Crazy What You Could've Had
This Is Not Me, God Forbid.
I've not read The Game in the Times for a few weeks, and
I've missed out on a piece of writing for which there were
adjectives invented. But I have no idea which one. Here it
Too good to go down? Sorry
By Simon Barnes
IT WAS THE DAY THAT Tinkerbell died. The believers did
everything they could to make this a proper fairystory
with a happy ending (and who cares about belowthesalt
teams such as Bolton Wanderers anyway?) but, in the end,
the problem of incompetence was too much for them.
For just a glimmering of time it seemed that we may be in
for a “football, bloody hell” scenario: West Ham United
leaping clear — with a special West Hamlike triple
salchow to get extra marks for style — at the very moment
that the Grim Reaper swung his scythe.
Poor defending was what did for them, ultimately the poor
defending from Middlesbrough that allowed Bolton to score
twice in the first half, for it was at the other side of
the country that their fate was being decided. It seemed
all over. But then the teasing gods of football had a bit
They started to send good news from the Reebok Stadium.
Bolton conceded a goal. West Ham took the lead. Then they
lost it, then they went a goal down. So Paolo Di Canio, a
man who lives for the bloodyhell scenarios of footballing
life, scored an equaliser instantaneously.
And for just a moment — a long breathless moment — it
seemed that there was music in the air and fairydust
sprinkled from above.
Bolton would surely concede another and, in the third
minute of stoppage time, Di Canio would score the winner
and tears would flow the length and breadth of the land at
yet another outrageous football story. Clap hands if you
believe in fairies, as Peter Pan said when he sought to
revive Tinkerbell from a potentially lethal dose of
atheism. And every night the applause comes and Tinkerbell
revives. There was the feeling that West Ham deserved such
a fate. They were, we heard constantly, “too good to go
down” — a phrase that is the kiss of death to a team on a
downward spiral. But West Ham will go down, in history as
well as in divisional terms, as the most talented side to
achieve demotion. That is if you measure teams in terms of
individual ability or, of course, salary and transfer fee.
Football, however, has a depressing tendency to measure
ability in terms of points and, by this foolish and
aleatory method, West Ham are only the eighteenth best
side in the Barclaycard Premiership, so they are not in
the Premiership at all.
Where did it all go wrong? I remember a message from an
old cricketing friend of mine, who wondered why it was I
hadn’t achieved more as a wicketkeeper — not even an
England cap. He said: “I can only assume that it is some
kind of prejudice against incompetence.”
Alas, sport itself has a prejudice against incompetence
and West Ham have fallen foul of it. Oh, they did plenty
of lovely things when yesterday’s game got going in the
second half and scored two decent goals as well. But if
West Ham were an opera, they would be Boris not quite
There was a feeling that West Ham really shouldn’t be
allowed to go down. They were not only too good, they were
also too decent, they had that nice Trevor Brooking, they
won the World Cup in 1966, they were respectable,
traditional, the academy of football. It seems that there
is need for such a club in the Premiership.
There is a similar feeling in rugby union. Clubs in the
top division have been trying to fix things so that the
bottom club, Bristol — a great club fallen on hard times —
doesn’t actually get relegated and tedious old Rotherham,
a Bolton equivalent, are forced to stay in the lower
division. They haven’t quite succeeded yet, but such a fit
up is the only hope now for West Ham — and to judge from
their ability to put the ball over the crossbar from every
possible angle and distance, there is evidence of a
dazzling future in the ovalball game.
What has undone them? Perhaps it is the Premiership
itself, in which results are intimately related to
financial resources. By this irrefragable law, the best
that West Ham can ever hope for is to finish in a single
figure position. Perhaps what has worn them down is the
perpetual pursuit of mediocrity.
And mediocrity turns out to be yet another goal they have
missed. That sides such as West Ham can fail so dismally
is nothing to do with bad luck. It was bad football. And
all along, and quite disastrously, they believed that they
were too good to suffer such a fate.
So now for the Nationwide League first division. Easily
in, but not so easily out, as the lobster said to the
lobster pot. West Ham have yet to touch bottom, I fear.
Too little too late
Despite their tremendous efforts to beat the drop, West
Ham's relegation confirms that the team occupying the
bottom place at Christmas always get relegated. However,
their final tally of 42 points is the highest by a
relegated club since the Premiership was cut back to 20
teams in 1995
WELL, you can cry if you want. If you've spent 8 months
and more trying to convince yourself that West Ham were a
good enough team, that players like Di Canio, Kanouté and
more than that Trevor Sinclair would do enough, you're
wrong. They should have been enough, and not one player
for the Hammers this year can claim to be wholly
satisfied, though David James must have been doing
Sad, though, isn't it...