Great Expectations

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There were two results this weekend that left the supporters of the two beaten teams absolutely seething. The fury that was expressed by both the Newcastle and West Ham supporters after the respective defeats to Swansea and Crystal Palace on Saturday was of a level that hardly befits the positions that each of the teams occupy on the table. West Ham, who are in 12th and although not mathematically safe, are unlikely to be troubled by a real threat of relegation. Newcastle are firmly clear of relegation, in a very comfortable 9th place. If, when the season ends, these two teams remain in or around their current spots, it would be hard to fault the end result of their seasons. The pre-season expectations for both clubs will have been more-or-less fulfilled; a top half finish for Newcastle, and relegation avoided for West Ham. On paper, it looks like the fans have nothing to boo about. But boo they did on the weekend, and with a startling ferocity.

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Booing. Can we not find a more elegant way to voice our protests? Like this chap has, for instance.

Both teams lost by a single goal that came from a second half penalty, the Australian Mile Jedinak dispatching his for Palace assuredly. It was the third consecutive loss for the Hammers, although with a caveat; Liverpool and Arsenal were responsible for the first two. West Ham’s fans have been criticised for their eager trigger-fingers when it comes to firing boo-llets (a-thankyou) at their team. They even did it after a 1-0 victory over Hull last month. Almost everyone who heard about the incident denounced the fans who booed Allardyce after that game, even in light of the fact that the football West Ham played while with a man advantage was utterly wretched. Many people made the point that West Ham, a club with an oft-spouted “history of playing attractive football”, haven’t actually played overly attractive football, successful or otherwise, for quite a while. The East London club have yo-yo’d between the top and second leagues for the last 15 years, so when the latest tumble into the Championship occurred, Sam Allardyce was hired (under the suspicious gaze of a chunk of the fans) and charged with the task of constructing a team that would make an immediate return upwards. He did that, and then went a step further and finished just inside the top half last season. Allardyce hasn’t made any illusions about the kind of football he aims to play. He has had relative success playing it. West Ham fans weren’t booing when the team was excelling in the Championship playing his brand of football, nor when, earlier this season, they went five games unbeaten, conceding only a single goal, a run which effectively secured another season in the top flight. When you look at the results, the defensive solidity and the table, it seems entirely sensible to deplore the booing that Allardyce, and his team, have been subjected to.

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But then on Saturday, in the 70th minute, Allardyce substituted winger Matt Jarvis and put on Carlton Cole to play up front alongside Andy Carroll. Then, 8 minutes later, he took off the other winger, Stewart Downing. He was replaced by Joe Cole, a central midfielder. An odd blueprint was being drawn up for the last quarter of an hour for West Ham; two towering centre forwards, both less than dynamic in their mobility, but no wingers. Long ball after long ball was then pumped up from defence, the idea being that maybe Joe Cole or Mohammed Diame would feed off the knockdowns. It meant a huge vacancy in the midfield, which allowed Palace to start threatening counter attacks under little pressure. Palace were a goal up by then, so they were content to deal with the bombardment tactics. This is a Tony Pulis team after all, so you’d think that they’d be more than comfortable competing in the air. West Ham never looked like scoring. It was a final 15 minutes marked by monotony and, ultimately, frustration for both fans and players. Are the supporters entitled to more than this? Are they entitled to complain about the awful football they’re paying to see? One could argue that the fans who booed after the Hull victory have more integrity than the ones who only boo after a defeat. That they actually believe in the idea that aiming to play attractive football is always worthwhile, even at the risk of defeat, so a particularly ugly victory is just as bad as an ugly loss. “We won’t be satiated by three points that are ground out in an atrocious fashion”, they’d say, and that it “isn’t just about winning”.

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The ultimate Allardyce goal. I think Big Sam just got even bigger.

It’s even worse at on Tyneside at the moment, even though Newcastle are 3 places and 9 points better off than West Ham. The stat sheet reads; 5 consecutive losses, 1 goal scored, 11 goals conceded. As many pundits have boorishly noted, Newcastle’s players are already “on the beach”. The season for Newcastle, regardless of the remaining fixtures, won’t get significantly better or worse. Alan Pardew’s team have looked listless and uninterested since Yohan Cabaye left and his departure may have kick-started the early vacation at the club. But the fans don’t get to tag along, their blindingly white, flabby torsos in tow, to lie next to man-hunk Fabricio Coloccini and the others in the Bahamas or wherever. They have to stay at home in the rain, so they want, at the very least, not to lose every game from now until season’s end. And I suppose they, however naïvely, hope the players care enough about playing for the club they want to avoid that as well, that playing for pride alone is enough. It would leave the sourest of aftertastes, and one the supporters would not appreciate, after what has been a fairly good season. And if it’s an issue of motivation, the blame lies with Pardew, the embattled manager with the eight year contract. Losing a player of Cabaye’s quality is a tough blow to absorb, and Pardew was denied the funds that were required to replace the Frenchman in the transfer window. But he too is guilty of setting up the team to play ineffective and ugly football and, as the manager, he is the person the fans glare at first when the team suffers consecutive 4-0 thrashings. They expect a team with so many quality (mainly French) internationals in it to be performing better than this, even if a comfortable spot in the table has already been carved out.

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Is this a good thing? If you’d offered both the Newcastle and West Ham fans the final positions their teams are likely to have before the season started, most would have graciously accepted the offer. But maybe the opinion that they should then shut up and politely applaud the dross that is being passed off as football is one that too highly values the end over the means. Avoiding relegation shouldn’t come at the cost of quality football, and the early securing of a mid-table finish shouldn’t be an excuse to skive off. Booing is a loutish way of expressing these frustrations, sure, but the humble football fan has very few means of expression when they’re sitting in a seat they paid for, livid and distraught, on match day.

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Hush now, the season will be over soon.

This article will also appear on TheTurf.com.au, a new and exciting football writing site.

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