(Article submitted by Kevin in Manchester)
‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’. Karl Marx.
In a tempestuous decade we have found ourselves tossed between despair and fragile hope – relegation, play-off misery, promotion, losing FA Cup finalists, Tevez, the great escape, Zola, near bankruptcy, Grant, relegation;- and what now? ‘Fortunes always changing’, or business as usual?
Despite the visionary nature of West Ham United’s founder, Arnold Hills the Victorian philanthropist, industrialist and vegetarian (yes, really), conservatism and paternalism have been the prevailing philosophies at the club but for two brief periods- one glorious; one disastrous- I’ll come back on that.
We were late to the professional era by the time we took the plunge in 1900. OK, we were only founded (as Thames Iron Works FC) in 1895; even so it’s no good playing cricket when your rivals are perfecting karate.
The vote to go professional caused the remarkable Hills (look him up in Wikipedia) to walk, effectively ousted by confederates who had worked for him at his ironworks business. No hard feelings though, his parting gift was the purchase of the Boleyn Ground. That was quite enough excitement for the Cearns family who controlled the club for the next ninety years and only relinquished their place on the board in 2006.
We are, I divine, immensely proud of the fact we only employed four managers between 1901 and 1974, which is fine if they were Herbert Chapman, Alf Ramsey, Bob Paisley and Alex Ferguson but the truth is for half a century West Ham’s ambition was the very definition of meek. Two managers (and former players) Syd King and Billy Paynter lasted 50 years between them and little changed.
Despite being located in the most populous part of London (at the time), West Ham was modest when it came to casting its shadow. You have to wonder what happened to all those sixpences and shillings in an era when gates were shared across 60 plus matches a season.
What with the maximum wage, the playing staff would have been better off being paid literally in peanuts and trading them at the commodity exchanges down the road. Precious few transfer fees were paid and the Cearns did not become noticeably stinking rich.
(And on this point let me digress. A former Chief Constable told me that many of the mansions which arc around north and east London were paid for by turnstile operators running a ‘one for the club, one for me’ scam at West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs; if true, and he couldn’t back his claim with either testimony or documents, then it’s possible that’s where the cash ended up.)
I loved Ron Greenwood. He seemed to epitomise everything I liked about the club in my younger years but I realise now he was not the real innovator. That would be Ted Fenton who not only took us into the first division after a 30 year absence but established our academy (before many other teams had such a thing) and encouraged his players to take an interest and their badges in coaching. He was sacked under never explained circumstances in 1961.
Essentially the apogee of our existence thus far, the FA Cup in 1964 and the ECWC the year after, were achieved by a core of seven players who Fenton had nurtured or signed playing a style of football he developed- the fabled West Ham way. But that was that as far as innovation went-ever since we have reverted to type and followed others, just not as well as we needed to if we were to ever become a force in Football.
Think about it; what should happen to a manager with the three world cup winners in his side and a clutch of talented players besides who finished in the lower half of the first division year after year? You really need the equivalent of the reverse ‘Midas Touch’ to bundle an innovator like Ted Fenton out of a club after he lost five games on the bounce but stick with one who cemented our reputation for mediocrity.
And so it goes: Mediocrity, timidity, second to the punch, a failure to understand, still less exploit, football’s transformation from corner shop to superstore in the last quarter century. Like the ‘saddo’, who thinks aping ‘cool’ will make him part of the in-crowd, our second holiday from the clubs true values was a disaster. The joke was truly on us as we grasped around for pale imitations of the likes of Wenger in the dugout and Ambramovich; in boardroom - we got Eggy and Grant.
We are at a very dangerous point in our history. If we fail to go up this season the business side will start to fray in earnest; you think the loss of Tomkins is a disaster; just wait. Ironically matters are so black now perhaps our time honoured tradition of being careful is what is required. I certainly don’t think we are in a position to look down on the likes of Derby, Ipswich and Bristol City and presume that anything less than a 3-0 thumping is a failure. Survival is everything.
Our history is not as remarkable as we like to think; it’s based on a modicum of success and an innovative manager or two in the late 50’s and sixties. Our owners have traditionally moved with all the élan of a Byzantine bureaucracy. Alladyce, Gold nor Sullivan would, in Karl Marx’s words, have self-selected such a sorry set of circumstances nor are they entirely free of the consequences. Something’s got to change if we are to have a sunnier future but ironically I think that can only be achieved by a bit of belligerent pragmatism for now. It ain’t pretty but if it works I’ll happily endure.