I went to my first West Ham game of the season today. The visitors mid-table Burnley. Fellow claret and blue wearers. Favourite team of famed spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. League champions in 1960, still a good side in the early seventies, when I remember them as being good to watch. But mostly lower leagues since then. West Ham in good form, with an away win against Middlesborough on Tuesday a real sign that they and Southampton might break away from the chasers, and secure those automatic promotion slots.
So it was all set up for a reverse! Which duly arrived…
I don’t go to Upton Park all that much these days because I’m a season ticket holder at Harlequins rugby and the games often clash. The Stoop doesn’t have the same scale as Upton Park, but it has a great atmosphere, and good beer (which you can take to the seats) and fans from both sides mingle happily. And we see top quality rugby. And I get there in half an hour rather than an hour an a half. But I still love going to Upton Park, this strange edifice with a tacky castle at the front, plonked in the middle of a run down bit of the East End, which these days is predominantly Asian in its make up. Halal butchers nestle with the chip shops that serve the football fans.
We love our history at West Ham, forever celebrating the era of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, captain and scorers in the 1966 World Cup final victory over West Germany. We cherish those FA Cup wins in 1975 and 1980, the latter featuring Trevor Brooking’s headed winner against Arsenal, when we were having a spell in the Second Division, as it then was. We celebrate the “Boys of 86” – MacAvennie, Cottee, Devonshire, Martin, Parkes, Stewart – who secured West Ham’s greatest ever finish: third in the First Division, only four points off the winners, Liverpool. We relish the hard men like Billy Bonds and Julian Dicks who played for West Ham with their hearts and souls. We love the artists: crazy Paolo di Canio, the majestic Brooking, Devo flying down the left wing, the languid Ian Bishop, tricky, unfulfilled Joe Cole. And we enjoyed the recent passionate cameo from Carlos Tevez, good enough to save us from relegation (though costly afterwards).
We love and cherish those good moments and great characters, because the present is usually rather less uplifting. Recent years have mostly been struggle against relegation from the Premier league, or desperate attempts to get back into it. Reckless financial decisions have put the club on a precarious footing, although the current owners, Davids Gold and Sullivan, with Karren Brady, seem to be doing a good job to stabilise the club. The controversy over whether West Ham will move into the Olympic Stadium, for me, is a distraction. It should be fantastic if we do, but if we don’t, hey, Upton Park is pretty good.
So here we are, second in the Championship, playing Burnley. A nailed-on home win, surely?
It all started well. We looked so much better in the first half, dominating possession, creating what chances there were. There wasn’t much end product, but it was shaping up for a good push in the second half. Hopefully like the previous week, when after Derby shaded the first half with West Ham only drawing level just before half time, the second half was West Ham bulldozing their way to a 3-1 victory.
I liked the way it was being played around in midfield. The West Ham academy boys, Mark Noble and Jack Collinson, were running the show. It was a mystery why Julian Faubert, the right side midfielder, was playing as a second striker off Carlton Cole – and not very well. But it was OK. The defence was solid – with Abdoulaye Faye an absolute man mountain.
Burnley had clearly come for the 0-0, but it was only a matter of time…
And so it came to pass – early in the second half, Kevin Nolan took a good through ball from Carlton Cole and lobbed it cleanly into the net. The start of the deluge. Celebration time.
Problem was, the team seemed to think that too. They celebrated for way too long for a start. Then they got casual in defence, not moving it forward quickly enough. A throw in was conceded on the right. Ex-Hammer Junior Stanislas then swung in a cross and Chris McCann of Burnley headed it in, unopposed. 1-1.
Surely that would wake up the Hammers. Well it did, but on a rare foray, Burnley got a corner on the left. Cross came over, again a static West Ham defence, ball nodded in by Sam Vokes. 1-2! Unbelievable.
West Ham huffed and puffed after that, had some near missses, fluffed a couple of absolute sitters, but the atmosphere was strange. The crowd wasn’t rousing West Ham to a late victory. It wasn’t even moaning that much. It was as if, after going 2-1 down, so against the run of play, everyone felt that it was just going to be one of those days. It all fizzled out, three points absolutely chucked away. Any honest Burnley fan would admit they got away with daylight robbery, but then, if you don’t take your chances, it can always happen.
I sense too, especially after reading the admirable fanzine, “OLAS” (Over Land and Sea), that the fans who watch West Ham week in, week out, are not entirely convinced by the Sam Allardyce project. Fanzines always grumble, but I got the feeling that they can’t quite believe the team is winning so many games with unconvincing performances. So the confidence isn’t there yet, not in the crowd. They are all still waiting for things to go wrong. That is the state of most football fans, but West Ham’s recent history gives good cause for such a feeling.
I’m actually quite confident that West Ham will press on and win the Championship this season. I’m willing to put today down as an aberration, one of those days when the ball just wouldn’t go in the net. I think Sam Allardyce is an impressive manager (and I was a doubter, I admit) and knows what needs to be done to get back into the Premier League. I think the quality and depth of the squad must be the best in the division, and so it is a matter of making sure the confidence and organisation is there. Big Sam is a master of that.
And Southampton lost today, too, against bottom side Doncaster. So, looking up, nothing has changed. Just don’t look down! You can get vertigo.