In stark contrast to the relentless barrage of criticism thrown at him last season, the accusations of ’19th century football’ and the persistent jeers from the Upton Park terraces, the current campaign has seen Sam Allardyce silence the majority of his doubters at West Ham.
It’s certainly hard to argue with the East London club’s strong start to the campaign or their current league position of eighth – just six points away from the top four – or particularly, the manner in which Allardyce has completely transformed the quality of his squad on a summer budget of just £29million – just £1million more than 12th-place Everton spent on Romelu Lukaku alone.
Yet, as the Irons were subdued to a 2-0 scoreline by Liverpool at the weekend in a performance that frighteningly shared many characteristics with last season – namely, Kevin Nolan and Joey O’Brien’s reinstatement in the starting line-up, Guy Demel and Carlton Cole’s participation from the bench, and limited commitment to attacking play or retaining possession – the voices of discontent, somewhat quieter and more subtly, began to re-emerge.
Perhaps due to their poor record on Merseyside, it was unequivocally clear that West Ham hadn’t turned up at Anfield with the intention to play positive football. Allardyce selected his biggest bruisers, those players who grinded out unspectacular results last term, and resultantly pushed his leading creator Stewart Downing, who boasts the second-most chances created per match of any Premier League player this season, in a considerably less impactful role on the left-hand side.
The 2-0 defeat was hardly the only concerning news of the day for Hammers fans, however. In prelude to the crazy 24 hours that is deadline day, reports emerged on the eve of the Liverpool visit that Mark Noble, a ten-year servant of the club, a former academy product and current vice-captain, was in line for a move to QPR, making way for Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher. Adding further fuel to the speculation, he was dropped from the starting line-up for the Liverpool fixture in favour of Nolan.
Of course, the validity of such reports are always disputed, and many will view the fact that the 27 year-old never swapped East for West London as evidence enough of the story being prime rumour fodder to sell newspapers. Then again, Fletcher’s move to West Ham did break down late on, and QPR had sold midfielder Jordan Mutch to Crystal Palace to raise funds.
If Noble had been ousted at the end of the winter window, his departure could have rekindled last season’s rolling revolt at Upton Park, especially from the large contingent of support concerned with Allardyce’s lack of commitment to the club’s more traditional ethos.
The midfielder may not be a Hammers hero in the same manner as Bobby Moore or Trevor Brooking, but born in near-by Canning Town, having risen through the ranks of The Academy of Football and now been a major fixture in the first team for a decade, he’s certainly upon the peripheries of such status. He’s a connection between club, fanbase and local community, and perhaps most importantly, a solitary beacon of the old ‘West Ham way’ – the development of youngsters adhering to their philosophy of attacking football.
Throughout Allardyce’s reign, the emphasis on young players, the Hammers’ model of self-sufficient first team recruitment, has taken a backwards step. There are still academy products on the fringes of the senior squad, but the manager’s commitment to offering them the necessary exposure at senior level remains doubtful.
Reece Burke and Dan Potts are yet to feature in the Premier League this season, for example, and I’m sure we all remember the manner in which eight academy players (five starting, three from the bench) were thrown into the deep end against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup’s third round last term. In symbolic fashion of the worrying trend, Allardyce passed on the opportunity to let 16 year-old unused substitute Reece Oxford become the youngest debutant in Premier League history against Liverpool at the weekend.
It may seem rather hyperbolic to suggest that Noble’s departure alone, or Allardyce’s reluctance to use young players, would suddenly spiral Upton Park into the same rapture of discontent as last season, especially whilst the Hammers are enjoying their strongest league campaign since returning from the Championship in 2012.
Yet, results were acceptable enough last term and that still didn’t please the majority of West ham fans; although their current league standing provides a concealing gloss, the same old issues are still bubbling under the surface. The sale of Mark Noble, a modern day cult-hero and a true icon for the younger generations of the Irons fanbase, may have seen some of them re-emerge.