Matt Jarvis: ‘When Upton Park was rocking, it was a wonderful place to be’

Sam Allardyce, it is safe to say, is someone whose name provokes strong opinions at West Ham — and not always positive ones.

Winger Matt Jarvis reflects on the pressure of being our club record signing, and playing for Sam Allardyce

The former Bolton coach was in charge of the Irons for four seasons, taking over after the car crash of Avram Grant’s one season, and succeeded in taking the team back up to the Premier League and stabilising things before Slaven Bilic oversaw the transition from Upton Park to the London Stadium.

But although Allardyce got the job done, the style in which he did it was not to the liking of many fans. Much of the criticism was aimed at being overly direct, relying on injury-plagued Andy Carroll as a battering ram up front, with no obvious Plan B for when that did not work.

Winger Matt Jarvis was a key part of the Allardyce approach, signing in the summer of 2012 and spending three seasons at the club before departing for Norwich in 2015. He told Blowing Bubbles that despite how the Allardyce approach may have gone down with fans, from a player’s point of view, he was good to work with and to understand.

‘Sam’s team meetings were very specific, everything was broken down to clear figures – to finish tenth  in the league, on average you need this many points, to do that you need this many wins, so to aim for that you need that many goals — he really did set things out as clearly as that,’ said Jarvis.

‘That mentality was why we were so good at set pieces. Everyone knew where they had to be, what runs to make and what crosses to send in. 

‘Signing for West Ham was an easy decision, he didn’t have to sell the club to me. In my last season at Wolves, I’d put in the most successful crosses in Europe and also had my best scoring season. 

‘Sam was looking for more of the same, that was clearly going to be my role, and playing the way he did, I knew he’d want to bring in a target man, although I didn’t know who. A week after I signed, Andy came on loan, and with my crossing record and his heading ability, I thought this could be the dream partnership.’

Allardyce’s first season in charge saw the team finish a creditable 10th, although a return of just 45 goals was somewhat underwhelming, with top scorer Kevin Nolan notching 10, and Carroll adding seven. Only four teams in the Premier League scored fewer goals than West Ham that season.

‘Any club that comes up just wants to survive, so that was an amazing outcome in our first season back,’ said Jarvis. 

‘If you look at the stats, they tell a different story as we were creating chances but not scoring much.  Kevin was classed as a midfielder but always played behind central striker so was like a second forward, and everyone else chipped in. Defensively we were solid, and that’s how Sam set things up.’

The following season, however, was to prove more of a test of character, as the permanent signing of Carroll and the addition of Stewart Downing on the other wing raised fan expectations — which were to come down to earth with a bump later in the season.

‘Having Andy on a permanent deal was great,’ said Jarvis. ‘He was a battering ram, he had incredible technique and timing for headers, so when you added someone as good as Stewart on the other wing, it looked like we were going to have a real threat up front, and there were exciting times ahead.’

Ravel Morrison provided some highlights, most famously with his goal away at Spurs in October, but Carroll’s injury curse striking again saw the club re-sign Carlton Cole just months after releasing him, and after the win over Tottenham, West Ham claimed only one win out of 12 league games up until the end of the year.

New Year’s Day 2014 saw Kevin Nolan sent off in a defeat at Fulham, having been sent off in another loss at Liverpool just weeks earlier, and then there was double Cup humiliation, as in the same week, West Ham were thrashed in both the FA and League Cups.

The first thumping was 5-0 at Championship side Nottingham Forest, as a hugely unfamiliar looking West Ham side, including three debutants and a fourth player, George Moncur, making his first start, crashed and burned.

‘The Forest game was just one of those things,’ said Jarvis. ‘Stewart and I were playing as wing backs, which I don’t think either of us had ever done before. He changed the team to give a lot of people a chance to see what they could do, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be — it didn’t work at all.’

Days later, another road to Wembley was shut down in no uncertain fashion as Manchester City went one better than Forest, winning 6-0 in the League Cup semi-final first leg. Allardyce made eight changes from the Forest fiasco, including handing a debut to new signing Roger Johnson, who had only joined 48 hours earlier on loan, but to no effect, producing a performance that the BBC match report called “a betrayal of the fans who travelled to the Etihad Stadium expecting much more than they saw at the City Ground… no excuses for a performance that fell short in every respect”.

Unsurprisingly, the travelling fans were merciless in their criticism of Allardyce that night, and this proved to be a turning point, as relations, which were never the warmest anyway, were forever fractured.

On the pitch, results and consequently the league position improved after that double humiliation, with Allardyce even winning manager of the month for February, but there was another wobble in March, which ended with the home side being booed off after a scraped 2-1 win over 10-man Hull City, and Allardyce cupping his ear towards the sound of the crowd.

‘We understand that fans want fantastic football, to be entertained and on the edge of their seats, but sometimes the way Sam looked at it, it was all about points and results,’ he said.

‘Sam didn’t change away from the public gaze – he is always exactly what you see. When you see him shouting and screaming on the touchline, he’s like that in training too — he barks orders and wants his team to be drilled exactly the way he’s told them. You have to know your role and your responsibilities — that’s why set pieces were a huge part of what he did.

‘Everything was worked on, even from our own half. Whenever the ball was going up the pitch to the centre forward, he was always on at me to be in the right position, to pick and receive the ball, and I knew that if I wasn’t, I’d be in trouble.’

Clinching Premier League survival with a third win of the campaign over Tottenham at least meant there was some joy at the end of a troubled season on the pitch, which was put into perspective by the death of Dylan Tombides, and West Ham ended the 2013-14 season in 13th place. 

In March 2013 the club had finally concluded a deal to move into the former Olympic Stadium, so as the 2014-15 season began, not only was in the penultimate season at West Ham’s beloved home of more than 100 years, but also the final year of Allardyce’s contract.

Fans had already made their feelings towards Allardyce known in the Manchester City and Hull games the previous season, and after a spectacularly good first half of the season, that saw the Irons up to third place at Christmas, they came down with the decorations, managing just three league wins between Boxing Day and the end of the season. 

So it was no surprise when, within minutes of the final whistle of the last game of the season away at Newcastle, it was announced that Allardyce’s contract would not be renewed.

‘That last season under Sam, around Christmas he changed to a midfield diamond, not using wingers, so I was on the bench for most of the second half of the season,’ said Jarvis. ‘It was a massive disappointment not to feature more.’

One player who did feature, though, in a short but colourful stay in east London, was mercurial French midfielder Morgan Amalfitano, who had been frozen out of his former club Marseille after a dispute with manager Marcelo Bielsa. His fiery nature was also to lead to his exit from West Ham a year later, but he certainly made an impression on Jarvis. 

‘He was a great guy, really lively and an absolute magician on the ball who saw things others didn’t,’ said Jarvis. ‘He used to give it out as well – he wasn’t scared in training to put his foot in, and wouldn’t shy away from things. That was the good side of him, his qualities as a player were always clear, but it’s difficult to say whether he should have stayed longer or not.’

When Allardyce left, the club’s owners made a wise tactical decision, hiring the hugely popular Slaven Bilic as manager for the emotionally-charged Boleyn Farewell season, and the team’s performance in the Fair Play league the previous campaign meant he was given European football as a welcome present. Sadly for Jarvis, however, he would not be around for long enough to enjoy the feelgood factor.

‘When Sam left, I was looking forward to getting a go under the new manager and we were in Europe, so as I hadn’t played much, I was available to play qualifiers, in really good fitness and form, and really hoping I would get a chance,’ he said.

‘Slav was a very different character, and I really liked his style so I had a good chat with him and told him how frustrating it had been to not be involved so much in the previous season.

‘At first I was involved in all the games, not starting but coming on, and he said he wanted me to play, but he couldn’t guarantee I would start.

‘It was nothing against anyone but I couldn’t do another season on the bench, I just wanted to play. For me it was a purely and simply football decision, so when Norwich wanted me on loan at the end of the window, it meant a chance to play again, and that’s why I made my decision to go there.’

But what started out so positively was soon to go badly wrong for Jarvis. ‘I’d had a great pre-season at West Ham and scored on my Norwich debut and in my second game, so everything was going really well but then I block tackled Yaya Toure, which is never a good idea, and did my medial, from which I never really recovered,’ he explained. 

‘I was out for about eight weeks, had surgery, and in my first training session back, I did my ankle, which required more surgery, and I was out for eight or nine months.

‘Daniel Falke, who was the manager, was brilliant about it. He said, as a manager, he wanted me to stay, but it would be hard to get back into a team who were, by this time, a top of the table team, so as a friend, he thought I should go somewhere else and play.’

In January 2019, Jarvis went on loan to Walsall for the rest of the season, at the end of which, he was released by Norwich. But the story was not quite over just yet.

‘I spent so much time and put in so much work getting back to fitness that no-one was going to tell me when I was done — that would be my decision,’ he said.

‘Two good league clubs were going to sign me, only to both let me down at the last minute, and having just moved house again back to Surrey, with a young family, I thought I’m not going to be moving anywhere again in a hurry. 

‘I’d been doing some media work and one day I got a call from Martin Tyler, which I assumed was going to be about doing something for Sky, but he said no, he was assistant manager at National League side Woking and did I fancy going along there to keep my fitness up.

‘I went down and played a game the following night, and where I grew up literally backs onto the stadium, so they didn’t need to sell anything to me at all — it was perfect timing.’

But once again, fate had other plans. ‘In my first game, I came on and scored with my second touch, then managed an assist, my daughter was born a couple of days later, and the day after that I played again and got another assist, and thought “this is it” — and then the pandemic started.’

Woking finished one place above the relegation places in the 2020-21 season, and having started 10 games and made 13 appearances as a substitute, when the season ended, Jarvis hung up his boots for the last time.

Now, at the age of 35, Jarvis is ready for a new chapter in life, but looks back on his West Ham years with a sense of pride. 

‘I was the club’s record signing when I joined, and with that comes pressure, especially when it’s a team that has just come up, but to finish tenth in our first season was a great achievement by the whole team,’ he said. ‘From a personal point of view, that year I put in the most crosses and also the most successful ones of any player in Europe. 

‘You don’t realise how big a club West Ham is until you become part of it, so I’m very glad I had a chance to be part of such a big club doing so well, and showing people what I could do. 

‘When it was rocking, Upton Park was an absolutely wonderful place to be. Those will be the things that I remember the most from those years.’

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