For a side that had just suffered relegation despite having that ‘too good to go down’ tag hung round their necks, the mood at Upton Park was surprisingly buoyant this summer. Out went Avram Grant, in came Big Sam Allardyce, a man not renowned for putting the ‘beautiful’ in ‘beautiful game’, but well regarded in the footballing world for turning sides into consistent outfits, something necessary for a promotion campaign in the Championship.
Despite a few hiccups along the way, all seemed good for West Ham, especially as they moved top of the division for the first time in the season on January 21 thanks to two Mark Noble penalties in a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest. Promotion looked almost certain; indeed the Hammers enjoyed a successful January transfer window as well, bringing in the likes of Nicky Maynard and Ravel Morrison to strengthen the squad for the final push.
Things haven’t quite gone according to plan since then. After topping the League, West Ham came straight down to earth with a bump as Ipswich handed them a 5-1 hammering at Portman Road, throwing the form book straight out of the window. Four draws in their last five games, including three successive 1-1 scorelines have allowed Reading to overtake them in the promotion race, pushing Allardyce and his men back into third position.
Whilst it would be daft to rule West Ham out just yet (they are just three points off second with a game in hand), there’s no doubting failure to get promotion would be an absolute disaster for the club. There is no way their wage budget could support another season in the Championship, especially considering the squad still boasts former England internationals Rob Green and Carlton Cole, not to mention those players with significant Premiership pedigree like Kevin Nolan (earning a reported £50,000 a week), Matty Taylor, John Carew and Gary O’Neil.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that West Ham approached this season with a level of arrogance that doesn’t cut the mustard in the Championship. The squad is bursting with star quality, as well as those mentioned above, there is a considerable amount of young talent at Upton Park, with the likes of Jack Collison, James Tomkins and of course, Ravel Morrison on the books. Tomkins has already attracted Premiership interest from Newcastle United and West Ham don’t want to be losing home grown youngsters that could form the basis of the side for years to come. The revelations that the club tried to take Carlos Tevez and Fernando Torres on loan in January are somewhat are incredulous. While you could look at these approaches and say ‘ah well, worth a punt’, it also shows what the rest of the Championship have to compete with. Other clubs just don’t have the financial clout to compete on the same playing field as West Ham, even some of their closest rivals for promotion, like Reading or Brighton for example.
It’s almost as if the board expected the economic standing of the club to earn them some sort of automatic right to be back in the Premiership, indeed there has been no significant debt-cutting procedures as of yet at Upton Park. The model of Newcastle United should have been the guidance for the way forward, the Toon Army cut their losses in terms of playing squad and lost a number of star names, before reforming in the Championship, turning into a hard-working squad with considerably less egos than before. You only have take one look at their position this season to see if this has worked for the club.
Nobody can buy the Championship, Leicester City have also tried this season and have failed miserably. The League is unique in terms of competitiveness; if over-paid players don’t pull their weight then even the average teams will turn you over week in, week out. Honest, hard-working sides like Blackpool, Swansea or Burnley have proved far more effective than those with the big-name players in recent years and this offers some explanation into why West Ham are now languishing outside the automatic places.
The fans have started to show their displeasure as well. Boos have replaced blowing bubbles as the current theme tune at Upton Park, and supporters have the right to voice their displeasure at recent performances and the manager’s tactics. For now though, they need to get behind their side. It is vital West Ham secure promotion this season, especially in terms of their own future. The financial implications of another year in the Championship could be severe; indeed there would be no cheeky loan offers for world class strikers next January. Ten games remain for West Ham and in no uncertain terms, it could be the most important ten games in the club’s history.