In a rare look at the no-hopers’ stratum of the Premier League, “Life, Leeds United, the Universe and Everything” will focus today on that most archetypal of mid-table fixtures, tomorrow’s clash of mediocrities at St Mary’s, as The Saints face sinners West Ham.
What? Sinners?? I hear you ask, probably with a bemused look on your face as you think of the ‘Appy ‘Ammers’ “World Cup Winners” and of course the Most Holy Sir Trevor Brooking Himself. Well, I mean no real criticism of the traditional playing habits of The Academy of Football (Finishing Third Or Lower Since Formation). Give or take Julian Dicks and Paolo di Canio, they’ve generally been one of the less offensive clubs around, and certainly my own beloved Leeds United have usually found West Ham to be a pleasantly soft touch down the years. No, it’s the somewhat less savoury figureheads at the top of the club who tend to give the lie to any perception of the Irons as a tasteful family outfit. The embarrassing fact of a pair of former soft-porn barons as co-chairmen rather shatters any such cosy image. It’s perhaps ironic that these two share the Chairman title whilst the formerly scrumptious Karren Brady has to put up with being Vice Chairman. It’s an incongruous contradiction that will not be lost on anyone who used to drool over the non-textual output of the Daily Sport.
In any event, misty-eyed memories of the likes of Brooking, Alan Devonshire, the Hurst/Peters/Moore triumvirate, Patsy Holland (Patsy?? Yes, Patsy, for crying out loud) and even more recent alumni such as Frank Lampard Jr. and Rio Ferdinand, have tended to disappear under the more muscular style favoured by one-time Fergie lapdog Sam Allardyce. Fat Sam, as he is fondly known, is a realist. He went for the most direct route out of the Championship, gaining a promotion that, while it offended the eyes of the old-timer Upton Park purists, nevertheless elevated them to the level of top-flight strugglers, the usual high-water mark of their less than spectacular history. Fat Sam knows that, in this company, survival is all that can reasonably be expected of him, and he has accordingly taken the pragmatic approach to recruitment and tactics. The abandonment of the old “Academy” tradition is mourned by many, but it’s all about money these days and the ‘Ammers need to cling on to their Premier League nose-bleed status for as long as possible. Historically, this has tended to mean a few years of struggle among the game’s big boys before inevitable relegation and the start of a struggle to get back. Such has been the pedigree, for want of a better word, of West Ham United.
Fat Sam’s current problems seem to revolve around the perennial injury problems of striker Andy Carroll, who is hors de combat yet again and therefore unable to provide the fulcrum needed for the Allardyce game plan to stand any real chance of success against all but the more inept of the Premier League roster. The Saints’ own old-fashioned centre-forward, Ricky Lambert has looked a much better bet recently, thriving in international company for England where he has snapped up a couple of goal chances and shown a happy knack of threading an accurate pass through for runners into the box. This key advantage, as well as a slightly healthier state of affairs surrounding the home side, leads me to conclude that the ‘Ammers chances of returning to Albert Square with anything other than a chastening defeat are quite slim. My prediction is a comfortable enough 2-0 victory for Southampton, and the jellied eels to taste sour and as nauseating as they look in the Rose and Crahn tomorrow evening.
The ‘Ammers’ prospects for the season ahead would seem to be rather up in the air. Fat Sam will stick to his script and he’ll hope that his more effective players can steer clear of injury for enough of the campaign to secure another year at the Top Table. That’s a pretty encouraging prognosis for London’s paupers, who will be looking ahead at their move to the Olympic facility as a chance to elevate their status. If West Ham can make that move still in possession of their hard-won Premier League status – well that’s enough to give even an aging porn baron’s libido a jolt and maybe even provide a suitable climax to what has been a less-than-palatable career.