Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Falls The Shadow

Despite playing in the most beautiful spring sunshine imaginable at the weekend, it still never rains but it pours for West Ham United. The season is at that point where timing can become everything yet even the fixture secretary seems to be against them. The previous weekend's loss to Manchester United made it seven straight League defeats to Sir Alex Ferguson's team so West Ham could have done with playing a side on Saturday with a whiff of the patsy about them; somebody willing to surrender and give them three desperately needed points.

Instead, writes Chris Brereton in the Independent, they faced another outfit that they have come to dread in recent years as Bolton Wanderers were also looking for their seventh win on the bounce against West Ham. To make matters worse, the Londoners had never won in 11 previous games at the Reebok Stadium. The portents were not good. And they soon got worse. Wonderfully executed finishes from Daniel Sturridge and Lee Chung-Yong ended the game as a meaningful contest after just 19 minutes, allowing Bolton to relax and go on to play some of the most entertaining and sumptuous football of their season.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

In spite of it all, Avram Grant believes West Ham need just three more wins to secure survival in the Barclays Premier League this season, insisting his players are committed to the cause. The Hammers enter the last hurdle of the season just a point adrift from safety in 18th place following this latest dismal 3-0 defeat.

Emotions certainly ran high in Lancashire with midfielder Mark Noble involved in an angry exchange with goalkeeper Robert Green. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a West Ham side on the brink of relegation will slip into some form of civil war. However, compared with the last time the drop came calling in east London, what went on between Noble and Green was small beer. When, in 2003, a far more talented side than the one Avram Grant presides over were sliding towards relegation, West Ham supporters hounded Glenn Roeder in his own home, observes the Guardian's Tim Rich.

Almost eight years ago to the day, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe's Hammers left the Reebok Stadium snarling at perceived injustice after a loss that played a big part in their relegation. That side also included David James and Glen Johnson and perhaps it was the nagging realisation that they were not too good to go down after all had something to do with their despair and disarray. On Saturday they experienced similar feelings, only reserving the anger for each other this time around, swept away by a team that could have been forgiven for having their minds on next weekend's FA Cup semi-final.

It mattered not, back then, that their then manager grew up playing football opposite the training ground at Chadwell Heath, notes Rich, or that his brothers were season ticket holders in what was the Chicken Run at Upton Park. One day, eight Aprils ago, Roeder collapsed with a brain tumour and, when he returned to Upton Park with Newcastle United, his lasting memory was seeing the faces of men, some older than himself, still twisted by hatred. In comparison, the bitterness between Noble and his goalkeeper that finished with one aiming a punch at the other before being separated by their captain, Matthew Upson, will not linger long.

Neither man is likely to face disciplinary action by the club or by the Football Association, who did not charge Green when, after keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, he made an obscene gesture to the Upton Park press box. Frankly, for all the protection he was offered on a hot, disastrous afternoon in the Pennines, Green might have wanted to knock every one of his defenders out cold.

"I saw there was something going on," said the West Ham midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, describing the seconds after Daniel Sturridge's wonderfully struck opener. "I didn't know exactly what but I could see they were having an argument. In the dressing room they shook hands and it's all sorted out. We can't afford to have arguments going on after the game, so that's a good thing. The game is over now and we shouldn't be looking back, although this was a terrible afternoon for us. We can't make any predictions about whether we stay up or go down now but surely if we play like this it is going to be tough."

In 2003, after that epic battle with Bolton to avoid the final relegation place, West Ham, with Trevor Brooking at the helm, slipped under with 42 points. Grant, who because of a touchline ban watched the debacle from the directors' box, thinks they need to win half of their remaining games to avoid history repeating itself.

The final three, against Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and an out-of-control, freefalling Sunderland, seem winnable but, as Grant pointed out, unpredictability is a motif running through West Ham's history. "The team are low because they lost an important game," he said. "They need to be not happy like I am not happy. But on paper everyone thought going to Tottenham would be harder than going to Bolton. We drew there; we lost here. Liverpool at home was hard on paper because they had big momentum at the time but we won."

Defiant Grant insists his players can start to overcome their frustrations this weekend in their crunch clash with Aston Villa at Upton Park and make a giant leap towards his magic target to avoid relegation to the Championship. "The players are very committed to the team," Grant said, in his weekly email to the club’s supporters. "We need to look at the whole picture. We have played well over the second half of the season and we have won our battles and everything was going well. We must learn from Saturday. I still believe that we can stay in the league. What you saw in the first half at Bolton is not something that you see every day in our team. It was an exception. We will do everything to make sure it remains exceptional. We will show that we can play and we have shown this season that we can recover from situations like this."

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

So, to next Saturday where James Collins’ next mission is to bury his former club and save Aston Villa from relegation. Collins’ winning header against Newcastle settled the nerves at Villa Park and leaves them another victory away from the safety target of 40 points. But for Aston Villa to be secure, they must beat West Ham on Saturday and push their hosts closer to the drop.

While Villa have been clawing their way out of danger with a draw at Everton followed by Sunday’s win, their first in the league since February, West Ham are back in the bottom three after losing two successive games.

"West Ham are in a tricky spot," said Collins, who had five seasons with the Hammers after a £3.5 million move from Cardiff in a double deal with Danny Gabbidon. "But we are not comfortable in the position we are in either. We’ve got to go to West Ham looking for three points. Anything less will not be good enough. I am sad to see West Ham where they are, the club are a big part of my life. I went there as a young man and I met my wife in London. The Hammers are always going to be close to my heart. This will be the second time I’ve gone back there in tricky circumstances where both clubs are fighting for points."

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

The target in that previous game in November 2009 was hugely different because Villa were aiming at Champions League football and a minimum fourth-place Premier League finish – but West Ham came out 2-1 winners. It is a game Carlton Cole remembers well. The striker is urging his West Ham team to stage a Tiger Woods-style rally to escape relegation.

Woods, of course, came back from seven shots behind on the final day of the Masters to share the lead. But while Woods ultimately failed, Cole believes the Hammers can beat the drop; starting with a victory at home on Saturday to put their survival bid back on track.

Cole, who watched Woods’ revival, said: "Watching the golf reminded me of us. Tiger fought right until the end, even when the chips were down, we have to do the same as a team." Following Saturday’s Villa game the Hammers go to Chelsea and Manchester City, before hosting Blackburn.

Finally, Avram Grant has criticised the FA for charging Cole with improper conduct over a tweet about Ghanaian fans during the recent friendly against England. "Immigration has surrounded the Wembley premises! I knew it was a trap! Hahahaha," honked Cole at the time. "I think the FA are in fighting mood," roared Grant. "But to charge Carlton with racism needs a big imagination."

This is the way the season ends
This is the way the season ends
This is the way the season ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

When I decided to return to this place after almost a year's absence I never intended the past to suddenly rush in on me in a way that is hard to fight. It's just the club never seems to change. Dogfight, godsmite, backbite, stagefright. It isn't me pushing back the gossamer thin door into the past and then reliving. It is the past that has broken through and is now enacting itself exactly as before. Trapdoor, racewar, downpour, softcore. Apparently it's true the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. I didn't even know that T.S. Eliot had been a West Ham blogger.


James said...

Hey, look who's back! It's been far too long.

West Ham and Eliot are the perfect combination... The women come and go, talking of Paolo di Canio!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Trilby- Hammers blogging has been a Waste Land since you have been away. See what I did there?

Anonymous said...

I have been sat here for five minutes trying to work out a Macavity/McAvennie type joke. I wish I was smarter, lol.


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