Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Upson Downs

Photo by Paul Blank
 As the season opener draws nears, Columnist Ian returns to our pages with some thoughts on West Ham United in general, and on a certain former Captain in particular :

A couple of years ago, in one of the transfer windows, my brother and I were discussing who we thought would be leaving West Ham. The discussion came around to Matthew Upson. “I don’t know about him,” I said to my brother. “He just doesn’t feel like a West Ham player to me.” My brother asked me what I meant by that comment. I couldn’t explain it at the time; I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. The best that I could explain was that I felt that he wouldn’t be a West Ham player for much longer. A couple of years later, now that West Ham’s skipper is moving to a new club, I feel like I can highlight some factors from the last couple of seasons that justify my original comment.

I would like to move on from last season and start thinking positively about the future of the club but there is still a residual bitter and angry feeling that I need to get off my chest. What is about to follow may seem like a rant and an unfair written assault on one player, but I keep trying to understand what went wrong last season. How could a group of such talented individuals get relegated? (My previous column gave some indications of the team’s failings but it still bewilders me that last season’s squad finished bottom of the pack.) To me, Matthew Upson epitomised the problems. Clearly the blame can’t be laid entirely at his feet but I feel like he, as Captain of the team, is more at fault than the majority of the other players. When something is rotten at the core, it is generally rotten throughout.

Despite him being handed the role of club Captain, there was no evidence (at least to the public) of any leadership from Matty. The following comment has been pointed out before in several other forums but how innocuous a job must Upson have been doing as cCptain that almost the entire football press referred to Scott Parker as West Ham’s Captain? Parker was widely reported to have given a rousing half-time speech that led to an unlikely comeback in the game against West Brom last season. Admittedly, Upson was unavailable for that game but was there any evidence of that kind of spirit and inspiration in any of the other games where we needed that sort of attitude and leadership? Not that I saw or read about. Some of you might argue that it was the management team’s job to motivate the team but sometimes you also need your Captain to rally the troops. He just didn’t seem to care about the club. If we were relegated then he could always just go to another club next season.

Upson came into the last year of his contract last season but failed to agree a new deal. If aCcaptain can’t commit to his team, what message does that send out to his teammates? The moment that he refused to discuss a new deal, he should have been stripped of the Captaincy. As for the cliché of “leading by example,” the example seemed to be that if you don’t work hard, at least you can leave at the end of your contract and go get a payday elsewhere. Yes, the same situation applied to Lucas Neill but how many of you would argue that Upson showed the same attitude during games that our previous skipper showed? As many limitations to his game as Neill had, his leadership and motivation on the field were never evidently lacking. Yes, Upson is a quieter kind of player but was he the right player to lead the team? He is undoubtedly talented but talent only gets you so far. When I look back at the likes of Billy Bonds, Steve Lomas, Julian Dicks and Alvin Martin, they all wore their hearts on their sleeves. Again, Upson isn’t that same kind of player as those previous captains but his heart seemed to always be closer to his wallet than his sleeve.

Matty took a lot of stick after the World Cup game against Germany. England’s defensive nightmare wasn’t entirely his fault; John Terry was atrocious that day but Terry’s poor performance only showed the limitations of Upson’s game. Those limitations were all too evident last season, too. We were all over the place whenever a cross came in. Where was the leadership and organization in the heart of defense? Why wasn’t an England international centre back able to command the penalty area better? Yes, our defense was ever changing, but a Premier League defense should be flexible enough to handle injuries. We were not the only Premier League defense with injuries – you only have to start at the top of the table for another example. Manchester United seemed able to cope with multiple players filling the central defensive positions (Ferdinand, Vidic, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown) so let’s remove that as an excuse for West Ham. Our Captain was not able to organise his colleagues in an efficient manner. Again, some of the fault must lie with the coaching staff but these are professional players (top-flight at the time, too) we are talking about here, not 12-year olds, and it is up to the players to execute and up to the captain to facilitate that on the field.

Matty’s public-facing duties were not exactly completed admirably either. Where was the weekly column on the website that Lucas Neill used to such good effect? Where was the public support of his teammates and manager in the press? These might not be big issues but they still add up. Part of the role of the Captain of a club is to speak to the website/press/WHUTV. Upson was nowhere to be seen. It seems like the club wheeled Upson out for a couple of charity photo ops but when the club won the bid for the Olympic Stadium, why was it Parker and Noble talking of their excitement? Where was the club Captain to talk about what it meant to him? Nowhere, because obviously it didn’t mean much to a player that was angling for a move elsewhere. In a month and a half, Kevin Nolan (I’m assuming he’s the next Captain) has already shown more passion, drive and commitment to the team through the website than Upson showed in the 2 seasons that he skippered the side. It might be only words. I’m not so naïve as to think that some of the statements by professionals today are just a façade but it is still necessary for the leadership of a team.

I’m sure that by the time that the transfer window slams shut, Matty will have signed for another Premier League team, but what does it say for his performances last year that nobody is clamouring for his signature on a contract? A player of Upson’s ability should walk into many Premier League squads but his application last season was clearly questionable and now, with the start of the new season only a couple of weeks away, he is still without a club and is missing out on some vital pre-season training with his new team mates. Why is an England international and free agent struggling to find a new club? Surely his talent is enough to get him into many first team squads in the Premier League but last season gave indication that his lack of consistency and application is enough for teams to question whether he is worth his high wages.

West Ham lost a lot of players over the summer and might lose more before the transfer deadline comes around. For some of those, I am sorry that they left the club (Ba, Hitzlsperger, Da Costa); others I didn’t care so much about losing. Matt Upson falls into the latter category. On last season’s form, he is very replaceable. I feel saddened to have to say that about our captain but it is a reality that I believe has been a long time coming.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe there is more behind the scenes that I don’t know about. Many of you might not share my views. I wish Matty the best of luck in his future career but also wish that he had shown more passion for West Ham.

So … on to next season and now, with Nolan (or maybe Parker, if he stays) as Captain, I feel optimistic that we have someone leading the team who will wear the famous claret and blue shirt with pride, will exhibit leadership skills on and off the pitch and will give everything for the team. Here’s hoping for a season filled with exciting, passionate football and promotion back to the top flight. Come on you Irons!

This is farlieonfootie for August 2.

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