There’s something deeply wrong at West Ham. That was thick in the air on Sunday, when David Moyes began his new job with a meek defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road. Will Hughes’s early goal ensured that any new manager bounce had been squashed inside ten minutes and the visitors spent much of the rest of the afternoon in a sulky fog.
West Ham had chances. Watford may have started the season well, but they entered that game on a poor run of form – and their vulnerability was never far from the surface. Cheik Kouyate should have done better with one opportunity, much better with another, and Heurelho Gomes made a couple of telling saves, too. If Moyes left north London disappointed with the result, he would still have been encouraged by the chances his new side created.
But perhaps the truest barometer at times like this isn’t the minutiae of the games themselves, but how a team looks and the way it behaves. Less whether it fits its shape or how suited it is to its tactical plan, more whether its players compete properly. We’re informed by dozens of cliches that new managers are supposed to bring new attitudes and that players who were previously either too comfortable or too disenchanted suddenly have new life. Footballers all want to play and a change of coach creates a flux which typically manifests in intensity.
And yet those platitudes seem particularly baseless in this instance. Andy Carroll roughhoused a couple of home players and – again – did his very utmost to draw a second yellow card from Andre Marriner. Mark Noble ran around a lot, making angry faces and protesting every decision. Aside from that, though, there was little evidence that this was a West Ham team incensed by the way the world sees them. Given their recent run of results – and in particular what happened at Goodison Park two weeks ago – Watford would presumably have reacted badly to seeing their lead halved. But West Ham weren’t determined to push their fingers into those cracks. Instead they allowed the game to drift away from them and after Manuel Lanzini saw his shot cleared off the line, seemed happy to allow Marco Silva’s players to ole their way to three points.
Maybe it’s too easy to buy into intangibles. But then, the context of these West Ham games is relevant. London Stadium has always been a peculiar venue and it comes with a set of a problems which exist independently of the team’s performance. More troubling, though, is the audible discontent which now leaks from the travelling supporters at every away game. Some is printable, some is not, but it’s getting louder and nearly all of it is aimed at the board.
They’ve reached that stage. The point at which the motives of owners are being questioned and where the abuse is more personal than general. David Moyes recognised that and didn’t hesitate in reminding fans after the game that the team depends on their support.
We need a united club. I know that’s hard if you have grievances but I said to the players at the end that it’s hard to play when the crowd’s like that. The small things can make a big difference but I can understand their frustration because we didn’t play well enough. We need to find a way to make sure we get the club together. David Moyes
And how irritating that was.
It seems that the onus invariably falls on supporters to put aside one grievance or another. No matter how egregious the circumstances or how poorly they’ve been treated in the past, the assumption is always that they should be willing to put aside their concerns – effectively to play dumb – for the sake of their team’s sensitivities.
The logic of that may be sound, but the implication of blame is hopelessly misplaced. West Ham’s travelling fans didn’t take against the current owners reflexively, because the animosity which bubbles now has actually taken a long time to come to the boil. It is a response to the perception of long-term mismanagement – to the botched move to Stratford, to poor recruitment, and to episode-upon-episode of toe-curling damage to their club’s image.
The football community may have enjoyed a jolly good laugh over the Sporting Lisbon episode, the shortcomings with London Stadium and the rest, but who have those jokes really been at the expense of?
The fans. They’re the ones who have to cringe – and, yet, here’s another club putting its fingers to its lips and telling those same supporters to park their grievances for the sake of the greater good. Again.
West Ham have to be cured from the inside. Supporters can soothe players’ egos and keep revenue streams flowing, but they should never be under obligation to cheer and chant their club out of a pattern of systemic failure. Conversely, their enthusiasm rightly depends on a set of imperatives which, at the time of writing, are just not being respected in East London – and, unfortunately, the loss to Watford was just further evidence of that disconnect. It was listless football from players who were too quick to surrender. And another performance watched over by owners who, when caught by the Sky Sports cameras during the second-half, looked entirely perplexed by the chants which were echoing around them.
In the abstract, the picture at Vicarage Road on Sunday was vividly representative of so many different problems. The performance; the owners with their look-at-me schtick; the children of boardmembers who are being encouraged to “have a go” at football.
Yes, the chances may have tumbled out of that Watford defence, but nothing at West Ham looks particularly healthy – and if David Moyes wants unity, he and his new employers will have to be the ones who create the conditions for it to exist.