Last week, less than 48 hours after making a 150-mile round-trip to play for West Ham in a cup tie against lower-league opposition in the depths of Sussex, arriving home again just before midnight before getting up for work at 5.30am, Stacey Little was involved in a car accident.
She went to hospital, suffering from back and neck pain, and despite being in severe discomfort on the Friday night, pulled on her claret-and-blue shirt on the Sunday, leading out her beloved team for what ended in a 1-0 defeat against local rivals C&K Basildon.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the friction that has been building at the Premier League club, culminating in the dismissal of vice-captain Kerry Stimson, followed quickly by walkouts by Little, the team captain, and four other players, nobody can doubt the 28-year-old’s commitment to the West Ham cause.
“That’s what I’ve been doing ever since I’ve been there,” Little told Sent Her Forward, with the dust still far from settled after Tuesday night’s eruption that cost the club half of manager Marc Nurse’s first-choice players and, subsequently, their devoted media officer, Tommy Wathen, who resigned in the aftermath.
“I broke my hand… and had it in a cast. The next week I cut the cast off so I could play,” she recalled of an earlier incident. “That was my dedication and my commitment to the club.
“I was playing with a broken hand in games I shouldn’t have been playing in.”
Stacey Little, 28, has been with the Hammers for nearly six seasons, having joined from Charlton Athletic.
She has developed into one of the Premier League’s finest players, prepared to run through walls for her team on the pitch and put herself out for the club off it, too, recently spearheading a crowdfunding venture to raise money for the club.
But that devotion evidently had its limits. On Tuesday night, not long after being suspended for what she believed was her veiled criticism of Nurse on Twitter – something not confirmed by the club – Little gave her manager an ultimatum: “You go or I do.”
After being suspended this week for having an opinion as captain I have decided to leave @westhamladies after being left no choice & being..
— Stacey Little (@StaceyLittle) October 6, 2015
The West Ham boss, appointed in the summer with the daunting task of picking up where club hero Julian Dicks had left off, was in no mood to bow to player power, so his captain went instead.
Followed by Emma Sherwood, Kelley Blanchflower, Lily Mellors and Kayleigh Xhidas.
The Hammers, torn apart in a matter of minutes.
In reality, of course, Tuesday night was no more than the culmination of weeks of unrest – the type fed by a poor run of results (West Ham are currently second-to-bottom of the Premier League, having won one and lost four of their five league games before Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Basildon in the League Cup closed another avenue that might have led to a trophy).
Details of the allegations levelled by Little and Stimson are widely available, not only on some of the Hammers’ excellent fan websites but also on more established, widely respected sites, including the Guardian and BBC Sport.
Sent Her Forward, which ironically has been criticised in some quarters merely for reporting on the departure of Portsmouth’s own captain, Charley Wilson, and goalkeeper Sadie Blakely in another surprise development last week, does not intend to delve deeply into those accusations – a policy underscored by my track record on previous similar stories.
I intend to report just enough to allow a better understanding of the circumstances that have led to this sorry state, from which West Ham will surely have a battle to recover this season.
As with the Portsmouth case, I see victims all round, as well as aggressors.
However good – or otherwise – a manager Marc Nurse is, he was entrusted with running a West Ham team going through a transition of playing staff for a second successive season.
He was their boss – a fact to which West Ham’s reference to the FA Code of Conduct in their statement surely alluded.
The club will put adherence to the FA Respect code before all other considerations. No player shall be exempt from this code in any forum.
— West Ham Ladies (@westhamladies) October 7, 2015
Players complained his tactics weren’t working and blamed them for their poor start to the season.
“It started off that we were trying to help him,” said Little, bristling at suggestions that some senior players might have been ganging up on the new manager.
“In the end, he didn’t want our help. He completely ignored us. If we were to gang up on him, what would we have got out of it? We would have got nothing out of that – and we haven’t. We’ve lost playing for the club that we all love and care about.”
Little feels Nurse is particularly naive about women’s football and ignored senior players’ advice about opposition strengths and abilities.
Nurse has been invited by Sent Her Forward to offer his views but says he prefers to wait. The club have not commented beyond the mini-statement on Twitter.
Stimson, whose departure triggered Tuesday’s chain of events told Hammers Chat that she was “released” after kicking a ball at her manager in the wake of Sunday’s defeat, when feelings began to boil over.
She told the website that she regretted doing it but said she – and many others – were becoming increasingly frustrated with his approach to the job and the consequent results.
It is surely no coincidence that, recognising the wave of unconditional support for the six players who have left, the club chose not to issue a detailed statement going into the allegations and counter-allegations, but chose instead to tweet a link to the FA’s Respect Code of Conduct.
They said: “The club will put adherence to the FA Respect code before all other considerations. No player shall be exempt from this code in any forum.”
It’s worth noting that among the potential sanctions for clubs whose players or officials breach the Respect code are a fine and/or suspension.
That’s a fine or suspension for the club.
West Ham also urged their supporters to adhere to the code, and “to remember to treat others with respect at all times” – something that certainly was not in evidence in the immediate aftermath of the walkout, before Sent Her Forward published its story.
Some of the players who may have sympathy for their erstwhile team-mates, chose not to follow the six out the door and have kept any feelings they might have about Nurse or the club’s joint-chairman, Stephen Hunt, largely to themselves.
Which is more than can be said for the hundreds of Hammers fans who have taken to Twitter and other media to voice their disgust at what has happened to their favourites.
Those players – plus any more that Nurse can draft in at short notice – will have to face the might of Little’s former club, Charlton, on Sunday, bereft not only of key players in their already struggling side but quite probably of confidence, too, after a few days that must have sent shockwaves through the club.
After a day like this, really wish my family was here. Never missed them as much as I do today.
— Aditi Chauhan (@aditi03chauhan) October 7, 2015
They also face the uncertainty of the reaction of their fiercely partisan fans: will they get behind their team or use the occasion to voice their criticism of Nurse and Hunt, which they’ve been doing online for more than 24 hours without appearing to give consideration to the possibility of there being another side to the issue – a distraction that surely can only undermine the players’ efforts?
By contrast, Little – who says she has already received offers from other clubs – and the other rebels have received overwhelming support, the degree of which has come as a surprise.
“The support that I have had has been absolutely phenomenal,” Little said. “I didn’t ever think it would explode like that and I’d have so much support behind me. I don’t think I’ve had one negative comment towards me. And not just me – the rest of the girls who walked as well, who’ve stuck by me.
“We’ve all stuck together and everyone’s backed us the whole way.”
She added: “You just need to look at it. Six players walked out and our media guy, Tommy (Wathen) stepped down. That speaks volumes for me. And that’s because they treated us with such disrespect.”
— Tommy Wathen (@tommywathen) October 6, 2015
Of course, respect is a two-way street, and it’s clear that the player rebellion had built such a head of steam that something had to blow, taking all sorts of casualties with it.
Hunt is still trying to develop a club that he hoped would become a contender for a Super League place. He’s moved grounds from Aveley FC to Hornchurch, where the team play in front of decent crowds.
And it’s those crowds he hopes to build by providing them with one of those difficult-to-define gifts – a “matchday experience”.
The club have worked hard – thanks in no small part to the departed Wathen’s efforts – to boost their Twitter profile (they now have nearly 20,000 followers).
And they have secured a considerable following in India – and around the Indian community – after signing the country’s national team goalkeeper, Aditi Chauhan, earlier this season.
A fortnight ago, another new signing, Italian Giulia Ferrandi, made a goalscoring debut for the club in their only win so far against top-flight opposition.
These disparate new players, charged ultimately with taking the club forward, need first to drag it out of the car crash of a mess it finds itself in.
On a final note we would like to wish the remaining girls at WHUL all the very best for the rest of the season #COYI
— Stacey Little (@StaceyLittle) October 8, 2015