In this highly articulate and deeply felt blog, lifelong Hammer Bobby Galbraith looks at the various issues that he believes bedevil this club and makes some intelligent suggestions on how they can be cured.
By Bobby Galbraith
A post-mortem is the examination of a body after death. These are usually carried out with the aim of finding out what led to death and can help us understand what went wrong or how diseases spread.
I wouldn’t quite place West Ham’s dire performances of late in the same bracket as a corpse, but there is certainly good reason for worrying that our condition is getting serious.
Right now, the obvious treatment seems to be replacing the manager, Slaven Bilic. Only twice in my life have I felt a West Ham manager needed to be sacked mid-term; Avram Grant and Glenn Roeder. I’d argue those two had clearly masterminded us into an almost catatonic state, the likes of which we’re not in yet. For that reason, I’m not entirely ‘Slav Out’. I don’t believe he is a football manager incapable of delivering us a season toward the top end of what I feel we should be achieving.
It’s been said that we should be doing far better with the squad we have. I agree. But then I also look at our mid-90s teams, see names like Holmes, Moncur, Bishop and Morley and can’t understand why we never challenged for a title. The simple fact is: its very hard to judge the ability of a West Ham squad when you’re a West Ham fan. What you can do, however, is look at the league table, or many league tables, because they very rarely lie.
I’d argue that the evidence is pointing, looking at our recent history, to an institutional problem that reaches beyond the remit of the manager. How else could we explain the fact that over the last 10 years, under 5 different managers, our average Premier League position has been 12th.
In the last decade, excluding our one year in the Championship, our average season points haul has been 45.3. In this time, having played the same amount of PL seasons, Stoke City have bettered us on average points (47.1) and average position (11th).
In the seasons since 2000 all of Ipswich, Newcastle, Blackburn, Villa, Spurs, Everton and Southampton (to name a few) have been able to achieve something we haven’t: a 6th place PL finish or higher. We are without a major trophy since 1980; both Swansea and Wigan therefore have a claim to being more successful than us in recent times. By any measure, we are underachieving and consistently so.
But I do accept that we are investing in the team at a level that should demand success. Signings like Chicharito and Arnautovic (who is reportedly out-earning Harry Kane), display ambition. We have a bigger stadium, we seemingly have the infrastructure to kick on in the Premier League; but it is not happening. At best we are standing still, at worst we seem to be regressing.
In this context, I don’t believe Slav is doing much better or worse than any manager in recent history. If you’re finishing 12th, you have a right to expect to be well beaten at home several times a year.
Sacking the manager would be a short-termist move that would apportion blame to an office whose remit, since the start of this century, is seemingly unable to transcend the boundary of a finish higher than 7th.
Sir Dave Brailsford is a man whom I greatly admire. In transforming the fortunes of British Cycling, he looked not for a single avenue of change (as replacing a manager would surely represent), but to a holistic philosophy of marginal gains.
As he said himself, ”the whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.
In thinking how best to fix West Ham, it’s this philosophy we must embrace. Chairmen aren’t a changeable variable in the way that players and managers are, and I genuinely believe ours are in this for the long haul. We can’t change the chairmen, but I do believe it is possible to change their thinking.
What is required is a period of serious self-reflection. It can’t be right that we hear reports of a lack of intensity in training. It can’t be right that our transfer window of summer 2016 proved so underwhelming. It can’t be right that we engaged in such a public spat with Sporting Lisbon. It can’t be right that our line-up is leaked the night before a game on Twitter. We need to collate these mistakes and understand how they are happening.
Upon joining Southampton in 2013, Mauricio Pochettino, one of the brightest managers to emerge in recent years, conducted a vigorous and holistic investigation into the football club; the result of which led to a number of changes that improved performances to new heights. These changes covered things as simple and transformative as giving each member of the team his own customised mattress; the club transporting these around the country and therefore ensuring every player got a consistent and comfortable sleep the night before an away game. This is the kind of root and branch analysis we need to undertake.
The first change needed is an acceptance that we have been underperforming for some time. From here we need hard-truths and more important than that, a willingness to both hear them, learn from them and fundamentally change our football club for the better.
We need someone from outside the current management team and board to come in, study everything about the way the club is being run, and feed back on where we’re going awry. We need cool, objective heads willing to listen to the diagnosis and treatment plan.
It need only be a short term appointment; a period of consultation with the end result of an objective analysis on the mistakes that have gotten us to where we are now. Then we can begin to make the change necessary to progress. Perhaps this self-reflection may even lead us to making better decisions about the managers we shortlist for the job should it become available.
As Sun Tzu postulates in the art of war, it is not enough to know the enemy; you have to know yourself.
We learnt an expensive lesson in our relegations of 2003 and 2011. We need to make sure we don’t have to learn those lessons again; as any doctor will tell you, prevention is better than cure.
The views expressed here are those of the blogger and are not necessarily shared by ClaretandHugh