It was roughly this time last season when William Hill’s latest PR release for a quiet news day was a survey of British football fans in which they were asked to name their second-favourite side. Liverpool – fresh from a thrilling title challenge – led the way ahead of Arsenal, and down in joint-tenth place were Sam Allardyce’s West Ham. Level with Leeds. Writing the day after Steve Evans’ appointment, it’s safe to say the Hammers will have streaked away in that previously neck-and-neck race.
West Ham less popular amongst ‘neutrals’ than Aston Villa? That carries a hint of the ridiculous to anybody over the age of 35 who can remember John Lyall’s side of the mid-Eighties, sprinkled with the stardust of Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee. Our fathers and grandfathers looked affectionately on West Ham because they had won the World Cup; we liked them because they were thrilling, wore excellent shirts and the south was an exotic place.
Now, when cynicism is football’s default mode, people scoff at the idea of the ‘West Ham way’ and Sam Allardyce was not short of supporters when he called Hammers fans ‘deluded’ for demanding entertainment as a side dish to their Premier League status. But 30 years ago – and more recently for spells under Billy Bonds and Harry Redknapp – West Ham were synonymous with something a little more delicious than the stodge of survival.
Years of mediocre, interchangeable managers in Glenn Roeder, Alan Pardew and Alan Curbishley made West Ham easy to ignore, while the likeable but flawed Gianfranco Zola and Avram Grant made them easy to mock. Then came Allardyce and nobody was laughing anymore; they were too bored to laugh.
The disproportionate number of West Ham fans amongst newspaper journalists – coupled with a traditional love of talkative English managers in that profession – means that we sat through a summer of ‘be careful what you wish for’ as the Hammers’ owners were derided for risking safety in pursuit of thrills and Hammers’ fans were told that they would miss their stale water when the well had run dry. Those of us who support dull Championship clubs but wanted to like West Ham again were rather pleased.
The arrival of Dimitri Payet was pretty damned sexy and then West Ham won deadline day with moves for Alex Song, Michail Antonio, Nikica Jelavic and Victor Moses. We cannot pretend that the loan signing of Manuel Lanzini elicited more than a shrug; it is only in hindsight that Slaven Bilic’s namechecking of David Silva looks like a tantalising hint at the magic that was to come. Imagine for a second Allardyce signing anybody that could even vaguely be compared with Silva and then try to suppress a smile and images of Kevin Nolan.
This West Ham side is all things to all men. For those who care about retaining a core of British players, there are five in their current first-choice XI. For those who crave sumptuous skill and creativity, there is Payet and Lanzini. For those who want to see crunching tackles, there is the uncompromising Cheikhou Kouyate. For those who like to see the ball moved quickly from back to front, there is Mark Noble still hitting diagonal balls into the chest of Diafro Sakho. This is a side finessed rather than revolutionised. But it’s enough to make them likeable again.
You may wonder why anybody outside Upton Park would care where West Ham sat on a list of teams quietly admired by those whose first allegiances lie elsewhere, but this is a club that desperately needs to attract visitors outside of a core support who would turn up regardless of the quality of the football.
We may have laughed at David Gold’s theory about women potentially being attracted by a nearby shopping centre, but the misplaced sentiment comes from the knowledge that West Ham need day-trippers to fill the Olympic Stadium. They need Sheffield United diehards on mini-breaks, Wigan supporters on business trips and Huddersfield Town fans who just want to see Payet and Lanzini in the flesh.
Be careful what you wish for, West Ham fans; you might have to share your stadium with those of us who really liked you in that AVCO kit.