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Martin O’Neill at West Ham

Posted on 15 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

UPDATE: I think the phrase is “overtaken by events”! I’ll leave this here as a period piece, but as things stand, O’Neill won’t ,after all, be going to West Ham. It’s unlikely that Grant will hang on regardless, but no subsequent appointment will hold half the interest of Martin O’Neill’s.

This is harsh on Avram Grant. As anyone who saw the Carling Cup semi-final first leg against Birmingham City knows, West Ham were beginning to find their feet once more.

But, sympathies aside, this is the most interesting managerial appointment of the season so far, in that, unlike Dalglish’s at Liverpool, it says unequivocal things about football figures who might still be felt to have a future.

O’Neill vs Dalglish

The two men are only a year apart in age. But there are reasons to believe that O’Neill has ten more years ahead of him than his Scottish counterpart. Dalglish has the obvious upper hand when it comes to medals – the huge Liverpool haul, and Blackburn. But of the two, O’Neill has the more crafted career. O’Neill built from the bottom, constructing a perfect managerial CV. He has proved himself at non-league level, in the blood and thunder of the Football League, at the tiller of a side who owed their Premiership status to his skills, and, most impressively of all, at what is in pressure terms one of the world’s biggest clubs: Celtic. Where his predecessor was…

Events at Aston Villa give one to think that O’Neill is still interested in success in his own career. Dalglish is now a one-club man: there will be no further essays in life beyond Anfield. He may well rescue Liverpool, but it will be for Liverpool’s sake and not his own. O’Neill possesses no such natural home, and employs no such nostalgia in his thinking.

In short, O’Neill doesn’t think his story is over. He’s not looking for a reprise or a return. At 58, he is still pursuing his career like a young man.

Control

Time and time again, the great British managers take over desperate, failing clubs and take them to unprecedented places. Stein at Hibs, however briefly. Shankly, at Second Division Liverpool. Busby, at a bombed-out Manchester United who had in any event spent the 20s and 30s watching their rivals at the great new stadium at Maine Road soak up the glory. Revie at Second Division Leeds. Clough at Second Division Derby County, and then again at Second Division Nottingham Forest.

This has been Martin O’Neill’s model, but adapted to modern financial constraints and conditions. Like all these men, he has taken a club unexpectedly to a European Final. Unlike the others, he has yet to win either a title, an FA Cup or a European trophy.

What’s changed is that the kind of club that can realistically consider those kinds of goals is no longer owned and managed in such a way as might give a man like Martin O’Neill  room to breathe.

The biggest clubs are now ownership nightmares. Randy Lerner is as good as the new breed come, and for O’Neill, it was not good enough. Even O’Neill needs time, and for new men at the top five or six clubs, there is no time anymore.

What makes West Ham more than just a re-run of the Leicester City saga, however, is the potential of their players.

Why West Ham? and Why Now?

It must be frustrating beyond measure. Being a West Ham fan, I mean. Cast an eye over the England squad. Rio. Carrick. Defoe. Joe Cole. Frank Lampard. Defoe, Cole and Carrick were part of the West Ham team that were relegated not long ago with 42 points, running out of road on the last day of the season after a thrilling tilt at safety led by Trevor Brooking.

Go back further. The television strike team of 1985 that so nearly went all the way. The 1980 FA Cup team: what was a side of Brooking, Devonshire, Allen, Pearson, Bond and Lampard senior doing in Division Two? Go back further: Hurst, Moore, Peters, Johnny Byrne.

There should have been more than three FA Cups and a Cup-Winner’s Cup, and West Ham could be forgiven for feeling that they exist to bring up great players properly whose dedication and discipline (for the most part) then flourishes elsewhere.

I thought it was all about to happen again. Noble, Sears, Collison, Tomkins, and the rest – especially the first two – were all emerging fast in what looked like another doomed team. Narrow relegation would, again, result in a fire sale. Once again, West Ham fans would find their remembered claret and blue hills turning up in Chelsea and Manchester United colours. Once again, the gratitude for a good career start would come in the form of words and fond memories, not as silverware at Upton Park.

O’Neill’s arrival changes all that immediately. “West Ham now” is all about the high quality of their young players: he’s going there for them. Just for once, West Ham’s youth policy has drawn someone in. Too often, it’s been the other way round.

O’Neill’s record with young players

You don’t have to go back to Emile Heskey – if Heskey is old enough yet to “go back to” at all. At Aston Villa, O’Neill was draw enough to get, and keep, some of the best young talent in the country. Since he left Villa Park, one question does for them all: whatever happened to Ashley Young, James Milner, Gaby Abonlahor, to the brave and honest Curtis Davies? Even after discounting form, injuries and (Milner) ill-advised transfers, there’s real loss of momentum here. Now that their mentor is back at another club, what will Marc Albrighton, Ciaron Clark and Nathan Delfounesco be thinking?

They’d be advised to consider the experiences of Steve Guppy, Muzzy Izzet, Steve Walsh and Neil Lennon, men who prospered by keeping ahold of nurse, or who, in Izzet’s case, would have wanted to if they could. O’Neill, like Clough, has a track record of having players flourish under him – and only under him.

If West Ham can find some money from somewhere, they might well find themselves the favoured destination of the half of the future England squad that they don’t already own…

O’Neill and the “Big Job”

The obvious question is, was he waiting for one of the big four to call? Liverpool could have done. Manchester United, often mentioned as a future home for O’Neill, now looks to be unavailable: barring the unexpected and accidents of trade, Ferguson will die in office. Chelsea see themselves in competition for coaches with Barcelona and Real Madrid: that’s not O’Neill’s world. Arsenal have had their O’Neill already and won’t have a vacancy for another: Wenger, like Ferguson, won’t move on now, seeing it as too late to start again elsewhere.

Control, stability and security matter to Martin O’Neill: it is inconceivable that he would be sacked except by the new billionaire owner of a top four club. There is also the question whether he wants to deal with the astonishing tidal forces that money exerts on Chelsea and Manchester United: these days, you need to be interested in money for your own sake and its own sake to survive mentally in the Champions League places. That’s not O’Neill either.

So his taking on West Ham might show that he no longer considers the so-called “big jobs” to be the desirable ones. Celtic was a real big job – it might be argued that he kept it that way himself by his own force of personality for longer than would otherwise have been the case. Both Rangers and Celtic now await a change in the financial weather and can’t move on until it comes. Furthermore, when O’Neill was at Celtic, it was a big job purely in footballing terms: what would the team achieve under him? would he emulate Stein, even in part? and of course he did, and showed the “pressures” of the job to be only an accurate measure of the talent of its holder. Celtic crushed good men before and after him – even a genuine hero like Tony Mowbray: O’Neill looked, sounded, and performed as if born to the role.

The Olympic Stadium

I don’t know if the issue of the Olympic Stadium figures with Martin O’Neill. There’s a considerable time factor involved: the Olympic Games are, in playing terms, a season and a half away, and conversion works probably stretch that time to four seasons altogether. And then there’s the neighbours to consider: Spurs.

That isn’t to say that the fate of the Olympic Stadium isn’t vital to both clubs. The stadium arms race of the Edwardian era is playing out again in our own time, and only clubs that can open capacity beyond 60,000 can hope to  compete at the very top level. Stratford can be a get out of jail free card for West Ham, and it’s close enough to call home. But Spurs have the money, the clout, Beckham on board and the next England manager.

If it came down to a straight battle between Redknapp and O’Neill, I know who I’d back. But it’s far from that. I really don’t know if this issue is on O’Neill’s mind at all. It would demand that he stay in post longer than he has been prone to, and it would create the mother of all distractions to the playing side of things (Wenger built the invincibles and Ashburton Gate at the same time, which speaks for itself, but he and O’Neill are very different men).

West Ham’s “Happy Time”?

Danny Dyer and everything of that kind aside, West Ham are a sunshine club, carrying a kind of indefinable good news around with them. It’s Malcolm Allison’s coffee shop school, talking tactics with young Moore and Byrne and pushing salt shakers around to prove a point. It’s the beautiful playing strip – not dissimilar to another one in Martin O’Neill’s past. It’s all those sunsoaked Wembley finals. It’s the deep family connections – the Lampards, the Allens. It’s the atmosphere of Upton Park under floodlights. It’s West Ham’s being in London, the greatest, most beautiful city in the world.

That, and the presence of an exciting set of young players: it all adds up to two things.

One, a club quite different from the ones O’Neill has managed before. It’s not Celtic’s sharks and icebergs. It’s not Aston Villa’s fear that the world was racing away without them. It’s not Leicester’s constant struggle for breath. And it’s certainly not Wycombe.

Two, O’Neill will finally be.. Martin O’Neill.

Because everyone has been waiting for him to be Brian Clough. This is unfair: Clough was Clough from the get-go. No one was hanging about in case Old Big ‘Ead might eventually morph into Harry Storer.

For some reason, for O’Neill to turn into Clough, he had to have the big job at the big club, in England. Or, indeed, get the England job, which would have made him just like Clough. (West Ham aren’t a leg up to that post, however: it’s Redknapp’s next, in sickness or in health).

No, now it’s Martin O’Neill’s career that he’s having. An end to comparisons. Not, perhaps, an end to questions about how he might have got on at Manchester United. But there are younger managers than O’Neill who will have that one hung around their neck before Ferguson is through, and one of them, you know in your heart, is Portuguese.

It’ll start, I imagine, with unfinished business: O’Neill will help West Ham finish the unlikely job of winning “his” trophy, the Football League Cup. His part in Villa’s losing final was only last year. Yet such a long time ago.

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Presenting the Trophy: 1929, 1954 and 1958

Posted on 11 August 2010 by JamesHamilton

Huddersfield Town's 1922 FA Cup Open Top Bus

Commenter Will contrasts aspects of the 1929 FA Cup Final crowd (see here) with modern football audience behaviour:

They are all there early. If you imagine the FA Cup final now there would be people drifting in right up to the kick off. But the stands are full at least 10 minutes before kick off. And what an orderly crowd – it looks much more like a theatre audience than a modern football crowd would.

When they go up to get the cup you can hear individuals shouting out. Now (if you could hear it over the ‘razzmatazz’ provided by the PA system…etc you would hear a dull roar from the crowd or chanting. In this video the crowd don’t feel the need to make a noise for the sake of it – they will gladly stand and watch the team collecting the cup, unless they have something specific they want to say. It gives the trophy presentation the feel of a school sports day.

In 1929, the crowd are more specifically spectators, and less participants, than they are today, at least at Wembley.

Wembley was strange turf – an away ground for everyone present, of course, and it would be interesting to have e.g. a “talking picture” from Stamford Bridge, Burnden Park or Maine Road to contrast the 1929 Final with.

The next clip is from the closing stages of the 1954 “Miracle of Berne” World Cup Final, in which a reborn West Germany beat the Magical Magyars with a combination of tech, weather and skullduggery plus the skills and courage of an underestimated side (Morlock, Rahn & Gmb). From about six minutes in, you can watch the German reaction to the Final whistle, and then the presentation.

The presentation – like that of 1929 – is treated as a short hiatus in the celebrations. For the players, it’s a moment for dignity and self-respect. And from Puskas, sportsmanship:

In today’s cup tournaments, the trophy presentation has become the moment of climax. Like so much in this homophobic sport, it’s highly sexual. The trophy is handed over – it enjoys an intimate moment with the captain – and then the captain turns to the crowd, and, bang! (And streamers fall, fireworks go up, a narcissistic single by Queen jerks into action: whatever else it all is, it isn’t in anyone’s idea of good taste).

In 1929 and 1954, the presentation had relatively little to do with the crowd as such. Even the chairing of the skipper – or, in West Germany’s case, the manager – looks like a comparatively private affair, something that took place amongst an inner circle, team and the team’s backroom support.

FA Cup Finals have always been a case unto themselves. Yes, they decide an important competition, but it’s also the national Football Association’s big annual day out, a chance to thank the many volunteers who keep the real game going. Of the 100,000 tickets sold at the old Wembley, only a proportion would be destined for the fans of the finalists.  In addition, until the 1950s, when the price of football admission and rail travel both diminished in relation to the growth in the standard of living, a journey to London would have been beyond many who attended home games. Saturday morning working would rule out others. To celebrate “with the crowd” at Wembley in 1929 might not have meant “celebrating with your core supporters” as much as it does today.

So when would the supporters’ moment come? When would they be acknowledged, in public, by the team they followed?

If this 1934 film marking Manchester City’s FA Cup win is any clue, then the pre-War fans’ “moment” wasn’t at Wembley: it was at the railway station, and in the streets, with the Cup held up to them from an open-top bus (ignore the voice over on this: usual ill-informed, patronising rubbish)

The bus would be bound for the steps of the Town Hall or City Chambers, where the trophy would be raised to a cheering crowd in a manner similar to but less sexualised that that now seen at Wembley.

Inevitably, bus parades aren’t the events they once were. Chelsea’s parades, for instance, go down the Kings Road, and once ended at my former workplace Chelsea Old Town Hall. Chelsea Old Town Hall hasn’t been a Town Hall for 45 years, and has never been in the same borough as Stamford Bridge. In 1970, the Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea stood at the Town Hall window, pouring champagne into the Cup. In 2010, with an attendance similar to a minor political demonstration of the sort London sees almost every day during the summer – rather fewer than they’d taken to Wembley itself -  Chelsea’s bus took them to Parson’s Green. (Chelsea’s support these days are a diaspora – coming from Sutton, Epsom, Dorking, Redhill and further afield as much as from West London – so a Wembley focus for celebration makes more sense in any case, as it would for most clubs who win the Cup these days).

This last British Pathe clip shows Nat Lofthouse of Bolton Wanderers in 1958. Changes are underway in the Wembley Ritual: he gives the Cup a chaste peck, and, a minute or two later, holds it up – somewhat – chest high – for photographers. You’ll also see his speech and his holding up the Cup on the steps of Bolton Town Hall – a traditional element still in full force 52 years ago. No easing past this crowd – it’s quite clearly something those present will remember for the rest of their lives.

There’s no doubt in my mind that football between the Wars was at its peak in terms of crowd behaviour and etiquette. The Edwardian game was a more violent and corrupt affair altogether. As for the 1950s, trains began to be vandalised by travelling supporters, and fan segregation surfaced as an issue outside Glasgow.

It’s not the world fan nostalgia harks back to. That world, one full of loyal players with hygienic lives, Gazza skills and workman’s boots, who go everywhere by bus and never lose an international match, is a media-fuelled fantasy. And what rough fuel the media provide.

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