I’m surprised and rather delighted that Andy Carroll has joined West Ham on a season long loan, with an option, I think, to make it permanent. He’s a high quality player, a bit of a throwback to the days when a big man and a little man roamed up front in a 4-4-2, balls pumped up to the big man who would cause havoc in the opposing defence with his aerial power, leaving the little man to feed off the layoffs and loose balls. I think when Kenny Dalglish brought Carroll to Liverpool he might have been thinking about the old Toshack-Keegan combination, which thrilled the Kop decades ago.
It hasn’t worked out for Carroll at Liverpool because – especially now, under Brendan Rogers – they try to play a fluid, balls-to-feet 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – which just doesn’t lend itself to the simpler, more direct play that can put a big, powerful, maybe-not-that-quick striker at the heart of the system. It actually works better with England, where Roy Hodgson still favours old-fashioned English virtues. And it did lead to that superb headed goal for Carroll against Sweden in the Euros, courtesy of Gerrard’s pinpoint cross.
So there’s a logic in Carroll joining the Irons, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, who still favours the quick ball up or across to the Big Man. He’s not the dinosaur manager of popular myth. He favours a 4-3-3 (which can become an over- cautious 4-5-1), but does like a robust centre forward who is good in the air and can hold the ball up. He likes to get the ball out out wide, and has already spent £10m on Matt Jarvis from Wolves to supply the crosses. Carton Cole in the centre is willing and powerful, but sometimes lacks the control and has spells when he just can’t finish it off. Carroll is undoubtedly a superior version and could well thrive in an environment where he will be the go-to man.
This presents a bit of a dilemma for the average West Ham fan (including me) who hangs on to the idea that Upton Park is “The Academy”. A place where only the finest football is accepted. Where the ball is the player’s friend. From whence came Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Rio Ferdinand… and, er, Julian Dicks, Billy Bonds (superb hard men, both). Are we happy to exchange style for success? All these exciting signings. Andy Carroll for godsakes! That’s real ambition. But the football, the football..
This hankering after good football, though, is based on bit of a myth. There hasn’t been a lot of great football in recent years, probably not since ‘Arry Redknapp left. There have been plenty of relegation battles, sometimes ending in the drop, that’s for sure. So, while there were groans about the Allardyce playing style, there was an acceptance that he would probably get us out of the Championship and make us hard to beat in the Premier League. He did the first; jury’s out on the second. And with the acquisition of Carroll, it’s confirmed that West Ham will be joining Stoke and Sunderland as upholders of good old fashioned English football. Nothing especially wrong with that. Played well, it can be pacey, exciting and effective. But it can also be a grim tale of aimless long balls and wasted possession. A huff and a puff.
Meanwhile, the top clubs increasingly look to emulate the formations and style of play found on the “continent”. All play with an attacking intent. It doesn’t feel right in this era of attacking, fluent football, that West Ham, with their reputation for playing pretty, if largely unsuccessful, football, are moving to the ugly camp. If it’s successful then I guess people will buy in. If the only achievement is Premier League survival, I suspect the fans will get restive.
I have a feeling it could all be down to Andy Carroll’s head!