Thursday, September 04, 2008

Alan Curbs his Enthusiasm for West Ham

"If his name was Alain Curbishlée, he'd probably be planning a Champions League campaign quite literally as we speak..." (New York Addick, Sep 2006)

I wrote the above whilst Curbs was enjoying a well-earned break from management, and several weeks before he made the unfortunate decision to join the 'Newcastle United of the South'.

At the time, I suggested that his Cockney twang and uncommon modesty would ensure he would remain underappreciated, at least outside of the safe surroundings of SE7. Less than two years later, I've been proven right but it gives me no pleasure.

It seems a miraculous escape from relegation, followed by a creditable 10th position, and now two wins from three this season, was not enough for West Ham's board and its demanding fans. Those same fans have witnessed no major trophies since 1980, yet have now seen off seven managers since the similarly decent John Lyall was sacked.

At least Curbs had the honour to resign before he was pushed. And moreover if he was given the inevitable generous payoff, it seems odd that he was free to give exclusive interviews to Sky Sports within hours of his resignation.

After the euphoria of his opening win over Manchester United, he found himself under early pressure as fans questioned the signings of BoaMorte, Quashie, Neill etc.. Although the club had a new Icelandic-backed penchant for paying top wages, his universe of available players was surely limited by their uncomfortable league position?

Moreover, he needed to find players both with the stomach for a relegation battle, and a willingness to wear the shirt in the Championship if required. As I suggested to a West Ham-supporting pal this afternoon, that probably ruled out the likes of Kaka.

Some cynical fans claim West Ham avoided relegation in spite of Curbs, rather than because of him, pointing instead to the late-season influence of Carlos Tevez. Certainly the Argentinian was influential, but then again Curbs was forced to begin 2007/8 without his best player, yet still managed a 10th place finish.

Having secured Premiership football, I was surprised however to see him potentially create trouble for himself by opting for the likes of Ljungberg, Dyer and Bellamy whose character and desire were surely in question. However in fairness to Bellamy, he may well truly be a misunderstood character.

Those West Ham fans who point to his mixed transfer record, conveniently forget that he acquired decent value for a succession of players whose careers have since hardly exploded (Benayoun, Zamora, Konchesky, Reo-Coker, Harewood).

He clearly however continued to maintain his near-obsession with functional versatile players, to the detriment of his image in the eyes of those who merely wished to be entertained.

Having perhaps developed this trait the last time he managed a club based at Upton Park (Charlton from Aug 1991-Dec 1992), he thus resembles a war survivor who continues to hoard food, despite a sudden post-war abundance of choice.

The brilliant Martin Samuel wrote yesterday (in light of the Man City takeover) that, "..the most thankless job in football is to be in charge of a club who believe they should be big..." He was referring to the owners of the clubs in question, but he may just as well have been referring to the managers, because therein lies the tension now clearly evident at both Upton Park at St James' Park.

West Ham fans claim they accept the reality, but it's in their footballing DNA to be entertained, and Curbishley simply couldn't deliver. As more humble Charlton fans, we happily accepted Premiership finishes of 7th and 9th that seem even more amazing now, in light of our present reduced circumstances.

Unfortunately for Curbs his lack of charisma (in public at least) ensures he will never be fully accepted by any fans with unrealistic expectations. As I've written countless times in the past, his success with Charlton created his own career 'glass ceiling' because the only clubs bigger than us when he left didn't want him as manager.

Sadly it's that lack of charisma that did for him more than the lack of entertainment. Which teams outside of Arsenal, Manchester United and perhaps Spurs truly play entertaining football as a matter of choice, rather than as the occasional accidental result of circumstances (similar to those that produced the Charlton vs. Reading spectacle)?

If Martin O'Neill expressed a sudden desire to manage West Ham, the Eastenders would be overjoyed yet the Irishman sets his teams up to play the same 'functional football' that Curbs did, albeit slightly better. He does jump higher in the air when Villa score however.

For seven years the Hammers had one of the few managers who seemed to combined the two traits so much in demand, but Harry Redknapp was shown the door in 2001. It seems West Ham managers have to be both charismatic and successful all of the time. Good luck.

West Ham fans are clamouring for Slaven Bilic, but they may be disappointed. Other than the same ex-West Ham connection that Curbs himself enjoyed, why the appeal of the Croatian? Undoubted charisma of course, allied with a limited but impressive track record, which may be questioned as soon as next Wednesday if a new-look England gets its way.

But their emphasis on charismatic managers is prone to huge selection bias, because three of the managers of the 'big four' are hardly the most engaging characters (Wenger, Ferguson, Benitez). Certainly charisma and success are not mutually exclusive (Mourinho, Clough etc..), but yet perhaps the most charismatic of them all is about to walk way from Newcastle again.

In my view, the issue comes down to unrealistic expectations on behalf of a club's fans, allied with a preference for the mysterious foreigner rather than the predictable Brit.

My often single best friend likes to opine that, " can't have a laugh with foreign birds." Although I encourage him not to rule out 99% of the world's female population (particularly those carrying a Scandinavian or South American passport), he actually inadvertently makes a serious point. There are cultural differences, and you can embrace them or reject them.

When Curbs speaks, West Ham fans can tell he's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. When Bilic speaks they simply can't tell, so they give him the benefit of the doubt. When Alex Ferguson speaks you can't understand what he's saying, but he's just brought home the Champions League. Juande Ramos meanwhile doesn't speak at all.

Curbs is a very good manager, a decent man, but limited at the very highest level. Luckily for Curbs, West Ham don't operate at the highest level, nor are they likely to do so any time soon thanks to their Board's scattergun approach to governance.

A club like West Ham (and Charlton before them) needs a manager who can deliver regular midtable mediocrity. Their fans demand more of course, but they ought to be careful what they wish for. As we have since found out, it may be midtable mediocrity in the Championship.


At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a well-considered and incisive piece.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger charlton north-downs said...

Another good read NY -September with Autumn approaching must inspire you.
Curbs will go down as the greatest Charlton manager of all time and he gets my vote. Oh! for a those boring 1-0 wins against any team in the bottom half o the premiership, a mid table finish in the best league in the world , a full house every home game and constant media coverage.

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curbs leaving WHFC may have something to do with the impending court case verdict brought by Sheffield United

At 10:52 PM, Anonymous West Ham Blog said...

Interesting thoughts Mr Addick, but I think you have one problem. The resources at Curbs disposal while at Charlton were very limited and he did a fantastic job with those resources. However, when given greater opportunity at West Ham, he was, by his own admittance, out of his depth. I just don't buy the 'he got who he could get in the circumstances' line, you're suggesting that the modern footballer puts his morals and career ahead of a nice big contract. Sorry, but when did that last happen? Robinho signed for City why? Curbs did not have a limit of players to choose from, his knowledge was too limited to know who too pick. That may have suited Charlton but it did not suit a board who spent 20m on players to fill the casualty dept.

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous noel said...

a comment which neatly encapsulates the kind of over expectation that any new Hammers manager will have to put up with ...'of course every player wants to play for the mighty West Ham, even if it means a season or two in the Championship'...right


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