A long injury list and midweek exertions: are West Ham there for the taking? Dan Brigham asks Hammers fan and writer Ben Watson, and finds out what the West Ham way really is, why Andy Carrol is like Kasabian and what’s it like supporting a club on the cusp of joining the elite
Dan: Hi Ben. Earlier in the season, just before Norwich headed to Upton Park, I made the pretty rash prediction that West Ham were going to get a Champions League spot.
I was giddy with excitement at the attacking threat West Ham posed with Dimitri Payet, Manuel Lanzini, Victor Mose and Diafra Sakho.
Now, top four is pretty unlikely to happen, but it must be a bit of a culture shock for West Ham fans to watch their team playing great attacking football after the Sam Allardyce years?
Like that moment when you're a kid, and your parents have only allowed you to watch boring, safe television, and one day you stumble across their Pulp Fiction DVD and your eyes are opened to a whole new exciting world, a world in which you're allowed to have fun. After Allardyce’s boring world, has Slaven Bilić got West Ham playing the West Ham way again? Whatever the West Ham way is?
Ben: Ah, the fabled 'West Ham' way. Answers on a postcard please. Anyone of my generation (fast approaching 40), if they're truthful, hasn't got a bloody clue. The 'West Ham way' to me is rank performances away from home – particularly north of Watford Gap – ending in spineless and often heavy defeats.
However, we've heard tales of exciting football with players such as, well, you know who, and beautiful football and trophies galore. Something like the truth is that it's a total load of marketing you-know-what. Personally, it makes me cringe.
Bilić has definitely got West Ham playing. Again I'm different from the majority at the Boleyn these days. I appreciated what Allardyce achieved. All of Bilić's work has been possible because of the good steady ship that Sam sailed from murky waters into calmer scenes.
The worshipping of Slav still makes me uneasy a bit, though. He broke my heart in my late teens when he scooted off to Everton for a bigger salary. The bastard. If he wins the Cup, though, I'll contemplate forgiveness.
Dan: I remember going to Upton Park a couple of seasons ago – Norwich lost, inevitably – and being struck by how the home fans never sang for Allardyce. I asked a couple of West Ham fans about it and they said there were never any songs for him – they just sort of accepted him and put up with it. Like having to do doubles maths, or balding.
Whatever the West Ham way is, it seems most fans are pretty happy with how Bilić is getting you playing (and it's probably time to get over him leaving for Everton, man). With the move to the Olympic Stadium (as a taxpayer, you're welcome), and the gazillions of pounds from the new TV deal, things are looking pretty rosy for West Ham. Are you dreaming of Premier League titles and Champions League football in the next decade? Or are you waiting for it to all go wrong, and Paolo Di Canio to come in next season as you're battling relegation, say something a bit racist and everything implodes?
Ben: It's true there were never any songs about Allardyce, but there were never songs about Alan Curbishley or Avram Grant either. Sam had a PR disaster the minute he arrived at the club with many fans perceiving him to be 'digging us out', and he was never liked by, I'd say, the majority from day one. The days of West Ham fans chanting endlessly like they did in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final so memorably, are well and truly gone. Clichéd as it may seem, Hammers fans like to see one of their own in charge, and it seems Bilić fits the bill in that aspect.
It may well look rosy at the moment, but it will all go wrong, and it will implode. As the line in 'Bubbbles' goes, “like my dreams they fade and die”. I'd put everything I own – albeit not much – on West Ham never getting in the Champions League, let alone winning the league. That sort of thing doesn't happen at West Ham.
And if Paolo Di Canio is ever manager when we're at Stratford, heaven help us all. Although I wouldn't put anything past Gold and Sullivan.
Dan: Seriously, though, it must be pretty exciting. West Ham are this club who are feted and loved because of their 1966 connection, and for some romantic notion of playing the right football. And yet, like Norwich, you've never finished higher than third in the top division (correct me if I'm wrong). You've spent most of the Premier League era in mid-table, with a few challenges for European places and a few relegations. You’re not even in the top three biggest clubs in your city.
Yet, in a year or two, West Ham has the potential to become one of the biggest clubs in the country, in Europe, in the world. It'll almost be like a new club, like when the money was poured into Chelsea or Manchester City. Expectations are going to be enormous. To be on the cusp of that must be pretty amazing?
Ben: Ha! Yeah, point taken. Maybe I'm too much of a grumpy bugger. You're right, we've never finished higher than third. That glorious season in 1985-86 was the reason I'm a West Ham fan now. That'll learn me for glory hunting in the playgrounds of East London.
West Ham are on a steep upward curve. They've landed on their feet with the Olympic Stadium; a world-class venue has literally fallen into their lap, and Karren Brady has secured an incredible deal. It certainly feels like the times a changin', but there's a cluster of top, rich clubs now, and despite Leicester's fantastic season this year, getting into the Champions League feels some way off yet.
One of the things I liked about a recent interview with Slav was that he stated that he’d take an FA Cup win over a top four finish. I too would take that deal. If UEFA Cup football finds it's way to Stratford next season I could see a good run in that. The squad is good, there’ll be more additions in the summer, West Ham could be a very attractive option for the players who don't fancy the lure of China just yet.
The money will pour into West Ham from next year, and it'll be interesting to see what happens with the Porn Barons. My money would be on a sale to a Chinese/Middle Eastern consortium that has a view of creating a 'Manchester City of the South'. Whatever happens, it'll be a fun ride.
Dan: The last time Norwich played West Ham it was a thrilling, entertaining 2-2. Both sides went for it. Norwich aren't the same team anymore, with two many sloppy displays resulting in Alex Neil trying to tighten things up. But the tightening up has meant less threat up front... and the tightening up hasn't actually, well, tightened up.
Are West Ham still set up the same way as they were earlier in the season, and can we expect a similar line-up?
Ben: It'll be different, mainly due to injuries, but there's too much quality in the side to sit back right now. Regarding timing, it's probably a good time to face the Hammers. Following the brilliant cup replay against Liverpool on Tuesday, both Winston Reid and Cheikhou Kouyaté joined an already lengthy injury list. Carl Jenkinson has gone back to Arsenal following a season-ending knee injury and Sakho, and Lanzini are still out.
I'd be surprised if Andy Carroll didn't have a big part to play this weekend, although there's the obvious tendency to lump it long when he's on the pitch. Michail Antonio has been a revelation since he's broken into the side following Victor Moses' injury. He's been excellent and chipped in with some valuable goals. No Sakho means we tend to look less threatening, but with Payet around, anything's possible. Although – whisper it – he's not been the quite the same since he was taken out by Everton's thuggish midfield late last year. Personally, I hope Sam Byram gets another outing, he looks a very promising player who will be given license to get forward.
Dan: Joey O'Brien is injured too, apparently. It's almost as if someone's looking down on Alex Neil and trying to give him a helping hand... although that helping hand could've been a little bit more helpful if it had given a little tweak to Payet's hammy.
He's been terrific, hasn't he? And the thought of him and Antonio (who was brilliant at Forest last season) running at our backline at speed is terrifying. Slightly less terrifying is Andy Carroll, who only appears to be effective when introduced in the 75th minute to scare the bejesus out of tired defences who don't fancy being battered. He’s like listening to Kasabian – unreconstructed, old-school in a bad way, mostly shit but can be good in really short bursts. (He’ll definitely score on Saturday now).
How does this current team match up against some of the better West Ham sided you've watched?
Ben: Haha, leave JoB alone! Unsung hero and all that. Well OK, maybe not.
Payet has indeed been terrific. It feels like we've not had a real terrace hero at Upton Park now since, well, God only knows. When I first saw him, I thought he looked a bit chunky, but goodness me he has a sublime touch and glides with the ball. However, as with all modern day players, it seems, half-a-dozen good games and he's being 'rewarded' with a new contract. Probably because it's a struggle to get by on 60-odd grand-a-week. The poor poppet. Still he's a joy. And for now, at least, he's our joy to behold.
I think player-for-player this is the most talented group of players the club's had in many-a-year. I'll always have a soft spot for Alan Pardew's 2005-06 team that very nearly won the Cup. They too broke with power and pace. That side had Dean Ashton though, who made Carroll look every inch the carthorse he is – although the pair of them have similar records with injuries.
Amazingly at the end of the last century, West Ham managed to finish 5th in the league under Harry Redknapp, yet that team didn't have the guile of this side, and there haven't anything like the tonkings that side got. Throughout this team, I can't see too many weaknesses and even David Sullivan managed to come up trumps with one of his little punts he loves in the shape of Lanzini. As I said before, it's all too good to be true.
Dan: Ashton was such a waste of talent. Real shame about his injuries, because he was a fantastic footballer. My how Norwich could do with him now... Felt desperately sorry for him in the 2006 FA Cup final, even though Steven Gerrard's goal remains one of the few neutral goals I've ever properly lost my undignified shit over (sorry).
Talking of Redknapp, I saw him on Thursday saying that he thinks West Ham should sign John Terry. Christ, never change 'arry, you massive buffoon.
Other than the injuries, what other weaknesses do West Ham have? I've noticed a few times they let quite a lot of boxes get into the box? I guess that's because your full-backs push pretty high?
Ben: Goodness me! You celebrated Gerrard's goal? Shame on you. What happened to cheering on the underdog? I thought that 'spirit of Istanbul' crap got up everyone's nose.
Oh gawd, did Redknapp really say that? I can imagine John Terry wants to come to West Ham about as much as we'd want him here.
Yup, the fullbacks will bomb on, that is unless James Tompkins plays. Defensively, as I said before, it might be a good time to play us. Reid is out, and although Angelo Ogbonna looks the part, he and James Collins always look like they've got a defensive gaff in them to me.
I always tend to feel Mark Noble lacks pace, so if he can be closed down, there's a good way in there. Again, if you can man mark Payet and he doesn't fancy it, then he'll be kept quiet and without him, there's a good chance Norwich will capitalise. Despite the early season results away from home, results on the road haven't been great recently.
Dan: I was watching that final with about five Norwich fans and a West Ham fan. We all wanted your lot to win. But it was such a dramatic, brilliant goal – with Gerrard on one leg, in injury time – that we couldn't but all celebrate. Apart from the West Ham fan. He swore a lot. Sorry to rub it in, but it’s one of the great FA Cup final moments, up there with Ian Rush’s double, Dave Beasant’s penalty save and Ricky Villa’s amazing winner against Man City.
Reid must be the most underrated centre-back in the Premier League. West Ham always seem far, far more solid with him – like Ryan Shawcross and Stoke – so I’m pretty pleased he’s out. You've also only won 1 of your last 9 away games in the league so I'm almost getting positive about Norwich's chances, but then I realise we are incapable of man-marking anyone out of a game...
So, let's finish this with your score prediction for Saturday?
Ben: Reid is a very solid centre-back. I think Allardyce has to take a lot of credit for his development because he looked totally out of his depth when he first joined. He's come on leaps and bounds. I think most West Ham fans were stunned when he signed a new deal last year. He was about to be out of contract and then all of a sudden he signed a whopping six-year deal.
Yes, the away form has dropped off. But it had to really, the start of the season was ridiculous with the wins at Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City. Since the turn of the year, there have been some shockers. Please, spare me the jokes about West Ham coming down with the Christmas decorations...
Saturday, I'll go for another entertaining draw. Maybe 2-2 again, actually.
Dan: This is such a tough one to call. Norwich’s form and confidence has evaporated, and Payet is the last player we want to be facing, but I do think your game in midweek and your injury list gives us a chance. I’m also going 2-2.
Ben Watson is a freelance writer and you can follow him on Twitter at @Mr_Ben_Watson
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