Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time For Action at the Lane

As I write United sit tenth in League 1 yet, at such an early stage of the season, we are just three points off second place with a game in hand on some of those above us. After last season's end this is perhaps below expectations and performances to date have done more to dampen them than raise. Those of a positive bent point to the small points gap and the fact we are yet to gel and find form, yet it is that lack of clear purpose and direction that worries me more.

Three home league games have seen an unjust defeat to early pacesetters Bristol City and scrappy single goal wins over Crawley and Rochdale. In both of the latter two games we have been pedestrian and plodding, whilst creating limited chances. In fact our best performance came at Preston where we soaked up pressure and counter attacked very well.

The manager is focused on not conceding, rather than winning, but with few clear cut chances created we are always at risk of defeat, or at best a draw, if the opposition score. To criticise such tactics may seem churlish given this was the basis of the strong unbeaten run from February onwards. It also delivered results for six games this season, but we are playing to tight margins and the risk of failure is high. 

The defence, shorn of it's best two players looks susceptible and errors are commonplace. Players who ended last season brimming with confidence, such as Murphy and Flynn, look lacklustre and limp with little energy or will to drive us forward.  

Post game, after the 5-2 defeat at Swindon, Clough explained that he set out to nullify the home side's attacking threat, but in doing so invited them on, we couldn't handle them and all impetus was lost. Chasing the game we give ourselves the glimmer of another three goal comeback but their players knew they had the beating of us. 

The comeback at Colchester aside we look mentally weak and there is a fear inherent in our play - such as taking it to the corner with ten minutes to go at home to Crawley. The manager has them worried about the opposition, not focused on what we might do to them.

There have been rumours of player fall outs and the manager has struggled to incorporate his new signings into the squad. One player,brought in as an experienced centre back and leader was written off in pre season, others have struggled to fit in the team and perform the role expected.

His team selection for the opening game against Bristol City could be equally judged brave or bizarre. His substitution of Neill Collins at Swindon could have long term ramifications for the player, not least for the fact he was viewed as culpable in pre-season defeats. My impression was that he intended replace Collins with Butler and Doyle with Basham, yet form and injuries seem to have scuppered the plan.

Whilst United fans have wanted the transfer market equivalent of Fabergé eggs, the resulting buys have been more like Kinder eggs. Largely underwhelming, lacking sparkle, meet the basic requirements of being an egg, but you are left with a feeling that what you are left with is an inadequate product, poor value for money and not something you would want to have again.

Pre-season results were poor and as much as you say it wasn't about results but fitness and understanding, it rapidly became apparent that bulking up the squad left the manager uncertain as to his best XI. Matches were thrown into the schedule late on, such as Dundee at home and the much demanded Fenerbahce tie and I am not sure this helped.

What increasingly worries me are the cracks in man management, something Nigel Clough is renowned for. After the Colchester victory, secured on the back of three late goals, the manager criticised the efforts in the previous day's training session. Yet whatever he said in response to the lacklustre session had little effect for 80 minutes of that match and much of the game at Swindon that followed.

For the last few months United felt unified. Business done early, with the best of League 1 purchased and players with Championship and top level records overseas. These were players that we were told were attracting Championship interest and we had fought off their interest to sign them. At no point did the manager suggest these were not his targets or that he had a lack of funds to buy the players he really wanted to. Yet post match versus Swindon he criticised the Summer recruitment plan and the panic bidding on Deadline Day.

The words of a manager refusing to toe the party line or of one not willing to acknowledge he has potentially made some bad signings? Let's be honest a majority are proving to be more of a Billy Paynter than a John Brayford. If it's a lack of funds he could have made a stand in the summer, but we were told that he and Mal Brannigan had approached the board for a sum of money to get a promotion winning squad.  This had reportedly been received and they were left to recruit he players they wanted without board sanction. The only exception being when salary bands were breached, or if additional funds were required.

So what is the case? For a board who are, somewhat understandably, reluctant to show their financial hand publicly, a gauntlet has been thrown down by the manager. They are in a difficult situation with a seemingly compliant manager now displaying such a recalcitrant attitude. It would be difficult to publicly deny his claims without undermining the manager, placing him in an increasingly awkward position. To say nothing would leave it open to imply the manager was correct and club statements of action and intent were false.

Clough's standing in the game and portrayal by club and media as a straight talking and honest individual places him in a stronger position in the fans' hearts and minds, than a board yet to fully win over many fans who cannot see where the money is spent. 

For what it's worth, a look at last year's accounts show a loss making operating model, this summer has seen a significant incoming players, not all for fees, but at a cost in signing on fees and salaries. I think a decent amount of money has been spent and there is more available. But fans are naturally suspicious having been hurt by failed promises in the past. 

It is now time for Nigel Clough to stand up and show whether he is up to the job. To show he can be positive and for his team to impose themsleves on the opposition. It is now the time for action in the transfer market. It is now time for the board to show that they mean business. Without this I see a jittery season, belief waning, crowds falling and the unity felt in May disintegrating. 

There have been noticeable improvements in the way the club is run off field, however they lose their importance if success on the pitch doesn't follow. The key to unity is trust in one another. Comments like those post-match on Saturday do little to maintain trust. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

No Masking the Blame on Tevez

Last summer, in the aftermath of the Blades' shambolic end to the season and in the midst of an elongated (and ultimately misguided) managerial search, I poste an article to this blog called Reasons to be Cheerful.

It garnered thousands of hits, was linked on West Ham discussion forums and ended up as the second most read article on A United View. You can read it here.  It won't take long. The post was blank.  No words. No pictures. As a United fan I could see no grounds for optimism.
That this caused so much happiness amongst Irons fans caused me much amusement. They really do hate United and some of the 30+ comments left on the kind of defy logic and seem to be based on fantasy and fallacy. Before I share a selection of the comments it is probably worth remembering a few facts regarding the Tevez case which causes much of the hatred and venom.

To start with. Let’s be clear. There is no mystery, there was no simple mistake. The rules were clear and West Ham lied about breaking them.  At the time of the transfer agreements  for both Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano (right on the transfer deadline in August 2006), and until January 24 2007, West Ham United failed to disclose the third party agreements to the Premier League and deliberately withheld these agreements from the Premier League.

When West Ham signed the Argentinian internationals from Brazilian club Corinthians, the players were contracted to four offshore companies via agent Kia Joorabchian - a fact that, according to the commission, Hammers bosses deliberately concealed from league authorities. Both Scott Duxbury and Paul Aldridge denied the existence of the contracts.

"[West Ham] knew that the only means by which they could acquire [the players] would be by entering into the third party contracts," said the commission. "Equally, they were aware that the FA Premier League, at the very least, may not - and in all probability would not - have approved of such contracts. They determined to keep their existence from the FAPL." – Independent Commission statement.

On April 27th 2007 they were found guilty by a FA Premier League Independent Commission of breaching rules B13 and U18. Rule B13 states that all Premier League clubs should act in good faith, while U18 relates to third party influence. A Premier League Commission fined the club £5.5m, stating that a points deduction would have virtually condemned West Ham to relegation which would have been unfair on the fans and players.

At the time of the fine the Premier League added that if they were found to be breaching the same rules again, a heavier punishment would be in order (points deduction/relegation implied).  The club claimed (and this was accepted by the Premier League) that the agreement was ripped up and Tevez was free to play in the final three games.

Despite legal action between Joorabchian and West Ham over the economic rights of Tevez, the Premier League saw fit to agree to the Argentinean’s move to Manchester United the following August. But if such a valued asset was under West Ham’s ownership they must have been gutted to receive a fee of just £2m from the Red Devils.

Following relegation The Blades pursued action to try and force a more standard punishment on West Ham and also financial compensation. They were unsuccessful in appealing the original decision with both a Premier League independent commission and the High Court. They were even told that the appeal commission could not reverse the original decision, but if they had made it in the first place there would have been a points deduction.

United then took the matter up through the FA's arbitration procedure and there was a ruling in United’s favour in March 2009. Lord Griffiths, who headed the committee, suggested that West Ham had not “torn up” the offending contract after the initial tribunal had required them to do so, but instead simply told the FA Premier League that they had done so whilst executing a verbal side agreement with Kia Joorabchian to confirm to him that they were not intending to simply walk away from that contract. This alleged deceit then enabled Carlos Tevez to play in the final three games of the season. This was a key element in reaching the final verdict.

There was a belief that the Premier League had been further misled, so where was the further investigation and action promised two years earlier? The Premier League remained quiet. By quiet I mean whistling in the corner, eyes darting around, making no contact, hoping no one would chase up the further action required.

The thing is, despite their cheating, despite the ongoing fantasy of their fans where they see themselves as the wronged party, I don't feel any real anger towards West Ham any more. Only despair at their blinkered, partisan and misguided views, which their fans continue to espouse. They were, in the words of the commission, dishonest and deceitful, but it was the Premier League commission's failure to adequately penalise them that still rankles.

A decision partly based on whether it would disproportionately punish fans, whilst welcome in some areas of the game (I am sure Wimbledon fans would have liked this applied by the committee reaching a verdict on their move to Milton Keynes), had no place here. The delay to the hearing which led to the decision not to deduct points, was down to on-going West Ham deceit over the nature of the contracts.

I accept United should have stayed up that season under their own steam. It is not about blame for relegation. It is about fair play, abiding by the rules and trust in the authorities to adequately manage these issues. As members of the Premier League you contractually sign up to abide by the rules. If rules are broken which ultimately lead to financial loss for another member club, then it is perfectly rational for them to pursue financial recompense. The fact is whichever club was relegated would have pursued a claim against West Ham. Fate meant that we ended up being that team. 

It galls me whenever I see other, often much smaller clubs, punished by points deductions for administrative oversights and registration issues. Take last season when AFC Wimbledon were deducted three points for fielding an ineligible player, Jake Nicholson, in the Sky Bet League 2 fixture with Cheltenham Town on 22 March. He came on as a substitute at half-time, before scoring his side's second goal in the 4-3 victory. He had an impact in one game and they were penalised the three points.

Further down the pyramid the Conference board punished Alfreton's failure to register an emergency loan keeper; a blank fax causing the lack of registration. The three point punishment was consistent with deductions issued to Conference North sides Oxford City and Harrogate Town.

Yet the so-called “Greatest League in the World” – the FA Premier League failed to apply such punishment to a more blatant breach of rules, breach of trust and the use of illegal contracts. In a world where reference is made to tarnishing the product, damaging the integrity of the brand, surely an instance that Richard Scudamore described as ranking “up there as the number one act of bad faith that any club has ever done towards me during my time here” deserved a similar, if not stronger punishment?

Scudamore’s further comments only lead to the conclusion that finances are all that matters in the moneyball league, fair play, legality and abiding by the rules are just mere PR puff.

"It is quite simple - you are completely undone by an act of bad faith. If a club, through its executives, chooses to lie straight to your face, there is a great deal of damage that can be done from that.

"Ultimately, the Tevez saga goes down to people not being honest. With any regularity body, if people are not honest there is very little you can do about it and that is why the whole thing unravelled.”

Yet this deceit and wrongdoing doesn’t seem to register with Hammers fans who see only United doing wrong. Their argument perpetuated by members of the London based media, such as Hammers fan Martin Samuel who perpetuated myths regarding the transfer of Steve Kabba from United to Watford. In this instance both clubs were investigated and it was found that there was no case to be answered.

So in this mire of denial, anger and abuse, many amusing statements are made. Here are some of the comments made on this blog and a few responses.

“Reasons to be Cheerful: Reason #1: Payments of the money the Blades swindled out of West Ham for not being good enough to beat the drop will stop after this summer.”

Swindled? I seem to recall West Ham settled the claim as they knew they were guilty and before the tribunal set an amount?

“I found a reason to be cheerful, you'll still be in League 1 for a long time.”
“Unless you end up in League 2 ...”

Well we had a good go last season.

“One Carlos Tevez.”

Yes, you are right, there is.

“Where did all the money go? The money that the blunts stole from West Ham? Fairness in Football!!!!!”

Capital B on Blunts if you don’t mind. And as for stole. Steal according to the Oxford Dictionary is to take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it. I think West Ham settled a payment of their own volition and in negotiation, therefore there was permission and legal right.

“What did McCabe do with the blackmail money? He certainly didn't spend it on the team.”

Unfortunately he did, giving it to Bryan Robson and Kevin Blackwell wasn’t the best use, granted. As for Blackmail – “The action, treated as a criminal offence, of demanding money from someone in return for not revealing compromising information which one has about them”. I only wish we had more compromising information on West Ham, however I think West Ham themselves had revealed enough to compromise themselves, once they had stopped lying to the FA Premier League.

“Phil 'handball' Jagielka is doing rather well at Everton.”

He is. Well done to him. Always good to see your young players develop into the international players you thought they would be.

“Total and utter karma”
“You make me happy every day, I revel in your appalling situation, all bought on by your attempt at a contrived result that went wrong. Karma.”
“Oh deep joy. May you continue unrestrained on your descent into oblivion, it is no more and no less than you deserve. All that ill-gotten dosh and nothing whatever to show for it. It’s really hard to think of a better example of karma in action.”

Karma? In Hinduism and Buddhism this is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existence. A sort of retributive justice. Given that West Ham cheated and have only suffered financial penalty in the cash fuelled world of the Premier League you could actually argue that karma is yet to exert itself on them. As for us, we got some reward and blew it all. That’s life. That’s football.

“Do they have a word for shaudenfreude in blunt-land?”

Yes, it is spelt schadenfreude. I presume it is the same word you are referring to?

“Can't even get out of League 1 despite our charity payments hitting your begging bowl every year, dread to think where you will be when your wealthy, cockney, top half of the Premier League, still watching the big teams, spending £10m+ on single players, moving to a massive new ground benefactors stop subsidising your shambles of a club. Still at least Avram is is reportedly on his way to make it all better. COYI”
“Every time I think about your nasty little clubs plight I am filled with an enormous sense of satisfaction. Who can you sue to try and get out of this one? It must be someone's fault?”

Acts of charity are voluntary. I don’t recall you being too willing to make this payment. Nice to see the fan here gloating over the Olympic stadium farce that is not just bad for the tax payer but Leyton Orient to. Another example of football’s rules being ignored to the Hammers’ benefit.

And finally it is no one’s fault but ours, well the people running the club. You may well gloat, but with the twists and turs of football, just remember the next team mismanaged could be you.

So then a couple of weeks ago, it finally happened. The Blades were drawn to meet The Hammers in the second round of the Capital One Cup; the first meeting since that Premier League season. No doubt the tie will get the media talking and it got the fans of both clubs talking when the draw was made. United's visit to Upton Park immediately generated plenty of social media comment, but with very different levels of animosity from the respective sets of fans. 

United fans mockingly joked about facing the Shammers, Wet Sham or some variation thereof and the fact at last, some 7 years later we would face each other at last. Hammers fans immediately started with a #BlameTevez hash tag on twitter and seemingly couldn't wait to put the Blades to the sword and give a “warm” East End welcome to United fans.

The interest in the match can perhaps be best summed up by the relatively low ticket sales to United fans. A midweek date doesn't help. Some fans have openly said it just isn’t worth the potential hassle and trouble.  The other factor is many just don't really care about West Ham or the match being against them. If we win, fantastic. If we don’t then, to be honest it is not unexpected given relative league positions. We move on and focus on the league.

So, while Hammers get excited and prepare a hate filled welcome, many United fans will reserve their ire for those who let the situation happen; Richard Scudamore and the Premier League. We don't blame Tevez, many more were culpable and in a greater sense.

Enjoy wearing your Tevez masks lads. The only impact it will have is improving the looks of the average Upton Park crowd and the bank balances of entrepreneurs and street hawkers in the East End.