There are teams having worse seasons than West Ham, but there can't be many having weirder. It's only January, yet the club appear to have moved into a new stadium that nobody likes, thrown together a squad that nobody understands, and seen their form degenerate into something that nobody fears.
In these circumstances, it's not hard to understand why Dimitri Payet, star of last season, has decided that he might be better off back at a sensible club like Marseille. Ungrateful? Perhaps, a little. But footballing careers are short, Payet's took a while to truly get going, and while he hasn't been quite as dynamic this season as he was last, he's still been plenty creative. The problem is he's mostly been creating chances for Simone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri and Diafra Sakho, who've scored two goals between them. You can see why the Cote d'Azur might appeal.
With appropriately inconvenient timing, just as West Ham's best deliverer of a football withdraws his labour, their best finisher of a chance returns from his latest struggle with injury. Two weeks ago, Andy Carroll burst back into the national consciousness with a goal against Crystal Palace so explosively athletic that he nearly gave himself whiplash. That disaster averted, he scored two more typical goals this last weekend against Middlesbrough, nutting home a deep cross and then poking home from close range.
There is great pleasure to be taken from the sight of Carroll doing well. In part this is because he is a Big Man. If English football has a happy place, it is the mixer, where the Big Man gambols free, getting a head on it and making the keeper work. In some alternate universe where Rupert Brooke cared more for football than patriotic composting, his 'Vicarage Road' ends: Stands the clock at four forty-five? Go long, and keep the hope alive!
Leaving side the dutiful nostalgia, there is still a sort of logic to the veneration of the Big Man. There are better ways to generate better chances, but there aren't many simpler. And even though it's no longer legal to pick up goalkeepers and physically hurl them over the goal line — thanks, political correctness! — defenders can still struggle with a Big Man given a good cross and a decent run-up. After Carroll's brace against Boro, Slaven Bilic was almost euphoric in his praise for his No. 9's presence in the penalty area:
“The way he scored the first goal is like a hammer. But I am not surprised. Any defence would have problems against Carroll and Michail Antonio with him.”
Beyond that, there's the player himself. Ever since he emerged at Newcastle, Carroll's career has always seemed to be at the mercy of capricious forces greater than himself.
First there was the natural pressure that comes with being a promising home-grown striker at St James's Park, where the shadow of Alan Shearer looms long. Then there was that £35m move to Liverpool, which resulted in 11 goals over 58 games and a permanent place in the "How Much?!" pantheon of awful football transfers. And throughout, as a persistent refrain, injuries. Robbing his career of any momentum, forcing his managers to look elsewhere. As though his Big Man's frame wasn't quite able to cope with the business of being a Big Man.
So his goalscoring return was heartening and his withdrawal after 67 minutes worrying, though Bilic has since insisted it was simply precautionary. From a West Ham point of view, however, it's not just the Big Man or the redemption story that they'll be interested in. Bilic was also keen to praise Carroll's all-round contribution:
“He gives you everything. He scored a couple of goals, okay, but his game doesn't depend on goals. His work-rate, and linking up with midfielders, with his presence, and defending — he is a magnificent player.”
It might be over-analysing to assume that anything in there — work-rate? defending? — is a specific dig at Payet, but it's hard not to note the contrast. Of course, it would be easy to spin all of this into some awful chauvinistic rant about home-grown players getting it while these fancy foreign mercenaries with their big expensive cars just want to get back to their sunshine.
We could even fold it into Britain's ongoing national folly and conclude that #Payexit simply must mean #Payexit. We won't do that. That would be awful.
But if West Ham are to have a less peculiar, more sensible end to the season, then a striker who can score goals both spectacular and ordinary, all the while leading his team from the front, is exactly the sort of player they'll need. The three things West Ham have lacked the most this season are gumption, a goal threat that isn't coming from right wingback, and defensive organisation. Carroll, if he can stay fit, brings both the first two, and can certainly muck in towards the third.
Ultimately, it's just a shame that Carroll's return has come at the same time as Payet's decision to leave. The thought of the latter bending crosses towards a fully-firing former is a tantalising one, if you like that sort of thing. And you know that you do. Deep down.
In goes the ball. Up goes the Big Man. Up goes the crowd. Goal. Goal. Goal. And English football turns over in its sleep, and smiles.