O’Neil: West Ham squad should have stayed up without a manager
Hammers midfielder Gary O’Neil gives a unique insight into West Ham’s relegation last season and says that Avram Grant is not the one to blame
It is a popular belief among West Ham fans that Avram Grant was responsible for the Hammers’ relegation from the Premier League last season, but for one man who was at the heart of things, it is the players that needed to hold their hands up.
Gary O’Neil missed the last five matches of the campaign with his career-threatening ankle injury, but he knows exactly where the guilt lies.
“I don’t think there is any one person to blame,” he insisted. “I think everyone takes the blame for relegation.
“As a group of players with the squad we had we should never have got relegated. We should have been able to stay up without a manager really, so I think the lads have to take responsibility.
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“The most important thing at three o’clock is the lads. When you are over the white line it’s down to you and whether you can get enough drive from within yourself, it doesn’t matter if someone is screaming and shouting at you.”
O’Neil by no means exonerates the man who brought him to the club from Middlesbrough in January though. Grant, he explains, must share some of the liability.
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“It is the manager’s job to get the best out of the players and he definitely didn’t do that,” said the 28-year-old. “On that part he definitely failed to achieve what he was trying to do.”
And what exactly was he trying to do?
“I think he wanted us to be solid and try and play decent football as well and I think we got stuck somewhere in between,” explained the midfielder. “I don’t really think we did either.
“If you go to Stoke maybe, nothing against Stoke, I’ve worked with Tony Pulis and I know exactly what he wants all the time.
“They are not worried about entertaining anyone, they go out and win, whereas when you go to Arsenal you know they go out and play entertaining football.
“I think we were somewhere in between, we never really did either.”
Despite the criticism of his former boss, O’Neil still has a massive amount of respect for Grant.
“Avram’s knowledge of football was really good,” he said. “I’ve worked with him twice now and I think if you speak to a lot of people his actual knowledge of the game is fantastic.
“Every manager I’ve worked with has had different styles. A lot of them have distances themselves as Avram did. You didn’t see much of him unless there was something important he wanted to get across.
“Even in the changing rooms, a lot of the talking was done by Wally (Downes) or Kev Keen. It was only the really fine details and the really important stuff that the gaffer got involved in.
“I just think he struggled to get what he wanted across to the lads well enough.”
O’Neil’s arrival in January heralded a renaissance in West Ham’s form, but he is quick to pinpoint when the tide began to turn against them.
“At half time against Manchester United a lot of people would have put money on us to stay up,” he said. “But from then onwards we never really got it going again.
“At home to Villa we were doing okay and we were one up, but even then I didn’t think we was playing as well as we were when I first came in and we went to Blackpool and won and when we beat Liverpool and Stoke City.
“It just seemed to me that we didn’t get to those levels again. I know Scott Parker was carrying his injury and had to play with it, but even when we went to Wigan I was still thinking we were going to stay up.”
Another accusation levelled at Grant and the players was that they were sleepwalking towards relegation, oblivious to the serious situation they found themselves in, but that is something that O’Neil rejects.
“I don’t think that’s right,” he insisted. “I think the lads were fully aware of how important it was and how much trouble we were in, but I still think it was important to have the belief that we were going to get out of it.
“As with everything it is a balance. You need to realise you are in trouble, but then if you go too far the other way and start worrying about it too much, you are not going to perform.
“I just think when it came down to it the players and coaching staff didn’t perform when we needed to. At crucial times we let in silly goals. To be 2-0 up at Wigan and giving yourself an incredible chance of staying up, to then go and lose the game is unbelievable in such an important game – things like that happened a few times.”
Make sure you log on to www.london24.com/west-ham from 2.30pm this Saturday for interactive coverage of West Ham v Blackpool.