Sunday, 29 April 2007

Claret And Blue, Through And Through

Amid the hysteria of the inquest and the victory at Wigan, the following excellent article about Mark Noble was originally missed. I'm reproducing it here as I can't find the original link.

Mark Noble: claret and blue, through and through
By Jason Burt

The boy from Beckton was wanted by Arsène Wenger as a schoolboy but decided to play for West Ham, the club he supports. The classic local boy made good tells Jason Burt why he believes the Hammers will stay up.

I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles...

Saturday 3 May 2003. Upton Park. The tension is exhausting. Exhilarating. But somehow Paolo Di Canio scores. He tears off his shirt, skids towards the corner flag, fists shaking like a maniac. The 35-year-old Italian has not played for almost three months, but he has beaten Chelsea. He has also given West Ham an improbable chance of avoiding relegation.

Mark Noble was there. In the stands, singing "Bubbles" as if his life depended on it. Next to him was his father, also Mark. Noble, then just 15, was a West Ham apprentice, and dreaming of emulating his hero Joe Cole, who played that day. "Hasselbaink hit the post late on," Noble recalls. "Chelsea were firing on all cylinders but it just wouldn't go in for them. It's the game that sticks in my mind."

Memories come thick and fast for a young man steeped in West Ham. Memories from when he was nine years old, just turning 10. Memories of his father leaving work at Rainham Steel, where he did the lagging, and driving his son, every evening after school, up to north London and up to Highbury. Arsenal, and Arsène Wenger, wanted young Mark. But he wasn't so sure. And not just because he was born in Canning Town, not just because he was West Ham.

"Heath Park, Barking Colts, Lake View," Noble laughs. They mattered more to him at that age. The teams he played for at the weekend, a young midfielder - "greedier than I am now," he says - winning trophies and helping his friends, his neighbourhood, the place where he was born and bred. But Arsenal, Millwall, the clubs that came calling, wanted him to stop playing for them, stop the Sunday league stuff and concentrate on the very real opportunity he had of a pro career.

"But my dad knew I loved it," Noble says. "He was a decent player himself, although maybe he didn't like to tackle! But it was with my friends. There was no pressure. It was enjoyable. Dad just said, 'You have the chance but I'm not going to make you. You play the football you want to play'."

So he did. Noble won trophies. He played at Wembley, he played at Stamford Bridge. The teams he played for were good. Even his school - Royal Docks - did well. So his dad told the clubs the same thing. "He ain't going to play unless he also plays for his school." Except by then it was West Ham who were asking him to stop. Even so the schoolboy remained determined. "Your school is part of how you grow up," Noble says. "How could I say: 'Oh, I'm not allowed to play any more?' It's not right. My school days were fantastic. I loved having the teacher come in during the lesson, on an afternoon, and say: 'Can he be excused, we've got a match to play?' I couldn't let my mates down. But from 15 onwards it was just West Ham."

Pretty Bubbles In The Air...

It's another Sunday morning. This time Noble is in West Ham colours: claret and blue. His father is watching. "And you could hear the other dads hollering," Noble recalls. "But he just stood in the corner. By himself. Afterwards, in the car, sometimes he'd say something. But it was always encouraging. I really respected that."

Noble's career was moving on apace. West Ham were serious about him. For a young boy who went to school each September with a new West Ham kit, a new West Ham lunchbox, a new West Ham flask it was unbelievable. And then Glenn Roeder, the manager, invited Noble to train with the first team. "I remember the day," he says. "I stepped out. Stepped out on to the gym here, where we are talking now, and John Moncur was there. Joey Cole was there. Trevor Sinclair. Di Canio. It was just unbelievable.

"What a credit to Glenn. I think he saw potential in me and wanted to involve me. I really, really enjoyed it. It was amazing because when you are in that kind of situation you resort to instinct. I was there for just a week and I was doing things in training that I didn't know I could do."

There is another, vivid memory from that time. "It snowed every day I was there," Noble remembers. "And one day we had this big snowball fight just outside. All the first team were involved. I was about two-foot nothing at the time but they included me. It was amazing."

It was, also, amazingly good. West Ham played the game correctly. "Ball on the floor," Noble repeats like a mantra. "Practise your skills, your touch, your passing. That's how every kid here is taught to play. It's still the same. Touch, pass, touch, pass. It's the way it will always be at West Ham. It's the foundation of the club and it's not for nothing that it's called the academy of football. It's a credit to the club and to the area. So many have gone on to play for England and this is a club where if you are good enough you get your chance."

They Fly So High, Nearly Reach The Sky...

Noble's chance came on 24 August 2004. The year after West Ham had gone down. Di Canio's goal had not been enough. Cole went, Defoe went, Kanouté and Di Canio. They all went. The guts, the flair, the names. All gone. West Ham, struggling in the Championship, drew Southend in the League Cup. Noble, then 17, was thrown on as a substitute. West Ham won 2-0. "My girlfriend came and watched me but my mum and dad were on holiday in Cyprus. They had no idea I was going to play but I think I did OK." Afterwards Noble stepped outside the ground in his smart suit to meet his girlfriend. Nothing happened. So they walked back to his parents' house in Beckton, without anyone noticing.

Noble had to wait almost five months for his next appearance. Still West Ham struggled but, in the FA Cup, they beat Premiership Norwich City 1-0. Noble started. And starred. He walked home again but suddenly it wasn't so easy to be anonymous. "I was starting to get noticed," he laughs. "So I had to stop doing it after that. It was a shame because I just lived five minutes round the corner, so why shouldn't I walk home?" By now he was starting to get close to the first team in the games that really mattered, and then suddenly Alan Pardew, who had succeeded Roeder, threw him in. "I played a big part in promotion," he says of the season 2004-05. "I had a great run." Noble played 13 games and West Ham crashed the play-offs. They reached the final and he was on for the last 30 minutes at the Millennium Stadium. "Unbelievable," mutters Noble again of that afternoon, that 1-0 win over Preston North End, at Cardiff. "Unbelievable."

Then Like My Dreams, They Fade And Die...

But the Premiership, once West Ham returned there, wasn't what Noble thought. "I never really got my chance," Noble says of that first year back last season. "And it knocked me a little bit." Eventually he did what he didn't want to do. He went on loan. First to Hull City and then to Ipswich Town. "For my own personal development it was the best thing for me," Noble recalls. "As much as I loved being here I needed first-team games. At Ipswich we went on a run of eight matches unbeaten and it was a great club to be at."

West Ham, too, were going well. "I played just four games for West Ham that season," he says. "And then I suffered an injury to my lower back. I was just finding my feet and my season was over." Just as it appeared that West Ham had found their feet, the rug was pulled from under them. Second-season syndrome struck. "It's baffling," Noble says. "Last season we came off the back of a promotion. You saw it with us and with Wigan and, maybe, this year with Reading. The adrenalin and the confidence pulls you through, but it has to peter out at some stage. A lot of teams go through this. Ipswich did it. Fifth one year and relegated the next. But we want to avoid that fate, and I really believe we can get out of it. I really, really do."

It was while at Ipswich that Noble heard about the arrival of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. "I came in from training and the boys said something and I just replied, 'You're having a laugh.' But he [Tevez] has been a real credit. He wasn't getting in too much at first and wasn't scoring but now we are seeing his full potential. His football means everything to him. As it does for me. He wants to train all the time, he wants to be better and he's showing that now. He has a soft spot for the fans because they love him as well. He wants to stay up and hopefully if we can do it we can keep him as well."

Fortune's Always Hiding, I've Looked Everywhere...

It's Sunday 4 March 2007. Noble has returned to West Ham but, apart from the FA Cup tie against Brighton, hasn't played. He's been told by Alan Curbishley, who took over when Pardew was sacked in December, that the team needs "more experience". He's talented but too young for the dogfight. "I understood what he said. But of course I just wanted to play," Noble recalls. But then West Ham, having spent £19m in the January transfer window, were humiliated 4-0 by Pardew's new team, Charlton Athletic. "Everyone was thinking, 'That's it now. It's all over'," Noble says.

The next game was Tottenham at home. Noble vowed, when he returned from Ipswich, that he wouldn't go out on loan again. He would fight for his place. "And maybe, after Charlton, the gaffer just thought 'I'll put him in'." After 16 minutes Noble scored. "It was a dream come true," he says. Then Tevez scored but in the end Spurs prevailed 4-3 and there were tears, very public tears, from Noble as he left the pitch that day. It was all too much. "Obviously that's been highlighted," he says. "But I didn't know what else to do. I just wanted to win so badly that nothing else mattered. No, I wasn't embarrassed. I couldn't help what happened."

But then West Ham beat Blackburn. And Middlesbrough. And then, unbelievably, Arsenal. For the first time at the Emirates Stadium. Tevez was the catalyst but so, too, was Noble. The boy from Beckton. "The lads come from all different backgrounds," he says of his team-mates. "It's just that I play for the team I supported. It's a little strange. I lived five minutes from the ground and there are people I used to go to school with, used to hang around the streets and get into mischief with. All my good friends are from that way."

Then Sheffield United beat West Ham and the Great Escape, Part Two, appeared over. But Everton were beaten and now, today, it's Wigan Athletic away followed by Bolton Wanderers and, on the final day of the League season, Manchester United. Noble, for one, still believes. "I thrive on it - I love it," he says, and his gaze is unflinching. "I've told the manager one thing: I want to play every minute of every game." At Upton Park, in recent games, the atmosphere has been unforgettable. The memories, once more, are coming thick and fast. "It's scary," Noble says. "There's a great noise, a great occasion, with every game. We feel that confidence. It's crunch time, we know, and we know that the only thing that will keep us in this League are points. The performances don't matter. But the bigger the crowd, the better it is. It gives you the edge, the energy, that extra bit of speed.

"It makes you do things you didn't realise you could do. And when that West Ham crowd sings 'Bubbles', when they switch that music off as we kick off, and you hear 35,000 people and one voice all singing the same song. It just makes me shiver."

...I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, Pretty Bubbles In The Air. United, United, United.

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