane equaliser at Wigan on the final day secured West Ham a second-leg semi final under the Upton Park floodlights while also allowing Palace into the play-offs through the back door. This seemingly irrelevant detail would later have huge ramifications.

Before then, West Ham travelled to Ipswich Town for their semi-final first-leg. Their opponents had impressed throughout the regular league campaign and contained wily players such as Kelvin Davis, Jim Magilton and a youthful Darren Bent.

During a tense ninety minutes, Ipswich always held the edge over the Hammers and an opportunistic header from Bent sealed a narrow 1-0 victory. The omens for the return were not especially promising – Ipswich had won at Upton Park earlier in the season and nothing in the first leg suggested anything different.

For all his personal and managerial flaws, Pardew was skilled at creating a sense of occasion. After the final whistle at Portman Road, the West Ham boss praised Ipswich fans for the noise generated but archly warned that ‘if you thought that was a good atmosphere then on Tuesday our place will be jumping’.

Pardew made the bold prediction that Ipswich would crumble when faced with 35,000 ‘hostile’ fans at Upton Park, despite the fact that any hostility generated that season had been directed towards the home players. Making a final rallying cry, he predicted the home crowd would be ‘absolutely essential – I know what the place will be like and it promises to be a cracking game’.

Pardew would be proven right. When matchday arrived, all the anger and frustration felt at the club’s decline was channelled into creating a white-hot atmosphere. In a bizarre cameo, a man wearing a beefeater red jacket and a horse rider’s helmet led the teams out playing an impossibly small trumpet. The exact reasoning behind this remains unknown, but the din when the players ran out onto the pitch was more akin to Buenos Aries or Istanbul. Bubbles has rarely been sung with more gusto.

As if matching their supporters, West Ham started the game at frantic speed. After surviving an early let-off when Bent fired wide when well placed, the Hammers dominated a fraught first-half where emotion trumped fluency. Their play was marked by directness and power with Carrick pulling the strings from the heart of midfield.

Steve Lomas hit the bar after connecting first-time with Matthew Etherington’s cross. Soon after, Bobby Zamora seemed certain to open the scoring after meeting David Connolly’s centre with his head. Incredibly, Ipswich keeper Davis showed cat-like reflexes to turn the ball behind and the stadium released a collective outtake of disbelieving breath. Minutes later, Davis again dove at full-stretch to keep out a stinging long-range effort by Dailly.

Despite the pressure exerted by West Ham, the first half ended goalless. As it stood, Ipswich would be going to Cardiff for the final and the Hammers condemned to another year of lower-league football. Pre-match previews emphasised the consequences of failure; the perilous state of the club’s finances meant the fifteen million from promotion and sponsorship were less of a bonus than a necessity.

Pardew acknowledged he would face an ‘unpleasant’ agenda should West Ham miss out. The pressures on him were immense, but that barely excuses his decision to wear a ‘Moore Than a Football Club’ t-shirt on the night. While opportunities to celebrate the club’s most famous son should never be denied, it is very possible that even Liverpool Football Club would have rejected the shirt design as overly sentimental. Even though Pardew had judged the occasion perfectly, this was a rare mis-step.

The match continued with the same intensity after the break. The Hammers quickly forced a succession of corners, ending with the moment that lit the blue-touch paper and elevated the night from intense to memorable.

Carrick, having seen his previous effort defended solidly by Ipswich, decided to play a corner short to the by-standing Etherington. Taking one touch to allow the ball to run across his body, the winger unleashed a ferocious left-footed effort towards the top corner that left Davis with no chance. When the strike rippled the back of the net it was very possible that every window pane in neighbouring Canning Town was smashed by the release of undiluted joy.

Etherington wheeled away as if on fast-forward, ripping his shirt above his head and being mobbed by delighted team-mates. The Hammer of the Year that season, Etherington was often an inconsistent performer, his contribution for the club consequently in danger of being overlooked. Despite remaining at the club until 2009, this was undoubtedly his finest moment in claret and blue.

Demonstrating that West Ham never make things easy for themselves, the period immediately after Etherington’s strike saw Ipswich grow into the match. Bent passed when he should have shot in front of goal and their threat on the break became more obvious. At this point, it was effectively next goal wins.

Happily, this proved to be a West Ham effort. As the game entered its final quarter, Ipswich made a mess of dealing with an Etherington corner and the ball ping-ponged around the area, falling to the unmarked Dailly. After literally taking one for the team, the Scot managed to hook a low shot that squirmed past a host of bodies and into the Ipswich goal.

The stadium once again erupted. With any semblance of restraint long since abandoned, Pardew jumped into the nearest group of West Ham fans. Meanwhile, Dailly fell to his knees and was greeted by teammates uncertain of his wellbeing. Paraphrasing his famous club chant, Christian would not be ‘shagging anyone’s wife’ for a long stretch.

Time remained for one almighty let-off. In the final minute, an effort from Ian Westlake pinged back off the West Ham upright, Stephen Bywater rooted to the spot as if turned to ice. The home fans in the stadium experienced a similar sensation to their goalkeeper. One Ipswich goal would have sealed them the tie on the away-goals rule.

Consequently, the final whistle was greeted with jubilant celebration. After muddling through the season, West Ham had fed off a rabid atmosphere to produce a performance to make their long-suffering fans proud.

Watching their players jump into each other’s arms, the crowd at Upton Park sang one final rendition of Bubbles as hope once again made an elusive appearance on the horizon. It was a fitting end to a night that both drained and enriched the soul.

Defeat to Crystal Palace in the subsequent final was hard to take. In a dour game, a tap-in from the vast Neil Shipperley won the match for the Eagles and West Ham were left feeling impotent after failing to rise to the occasion in Cardiff. Promotion would have to wait for another twelve months.

Numerous commentators have made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that West Ham would be the least affected by the absence of fans during Project Restart, a theory debunked by the Hammers’ hapless incompetence against Wolves last Saturday.

Ultimately football needs fans. Despite the best efforts of life-sapping billionaires, it remains the people’s game with the power to create moments that will keep us warm once the years draw in and our memories are all that insulate us against life’s realities.

Football without fans is life without emotion, a heart that does not beat. Occasions such as the semi-final against Ipswich are the perfect example of this.


The Story of West Ham’s Maddest Season

One of the most stereotypically male traits, alongside leaving the toilet seat up and the inclination towards ‘banter’ as a means of demonstrating affection, is the desire to list things. This may explain the conspicuous lack of female train-spotters. While life is essentially many different shades of grey, rankings are often used by people attempting to order the subjective and have formed the basis of countless pub conversations. Scores of Top 10 lists, under the guise of provoking debate, proliferate the internet in a manner that screams content filler.

Many football outlets have resorted to this ubiquitous technique in order to compensate for the absence of any live action to discuss. For example, the BBC recently asked voters to select the most miraculous escape from relegation in the Premier League era. Options ranged from Portsmouth’s survival in 2006 under Harry Redknapp to Sunderland’s late surge in 2014 inspired by Connor Wickham’s heartbreakingly brief transformation into the Mackem Aguero.

There was one glaring omission. In March 2007, West Ham United were rooted to the bottom of the league and ten points from safety with nine games remaining. Just over two months later, the team had won seven matches and completed a miraculous escape by winning at newly-crowned champions Manchester United. Most incredibly of all, they achieved the impossible and made millions of neutrals sympathise with Dave Whelan and Neil Warnock.

For this was perhaps the maddest season in the history of the club, with twists and turns that would have been rejected as too outlandish by Hollywood scriptwriters. It involved the most left-field double transfer in recent history, an Icelandic takeover, unprecedented legal challenges, turmoil within the changing room and staggering incompetence on the pitch before the unexpectedly dramatic season finale. At times, it seemed the whole country wished to see them relegated. Their eventual survival proved incredibly controversial.

As ever pride came before the fall. Led by Alan Pardew, the club had managed an eye-catching return to top-flight football finishing ninth in the league and playing some attractive football. Alongside this, West Ham were minutes away from winning the FA Cup and were incredibly unlucky to lose the final to Liverpool. With a young squad packed full of exciting players such as Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Dean Ashton, optimism was high that the team could push on the following season.

However, cracks were beginning to appear beneath the surface. In retrospect, the heartbreaking nature of the Cup Final defeat took an emotional toll on the group. The club signed numerous players in the summer of 2006 but only goalkeeper Robert Green seemed ready-made for the first-team.

Most galling of all was losing Ashton, a revelation since his January move from Norwich. Days before his England debut, a heavy tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips in training injured the striker’s ankle and he would subsequently miss the entire season. Despite the club possessing numerous strikers, his absence would be keenly felt.

These developments were soon overshadowed by a remarkable double transfer, setting the tone for a chaotic season. When asked about the prospect of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano joining West Ham, Pardew replied ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s never going to happen’.

So he might. The idea of two of South America’s hottest talents, who had starred for Argentina in that year’s World Cup, plying their trade in East London seemed remote. By the end of August, Pardew was stood introducing the two players with the same disbelieving air of a Tudor king discovering the internet.

The deal was shrouded in mystery. It eventually turned out that the rights to Tevez and Mascherano were owned by four companies representing Kia Joorabchian. Premier League rules prohibited third-party ownership and a sense that the deal was more than a little shady began to permeate discussions surrounding the Argentine pair. The old adage that something too good to be true probably is rang true.

Results capitulated. The Hammers failed to score a goal in seven successive games and slid towards the bottom of the league. The club’s first European campaign in seven years ended in the First Round and they were ignominiously dumped out of the League Cup by Chesterfield. The feeling grew that a culture of complacency pervaded throughout the club.

Rumours circulated that the arrival of Tevez and Mascherano had put noses out of joint. The dependable Hayden Mullins was replaced in the team by Mascherano, while Bobby Zamora made way for Tevez despite starting the season in hot form. Both Argentinians struggled with the pace of English football. After his substitution during a home win over Sheffield United, Tevez stormed out of Upton Park and Pardew decided to leave his punishment up to the rest of the squad. They made him train wearing a Brazil shirt.

Alongside the on-field slump, the club had a change of ownership in November. Surprisingly, the new owner was not the expected Joorabchian but Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who installed Eggert Magnusson as chairman.

Possessing the world’s shiniest head, Magnusson immediately gave his support to Pardew. However, a miserable run of defeats that culminated in a televised surrender to Bolton Wanderers in December was the final straw. Pardew was sacked.

There is an argument that Pardew was hard done by. He had built the squad that had rescued the club from Championship purgatory and had done an impressive job the season before. On the other hand, there were claims that the manager was too soft on his players and discipline had suffered accordingly. His sacking was probably justified.

He was replaced by ex-Charlton manager Alan Curbishley who was also a former West Ham player. The change had an immediate effect – the team managed an improbable home win over Manchester United but this proved a mirage. The club would not win another league game until mid-March.

The period would be marked by a succession of embarrassing defeats. West Ham managed to lose twice at home to bottom club Watford – once in the league and once in the FA Cup. New Year’s Day saw a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Reading. There was also a 4-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic, now managed by Pardew. Chants of ‘You’re Not Fit to Wear The Shirt’ reverberated amongst the support.

By now, the toxicity of the dressing room was becoming apparent. After the humbling at Reading, Curbishley tore into his players and denounced the player’s penchant for fast cars and flashy lifestyles. They were instantly dubbed the ‘Baby Bentley brigade’ by a gleeful media enjoying rubber-necking at the enfolding car-crash.

No player epitomised this more than captain Nigel Reo-Coker. His impressive debut season in the Premier League led to his inclusion on the standby list for England’s World Cup squad. There were subsequent rumours of interest from Manchester United and Arsenal. Many sources within the club claimed that the midfielder’s head was turned and doubts began to surface about his attitude. He was central to a dressing room clique that also included Anton Ferdinand, Mullins, Zamora and Marlon Harewood. Curbishley was aghast.

There were also concerns about the gambling culture within the squad. Two members of the team, Etherington and Roy Carroll, undertook counselling and treatment for addiction problems and players were haemorrhaging vast amounts of money to each other during card games. According to The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson, figures were as high as £50,000 during one sitting. Attempts at eradicating these card schools were repeatedly unsuccessful. It was perhaps no wonder that the atmosphere in the dressing room was appalling.

Magnusson attempted to remedy the problem by embarking on a January spending spree that was unprecedented in West Ham’s history. The signings of Luis Boa Morte, Calum Davenport, Lucas Neill, Nigel Quashie, Kepa Blanco and Matthew Upson were aimed at creating a more professional culture within the club. Disheartened at the prospect of challenging Quashie for a midfield spot, Mascherano escaped to Liverpool. He had lost in every appearance he made for the club.

Despite this, the situation seemed hopeless. Resentment grew amongst senior players at the wages being paid to Upson and Neill. Neill had reportedly rejected a move to Anfield due to the more lucrative salary offered by West Ham and Upson only made two injury-curtailed appearances before the end of the season. Players, staff and directors were privately resigned to relegation.

These feelings intensified after an extraordinary match against Tottenham in early March. The team’s performance was notably more committed and Tevez scored his first goal for the club with a delicious free-kick. Leading 2-0 at half-time and 3-2 in the final minute, West Ham conspired to lose the game 4-3. Words cannot do justice to gut-wrenching nature of the defeat and a young Mark Noble wondered round the pitch in tears at the match’s conclusion. Relegation seemed certain.

Yet something had clicked. In their very next game, West Ham came from behind to win at Blackburn Rovers with a goal from Zamora that failed to cross the line. The revitalised team carried this piece of good fortune with them and wins followed over Middlesbrough and Arsenal, the latter a heist founded upon an outstanding performance by Green.

Tevez had finally come to life and his performances galvanized the team. However, this narrative overlooks the vital contribution of other players. Ferdinand formed a sturdy partnership with James Collins in defence. Noble belied his tender years with mature performances in midfield. Zamora contributed vital goals. Above all, the leadership of Neill proved invaluable.

In the background, the prospect of a points deduction loomed. However, despite an independent Premier League commission charged West Ham with breaking third-party ownership rules, the club instead received a record £5.5m fine. Even though, in the manner of The Producers, the defendants had been found ‘incredibly guilty’ there was still all to play for on the field. Fellow bottom-dwellers, particularly Wigan and Sheffield United, sharpened their knives.

The day after the commission’s announcement, West Ham won 3-0 away at Whelan’s Wigan. Following a Tevez-inspired win over Bolton, the club were out of the relegation zone for the first time in months. Going into the final game of the season, the Hammers only had to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to survive relegation. In another plot twist, Sheffield United hosted Wigan with the away team needing a win to stand any chance of survival.

West Ham were battered by Manchester United with the home crowd chanting ‘send them down’. Shots were cleared off the line and the defending became increasingly desperate. Nevertheless, United failed to score and on the stroke of half-time Tevez slotted home the decisive goal of the game. At Bramall Lane, David Unsworth’s penalty saved Wigan and relegated Sheffield United.

The Blades were apoplectic. Sir Alex Ferguson had rested Manchester United players with the following week’s FA Cup final in mind and manager Neil Warnock accused him of compromising the integrity of the competition. This declaration ignored the presence of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes on the pitch at the end of the game. It also conveniently overlooks how Sheffield United thrashed West Ham 3-0 in mid-April, Tevez included.

Eventually, Sheffield United had their day in court. In 2009, they agreed a settlement of £18.1m with West Ham paid in instalments that ended in 2013. In spite of this windfall, the Yorkshire club would spend another decade outside the top flight. By 2015, FIFA had globally outlawed third-party ownership.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s Icelandic owners saw their wealth wiped out by the global recession and sold up in 2010. West Ham were relegated a year later. It can also be argued the club’s reputation never fully recovered from the Tevez saga.

Tevez himself departed for Manchester United in 2007 having written himself into West Ham folklore with his performances. Having pulled off the Great Escape, Irons fans everywhere breathed a huge sigh of relief having somehow managed to survive.

It truly was the maddest and most surreal season in the history of the club.

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