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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 22/11/03, 3.00pm
West Ham United
Historical theme parks
By Ian Grant

London Road, Brighton. It's not a fashionable part of town.

On the contrary, in fact. In a town - sorry, city - that's crammed into the thin strip of flat-ish land between the sea and the downs, it's impossible for one small part to resist some influence from the cosmopolitan café society for which Brighton is famous. But London Road tries damn hard.

These days, there might be a delicatessen or two, a couple of cafés competing with KFC and McDonalds, and the pubs might not be quite so horrific. But it still retains many of its thoroughly olde worlde charms. Five charity shops. A particularly unsatisfying branch of Woolworths. Poundstretcher, and various discount shops that are, if it's possible, downmarket versions of Poundstretcher. A massive Co-op. Two supermarkets without car parks. In many ways, it's rather charming, and I feel pretty comfortable living just around the corner from this grotty, neglected historical theme park. In other ways, it just feels like another town fly-tipped their old High Street here when they replaced it with a new-fangled, flat-pack shopping centre. Thanks, Slough.

There has been a recent and unexpected development, mind. In common with Albert Square, London Road now has a nail bar. No, that's not right. London Road now has two nail bars. The first, replacing a local newsagent that appeared to welcome about one customer each week and yet had hung on grimly in the face of economic common sense for years, is a relatively restrained affair. The second, arriving just a few weeks later, features a window-full of fluorescent lights of such intensity that your eyes water when you walk past it. Two nail bars, then. On London Road. Have I missed something?

And yet, given time, the area will claim them too. Even if they're not closed down and boarded up within a few months, even if the good folk of London Road really do want to have their nails done after they've finished their clothes shopping in Peacocks, the novelty won't last. The fluorescent lights will get grubby, dim and flicker; the fancy window displays will gather dust; someone'll tag underneath the window. London Road will still resist the new world with all its heart.

So, West Ham are in the First Division again. Judging by the sell-out crowd, this is the cause of some excitement, a bit of a novelty. A nail bar in an old-fashioned part of town, rapidly becoming part of the scenery. Nottingham Forest. Derby County. Sheffield Wednesday. Sunderland. Queens Park Rangers. Norwich City. And so on. It happens very quickly indeed, and you suspect that this fixture will probably be taking place in front of, say, seventeen thousand people next season. Fourteen thousand in two years. Still, 'Ammers fans, it's not all doom and gloom...the weather might've perked up by then, eh?

It couldn't be much worse, frankly. Nearly twenty-four hours after kickoff, it's still raining. Not spectacular waterfalls of rain, nor prettily drifting clouds of spray. Just persistent, grim drizzle that appears to come from a cloud that's the size of Europe and yet hasn't sufficient energy to dump its contents with any particular urgency. Someone's left the bath running upstairs, and it's hard to believe that the sky can contain so much water without eventually sagging and collapsing like a sodden ceiling. Rubbish weather on a grand scale.

Indeed, there must've been more than a few raised eyebrows at the (unless I missed something) complete lack of a pitch inspection yesterday. There was little standing water, granted, but the pressure of a rolling football was quite enough to make it clear that the pitch was just a thin layer of grass floating on a massive lake. A postponement would've caused an understandable outcry, but it must've been a borderline decision...especially given that there was no - is no - immediate promise that the rain will ever stop. To their credit, both sides merely got on with it.

And, for much of the first half, the visitors adapted rather better to the atrocious conditions. That isn't to suggest that we were playing especially badly, simply that our choice of approach wasn't meeting with much success. Too often, we attempted to play long passes into the space behind the West Ham defence, only to find that the blustery wind that was whipping around the stadium either took the ball swiftly through to the keeper or held it up for defenders to head clear. We were, perhaps, falling into the trap of believing that we couldn't play a passing game on the surface. Our opponents, in contrast, were sticking to their principles and faring marginally better. Fortunately, a defence that towered magnificently all afternoon made sure that it mattered little.

That defence deserves a mention right now, before we get into the meat of the match. In particular, it's important to give credit to the full-backs, for both Jack Smith and Wayne Brown had imposing, impressive games that will ultimately be over-shadowed by the central defenders. Although the departure of Paul Robinson is still a great shame, it no longer feels as if we'll be playing for the rest of the season with a gaping, ghastly hole where our hard-tackling hero used to be.

But Neil Cox and Marcus Gayle can't be kept out of this any longer. Dominant and powerful, they should be most satisfied with their handling of a dual threat, the lumbering height of Deane with the nippy arrogance of Connolly. Two different challenges, both thoroughly conquered. It was only occasionally that you realised that Deane was actually playing, whereas Connolly's presence was noticeable as much for the continual raising of the linesman's flag as for the abuse from the stands. On this evidence, Jermain Defoe's suspension was a bit of a shame, for it might've made for a more even contest....

The majority of the opening period was as drab and dismal as its context, heavy-legged football that lacked no effort but required plenty of patience. The highlight of the first twenty minutes was indisputably a moment of supreme selfishness from Connolly, firing into the side netting from an angle so acute that it was geometrically impossible to score, when various colleagues were loitering in the six yard box in positions from which it was physically impossible not to score. A fine summary of the man, methinks.

The rest was largely uneventful, unless you count a looping Scott Fitzgerald header as an event...which David James certainly didn't. Twenty-nine minutes, and a West Ham corner routine played the ball back to Carrick, arriving from deep to shoot from twenty yards. He sliced it completely, and those who wandered over to retrieve the ball as it sloshed around near the other corner flag were ruled offside when they got there. It wasn't much of a game, really.

Fortunately, while the overall quality didn't improve much, we did begin to find some excitement mixed in with the drizzle. For a start, there was Paul Devlin, whose spectacular volley from a half-cleared corner dipped and swerved and brought a fine save from James, shoving the ball over the bar and denying what would've been an extraordinary goal. Four minutes later, we actually noticed Deane for the first time, as he gained a rare yard on the defence to head narrowly wide from fine Carrick cross. Our only lapse, that, and a marginal one...but a reminder that there was still something to fear from a very ordinary-looking West Ham side. Otherwise, apart from a Lenny Pidgeley fumble in claiming a cross under pressure from Deane, which was gently and kindly returned to him by Mullins, we coped remarkably comfortably.

And, despite having appeared to be the less coherent outfit, we went into the dressing room having forced the opposition keeper into two significant saves. The latter, on the stroke of half-time, was quite fabulous, as a late deflection on Micah Hyde's low drive required James to change direction entirely, thrusting a hand down to his left to stop the ball, then grabbing it before a striker could follow up. It deserved better than to be followed immediately by the referee's whistle, for those who remembered to watch the replay on the big screen as the teams marched away saw a truly breathtaking piece of goalkeeping. Welcome back, DJ.

So far, I've been somewhat lukewarm, and you'll have read much more enthusiastic accounts elsewhere. The first half really wasn't great, though. But the second half was great, I think....

For those of us whose attendance at away fixtures has been occasional at best, it's been a curious couple of months. While home results have contributed to the points total, the team has fundamentally re-shaped the season on the road, determining its destiny out of sight of the bulk of the supporters. We've missed quite a lot, in short. And we haven't seen anything like the recent performances at Preston, Forest, and Norwich at Vicarage Road, nothing to match that at all. But here, in the second half, we could see the effects, the echoes, at the very least.

It was tremendous. Absolutely tremendous. For a couple of minutes, the half-time discussions appeared to have had little effect, and we continued to stamp around in the puddles while the ball passed from claret to claret. Marcus Gayle deflected Dailly's well-struck drive wide and it might've gone anywhere. And then we stopped messing about. The rest was intense, concentrated, focused teamwork, creating a momentum that kept pushing our opponents back towards their own goal and kept demanding three points as reward. We were dominant in a raw, fundamental sense, a sense beyond mere possession statistics. And we were unfortunate, in the end.

True, we didn't create as many chances as we would've wished. Nevertheless, we should look at the experience within the West Ham defence, then look at the inexperience in our attack...and we should be thoroughly chuffed that the latter gave the former such a hard afternoon. With our rearguard remaining solid, the midfield began to kick into gear, driving our attacks onward with real force and, at last, a finesse that belied the conditions. Suddenly, Paul Devlin was seeing much more possession...and that's just damn thrilling, the sight of a winger using the option of going outside his marker as more than a dummy. If Danny Webber was quietly threatening, Scott Fitzgerald was all raucous rebellion, refusing to let anything pass without a contest...and David James, England's number one and all that, was hacking hurried clearances onto the Main Stand roof....

Like I say, not quite enough chances. But we were still unlucky, especially when Paul Devlin sent Paolo Vernazza's hooked cross floating into the six yard box, where Danny Webber appeared certain to score from barely a couple of yards. Somehow - and we'll come back to that - Pearce prevented the header from crossing the line, but even then the ball evaded everyone, fluttering to and fro like a fifty pound note caught in the wind on a cliff edge, until Scott Fitzgerald deflected it wide. Back to that "somehow", anyway...for Pearce's heroic efforts certainly involved the use of a hand, albeit probably accidentally. It would've been a harsh decision. But the ball was going in. Strangely, the protests were perhaps muted by the gradual, stunning realisation that we hadn't scored, for it seemed inconceivable, with or without the handball.

That wasn't the last of the controversy either. While a penalty for the use of a hand when Dailly got in the way of a fierce hit from Paolo Vernazza after a lovely interchange on the right really would have been harsh, the tug on Paul Devlin's shirt as he skipped past his man in the last five minutes was plain and should've been punished. Still, we got those decisions last week and we didn't get them this week, so it would seem churlish to go on about it too much....

Besides, we still might've won it. There was Danny Webber's drive into the hoardings from twenty yards; Micah Hyde's looping header over after a patient build-up and a fine Neal Ardley cross; Scott Fitzgerald's sharp turn and mis-hit shot following yet more scampish wingery from Paul Devlin. And throughout, there was just a heads-down, shoulders-forward, fists-clenched intensity about the performance that was worth something in itself, regardless of the points awarded by the Football League.

Not so very long ago, when everything was bleak and hopeless, it was so tempting to find reasons other than loss of form and confidence, to question the fundamentals. Looking at this, it's bleedin' obvious that form and confidence were nearly all of what was lacking, for form and confidence are nearly all of what is driving us upwards now. Marcus Gayle, Danny Webber, Paolo Vernazza, the whole team. The hope is that there is a consistency beyond those phases, something that we can use as a foundation when form and confidence desert us again. Perhaps it's that we appear capable of dominating football matches as we rarely dominated them last season, while also possessing the attributes of an effective counter-attacking side. Perhaps. We'll find out.

Just to prove that things are, generally speaking, going our way at the moment, West Ham obligingly wasted a couple of late chances to snatch victory. The first was the result of the pitch, as the ball stuck in the mud midway between Neal Ardley and Micah Hyde to set a break in motion, Connolly showing rare selflessness in supplying Garcia for an angled drive that scraped past the far post. Then, with injury time beginning, Connolly's header from a corner was saved with relative comfort by Lenny Pidgeley. It wasn't entirely straightforward, then...but it was a more restful afternoon for the Watford keeper than he'd probably expected....

There's a natural temptation to regret the loss of two points. To return to the penalty appeals, to those two fine saves by David James, to the failure to turn momentum into one vital goal. Natural, but worth resisting...and not just because it's still a decent, useful point either.

Instead, we should be proud of the performance, and deeply encouraged by it. Because this was the same Watford that went places last season - a determined, disciplined, strong, powerful Watford, with a surprising subtlety and elegance when given the opportunity. This was the same Watford...only more so, potentially. Which was, in case anyone's forgotten, pretty much what we'd hoped for back in August. We've got our appetite back, it seems.

Bring it on, then.