Olli’s At The Wheel06 Jan, 2022
It’s not often I will hold my hands up and admit I am wrong. I mean I am often wrong, I just never admit it. However, on this occasion, I need to fess up.
When West Ham announced late last year that Olli Harder was to be their women’s new coach. I was less than impressed. My first reaction was who, what why followed by who again. You can’t blame hammers fans for being disappointed. After all big names had been thrown into the ring. When you’re promised football greats as Jayne Ludlow or West Ham legends such Jack Collinson. A kiwi with a coaching career that was barely a paragraph online. I am pretty sure at that stage Olli didn’t even have a Wikipedia page at the time.
He had a tough battle ahead in saving the team from relegation and the even tougher task of convincing fans he was even up for it.
It did not start well, with a 1-0 loss to London rivals Spurs and then a 4-0 to Manchester City in a very lacklustre performance. The fans were already calling for his head. We were in a relegation battle. Didn’t he know? It didn’t get much better in the following months. Losses that should have been drawn. Draws that should have been won. Our future in the top tier of Women’s football was looking more and more uncertain.
West Ham was playing better as a unit but better performances were not converting into points. By March of 2021 many felt we would be on the hunt for a new manager again. Maybe this time West Ham wouldn’t go for the ‘cheap’ option.
But then on Easter Saturday a miracle did happen. Facing off against an unpredictable Reading, West Ham pulled an astonishing 5-0 win out the bag. With a couple of unexpected draws and some even more unexpected minimised losses. West Ham survived to fight on by the skin of our teeth.
The intent for this season became apparent as the day after the season ended, they announced their first signing as Australian international Tameka Yallop. And the signings kept coming with a mixture of experienced talent and youngsters with bags of potential. The future looked exciting.
Except we were brought down to earth with a big bump with a two-nil loss to Brighton, the first game of the season. Same old story playing well as a unit but nothing to show for it. With a draw snatched from the jaws of victory in the second game. Expectations it was safe to say were being managed.
With an international break falling early in the season, it gave the team time to go away and regroup. Yallop was finally allowed to join the team after some visa issues and it felt like a refresh for the team.
Which showed in the first game back with a convincing 4-0 win against Leicester a good spring board before the big test.
Their first game against a top three team, granted this particular one hadn’t been fairing so well in season so far. Manchester City had brought nothing but heartache for the Hammers having scored 27 goals against compared with the 3 conceded in all match ups.
I think I can speak for most fans and say that a draw would have been an achievement.
So when Dagný Brynjarsdóttir‘s goal went in at the end of the first half some hope was born. However this is West Ham so it was only a small flicker, almost snuffed out with typical pessimism that it would all go belly up. After all, this is Manchester City.
However, as the clock ticked down and this reporter’s fingernails disappeared. It became clear West Ham actually had a game plan. Cemented by the late goal by Yui Hasegawa, who capitalising on a defensive error cemented the win.
The jubilation was real, the belief was justified. Here we go. Two wins, two draws and one loss in all competitions followed. Leading up to the last game before this international break. Tottenham Hotspur our white whale. Rivals from the men’s game, it was a Derby for the ages. West Ham hate Tottenham and Tottenham, well
I am told that Tottenham acknowledges West Ham. Their white whale is Arsenal.
West Ham had not beaten Tottenham since either team had been promoted. It was the first match we had played and lost under Harder’s reign. If anything was going to test how far the team had come it was this game.
Again you felt an organisation that had been missing most of last season. There was a game plan and the players were not only executing it. They were thriving on it. Keeping Tottenham at bay whilst creating chances of their own. It was different from the Manchester City win. Rather then sitting back and snatching goals, West Ham were pressing so high, they were practically in the goal mouth.
When the goal came you knew it was going to something special. Indeed it was! Lifelong West Ham fan Dagny Brynjarsdóttir found herself placed perfectly for a rebound, slotted it home in the right hand corner. Just the length of her knee slide in celebration told you want it meant.
West Ham then did something they hadn’t been able to do for a while. They saw a 1-0 lead through. Against bitter rivals. So here we are. West Ham are 7th with 13 points. Which considering they finished last season on 15 total. Is an achievement in itself.
What changed, what has brought it this sudden clinical tactical dynamic to a once flagging side. So after almost a thousand words of exposition, let’s find out.
Firstly there was a big change at the very top. After three season as the youngest football boss Jack Sullivan stepped down as managing director of the team. Jack had done alright despite his inexperience. However being young, naive and the son of the director did not do him any favours in the respect department. Therefore after four years in the role, it was becoming clear it was too much for young jack and a more expert head was needed.
Two in fact in the form of Nathan Thompson and Aidan Boxall who were already established at the club. With Nathan taking care of the corporate side because less we forget that football is a business first and foremost. Aidan’s powers as general manager were dramatically increased. This changed everything about the club in this reporter’s humble opinion.
Whereas Jack was slick, a showman of sorts, Aidan is a no-nonsense Essex man with a wealth of experience within the game. His appointment rubbed a few people up the wrong way both within the club and within certain factions of the fan base. Many were used to getting their way under both Jack and Aidan’s predecessor Russ. Inside information and another perks. Having this stop did lose the club some support but overall was very healthy for the team.
Aidan’s philosophy was to build on what we had, bring in a couple of experienced players but also youngsters who could thrive under Olli’s style of play. We will on players momentarily but this philosophy has breathed fresh life into the club and its prospects.
Having the responsibilities split between the two meant there was a focus unseen under Jack’s regime. West Ham feels like a club with a future within the Women’s game. Not some vanity project or work experience for the owner’s son.
The second reason why it’s all going in an upward trajectory is the players themselves. After last season being less than ideal, a lot had to change. As mentioned our first signing of Tameka Yallop was a huge statement of intent.
However, West Ham had, had big named players before. So that alone was not going to be enough.
After the Olympics we saw mass movement across all clubs. The usual retainment lists went live. Now those who are not sure on how the women’s game works but mass movements, retirements and generally non renewal of contracts is standard. The shock of losing nine players in one sitting caused uproar, outrage and anger amongst even the most seasoned fans. Many spat their dummy out and claimed their support for the club was over.
Those that read between lines saw that something bigger was happening and remained quietly optimistic. This faith was repaid tenfold. New players such as Lisa Evans and Yui Hasgawa joining the hammers was a boost.
It was players however that fans were less familiar with that have proved to be the success stories. Abbey Leigh Stringer from Everton and Mel Filis from London Bees both proving fearsome in midfield.
Existing players also appear to have stepped up. Playing some of the best football of their careers. Something was different and it wasn’t just the fitness on the pitch.
Many have argued and it wouldn’t be proper for this journalist to comment. But many have argued that some of the players let go this season weren’t a good fit shall we say to be diplomatic.
The honest answer there were some egos which cost the team as a whole. By the end of Matt Beard’s tenure West Ham
had 11 individuals on the pitch. United me thinks not.
It’s different this season, the ethos, the fight and the relationships. All seem to have a kinetic energy which was not there last season.
There were many neigh sayers who along with abandoning their support, claimed West Ham was sunk, losing our best players.
Looking at their performance for the clubs they left West Ham for. I don’t think that’s very true
I can honestly say I am watching a team play week in, week out. It’s exciting, rewarding frankly after last season.
This brings us on to the main man himself Olli Harder. He arguably has been the biggest change in the club.
He took a team that was struggling and a write off against half their matches and changed everything.
Firstly a fitness coach was employed as their fitness levels were subpar to say the least. Compared to the top three clubs West Ham was slow. For the players that didn’t work for, West Ham showed no sentimentality and offered them a gentle way out to save face.
Secondly, he removed egos that had plagued the team, seasons before. Again outrage amongst the fans. Turns out those with the biggest egos were supposedly West Ham’s best players.
Technically maybe but ask any West Ham fan. Passion will beat technical ability anytime.
This leads us nicely, dear reader, as to why Olli Harder is the best person for the job. He’s brought the passion back into the team.
West Ham is a club run on grit, determination, and passion. Fans would rather have a hard-fought loss than a lacklustre win or draw. West Ham want players who for one want to be there and for two know that fighting for the badge is the most important thing.
Players who may not have had the big-name recognition have become fan favourites just by their ability to get stuck in. It’s beautiful to see and is making for some beautiful football.
Olli has brought tactics, fitness and a game plan to East London. Mostly he has brought the heart back and it’s just so exciting too see what can happen.