Thursday, 14 April 2011

Hughton the man to take West Ham forward

A desperate plea from a Hammers fan

Let me start, as most misguided rants do, with a caveat. I am not an advocate of getting rid of a manager early into his tenure. With stakes so high these days, chairmen have become dangerously short-sighted when it comes to assessing the performance of the team boss.

Now we all know that the most successful clubs are the ones with long-term managers, and clubs have a growing tendency to sack the boss before he has the full opportunity to implement real change to his club. This is now more than just a worrying trend; it has pretty much become part-and-parcel of the modern game, both in England and abroad.

Yet in the case of my own West Ham, and their (how do I put this?) beleaguered boss Avram Grant, I found myself ignoring my own advice, my own moral high ground. I'll be honest, I wanted Grant out as early as the dismal 3-0 defeat against Liverpool way back in November.

I just knew something was different about this case (as they all say, I'm sure!). There was just no commitment, no drive in the team's performances. I felt, and I was far from alone, that Grant did not inspire his players, did not get setups right and clearly did not drill home the benefits of closing down in training. West Ham criminally stood off teams in midfield (admittedly they are more disciplined these days), and it felt as though they had no game-plan for scoring goals. They were deservedly bottom of the league and I was extremely worried. However, I was predictably proven wrong, so it appeared, as slowly but surely things started to click for Grant and his boys.

He admirably shook off the appalling sacking rumours on that one Saturday afternoon in January, which certainly helped rally his players behind him. Further to his credit, he has, on a personal level, a good rapport with the fans. Performances improved; depth and quality was added to the squad, which was admittedly thin beforehand; and, perhaps more importantly, Grant could play 4-3-3 after the return of Hitzlsperger from injury in January, the system he had always wanted to implement but lacked the man-power for. From Boxing Day through to the end of March, 19 points were taken from 12 league games, a fine run.

I still wasn't totally convinced, despite the positives. Perhaps it was Scott Parker's famed, tear-jerking team talk at half-time against West Brom, which made me wonder what Grant was actually doing to help if Parker is giving the team talks and the team's organisation so appalling! Perhaps it was that the club's 60-minute rule still applied (a term I just coined, meaning that West Ham often only actually play for 60 minutes, before switching off). Or perhaps it was that with no club like West Ham can confidence after a couple of wins be so misplaced. But he seemed to be riding a wave, results were good and confidence was high, so I wanted to give him more time and see how far the wave would take him.

And it would appear that this wave has already taken him as far as it will. The defeats against Manchester United and Bolton were dreadful, and Grant's tactical ineptitude was exposed once more. Playing long-ball against Manchester United is suicide for a team like West Ham, especially when they have such talent in the middle of the park. The terrific Demba Ba was taken out of the game in a tactic of Hitzlsperger and others pumping long balls at Carlton Cole, perhaps with the hope of Ba feeding off scraps in behind, which against United you so rarely get. Admittedly, Fergie was a tactical master, loading his midfield, totally nullifying our threat, and bringing on his more attacking players as impact substitutes, brutally exposing our 60-minute rule again. So I can't be too upset about that defeat. But against Bolton they were back to their usual selves under Grant: tactically and defensively clueless, with no idea how they might score, and deep in relegation trouble.

They should be much better than this. In fact, if you take minutes 16-60 of all league matches this season, West Ham's goal difference is exactly zero, showing signs of the Premiership quality this side undoubtedly has. But they have conceded eight in the first 15 minutes this campaign, scoring just two, meaning that points have been lost too often this season before the match has really started. As for the 60-minute rule, what has hurt the most this season is the last half-hour of matches. West Ham's total goal difference in minutes 61-90 is an astonishingly poor -12, from a total goal difference of -18. During the last half-hour of matches West Ham have lost a total of 11 points, and gained just two. With the side playing well enough during the middle of matches, this is a damning verdict on their organisation, team talks (both pre-match and half-time) and player focus. Any improvements the club, and Grant himself, have threatened to make have been offset by the manager's tactical and motivational inadequacies.

The club has some great players, and the potential to easily be a mid-table club, and they need a manager with greater tactical and motivational attributes than Grant. Chris Hughton greatly impressed me at Newcastle. Nobody can deny that Newcastle were going in the right direction with him at the helm, playing smart and driven football. I would love to see him at West Ham. He has a motivated and youthful attitude which defies his age, and the energy that comes with it, the ambition and the intelligence. I would feel far more confident of Hughton bringing the best out of his players and taking them forward than I do with Avram Grant. Not only would the club's immediate future look brighter, but I would also be far more confident over its long-term stability with Hughton at the helm, whether they stay up or not.

The Hammers host Aston Villa at the weekend in a huge game, an absolute 'must-win', to stick to the old cliché. How I wish that, in a parallel universe, Hughton might have even taken over for this one and the rest of the run-in. Not that I don't think they can win with Grant, the team has improved. But the club's fortunes, for this match and after, would simply be safer in the hands of the former Newcastle man.

And whether Grant keeps them up or not, I so desperately hope he will not be kept for next season, harsh on him though it sounds, particularly if Chris Hughton is available. I may be ignoring my own advice on this one, but if I could choose between Grant and Hughton, much like Grant's training-ground chalkboards, it's an absolute no-brainer.

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