West Ham‘s final home match of the season may have ended with Sam Allardyce lapping up the applause around Upton Park, but in truth, the Boleyn faithful is anything but behind their manager.
As the Hammers gaffer has often remarked, the Premier League is a results-based industry, and in terms of obtaining the points required to stay in the top flight, throughout spells at Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham, his track record is exemplary.
Yet the price it comes at, the East London fanbase is unprepared to accept. A club that produced some of the greatest English technical talents of a generation, such as Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, is now the Premier League’s leading representative of attritional long-ball football.
The Hammers boast one of the strongest defensive records in the Premier League – their 14 clean sheets is only bettered by four other sides, three of which constitute the division’s top four – but averaging just 1.1 goals per match at the more entertaining end of the pitch, it’s understandable that the subdued Boleyn boo-boys are calling for change in the dugout ahead of next season.
Yet, in my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily have to come to that. In British politics, the controlling elite has an endless tradition of compromising with the low classes when it comes to the relinquishing of power. In other words, Allardyce doesn’t need to stage a complete philosophical revolution at Upton Park in order to keep his job; he just has to show the fans that he’s taken their concerns on board.
There’s no better place to do that than in the transfer market. Allardyce was famed for his wheeler-dealing at Bolton Wanderers, but the transfer interactions of his three-term Hammers tenure haven’t been quite so impressive.
He may view the £15million capture of Andy Carroll as one of the deals of the century, but in truth, no other Premier League manager was prepared to pay such a mighty fee for the Liverpool outcast last summer. Likewise, £11million signing Matt Jarvis has never come close to repeating the eight-goal feats of his final campaign at Wolves and summer acquisition Stewart Downing is still yet to shake off the cobwebs of his haunting Anfield stay. Scratch even deeper, Alou Diarra, Razvan Rat and Modibo Maiga only make Allardyce’s transfer record for the Hammers even more troubling.
Compare that with the 59 year-old’s market escapades at Bolton. Yes, when he joined the Wanderers his first task was to make them as mean defensively as possible, but the Bolton side that recorded a 6th-place finish in 2005 and also reached a League Cup final – to date, the highest point of management Allardyce’s career – contained such Champaign-football alumni as Ivan Campo, Jay-Jay Okocha, Stelios Giannakopoulos and Fernando Hierro, all of whom brought international class to the Reebok stadium. That summer, Hidetoshi Nakata, the greatest technical talent Asia had to offer at the time, also joined the Bolton ranks.
To say Allardyce’s Bolton were football purists would be untrue, but to suggest long-ball football was the only weapon in their locker would be an equal fallacy. Rather, the Wanderers’ blend of quality footballers, mean athletes and dogged defenders made them a multi-dimensional side that could play in a variety of ways. It was an amalgamation of contrasting styles that achieved results and kept the fans happy, but perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated Allardyce’s ambition and astuteness in the transfer market.
And in many ways, ‘ambition’ is the key concern of the Upton Park support. As Allardyce has regularly discussed, there is and has never been an official ‘West Ham way’. The East Londoners have fought as ugly and dirtily as the rest of them to maintain their Premier League status in the past – the notion that they’re somehow unique a club with a unique philosophy is a complete myth.
But the absence of any ambition to evolve West Ham’s current style is the core of the fans’ discontent. Rather than making signings that can improve the Hammers going forward, Allardyce’s acquisitions have largely consisted of old cronies from his former stomping grounds, or players that strongly lend themselves to his attritional ideology.
In 2016, West Ham will move to the Olympic stadium. The ground’s 54,000 capacity will give them the fifth-largest crowd in the Premier League, yet it will be home to a style of football that wouldn’t look out of place in League One.
In the coming summer window, Sam Allardyce has a fantastic opportunity to get the fans back onside. Two solid Premier League finishes is a strong platform to build from, but now the Hammers gaffer must show his ability and ambition to evolve the first team to a different level, moving away from its growing one-dimensionalism. He needs to make quality signings that can bring excitement and class to Upton Park. A signing of the Jay-Jay Okocha variety would be the perfect remedy.
The fans do not want revolution. They do not want change that can debase the club and harm it’s immediate future, purely for the sake of better entertainment on a Saturday afternoon – after all, there’s nothing fun about being relegated. They simply want evidence that there is a master-plan – ideas in place to suggest that they won’t be caught in an eternal purgatory of mid-table finishes and ugly, unexciting football.
Allardyce managed to encompass the best of both worlds at Bolton and a more recent example would be Stoke City’s slow yet sturdy transition under Mark Hughes this season, so it’s by no means an impossible task.
But it will all depend on the West Ham manager’s commitment to the issue. Thus far, criticism from the fan-base has been largely palmed off by Allardyce as unrealistic, uninformed demands. The coming window however, is the ideal occasion to show that has been listening to the voices from the terraces.