Monday, 7th May 2012
West Ham supporters are, on the whole, a cautious bunch. Decades of finding increasingly bizarre ways of messing things up have done that to us. So I spent the run-up to this match desperately trying not to think about it. Any questions or discussions that included the word “Wembley” were immediately suffixed with so many caveats that I was beginning to sound like those radio ads where the “small print” is read out at such breakneck speed you can barely make out the bit at the end that tells you that your legs may be at risk if you do not keep up the repayments on a loan secured upon them.
Superstition came into play as well. You probably couldn’t meet anyone as superstitious as my Mum – something that causes the rest of the family much amusement. However, in my pre-match nervous state as I sat waiting for my train I spotted a magpie and, for a few seconds, I temporarily turned into my Mum. Failing to spot a second magpie, I then turned into Dad with a reassuring voice in my head telling me that defining one’s future by the spotting or non-spotting of specific members of the family Corvidae was absolute twaddle and had no place in the modern world. At which point a second magpie arrived and I turned back into Mum so I could take the “omen” as a good sign after all.
The team news was a case of “as you were”. Mr Allardyce had resisted the temptation to alter the line-up and shape that had done so well abroad in the first leg leaving us with a starting line-up of Green, Demel, Taylor, Reid, Tomkins, Collison, O’Neil, Noble, Nolan, Cole, Vaz Te.
Well we bossed this one right from the kick-off. Cardiff had settled on a plan that was the living embodiment of the hoofball that everyone else seems to think that we play but we don’t. This proved to be meat and drink for Tomkins and, in particular, Reid to whom the ball seemed to have some sort of magnetic attraction. There was an early minor scare when Miller went down in the box and made a rather plaintive appeal for a penalty. It looked to me as if the striker had kicked the back of Reid’s foot to cause the tumble but with Mike Dean operating on live telly any decision was possible. Thankfully Dean remembered the scar on his head from a coin thrown by a Cardiff supporter a few years back and, for once, decided against making a perverse decision just for the sake of it.
All the talk from the Welsh side of the Severn in the days prior to this match had been of how “dangerous” our 2-0 lead was. Unfortunately for the visitors we seemed unworried by the peril and, with scant regard to any thoughts of health and safety, on the quarter hour our position became half as much more dangerous as it had been at kick-off. Taylor’s deadly corner-kick was nodded on by Cole, his effort being blocked in the six-yard box by a defender – Hudson perhaps? The ball flew across goal to Nolan who nodded home from inches. Cue the chicken dance – which, fun though it was, didn’t look as convincing as the one at Blackburn the other night. Good fancy dress effort by that supporter.
Visiting heads went down big time at this point – understandably so really. We knocked the ball around well and always looked capable of adding to the 3-0 aggregate lead. O’Neil, who was having another fine game, was particularly unlucky on two occasions. Firstly his improvised volley from Collison’s cross deserved better than the crossbar. Secondly, the curved effort from Vaz Te’s pull back was unlucky to see ‘keeper Marshall in fine fettle, his excellent save keeping the score on the day down to 1-0.
We deserved our lead and things became twice as dangerous for us just before the interval. Demel’s pass eluded a defender to find Vaz Te bearing down on goal. His shot contained more venom than a lorry load of cobras and Marshall had absolutely no chance. I’m not a mind reader or anything but I’m pretty sure I can tell you what was going through the mind of anyone who saw that goal. The thought process went something like “Pull it back, pull it back, PULL IT BACK, GOAL. (Ok don’t pull it back!)”
The team left the ground at half time to a well-merited standing ovation, though, to be on the safe side I refused to open the relevant page in the matchday programme relating to tickets just in case. I’ve seen us play before. And I’ve also seen Mike Dean referee before.
We’d barely had time to digest our half time chocolate-based comestibles when Cardiff re-appeared for the second half. They were a bit early, which happens sometimes when a manager is annoyed and sends his team out early for the second half. However, on this occasion there was a definite air of “let’s get this over with” about the body language of the visitors.
Unsurprisingly, given that the tie stood at 4-0 in our favour, the second half was, by and large, undistinguished. Unless you were Jack Collison. Three minutes after the restart the Welsh midfielder landed awkwardly after an unnecessarily robust challenge from Turner and it was immediately clear that all was not well. A dislocated shoulder was the eventual diagnosis and, although the injury was immediately reset it may be enough to preclude him from any involvement in the Wembley final, which is a shame. Henri Lansbury came off the bench to deputise.
Other than that it was a case of watching Cardiff run around in circles for various periods until they got bored, whereupon they’d pick out Tomkins or, more usually, Reid. Reid did pick up a yellow card for taking out an opponent on the halfway line, which was fair enough but by and large it was, as a spectacle, a quiet second period. Green had the occasional spot of catching practice in between continuing his taking the mickey out of the visiting support, one of whom had spent some of his giro cheque on a US Flag in an attempt to wind the ‘keeper up. It appears that, despite having had no real interest in the tournament since 1958, a few of them had gathered around the communal television set to watch the World Cup (someone must have read about it in the paper) and noted Green’s error against the Americans. As those who tried to “sledge” me during my cricketing days discovered, you can’t wind up a wind-up merchant and Green gave back any stick he got with interest, particularly when being asked by our section of the STB to confirm the scoreline.
With 20 minutes left Nolan left to be replaced by Linda, a substitution which was followed by the familiar reshuffle pushing Taylor forward on the left to accommodate Linda at left back. This had little effect on the match other than to give Nolan a well-earned break.
With 15 minutes left Cardiff made a double substitution with Cowie replacing McPhail and the splendidly named Filip Kiss replacing the rather useless Kenny Miller. I’ll bet the incoming subs thanked poor old Malky for that one (unless they were on appearance money). Then, on 81 minutes, Cardiff had a chance. Well sort of. Lawrence screwed a shot horribly wide and, whilst one wouldn’t normally have mentioned it, the fact that it had taken 36 minutes of the second half for the visitors to muster a shot (barely) worthy of the name was rather telling. Cardiff then withdrew McNaughton replacing him with Darcy Blake, who sounds like he was signed from a club playing in one of those god-awful books by Jane Austen that we were forced to read for A level – Northanger Prejudice or Mansfield Park Rangers perhaps.
With five left Maynard replaced the industrious Cole and, with barely three minutes having elapsed since his arrival, Maynard found himself in space on the edge of the box. Lansbury played him in and he buried a powerful drive that mimicked Vaz Te’s earlier effort in its execution to send us 3-0 up on the day. I will admit to a slight worry – based on McKay’s earlier comments, at 5-0 up on aggregate we were now in a situation that was 250% as dangerous as that which had prevailed at the end of the first leg.
Cautious as ever, I decided to sneak a quick look at the league table and confirmed that we were indeed safe from relegation and, not only that, there was a chance that, if we could hold onto the five goal lead with only stoppage time to go, we could actually qualify for Wembley. Possibly. (Terms & conditions apply).
Dean added two minutes of stoppage time. It probably should have been more - with Collison’s injury and six substitutions (even allowing for one of those being a double) having occurred you’d normally expect a bit extra. However, having had a rare good game (and boy how much did it hurt to say that) I expect Dean was in a rush to get back to a tv set to see what the telly guys were saying about him.
The final whistle went and the place erupted. I took the opportunity to consult the Football League rules and regulations and, having done so I was pleasantly surprised to see that despite all the apparent danger we had indeed qualified for the playoff final at Wembley. At which point I finally sneaked a look at the hitherto banned page of the matchday programme.
All joking apart, the two performances in this semi-final were excellent – and we played football in the process. My hope for this match (apart from the obvious wish for qualification) was that the result and the performance would send a message to both the other semi-finalists to the effect that we are in a vein of form to be scared of, and I think we did that. As for who we get in the final, well I’m relaxed enough to not worry about that at the moment. I have this strange feeling – it’s sort of a suspicion that everything might, possibly, if we’re lucky, be alright. Apparently this feeling is known as “cautious optimism”.
Definitely a new one on me!
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One of the Norwegian gang who were over for this game is the spitting image of Greeno. We told him off as usual for having a few pints of Guinness before an important match. However, the real Greeno could have sat there with a pint and the papers for much of the game. One good save at the feet of a forward and some useful distribution from throws.
Continues to improve – not least with the quality of his delivery into the box which has gone from being laughable in his early matches to being genuinely dangerous over the past couple of weeks.
The fact that he’s keeping Linda out of a starting spot in the team at left back should give you a clue as to the level of performance we’re getting out of this player.
Yet another outstanding performance at the back. Happy to deal with Cardiff’s Stoke City impersonations (long throws and all) all day long.
I proposed Reid as MOTM a few minutes before the sponsors’ version was announced. We had sensible sponsors this week. Won just about everything in the air and fully deserved whatever he got from the sponsors.
Influential as ever – seems to be enjoying himself in this diamond thingy we are supposed to be playing.
Good poacher’s goal and was constant thorn in the side of the opposition throughout until his second half withdrawal made, no doubt, with a slightly bigger match in mind.
Gary O Neil
Another fine performance and one which would have been nicely capped if either or both of his efforts on goal had gone in.
Fine first half and desperately unlucky with the injury that saw him miss all but three minutes of the second. Hope he’s fit to play some part at Wembley.
Ricardo Vaz Te
A better performance than he’s shown over the last couple of weeks. Cracking goal – though I still reckon he’d have been better off pulling it back ;-).
Another “worked his socks off” performance. Though he rarely looked like scoring the Cardiff defence knew they’d been in a match and must have been overjoyed to see him replaced by Maynard late on.
(Replaced Collison, 48)
A good half when replacing Collison. Nice awareness and through ball to set up the third for Maynard.
(Replaced Nolan, 69)
Picked up at left back where Taylor left off. You couldn’t see the join.
(Replaced Cole, 86)
Scored with what may just about have been his only touch. Superb finish.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the Match: Winston Reid.
West Ham United
Robert Green, Guy Demel, Matthew Taylor, James Tomkins, Winston Reid, Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan, Gary O Neil, Jack Collison, Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole.
Goals: Kevin Nolan 15 Ricardo Vaz Te 40 Nicky Maynard 90 .
Booked: Winston Reid 68 .
Sent off: None.
David Marshall, Kevin McNaughton, Mark Hudson, Ben Turner, Andrew Taylor, Peter Whittingham, Aron Gunnarsson, Liam Lawrence, Stephen McPhail, Kenny Miller, Joe Mason.
Substitutes: Filip Kiss (Kenny Miller 76), Don Cowie (Stephen McPhail 76), Darcy Blake (Kevin McNaughton 81).
Subs not used: Tom Heaton, Robert Earnshaw.
Sent Off: None.