Mickey Blue Eyes
Here's a happy tune, you'll love to croon
They call it Sam's Song
It's catchy as can be, the melody
They call it Sam's song
Sam's Song, (1950), a popular song by Lew Quadling and John Elliot.
At West Ham they all love Sam Allardyce.
This was not always so.
I write this while trying to keep a straight face.
Then, prior to our match last Saturday West Ham stood an unexpected fourth in the Premier League. This season the bubbles they blow bear winning smiles, not losing snarls. Which means it should be mildly interesting when they deflate, as they surely will. Thus the mercurial hypocrisy of football fans everywhere. Arthur C. Clarke's definition of a crank has never been more appropriate: an enthusiast without a sense of humour or a trace of self-depreciation.
Sam, like many of us, has seen most of it before. These days he is perhaps the polarising trouper of Premier League management after battle-scarred years running Preston, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton, Newcastle, and Blackburn and now three years in East Lahndan, to say nothing of serious corruption allegations from the BBC (which is rich when you consider the composition of its neocon news team and the BBC Trust board and its three-days-a-week banker chairwoman). Yet when matters look grave Sam is still the turnaround man, still a survivor. Last season and before he saved West Ham from relegation, for which he was castigated for "Not playing the West Ham Way." Whatever that is. But he soldiered on, and this season, quite suddenly and utterly unexpectedly, everything clicked into place on the pitch. This has comically wrong-footed his many critics, valid and otherwise, who now sulk in the shadows waiting - hoping - for an inevitable fall from grace. Of course mainstream media is on a winner whatever happens because its hacks can manufacture a "controversy" either way; it never occurs to the culprits that mendacity is the prime reason they are held in such contempt......that and their meagre mindset.
Whatever your reservations about Sam there is little question the funniest concoction in all this is the said "West Ham Way", a media myth manufactured a generation ago in the ale house-addled, back-page mindsets of neocon Fleet Street, BBC News and ITN, all of them based dahn the road from Upton Park and the annual parade of Pearly Kings and Queens and the tenderness of Alf Garnett, the BNP, and now SendThemAllBack UKIP. The truth about West Ham footy is more prosaic. Apart from the Bobby Moore-Martin Peters-Geoff Hurst era (which ended over forty years ago) they have never amounted to much. Since then they have been relegated and promoted five times. In recent years we have been a bogey team to them, having lost only three times in the last fifteen years.
Our 0-1 loss at Upton Park on a miserable midweek night back in March 2002 proved of seminal importance to our future. At the time we were fifteenth in the league table and they were fourteenth. Both clubs looked like they would sink beneath the waves holding hands. Our side that night, read it and weep, was Simonsen, Pistone, Weir, Stubbs, Unsworth, Alexandersson, Gemmill, Carsley, Blomqvist, Radzinski, Campbell, substitutes Gravesen, Linderoth and Ginola, gawd knows in what formation. The manner of loss was so awful the board finally decided to fire Walter Smith (not, as many people think, after the equally horrible subsequent defeat at Middlesborough in the FA Cup). David Moyes duly arrived, and the rest we know. It was also memorable pre-match because a mischievous giggly Declan cleverly distracted me on the way to the ground so I walked unknowingly through a deposit of white dog shit. Lousy local beer might have played some rôle too. In the circumstances the match result was hardly inappropriate. My, but those were difficult footy times for our beloved club. And my shoes.
Meanwhile, these are uninspired times for our national team despite six successive but routine wins. It was midway through the catatonic boredom of the first half of the England V Slovenia Euro 2016 qualifier when a realisation flopped like a dollop of half-cooked suet pudding into an already-full stomach: They're all doing it........"It" being tippy-tappy, tikka-takka, possession football, or safeball, take your pedantic pick. Once again the game was played out in near-funereal silence punctuated only by the thud of foot on ball and players calling to each other. At one point I swear the pitchside mics picked up someone coughing in the crowd. Small wonder many fans feel only an urge to yawn. When the crowd does wake up it sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir with bum notes and a throat disease.
Play amounts to the same thing, keep the ball for as long as possible even if you are going nowhere, which is usually the case anyway. Do not, on almost any account, turn with the ball if you have your back to the enemy goal because you risk losing it. This satisfies "professionalism", but, alas, drives supporters like myself right around the bend, up the wall and across the ceiling. It has all the excitement of soggy soap and cold porridge. It is attrition labelled "patient play," the trench warfare of football. No surprise, then, when Slovenia went ahead in the second half through a farcical headed own goal, England equalised via a penalty and then gained the lead through a scuffed shot before tippy-tapping through a non-tackling defence for a third. Altogether, it was the kind of "spectacle" that gives macramé a bad name.
The roots of it are apparent. They grew from the recent great Spanish national side, now almost demised, paradoxically at their peak the best football team I have ever seen; that includes Brazil 1970. It seems everyone has tried to copy erstwhile Iberian style while forgetting you need great players in almost every position to achieve it. At their best Spain did not bore the enemy to death; relentlessly they played them to death; it should go without saying club teams, even great ones, can never manage the same standard. At which point the Theory of Logical Conclusions tells us that if virtually all leading English clubs play that way the Premier League will fall to the narcissistic anaemia of Dutch or Italian club football. That is the road we are faced toward. The national team is no exception. Interestingly, the last time we were faced with this sort of thing at club level the International Board quite rightly changed the back pass law.
The game thrives on a variety of styles, not repetition. All the best sports spectacles involve an element of risk - preferably against the odds - coupled with outstanding individual athletic skill. Eliminate risk, play safe, and the affect on spectacle is deadly, as it was when defenders could pass back directly to the goalkeeper. There is always room for improvement: Back in the late 1920s the offside law was changed to refresh matters, and again recently. Somewhere along the way there must be a clash of styles, an edge of uncertainty. Pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out pacifists must find a substitute for soldiers; somehow toy soldiers will not do. And in my unhumble opinion safeball is the equivalent of playing with toy soldiers. Hence the tedium. Frankly, when it comes to this flavour-of-the-month footy era I can hardly wait for entropy to wreak its havoc. I want to move on, quickly: There is too much wu-wei, not enough yu-wei.
Then along came the raucous "friendly" Scotland V England to prove the game can still be wildly exciting and unsparing. Anyone who thinks sports are divorced from political history needs to attend one of these games and experience its visceral passion - much abused word in football - and commitment. England won 3-1 due to superior fitness and technique but the Jocks simply refused to lie down even when they were plainly out on their feet. Oh such a welcome difference. See, there is always hope. Meanwhile, the result probably brought Scottish independence a step nearer.
So far as I know nobody has ever charged Sam Allardyce with playing tippy-tappy with toy soldiers. On the other hand, losing managers frequently accuse his teams of playing up-and-under stuff. There is of course some merit in the allegation. So what? When you are fighting for survival you are scarcely inclined to the niceties......and who was it invoked "the dogs of war" in a relegation battle? In fact with Sam, like it or not, you get what you see and in the process suffer a bruise or two to your purist ego. I cannot pretend he is my cup of tea, nor do I want him as our manager, but I do recognise a survivor when I see one. Which is what made interesting our match with his team. Nevertheless, given our form this season, I travelled to Goodison more in hope than expectation, alerted by memory, carefully scanning the pavement for signs of canine trembly-legged loose bowel syndrome, aware both sides were missing important players.
Team: Howard, Coleman, Distin, Jagielka, Hibbert, Osman, Naismith, McCarthy, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku. Eto'o came on for Barkley with twenty five minutes left, Besic for Barkley with ten minutes to go and Atsu for Naismith with a minute of normal time on the clock. Pre-match, I was unsure what to expect of the enemy since I have seen virtually nothing of them this season. But, really, I should have known what was coming. It was the polar opposite of safeball. Gradually it descended to scrappy, kick-everything-that-moves ball. It was yu-wei on speed. West Ham started it and, sadly for the spectacle, we gave it back to them in spades. Probably the only thing that came out of it for us was a difficult 2-1 win and proof that even with a depleted side Our Boys can look after themselves when the enemy starts cutting up rough. The game had its moments, but not many; far too much threatening adolescent behaviour. If all that sounds schizophrenic that is what the contemporary game does to you.
My main concern was how our patched up midfield would cope. In fact in the circumstances they performed well, in a battling sort of way. Leon Osman, four hundred games up, was the best player on the pitch until Samuel Eto'o came on to weave his late magic. The only blot on their copybook was a stupid dive from Ross Barkley - but given it was Nolan who was the "culprit" I have to say it couldn't have been tried on with a more despised individual. None of us have forgotten or forgiven his criminal assault on Vic Anichebe at Newcastle, a "tackle" second only to the thuggery of McKay on Jimmy Husband many years ago. Anichebe was never the same player afterwards. The sooner Nolan is out of the game the better for everyone......a truly horrible, disgusting, tenth-rate hoodlum who shames professional football. And the referee was Clattenburg, to put it mildly not exactly a favourite of Evertonians.
Early on, Lukaku and Naismith miscues apart, the chances of a goal seemed about equivalent to you being struck by a stray meteor while collecting lottery winnings from Kim Jong-un in the de-militarised zone of Korea. Nevertheless, the first goal came on twenty five minutes after the pattern of the match - such as it was - established itself. It was suitably scatty. Tony Hibbert, sterling as ever, helped Distin break up an attack on the half way line left. A series of unsatisfactory ground and air passes eventually got through to Barkley lurking at the centre of the D. A quick shot rebounded off a central defence cluster and dropped left where Lukaku despatched it past their wrong footed 'keeper. On balance we deserved it. Shortly afterwards Barkley and Lukaku screwed up a brilliant breakaway through the centre and Lukaku's goal was disallowed for off side. Nobody was tippy-tapping but there was little good football either.
The problem this season is that virtually nobody in the crowd is confident we can hold a lead. The players sometimes reinforce that jaundiced view. In this case Tim, Jags and Sylvain again did this season's watch-me-fuck-this-up shtick; fortunately this time we survived. Later on they all made amends when matters got sticky and heated.
In the second half West Ham stepped up the tempo and for stretches looked like they would get a goal, so there was an air of inevitability about the equaliser ten minutes after the restart. To be fair they too deserved it. But it was as scatty a goal as ours, though their approach play from a throw in on their right was relatively sharper. It might have helped if any one of three players had offered a tackle as their man went through on an angled run. A shot from the right edge of the penalty area hit Jags on the heel and looped over a helpless Tim. Typical, we groaned. The enemy promptly missed two really good chances by a whisker. Déjà-vu, we groaned again.
The match then deteriorated into a series of handbags that did no good for the reputation of the sport or either club. Still, it stirred us into action and Jimmy McCarthy cracked a long shot narrowly over the top after a sharp move down our left with Steven Naismith. Encouragingly, we failed to wilt as bodies started thudding to the ground everywhere, one of them a comedy farce when one of theirs threw himself to the ground holding his face after Mirallas shoved him in the chest. Probably the pratfall saved our returnee from a red card.
Actually, the game changer was the appearance of Samuel Eto'o and his pure skill. It is no exaggeration to say the crowd adore him as much as he relishes his Indian summer. Sadly, I never saw him at his peak but if he was even half as good as he is now he must have been some player. He seems always to have a little more time and space, a pass into him at any height or any angle always seems to "stick". And his passing can slice up a defence to devastating effect. A wonderful player to have on the bench, even if it is for one season only.
The winner came fifteen minutes from time and was a first rate piece of opportunism. The enemy was on the attack at the time but the move broke down at centre midfield in our half. Naismith promptly put through to Lukaku - what a combination they are when on form - centre right on the half way line and his speed built up as he advanced on one defender between him and the goal. Past him, the big man would be clear. So naturally he was kicked straight up in the air, but Clattenburg played the advantage, the ball went wide right to Eto'o and he raced toward the right side of the penalty area as defenders scurried back to cover. Before the enemy could fully form up he hit a hard ground cross to the opposite side of the goal area and Osman came steaming in to hit the winner at full stretch.
All in all it was a good win, deserved. We rode our luck but it was about time we had some good fortune. Going into winter there is only one Sam singing. That sunny smile of his will help us get through the low temperatures. Meanwhile, the other Sam will have to make do with blowing bubbles.