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Premiership
Saturday, 2nd February 2008

Wigan Athletic 0
West Ham United 1

by Gordon Thrower


From the sublime to the ridiculous. Having won well against the Scousers in midweek (the queue for the book of condolence at Liverpool Town Hall is now believed to be 400 yards long) we travelled in confidence North West to Wigan – where you’re never more than a foot away from the stench of rank hypocrisy.

There’s a lot of Reading about Wigan. Both clubs play in horrible identikit stadia built in the middle of horrible identikit retail parks. Both have a hypocritical liar for a chairman – though Whelan’s list of child slave labour employment, price-fixing, wage-cap breaking, dodgy share-dealing, the ruination of a once proud rugby union club and involvement in dodgy transfer deals slightly trumps anything that Madejski has done that is in the public domain. Both also have fanbases seemingly comprised mainly of chavvy little individuals most of whom will find something else to do when relegation finally occurs.

Team news was that Boa-Morte, who was possibly the only non-Scouser in the Boleyn the other night to have a bad time, was left out of the 16 though there was a welcome return to the bench for Craig Bellamy. Otherwise it was back to 4-4-2 with a line-up of Green, Neill, McCartney, Upson, Ferdinand, Ljungberg, Noble, Mullins, Etherington, Cole and Ashton.

Much has been said about the pitch. Now I’m old enough to remember really bad pitches. Back in the 60s and 70s (yes I know it’s hard to believe I’m old enough but bear with me) few pitches had much grass on them by this time of the year. Our own patch was frequently a mudbath and Derby County’s Baseball Ground was notorious for becoming a quagmire as soon as there was the slightest hint of moisture in the air – a couple of sneezes from an ant with a mild cold was usually enough.

This pitch wasn’t nearly as bad as those. However, there was a significant difference back then. Too a large degree, players were used to such pitches – mainly because those they trained on were usually just as bad or even worse. These days, however, much has gone into ensuring that Premier League pitches reflect the standards of 2008 rather than 1978.

I understand that the problems with Wigan’s pitch started a couple of weeks ago following a botched use of a pitch cover. Whatever the reason, absolutely nothing seemed to have been done to restore the pitch to any semblance of good order with divots all over the pitch still remaining from the previous match. There must be a suspicion therefore that the lack of work done on the pitch was deliberate. The home side are not exactly noted for their passing game and the pitch gave them the opportunity to drag us down to their level. We fell for it.

We started the brighter of the teams dominating the first 20 minutes with lots of possession but without creating much in the way of chances. However, after a few passes got intercepted by the pitch the temptation to do it Wigan’s way became too strong and we started lumping it in the general direction of Ashton and Cole. Given that Wigan were doing exactly the same it became rapidly apparent why there were so many wide-open spaces all over the ground – the North Stand in particular looked to be under half-full. The reason is simple. Even at the bargain price of £15 a head to get in, even in a hole like Wigan, there has to be something better to do on a Saturday than watching the local football side.

The home side seemed to be relying on a “long punt and hope for a free-kick “ tactic. They were quite effective at the first part of the plan – though anyone who thinks Heskey is really worth an England place should really watch more international football. The second part of the plan also worked – thanks to the bewildering generosity of ref Atkinson who seemed keen to punish any perfectly legal challenge.

The most bizarre of these occurred when Ferdinand had his shirt pulled and escaped an attempted rugby tackle only to discover that it was all his fault and that he’d be punished as a result. Wigan’s closest effort came when a cleanly won header from Upson was similarly punished. Taylor’s free-kick went just wide.

Such was the paucity of real football on show that the most entertaining thing to happen came during a lengthy stoppage whilst Matty received what was to ultimately prove to be unsuccessful medical attention after being kicked all over the place by the defence. The few home supporters who had bothered to turn up started a chant pointing out that Green was not in the squad. This is true. Green pointed out in return that Wigan were going down. This is also probably true and the chavs’ reaction to something that had obviously come as news to them was hilarious.

So the game continued in similar vein - zero skill, zero entertainment. When the goal came it was fit to grace such a poor game. It consisted of terrible defending and a fluke. It started deep into stoppage time when Cole was harshly adjudged to have fouled just inside the away half. Ljungberg lost his man completely. There are two theories for this lapse. Firstly it has been suggested that Ljungberg was suffering from a lapse of concentration and didn’t pick up the run. I have another theory: Kilbane had simply been hiding out in one of the craters that covered the pitch.

Either way he was completely unmarked as he attempted to head the ball back across the goal. He made a mess of the header which then looped into the net at the unguarded far post. Wigan’s supporters waited for the requisite music to be played (as happens at all joke clubs) before celebrating the goal as if it had been the best they’d ever seen. Sadly, for them it probably was.

The second half was similar to the first. It started with a Mullins shot going way way over. Then, a mere two and a half minutes into the second period we were forced into our first substitution. Etherington had not recovered from the foot left in on him earlier and limped off to be replaced by Solano. This prompted a wholesale reshuffle with Ljungberg shifting over to the left to accommodate Nobby on the right. Sadly it wasn’t to have much of an effect. We were suckered in to long ball after long ball, which was simply playing into the hands of the home side. Some of the 5,000 strong away support were becoming understandably frustrated with the hoof and hope tactics and calls for Bellamy started long before the 67th minute that finally saw him introduced – though there were some that would have preferred Ashton to have been the one to make way rather than Cole.

Wigan were unfortunate not to double the lead with 20 minutes left. A Valencia shot from the edge of the box came off both posts before coming back into the grateful arms of Green. This was followed shortly after by the third and final substitution, Noble being replaced by Bowyer, Noble having appeared to have picked up a slight knock.

Bellamy had a decent chance to equalise when (yet another) long ball from the back was knocked on by Ljungberg. Bellamy’s high and wide finish showed a great degree of ring-rustiness. Bellamy then teed up Ljungberg but the Swede’s cross was high and wide, though the three or four bobbles the ball took before he made contact didn’t help much.

It was standard fare for the rest of the match. Melchiot took about 20 throws each one of which was foul (tip for officials – if one foot is raised off the floor it’s a foul throw, if one foot is over the line ditto. If you can’t spot those you are defrauding the public and should quit in favour of someone who can do the job properly). Atkinson then booked Bowyer who appeared to have done nothing more than taken the ball – refereeing the reputation and not the game as usual. Bent missed the easiest chance in the world when one on one with Green. Neill finally got fed up with all the play acting and picked up a yellow for asking if the ref intended doing anything about it and a horrible game petered out into a finish every bit as dull as the rest of the match had been.

It was disappointing to lose so tamely to a side as poor as Wigan were – if, as one of the chavs put it – “it was their best performance of the season” then they are in for a difficult few months. I’m not sure who I’d rather see relegated. In an ideal world Derby – whose supporters were magnificent when we did them 5-0 at their place – would stay up and both Reading and Wigan could stage their own muppet show in the championship. For Wigan, relegation is likely to be more of a problem. Without 5,000 visiting supporters on Saturday no part of the ground would have been anywhere near full. In the championship they would be looking at two men and a dog stuff – and given the type of entertainment on view the dog would probably go elsewhere.

Interestingly the last time the boss saw a pitch that bad it was Chelsea’s “sandheap” on which Charlton were beaten 4-1 a year or two ago. Chelsea received a Premier League fine for the state of their pitch. Perhaps that bastion of all that is fair and just in football, the price-fixing, wage cap breaking, child slave labourer and dodgy share dealer “honest” Dave Whelan would like to save everyone the time of a hearing by writing out a cheque to the authorities now. After al he does want to see that his lot do the right thing doesn’t he?!

Still at least the weather held off and my lift part way home (I’d done the London to Wigan trip by the seldom used “via Hampshire” route and scrounged a lift up) deposited me at Birmingham International station in perfect time to pick up a train which had obviously come from Wigan judging by the claret and blue on board.

Thanks to Trevor for the driving and to Alan and Katherine for the company. Oh and Mum for the rolls – though I think that she took the old “feeding of the 5,000” thing a little bit too literally!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Few saves to actually make though his positioning was a bit suspect for the goal. There again he’d have been perfectly placed if Kilbane had got his header right!


Lucas Neill
Hoofed it long too often and got wound up too easily by Brown’s habit of falling over without contact.


George McCartney
His distribution left a bit to be desired – though it hardly helped that Etherington was crocked and Ljungberg disappeared from sight on his side.


Anton Ferdinand
The improvement continued. In a game like this you need your central defenders to keep it simple and he did so. The pick of the bunch albeit on a poor day.


Matthew Upson
Did ok against the donkey-like Heskey, though again some uncertain distribution.


Hayden Mullins
Apparently the stats before this match gave him a completed pass rate of over 94%. I shudder to think what the stats are after, which just goes to show: 1) how bad the pitch was, 2) that Mullins was not at his best and 3) stats like this are a load of rubbish.


Mark Noble
Battled and battled but ultimately muscled out in the middle.


Freddie Ljungberg
Annoying. Had an early shot but failed to force the game on the right. Then, when moved over to the left to replace the injured Etherington, he played on the right, the centre in fact just about anywhere but on the left where he was supposed to be. Leaving Linda hopelessly exposed.


Matthew Etherington
Looked lively to start with but didn’t recover from the knock that ultimately curtailed his participation in the game.


Dean Ashton
Lumping it in his general direction is not a proper tactic. However you would hope for more in the way of effort.


Carlton Cole
Had a game which was, for the most part, equally as poor as Ashton’s, though if he lost the ball at least he tried to get the thing back.


Substitutes


Nobby Solano
(replaced Etherington, 48) Seemed to be affected by the pitch mre than most which meant his usual accurate crossing went out of the window.


Craig Bellamy
(replaced Cole, 68) Good to see him back though he ought to have done better with the chance that came his way.


Lee Bowyer
(replaced Noble, 73) Picked up a harsh booking, won some, lost some and never really stamped his authority on the match.


Richard Wright
Did not play.


Jonathan Spector
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: A.Wiley.

Attendance: 20,525.

Man of the Match: Anton Ferdinand.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Lucas Neill, George McCartney, Anton Ferdinand, Matthew Upson, Hayden Mullins, Mark Noble, Freddie Ljungberg, Matthew Etherington, Dean Ashton, Carlton Cole.

Goals: None.

Booked: Matthew Upson 39 Lee Bowyer 81 Lucas Neill 90      .

Sent Off: None sent off.     .

Wigan Athletic

Kirkland, Melchiot, Boyce, Scharner, Taylor, Kilbane, Valencia, Palacios, Brown, Heskey, King.

Substitutes: Bent (Heskey 57), Koumas (Taylor 84), Sibierski (King 90).

Subs not used: Pollitt, Bramble..

Goals: .

Booked: Taylor (11).

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: Anton Ferdinand


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