IRONS IN THE FIRE
Mickey Blue Eyes
Poor West Ham. Not only does their main stand have the worst aesthetics of all football stadia (see picture), they also have a battle on their hands with relegation, money and a couple of new owners who look like they should be selling tomatoes dahn the Owld Kent Road. I still recall an overwhelming sense of mirth when their building was drawn to my attention by Declan before a match there some years ago. It looks uncannily as though someone has assembled two cardboard turrets and glued them on the super structure. They are also saddled with a reputation for playing pretty but physically weak football. The reputation is nonsense and always has been, but it simply won't go away. In fact they are merely an ineffectual, average yoyo footy outfit and have been for as long as most fans can remember. However, the myth, tired and weary though it is, is a cliché trotted out by London based journos to explain the latest rough rogering at the hands of, say, Peterborough or Rotherham.
Rightly, their manager Gianfranco Zola is a well-respected figure. Seven brilliant playing years at Chelsea, then a couple in Italy before retirement, and then in 2008 on to the poisoned chalice that is management of West Ham. The wonder is how he has kept his sanity in a cockney zoo reported on by metro media mooseheads. Previous short-lived managers have included Glenn Roeder, Trevor Brooking, Alan Pardew and Alan Curbishley as well as 'Arry Redknapp the 'appy wanderer pushing his barrer up and dahn the sarf coast. Even Lou Macari once got a thirty-eight game look in. How long likeable Gianfranco will last is a moot point given a recent attack on him by one of their owners. In short, they are a mess, and if fate has any discernment it will be they who get relegated and not Hull or Wigan.
On paper Sunday's game looked a push over, let alone taking into account our role as their bogey team. Guaranteed, then, a draw or a defeat. It had an inauspicious start when I didn't check the kick off time, assumed it was at three o'clock, and found myself in a beautifully sunlit and empty stadium answering giggly phone texts asking what the score was and how were we playing? It's a long time since I have been in the ground so early and I have to say it was a thoroughly cathartic if unexpected feeling. The pitch sprinklers were on and there was an evocative smell of freshly mown grass in the air and a feeling that at last spring had finally - finally - arrived. Long ago in the unlamented days of standing terraces it was the norm to arrive early to get a good spec and savour a gradual build up. Now of course the vast majority of the crowd arrives during the last half hour to take up an allocated seat. The Irons brought with them a few hundred away supporters tucked away as usual in the corner of the Lower Bullens where they indulged in some animal noises and other strange sounds that are supposed to be "encouragement" and "funny," whereas it actually looked and sounded, as the famous Fawlty Towers psychiatrist would say, as though it contained enough material for a full conference.
So, no Mikky, an understandable West Ham-packed midfield - it's what you do when relegation looms, as we know all too well - and therefore a game bogged down in trench warfare. It wasn't a pretty sight, unaided by referee Howard Webb's lousy match control and personality posturing; I hope he doesn't take the Graham Poll route to notoriety. West Ham were as awful as we thought they would be, but we weren't that much better. In particular our central midfield sans Mikky was as invisible as H.G.Wells' creation. Mostly our attacking was carried out down the wings where Steven Pienaar had a fitful game at best and Bily still has to learn that body language matters a lot to English footy fans. The Russian is a classy player with enormous potential but much more of this kind of indolent shape and he'll lose the crowd big style. There are already impatient rumblings.
Behind me, a man had just finished saying, "That Bilyaletdinov" - yes, like a surprising number of fans he has conquered all the syllables - "is shite," when said Russki popped up in the middle of the goal area and headed one in in the Park End after twenty five minutes or so. A Baines raid down the left and a cross had bodies diving all over the place before Tim Cahill got his head in somewhere and Bily finished it off. The guy behind me smiled broadly, completely unfazed. There's no point shaking your head at this because we've all done the same thing at one time or another.
Play in the first half on either side of the goal was really not much more than the equivalent of a mud wrestling match. Niggly fouls dropped torsos left, right and centre. Webb waggled his cards but it made no difference. It was as execrable as West Ham could make it and it worked. Continuous play was virtually impossible because we had nobody capable of holding the ball and using it sensibly, or physically able to withstand the buffeting. Amidst all this I felt a measure of wistful sadness at the sight of Scott Parker resorting, like everybody else, to ankle taps and flatfoots to stop play.........What might have been for one of his generation's most promising players had he made more sensible choices in the clubs he joined? Now, it is almost too late for him.........almost..........
Apart from the goal the highlights of the half were a tremendous run and left foot shot from Bily that narrowly cleared the bar and a Tim Howard tremendous penalty save low down on his right ten minutes after the goal. Webb compounded his wretched performance with the award against Sylvain Distin, who also got booked. As the players milled around deciding who would take it I said, "Give it to Mido," thinking nobody in their right mind would be mad enough to do just that. Naturally, they gave it to Mido. And he failed, as anyone who looks like a shuffling sack of lard is likely to. You began to think, "Maybe it's going to be our day after all." Alas.
The second half continued in the same vein but had elements of unexpected drama. Ten minutes in, their man floated in a brilliant lob-cum chip that left Tim an apprehensive spectator as it curled over him and hit the top right of the goal frame and came out before we gave away a corner. From it the ball disappeared into a centre scrum of bodies and ended up in the net for an equaliser. Eventually this set up West Ham's best fifteen-minutes period of the match as they threw people forward in general incoherence. There was nothing strategic in it, just desperation. During that time they simply barrelled through our non-existent centre midfield and threw in high balls. Then that too petered out.
With five minutes left we got what seemed to be a winner following a left wing attack involving Bainsey. As the players milled around near the corner flag in front of us I said, "Chance gone," at which the ball squeezed through to Bainsey wide left and he delivered a perfect cross right on to sub Yakubu's forehead and he butted it solidly way beyond their 'keeper's right hand. That should have been that, but it wasn't. Three minutes later - quite out of character with the game - West Ham pulled off the best flowing move I have seen this season, a long-passing switch move from left to right, a long cross into the box and a dramatic diving header that gave Tim no chance whatever. And that's how it ended.
So now eighth or lower looks our best bet if Mikky isn't in the team. Even with a packed midfield we should have had enough to see off a woeful West Ham. No Mikky and this centre midfield and an important match at Aston Villa is only going to go one way, and I wouldn't bet on anything at Blackburn either. It's pissy-offy but it sums up the whole fucking season.