Yet the result, 2-1, that was decided by a Hammers penalty and a James Chester own goal, and the performance, in which the Hammers recorded just three shots on target against a ten-man Tigers side, was met by a rapture of echoing boos around Upton Park.
Living up to the role of pantomime villain – a status he’s often endured amongst the East London faithful – like a ‘heel’ character of WWE’s squared-circle, Sam Allardyce put his hand to his ear cupping the chorus of discontent, part mockingly and part in disbelief.
Accordingly, a variety of leading figures in the West Ham community, ranging from David Gold and Karen Brady to England 1966 hero Martin Peters and erm… Dean Windass… have condemned the Boleyn boo-boys. Considering this was perhaps the most important result in the Hammers’ season thus far, that position is certainly understandable.
But so is that of the Upton Park support, whom, whether their vocal militance was poor-fitting for the occasion or not, have not had their justified arguments fairly represented.
The issue is one of style of play. Sam Allardyce has become synonymous with long-ball, territorial, attrition football, perhaps best illustrated by his adoration for goal-shy, work-horse strikers such as Andy Carroll and Kevin Davies over the years. Jose Mourinho hit the nail on the head when he dubbed Big Sam’s tactics as ’19th Century’ back in January. Another synonym for those philosophical soundbites would be simply ‘boring’ or ‘negative’ football.
The stats abide; West Ham have averaged just 42% possession and three shots on target per match this season, whilst only 61% of their goals have come from open play. If control of the ball dictated league standing, the Hammers would be 19th; if shots on target did the same, they’d be 18th; but if it were determined by long-balls, they’d be sixth, and if it were decided by clean sheets, the East London side would be second.
In a nutshell, if you were a Premier League neutral deciding upon which ground to enjoy a Saturday afternoon of appetising football, it wouldn’t be Upton Park. The Hammers haven’t scored more than three goals in a home fixture all season, and even that rarity has occurred just thrice since the summer, so you can imagine why Boleyn season ticket holders are struggling to hold back their discontent.
In the context of the Premier League, you can’t be too picky about how you survive. Last term there were just 13 points separating 18th place Wigan and eighth-place West Bromwich Albion, and the margins between success and failure are only growing smaller in the top flight. Other clubs, and subsequently fan-bases, certainly wouldn’t turn their nose up at having the Premier League’s most seasoned and established relegation battler in their dugout, attritional football or not.
West Ham however, is not just another rank and file Premier League side.
I agree with Sam Allardyce’s declaration in 2012 that the notion of an official ‘West Ham way’ is more of a terrace myth than on-pitch reality; in truth, the Hammers have fought as ugly and impurely as anybody else to maintain their Premier League status over the years. Tomas Repka, Nigel Reo-Coker and Bobby Zamora are hardly what you’d describe as tica-taca enthusiasts.
Yet at the same time, the Upton Park institution once produced a batch of home-grown talents that quickly became the most technically-gifted England internationals of their generation; Rio Ferdinand was an almost continental defender in his younger years, Michael Carrick is one of a rare few midfielders in the Three Lions roster that has any understanding of the importance of keeping possession, Frank Lampard is the Premier League’s all-time leading midfield goalscorer, and Joe Cole’s grace-like movement, trickery and creativity on the ball, especially in a central capacity, went unreplicated until the rise of Adam Lallana this season.
If there was a coherent West Ham identity prior to Allardyce’s 2011 arrival, it was centred around local young talent, and optimistic, enthusiastic football. Dodgey defending undoubtedly played its part, and to suggest Upton Park was an aesthetic institution of the Swansea City variety would certainly be untrue, but naively or not, the Hammers’ traditional forte echoed the simple Kevin Keegan mantra of ‘we’ll score more than you’. Goals were provided by the likes of Paolo Di Canio, Jermain Defoe, Teddy Sheringham, Dean Ashton and Freddy Kanoute, to name a few.
Fast forward to the present day, and that lethal bunch has been replaced by Andy Carroll and Carlton Cole – two strikers whose booking statistics far exceed that of their goalscoring tallies.
Likewise, the Hammers’ local contingent has been swapped for a gang of Allardyce allies from up north; £15million spent on big Andy, the industrious Kevin Nolan instantly made club captain upon his East London arrival in summer 2011, Joey O’Brien and Jussi Jaaskelainen both joining the Hammers from Bolton Wanderers, in addition to Ricardo Vaz Te via a short stay at Barnsley.
Allardyce’s version of promoting youth players is giving them a sink-or-swim test in the FA Cup. Featuring eight players from the youth squad in their starting line-up, West Ham lost 5-0 to Nottingham Forest in the auxiliary tournament earlier this term, and the next generation of Hammers youngsters breaking through looks set to be completely wasted due to the fact they don’t fit in with the Allardyce ideology.
At first, Hammers fans were prepared to accept the culture shock, but now their club is being slowly turned into Bolton 2.0. Eventually, Allardyce’s territorial, lump-it-and-chase-it tactics saw the Reebok side finish 6th in the Premier League, but as they found out just a handful of campaigns later, and as Stoke City chairman Pete Coates came to realise towards the end of last season, that style of play is unsustainable.
As much as the Boleyn boo-brigade are jeering at the present philosophical state they find their club in, their chorus of apathy is also sourced from fears of its immediate future. In 2016, the Hammers will adopt a new home in the form of the Olympic stadium, a ground which will give them a greater capacity than Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Yet, rather adopting a style of play befitting of these European sides, one of the largest grounds in England, belonging to one of its most historic clubs, will be home to a brand of football that wouldn’t seem out of place in League One. The longer Allardyce insists upon this tactical policy, the harder it will be to evolve from it; you can’t imagine too many players of European standard or continental quality on the ball seeing their footballing futures at a club whose biggest strength remains ruthless organisation out of possession.
West Ham fans shouldn’t take Allardyce’s ability for granted, but the relationship is a two-way street. The Upton Park faithful have always been a militant bunch, yet their intense bond with the club and divine loyalty is becoming increasingly unique in the modern era.
Perhaps they are overly ambitious, perhaps they are ungrateful, perhaps they set their standards too high, but the club belongs to them more than it does Sam Allardyce, and right now, their wishes and desires are being repetitively ignored. Having now endured three campaigns of fan-unfriendly football at Upton Park without any suggestion of evolution or change from their manager, the West Ham faithful are well within their rights to boo.
As JFK once said; “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.” The West Ham boss can’t ignore the supporters for much longer, or could have a full mutiny on his hands.