Division One, 22/08/06, 7.45pm
West Ham United
By Martin Blanc
I don't watch it. Never have done, at least no more than the weekly few seconds of a chronic channel-flicker. I file "QI" under 'Things Some People Have Expected Me To Like...(And What This Would Seem To Say About Me To Them)'. A small category - David Gray is the only other entry as far as I can recall...cold shiver...however, the show's self-conscious title, Quite Interesting, would seem now to be the measured response of a fan who refuses at this early juncture to be swayed either by the usual droning pessimism of many outsiders, or by Betty's Top Ten Unlikely Predictions (#1: A Top Ten Finish).
Comparing last night with Goodison Park on Saturday, we managed some more of what we'd tried then, considerably more effectively - but that could have had something to do with the opposition being different. Everton were big and solid, to a man. (Have you seen Alan Stubbs close up?) West Ham were more...human, somehow, faster (Andy Johnson included), more our cup of tea. And if the rest of the teams we'll play are in that mold, rather than the brick en-suite low-flush houses of the Toffeemen, we may very well prosper enough to survive. Our first home game was bound to be a bit special, though. A splendid sight greeted us, once we'd got into the ground and past the security checks, which I hope are to do with the global paranoia, rather than merely the Premier League's. A beautiful pitch, and the Yellow Army dense in seven-eighths of the ground. With all the hype about the matchday "magazine" (sic) (I always thought 'sic' was - or should be - Latin for 'stupid'), flicking through it merely made me pine even more for the continuance of this esteemed website, even for its amalgamation with the club or some such mad method of surviving. Meanwhile, the starting XI pretty much picked itself in the light of the weekend result. Certainly I'd guessed it bang on before Demerit and Bouazza were announced as starters in place of the willing but slightly futile Chambers and the xenon-headlit rabbit Mariappa had become by the end Saturday's first half. Aidy giving almost everyone an outing in the first few games seems a useful idea that perhaps didn't work straight away - Demerit would have had Johnson in his pocket throughout the first half at Goodison, but we can only add that to the large pile of 'what-ifs' for that game.
We started well once again. Francis - who for my money (eighty-odd quid, all in) had a fairly lousy game at Everton - was far sharper from the off. Marlon looked more confident, Bouazza just keen to pick up where he left off. Doris and Ashley Young seemed full of running, and able to find ways past the Hammers where they were hitting walls against Everton. And at the back, Grandpa Powell showed once more what a splendid acquisition he is, blending well with Shittu and Jay-D, and all of them reminding Lloyd Doyley of his priorities just often and loudly enough to allay the threat of Harewood and Reo-Coker. Even when they broke through, Demerit's continued improvement saw him close down absolutely everything, intelligently, safely - we have to pray he keeps fit for the majority of the season.
When we burst through, it was magnificent - Hameur on the left, doing a Young, sweeping two-thirds of the pitch before banging in the sweetest of low crosses for a delicate touch from Marlon. We were on our feet and cheering - as the ball came back off the far post. Was that going to be the season in miniature? Somehow, I don't think so now, but it sure felt like it for the rest of the half, even as Young was bicycling a pretty good effort just wide of Carroll's post. None of it was all that pretty, and indeed Jeremy texted me from the Rookery to suggest rather unkindly that we had dragged them down to our level. But stopping them playing is not the same as that, by any means. We were smart, committed, and much more attentive than Saturday, or maybe just less surprised by the consistency of threat coming at us. Great, bank that knowledge, next lesson this Saturday...
Whatever it was, 0-0 at half-time was fine. No lucky chocolate, just genuine anticipation for the second half. We continued to carve out openings, were regularly camped in their half, but any time we got into the box, still there were no killer blows administered by any of the usual suspects. Guys: the ball isn't going to bounce kindly for us, we need to know that right now. We are not going to be ushered into scoring positions by half-assed Championship defenders, nor given all kinds of time to decide what to do when it's rolling in from the wing or sitting in the air a couple of inches from our heads. There's far too much at stake for that. These people know how to defend, and Betty has to come up with some sharper tactics to get around them, or else get some people in who can execute what he's telling them slightly better than Doris and a couple of others. In the meantime, we have to attack the ball and demand ownership of it in the box like we did last season. We have to forget who we're playing, or kid ourselves it's Burnley or Wolves, and be as fearless where it matters most as we usually are over the rest of the pitch.
On sixty-three minutes, though, we hung back, Marlon perhaps having logged what was going on at eighteen yards and beyond. He was running across the pitch, in fact; took the ball laid off from Young, and on the turn he hit as sweet a shot as he managed all of last season. What a moment: the rippling net, the gurning Carroll, the long embrace. If that unlocks a season for King like Harewood's last year, then it'll be even more glorious and resonant a moment than just for having been our first real goal of the season. From this moment, your correspondent's voice really started to go hoarse, imploring the team to stay awake, and not to do exactly what it did in less than ninety seconds from the restart. In the distance, Zamora finds space, Foster flails, the bar does nothing, and we're as good as back where we started. To be fair, we got right back in the saddle, Shittu hefting himself into position to bullet a header just over, and our busyness taking up where it left off before Marlon's strike. King himself was doing most of the work, and nearly forced an own goal from Even Worse Than His Brother Ferdinand. But Young had started to fade somewhat, though not as much as on Saturday, and Benayoun, who'd come on after the goals, seemed a lot more threatening than Gabbidon, who'd looked mighty peed off at being substituted. So we fought the dread of yet another unjust defeat rising in our stomachs, and the team, with Spring a much sharper force in the second half than Mahon had been in the first, continued making like it was going to snatch a victory, with Doris and Marlon again being in just about the right place, but not able to make the most of it, and others not quite being in the right place, with the result usually a quick Hammers counter-attack.
Yes, we deserved a win, and got a point, just as we'd deserved a point on Saturday and got nothing. What do we have to do to get what we deserve? Deep down, I think we all know: get in one or two more first team players (positions and current incumbents shall remain nameless here, either because I'm feeling ultra-loyal or I have my head in the sand about their prospects at this level); and also keep playing to our strengths, which seems to be Aidy's mantra for the year. But it'll have as much to do with how our opponents cope on the days they meet us, and what we can nick off them as a result, and we can't know that yet. Indeed, how will we even find out about it in future, what with early-doors for this brilliant website? Having crowbarred some Everton thoughts into this match report, I now realise we must do the same in advance for the rest of this season, what with...let's just call it BSaD's extended hiatus, otherwise we'll have to get the hankies out again. So - as briefly as possible, here are some highlights from match reports of the coming games:
Marlon's hattrick against Bolton; Betty's fight with Martin Jol at White Hart Lane; Dowie resigns after home defeat to Hornets; not too much bloodshed after our victory over Sheffield Utd; Helguson's own goal for old times' sake at Craven Cottage; Doyley's performance against us at Old Trafford after surprise January signing by Ferguson; entire Academy team start game vs Middlesbrough after survival guaranteed the previous week; the Return of BSaD after Elton John's "benefit concert" (okay, singing in the bath to David, then mailing a small cheque to Brighton); plus the manager's end of season awards dinner speech ("hey, I killed the manager of Sheffield Utd with a fork; how have you been?").