There is a passage in one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest books that seems deliberately designed to chop West Ham down to size and no doubt, as intended, would have pricked a few egos in the way he does better than anyone. What, Ferguson wanted to know, was “the West Ham way” and why did the club persist in applying this label when in all his years at Manchester United he had never come against a team from Upton Park that he was afraid of. West Ham, he pointed out, had not won a trophy since 1980 and always seemed to be surviving, or lucky as hell, when they visited Old Trafford. So what was this West Ham way? “I hope,” Ferguson wrote, “that before I die someone can explain.”
Ferguson often confused his pen for a bayonet but there was an agenda with this one bearing in mind it was part of a long defence of Sam Allardyce, one of the managers who flock around his feet, and I suspect he probably knows, deep down, that West Ham, however much they labour the point sometimes, do have a tradition of playing football in a certain fashion.
They might not always put it into practice and, yes, there is an argument that everything the club must be experiencing right now because of the Dimitri Payet imbroglio – anger, frustration and the discomforting sense that happy times pass far too quickly – is a more accurate version of the West Ham way.
Yet it is not entirely a figment of our imaginations and that probably is why the past week has been so distressing for everyone connected with the club when Payet, the kind of footballer who made you quicken your walk to see them play, was the man who embodied everything they wanted from their team.
Instead, his legacy at West Ham turns out to be something entirely different and it all feels deeply unsatisfactory now he cannot even bring himself to go through the humdrum requirements of a Premier League match against Crystal Palace, no matter how much his club might have been depending on him, whatever the damage to his reputation and however many people were paying through the nose to be there.
hese are the kind of moments when the participants in other team sports must wonder what it is about football that makes it so hard for some to recognise the demarcation line between general professional decency and outrageous self-indulgence.
Nor can Payet’s stance be described as a one-off when, outside the Premier League, another story has been rumbling along that may not have had the same kind of exposure but still tells you what can happen when footballers are offered alternative employment, with a larger income, and somehow think it reasonable to declare themselves off-duty until the matter is resolved.
At least Chris Martin has had the decency to make himself available again for Fulham, scoring a penalty in Saturday’s win against Barnsley, but there is not a lot more to be said in his favour bearing in mind he missed their previous three games out of his desire to take a sledgehammer to his season-long loan arrangement from Derby County.
Martin had scored seven times in his 11 appearances before that impasse and everything, from the outside looking in, had been going swimmingly. The problem was that Steve McClaren took over at Derby in October, perplexed that the club had let one of their main strikers leave, and Martin was informed before Christmas that there was a new contract waiting for him, with a bumped-up salary, if he returned to Pride Park. Martin’s request for Fulham to provide him with the same kind of money, with the higher income to start immediately, was turned down and the player took the matter into his own hands, with no regard for those pesky details such as his contract with the London club having no recall clause.
It does not stop there, either, if you remember that Henri Lansbury is currently being excused from duty at Nottingham Forest because he is not in the right frame of mind when other clubs, notably Aston Villa and Derby again, have been trying to lure him away.
Does Lansbury realise that back in the day when Forest’s midfield was filled with players of authentic talent John Robertson somehow put himself in the frame of mind to play a European Cup semi-final just a few days after Hughie, the brother he worshipped, died because of a car crash that also killed the player’s sister‑in‑law and left his eight-year-old niece, who had been in the back seat, with serious injuries?
Did it come into Martin’s thinking that Slavisa Jokanovic, the manager at Craven Cottage, might have a legitimate argument when the Serb pointed out Fulham were the oldest club in London and had far too much history and professional pride to become a train where footballers with multimillion‑pound contracts can jump on and off to their own desire?
Will Payet understand why many West Ham supporters are insisting that the huge shirt bearing his name at one end of their new stadium should be replaced by one in honour of the late Dylan Tombides and the near‑miracle that enabled a boy of 18 to play for the club while his body was ravaged by cancer?
In all three cases, it is difficult to think any of these players see too far beyond themselves. Payet’s relationship with West Ham seems broken. Martin told Fulham at one point that he was injured, countered by Jokanovic saying the club’s medical staff had been unable to find anything that would rule him out, and when Forest went out of the FA Cup at Wigan Athletic last weekend Lansbury – the club captain, no less – turned up on Twitter after an afternoon on the driving range with his friends.
In Payet’s case, his mitigation that his family have not settled might be true but the ordeal of living in London did not seem to dissuade him from signing a new five-and-a-half-year contract with West Ham last February. He has been earning £125,000 a week ever since, the most lucrative deal the club has ever given any player, and it would be intriguing to see what happened if, say, Chelsea tried to take advantage of the situation between now and the end of the current transfer window. Hypothetical, perhaps, but I cannot help suspect Payet’s complaints might vanish in the same way that Luis Suárez once complained he had to get away from Liverpool because of the paparazzi and then nearly moved to Arsenal, and a much quieter city.
Payet also seems to forget that at the time he agreed that contract his declaration was that “the love affair continues” before the slow, methodical process where his public utterances and body language, from summer onwards, have increasingly made it clear he had a roving eye.
On that front, he is fully entitled to think he belongs in a more accomplished team when his last appearance, as a 58th-minute substitute in their FA Cup tie against Manchester City, came at a time when the stadium was emptying and it was almost a surprise the opposition restricted themselves to a fifth goal. It is the manner he has gone about it that feels like an affront and the impression he leaves that the star player always gets his own way.
Payet received a £1m bonus in September and if West Ham truly want to be a big club, if they want to demonstrate they have serious ambitions and earn the approval of men such as Sir Alex Ferguson, they surely cannot bend on this one. Not yet, anyway – and not without taking back some form of control. It might cost them a fair bit of money, but this is the part these footballers do not understand – what price a club’s honour?
Isolating Costa will come at a price
Even those people who follow this sport and try their hardest not to be overly cynical must suspect that Diego Costa is another one trying to orchestrate his own transfer now there is a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
The difference in his case is that his absence from Chelsea’s game against Leicester City was a decision taken by Antonio Conte, rather than the player himself, but it must be startling for the Premier League leaders to discover Costa’s representatives have apparently been in China to explore what kind of mind-boggling figures are available in the country where Carlos Tevez has just become the world’s best-paid player, on £615,000 a week.
Those suspicions inevitably harden when Costa’s explanation for missing three days of training is a back problem that has not been located by the club’s doctors and eventually led to his flare-up with Conte. “Go to China,” the Italian reputedly shouted. Yet where will that leave the team?
Costa’s importance can be gauged by the fact he has scored seven times in Chelsea’s last 10 away matches. He is the league’s joint top scorer, with 14 goals, and has provided the decisive moment in their games against West Ham, Watford, Middlesbrough, West Brom and Crystal Palace – the equivalent of 10 points.
The problem for Chelsea, as José Mourinho can testify, is that Costa is the kind of player who can rub up against everyone like sandpaper when he does not get his way. That, more than anything, is why the teams chasing Chelsea must be encouraged by the sudden breakdown in relations at Stamford Bridge and why Conte needs to handle his player with extreme care.
Messy business at Barcelona
Pere Gratacós, a long-standing Barcelona official, spoke to reporters after the draw for the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey and, inevitably, was asked about Lionel Messi. “Leo is one of the most important people in the team, but it’s not just about him,” Gratacós said. “He would not be as good without Iniesta, Neymar and company – but Messi is the best.”
Within a few hours Barcelona had issued a statement saying Gratacós, a director who had previously coached the club’s B side, had been removed from his position for the heinous crime of “expressing a personal opinion publicly not in line with that of the club”.
Was Messi consulted? All that can really said is that the past week has shown it is not a very pleasant experience sometimes looking inside the football bubble.