Saturday, September 01, 2012

Long Ball? What Long Ball?

Somebody once asked why it was that a pass from Glenn Hoddle over fifty yards to Garth Crooks was praised whilst a pass of similar distance from Vinnie Jones to John Fashanu was called a 'long ball'. I suppose the definition came down to your choice of artist v artisan.

Sam Allardyce didn't impress that many people at Upton Park last season with his variation of the 'long ball' and he seems to have gained something of a reputation for being the current purveyor in chief of this generally denigrated style of football. Now far be it from me to stand up for the big man but I do think that the Allardyce approach to football is that of arch pragmatist rather than that of sticking two fingers up at the much heralded academy of football. We are after all talking about the manager responsible for introducing Jay Jay Okacha, Youri Djorkaeff and Fernando Hierro to the Premier League, not a long ball player in there was there?

Last season was all about getting out of the Championship by any means necessary, it wasn't about playing pretty football in a division which is at times over physical and lacking in finesse. At times the cries from some of the Upton park 'faithful' of 'we're West Ham we play football on the ground' suggested a type of football revisionism that wouldn't have been out of place in Stalin's Soviet Union. West Ham are after all the club that has had players such as John Dick, Dave Swindlehurst, David Cross and Dean Ashton among its favourite sons, four players who it could be argued were good old fashioned 'target men'.

The signing of Andy Carroll was greeted in most quarters as a good deal for West Ham and a mistake by Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers apparently doesn't see Carroll fitting into his vision of how Liverpool should play, although Danny Graham performed exactaly the same role at Swansea.  The signing of Carroll has drawn the usual 'he fits in with big Sam's style of play' comments from some quarters suggesting that Sam Allardyce has only one way of playing. Those accusations have surely been countered by the signings of Matt Jarvis and the loan signing of Yossi Benayoun, neither of whom could be called masters of the mythical long ball game.

For Benayoun the return to Upton Park after five years is a good move, it gives him the opportunity to play regular first team football in front of a crowd who worshipped him in the two brief years he was there. Benayoun would not receive the boos saved for Fat Frank or Glenn Johnson or even worse Jermain Defoe because he earned a place in West Ham folklore as scoring the goal that deprived Spuds of a place in the 2007-8 Champions League in the famous 'lasagnegate' match at the end of the 2006-7 season. He's a quality player with an astute footballing brain and I can't help thinking that like a lot of players he has lost five years of his career whilst pursuing money rather than regular football. In two seasons at West Ham he made 63 appearances, in the five seasons that followed (at Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal (on loan) he has played 119 times, a rate of less than half the number of games he played for us.

Carroll, when fit, will undoubtedly be  the fulcrum around which many West Ham attacks will be revolve but with Jarvis, Benayoun, Nolan, Vaz Te and Collison, to name just five, playing supporting roles I can see the phrase 'long ball team' soon sticking in the throats of many critics. As the match today against Fulham showed Carroll has the physical presence to occupy the minds of defenders thereby creating chances both directly and indirectly for his team mates and come next May, the loan fee and exorbitant weekly wage may turn out to be the bargain deal of the Summer 2012 transfer window.

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