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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
99/00: Reports:

FA Carling Premiership, 11/9/99
West Ham United
versus
Watford
 
There is more
By Matt Rowson

"Watford" proclaims a West Ham website "are like Bradford. Not many quality players, and they'll probably struggle. If they stay up, it'll be due to team spirit".

There is no link to this particular Website from BSaD.

To many fans of most Premiership clubs, there is nothing so absurd as the fan of a lower division team (and lest we forget, two years ago this week we were preparing for the visit of Roger Willis and Chesterfield). At this phenomenon's most pompous extreme, a Manchester United-supporting acquaintance of mine declined invitations to Vicarage Road even last season on the basis that he was used to superior fare, and wouldn't enjoy slumming it in the Nationwide.

Evidently even at West Ham, who not so terribly long ago were themselves a lower division club roughly half the time, this wilful ignorance of the nature of football's attraction prevails. For let us, for a moment, assume that Watford don't have quality players. That Micah Hyde can't dance with the ball on his foot. That Paul Robinson can't tackle like a runaway locomotive. That there is someone somewhere stronger than Mark Williams. That there's something that Johnno can't do.

Even in the absence of all of this, there are plenty of us (although perhaps not all of us) who'd still watch the Golden Boys every week. If there were no attraction but the quality of the football, then the game in this country would be in a truly awful state. Even the Red Filth play rubbish sometimes.

But there is more...of course, there's more. Noise, excitement, humour, camaraderie, beer, colour, travelling, escaping. Shiny programmes, for some of us. And whatever level you're competing at, events that will glitter brightly in the memory (albeit perhaps not as brightly as winning a Wembley playoff might). For a Stoke-supporting friend of mine, our trip to watch Unibond league Guiseley take on Stafford Rangers in the FA Trophy, watching ex-Potters hard man George Berry in action at the age of forty, hearing him at close quarters shout "f***ing do him Danny" to the terrified, back-pedalling midfielder in front of him.

For Watford fans...escaping relegation at the Manor Ground. Then a couple of years later willing Paul Furlong towards us at Oakwell to secure a late and improbable winner. Peterborough away (they tell me). Freddy Payne scoring a scissor kick. Devon White failing to do the same.

And, of course, Paolo Di Canio being sent off at Hillsborough. Not as well publicised as the Alcock incident that ultimately saw him leave Sheffield, but equally magnificent. To those of us at Hillsborough that night, his wholly unnecessary departure to the chorus of "where's Di Canio?" almost compensated for the penalty defeat. In retrospect, it more than compensates...I still can't bring myself to remove the photo of his tantrum from my living room wall.

These things happen at all levels of football. The critical difference between levels is perhaps not the standard of football but the freedom of supporters in enjoying themselves....

This match marks the start of a run that sees us take on last season's top five in consecutive league games. The fact that we haven't got a result against West Ham for about three hundred years probably pitches this amongst the hardest of the five. Although we'd never won at Anfield until recently either....

In the sticks for the Hammers will be Shaka Hislop, the giant Trinidadian who made a concerted effort to blend in to the image-conscious Premiership by dropping his real Christian name ("Neil"). Backup is provided by Canadian Craig Forrest and England U18 keeper Stephen Bywater.

West Ham will employ a wingback system, but have suffered this season from injuries to defensive players. The popular Ian Pearce is out for the season, whilst Neil Ruddock, as well as slowing to a halt, has a hamstring problem. Scott Minto has had a tendon injury (although he may return on Saturday) whilst even new signing Gary Charles is recovering from a double hernia operation. The availability of the completely bizarre Chilean Javier Margas and another new recruit Igor Stimac is dependent on the speed and success of work permit applications. With some doubt cast on Rio Ferdinand's participation after he twisted an ankle at Bradford, West Ham's only bankers at the back are the long-serving Steve Potts and Stuart Pearce, who is apparently a bit like Robbo, but old.

In the absence of any of the doubts listed above returning, Steve Lomas could be used in the back three. Lomas, a combative midfielder, is likely to renew acquaintances with Steve Palmer for the first time since a red card ended Palmer's involvement in a cup tie at Maine Road three years ago.

Wingbacks in the absence of Charles and Minto are likely to be Trevor Sinclair and Marc Keller. Keller is a Frenchman, recruited from German side Karlsruhe a year ago and a mean crosser of the ball. Sinclair, whilst versatile, is probably slightly wasted at wingback.

Joining Lomas in midfield are regular Spurs interest and goalscoring threat Frank Lampard, and the temperamental John Moncur, who allegedly picks up a booking in every game and probably still has a full set of Eric Cantona's studs impaled on his chest. Other options are Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Fo, who contracted Malaria and failed to join Liverpool in the summer, as well as young starlets Michael Carrick and god-to-be Joe Cole, both linked with loan moves to Division 1 clubs this week.

Up front, the last charge that can be levelled at the Hammers is "dull", with perhaps the most unpredictable forward line in the country in Paulo Wanchope and the aforementioned Di Canio. With Ian Wright's big wages being earned at the City Ground for the time being, other options are provided by Paul Kitson and Samassi Abou, the latter of who's days at Upton Park must be numbered. Another young striker, Nigerian Manny Omoyimni, has joined Peter Taylor's Gillingham on loan, where he'll probably have to get used to coming back for corners.

The first of five tough games for the Hornets, but perhaps we shouldn't be too daunted; if tough away trips had been a problem last season we'd never have got promotion (just ask Brum). Bear in mind also that win, lose or draw, the fact that we're "just like Bradford" may work to our advantage.

After all, Paolo got booked at Bradford.