It’s been a bit of a damp squib of an end to the football and rugby season, at least if you support West Ham and Harlequins. Both have had little to play for, for some time now, and it shows. Moments of excitement interspersed with frustrating underachievement. Thoughts turn to next season, with a hope of something better.
For Quins, the downward slide since they won the Premiership in 2012 has now become alarming. Youthful promise is beginning to wear thin for the supporters. It is admirable that so many promising youngsters have come through the academy, and Quins still try to play rugby the right way. There is rarely a dull game when they are playing. There have been excellent performances too, this season. A win away to Leinster in the European Cup group round. The home win against Castres in Europe and Leicester in the Premiership. The recent away win at Sale. But there have been so many performances which have petered out after a good start. Undermined by spilled passes, endless penalties at key moments. The last home game against Bath encapsulated this. Quins more than held their own against the second best team in the country. They led for most of the second half. But a stupid penalty offence just after a line out in their own half with five minutes to go gave George Ford a kick to win the game. Of course he scored. 27-26 to Bath. Story of the season.
There have been a lot of injuries to key players and England call-ups have been disruptive. But these are the challenges that all the top teams face. A strong squad is needed, with plenty of back-up experience. And Quins lack that depth at the moment. Only yesterday, watching Man Utd v Arsenal, pundit Graeme Souness made the obvious, but good point that all top sides constantly refresh their squads even when they are on top. That’s what all the successful teams do to stay on top. Look at Barcelona. They already had Messi and Neymar up front. So they went out and bought Suarez too! They won La Liga and should take the Champions League against Juventus. Chelsea were pretty good last season, but by bringing Fabregas and Costa in over the summer, the team was complete, and ready to win the Premier League.
I think the management have now recognised the need for a shift in policy. For next season they have already secured the services of a number of seasoned international players. The hirsute Welshman, Adam Jones, to add some clout to the front row; Aussie James Horswill (after the World Cup) to lead the second row; another Welshman, Jamie Roberts, to add brute power to the centres. All exciting signings, even if Adam Jones is past his absolute prime. Add to that the genuine promise of Charlie Walker, Kyle Synkler and especially the awesome Jack Clifford, who has forced his way into a regular back row slot, and Quins have the makings of a return to the top four.
Hopefully, the mediocrity of this season will be a temporary blip.
With West Ham, things are more worrying. After a great November and December, the Irons were in the top four. We were ahead of Arsenal! Some people dared to dream, though I think most knew that it couldn’t last. Unfortunately, one of the non-believers appears to have been the manager, Sam Allardyce. Even though the team’s success was based on an attack-focused midfield diamond, spearheaded by a revitalised Stewart Downing, and two strikers – permed from Carroll, Sakho and Valencia – Sam quickly reverted to a cautious 4-5-1 when, over Christmas, we came up a few top teams. I saw this on Boxing Day at Chelsea: Playing deep, Downing isolated on the right wing, Carroll marooned on his own up front. Result: supine defeat. And without the manager really believing, I think that fed through to the players. Confidence and form dipped. Key players, especially up front, were injured. Leads against the likes of Man Utd, Stoke and Tottenham were thrown away in added-on time. The crowd got restless, and inevitably started to turn against Sam again.
Nonetheless, we almost got to 40 points remarkably early, in February. The draw at Tottenham took us to 39, which seems to be safe these days. 42, a few losing games later in March, when Sunderland were beaten – just! And that was enough to take the foot right off the gas. Only 5 points have been gained since then. The team have been well and truly “on the beach”.
Increasingly the mutterings from inside the camp against Big Sam have made us more certain that his contract will not be renewed for next season, the last before West Ham move into the Olympic Stadium, in Stratford. While I would welcome a change, to a more positive, confident style of play, I also recognise that removing Allardyce at this stage, without getting a really top notch replacement, is very risky. Relegation is never far away for the happy Hammers. It would be grim to start the new era in the Championship, with masses of unfilled seats.
So the Board really must get things right this summer. A top manager, and three or four high quality players, to refresh and strengthen the side. A big ask.
But let’s end on a bright note. There have been tremendous wins against Man City and Liverpool; the run in November and December was the best in years; Sakho was a great discovery; player of the year, Aaron Creswell, bought from Ipswich, was a revelation at left back. Adrian established himself as one of the best keepers in the Premier League; Downing got back in the England squad; and for a time Song and Kouyate were awesome in midfield, alongside the ever-dependable Mark Noble. There is definitely something to build on.
They have just got to believe, and that needs a manager who really believes too.
We live in hope, as all sports fans do. Until those hopes are dashed by reality. At which point you just say to yourself…. it’s only sport.