Sunday, 17 June 2007

Noble Cause

Noble Cause: The West Ham midfielder has changed his playing style and is proving a vital player in England's European under-21 bid
By Duncan Castles

Twenty minutes to play at Arnhem’s stiflingly roofed-over Gelredome and England are headed out of the Euro under-21s. Italian opponents seemingly intent on setting a national record for shots on goal have erased a 2-0 advantage and are sweeping through England’s hurriedly reshaped five-man midfield.

Newly moved into a solo holding role, Mark Noble watches Alberto Aquilani trick the ball past a teammate and decides it is time to intervene. He races towards the Italian, lunges almost horizontally at the ball and sends it and Aquilani over the touchline. The Italian just about evades the worst of the tackler’s mass, rises slowly to his feet and offers a handshake. Noble wants none of it, striding away with not a glance back.

Mark firmly laid upon him, Aquilani visibly withdraws from the contest, Italy’s attacks diminish in frequency, and the match ends in a draw that leaves England best placed to reach the semi-finals when they meet already-qualified Serbia in tonight’s last Group B tie. In his first start for the under21s, Noble had proved himself an enforcer capable of intimidating men accustomed to winning hard yards in Serie A and the Champions League.

"It was just one of those things where the referee kept giving silly free kicks for nothing," reflected Noble the next day. "I thought, if he’s going to book me he’s going to have to book me for something proper. What goes through your mind in a moment like that? Loads of things. It’s just the passion and the emotion. I don’t like when players do tricks and try and take the mickey out of you. I don’t go in to hurt, I go in to win the ball, but I think my tackles look a lot worse than what they feel for me. Everyone says, ‘You’ve got to calm down sometimes, you’re going to get sent off tackling like that’. But that’s me, that’s the way I tackle and, touch wood, I ain’t missed one yet."

Whatever lumber Noble has been tapping of late should be kept close, for he has developed an enviable knack for turning fortunes these past six months. Feted as a free-running creative in his debut season at West Ham United in 2004-05, a year and a half later Noble’s career had hit a brick wall graffitied with loan moves to Hull City and Ipswich Town. "He had a bit of a lull," said Trevor Brooking, the FA’s Director of Football Development. "The year West Ham went up through the play-offs he came in the last three months and lifted the team, but then he hit a little bit of a wall. He went out to Ipswich and did quite well there."

As West Ham’s new owners, panicking at the spectre of relegations, pumped money into a January squad overhaul, Noble refused to accept a further Championship loan, electing instead to battle for a place at Upton Park. Alan Curbishley overlooked him until the after the 4-0 loss to Charlton, when a gamble on youthful enthusiasm seemed as reasonable a throw of the dice as any other. Noble came in, scored in March’s bizarre 4-3 defeat by Tottenham, and remained there as West Ham won seven of their last nine fixtures to survive.

The Mark Noble who helped West Ham “do the impossible” and avoid dropping into the Championship was a very different beast from the one who’d contributed to getting them out of it two years previously. "When I originally broke into the first team I was more like a creative player, a tricky player," he said. "Now I know I haven’t got the pace for those kind of skills any more. I changed my game, I played to my strengths and that’s what I'm all about now. It was Alan Pardew, the West Ham manager at the time, who suggested it to me. He said: ‘I think you’re going to end up as a holding midfielder, dictating games because you’ve got the passing ability, the bite and the will to win’. That’s what every team needs. I think I looked at myself and I’m not saying I changed overnight, but it’s just what suited me the most."

Suited Noble and suited England. Buffeted by David Bentley’s infuriatingly late withdrawal from the squad for the finals, Stuart Pearce had been struggling to balance his central midfield. Tom Huddlestone, Ashley Young, James Milner, Kieran Richardson, Reo-Coker and Noble were used in six different permutations of triangular three or flat two in the friendly victory over Slovakia and group-game draw with the Czech Republic. Only when England sat the West Ham pair ahead of the defence against Italy did a chance-laden half-hour emerge during which the team looked capable of challenging to win this tournament.

While part of that early success owed to Leroy Lita’s embarrassing dominion over central defender Marco Andreolli, Noble is entitled to his claim that "England looked sharp, powerful and strong".

"I’m sure if we play like that against other teams we will really cause them problems," he added. "I think it’s been long overdue for us to win one of these. I’ve lost in the final of the under-19s, against France, lost in the semi-finals of the under17s, against Spain. I think it’s about time that we step up to the plate and prove to them that we’re not just a quarter-final, semi-final team; we can go all the way and take the trophy home."

If the 14-year wait since England Under18s were European champions is ended here, there will be significant irony in Noble’s role.

The 20-year-old would have been half the globe away had Bentley, in a move redolent of his on-field decision-making, not placed self-interest over national honours nine days ago.

"I’d booked Mexico and I wanted to go away, lay on the beach and chill out," said Noble. "I was supposed to go the day the squad was announced. But I got the phone call for this and I was delighted. I was in, the suit-case got unpacked and I put the football boots in instead of the flip-flops." Even his sandals, you suspect, are more dangerous than most.

Sunday Times


Tim said...

at last... a well balanced news article regarding west ham that sticks to the facts, reports good news, and doesn't have $$$ attached to it!

Well done for highlighting one of, if not THE major success factor in West Ham's unbelievable escape...a skillfull, hard-tackling, engine full, goal scoring holding player just what west ham, the u21 and *cough* the full england team needs- and well done for Pearcey for putting him in that role.

lets see him and the team go all the way now!

Hammerithome said...

Mark Noble has been a breath of fresh air to West Ham and long may it continue. We the supporters always knew it was just a matter of time b4 he came to prominance.His skills along with hard work and tackling have never been in doubt and West Ham have got a real gem in their ever increasing crown of talent.
Well done to Mark,it is well deserved.

Barking Mad said...

I don't think 'chavski' have a hope of signing Mark Noble so long as West Ham are in the Premiereship he will stay where his heart is. He's a local boy and his whole family are West Ham supporters the top clubs have as much chance of taking from the hammers as they did taking Shearer from Newcastle both these teams have undoubtedly and by far the most dedicated and passionate supporters.

Anonymous said...

Mark Noble seems to have the mark of a good player..but his manners leave much to be desired. Refusing a handshake from Aquilani when he was the one who tackled him is really tacky!

Perhaps he is jealous of Aquilani's talent who is obvious for everyone to see?

I try to be neutral but looking at the statistics of England and Italy U21s, it si difficult. Italy is the most successful team in the history of the tournament while England is....


Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari