Monday, 17th March 2008
It’s been clear from observing all the various debates on our recent form this week that your definition of the word “crisis” will depend on your starting point of view. Fans of Alan Curbishley hearing the word would point to the fact that, despite the ridiculously long injury list, we are comfortably numb in 10th position and well away from the dogfight at the bottom. Those in the anti-Curbishley camp would point to three 4-0 defeats on the trot amidst some fairly uninspiring football as being fairly representative of crisis status.
The Old Etonian Cobbold family who ran Ipswich Town when they were good once memorably described a crisis as being “when the boardroom runs out of white wine” and similarly I was most put out when my pre-match breakfast with messrs Bonehead and Goes To Eleven arrived without black pudding. Worse was to come with the announcement that all the ales were off whilst they cleaned out the pipes. Not wanting to risk a mouth full of cleaning fluid (I find most pubs sell lager if I want that particular experience), we solved the problem by popping out to another hostelry, that part of town being particularly well off for decent pubs. Crisis over.
Meanwhile, injury news was that the “surprise return” of Matthew Upson from his recent knock failed to materialise. The paucity of defensive resources meant that Spector was required to partner Ferdinand with James Tomkins appearing on the bench as cover. Also on the bench was a young chap by the name of Sears, about whom I may write a line or two later in the report. This left the starting line-up as Green, Neill, McCartney, Ferdinand, Spector, Parker, Mullins, Ljungberg, Solano, Ashton, Zamora.
Unsurprisingly, given the events of recent weeks, we took a while to settle down, especially in defence. Ljungberg was unlucky to lose his footing having tracked back and Blackburn forced an early corner. Santa Cruz lost Ferdinand but the ball eluded the final touch needed for conversion. Our first meaningful effort came in the 4th minute when a defender climbed all over Zamora. Solano’s free-kick curled in only for Ashton to take a complete air-shot with the ball running out for a goal kick.
Bentley then gained a free-kick out left which Green gathered somewhat uncertainly. More worrying was the ease with which the Blackburn forward line were losing their markers. We immediately broke forward again and Solano’s clever through ball found Ljungberg whose low cross was cut out by Friedel. Ljungberg then forced a corner that was perhaps a better result than was deserved of Mullins’ slack ball into the corner. Solano’s delivery found Ashton whose effort was blocked for another corner which was dealt with comfortably.
Blackburn then might have taken the lead in what was to be an omen for what was to come. Mullins clever turn enabled him to push forward but his pass out wide was telegraphed. Bentley tracked back well and sent Emerton away and we were slow to track back. Emerton’s cross to the far post found Pedersen unmarked at the back but thankfully he got under the ball to head high and wide. As if to underline the defensive frailty that we are suffering from at present Samba was then given a free header by Spector from a corner that again went over. Corners were worrying me at this point – Blackburn’s delivery was excellent and our marking was not tight enough.
Well the warning that we might get caught on the break went unheeded. Solano played a nice ball out of defence to Parker who went on a fine run. Fine, that is, until the final ball, which was easily cut out. This was bad news as everyone had stormed up the pitch in support of the attack. Neill in particular was a long way out of position. And Bentley played a cross-field ball to Pedersen who was in acres (or should that be hectares these days) of space. Spector was drawn out wide to deal with Pedersen but never looked anywhere near getting close enough to deal with the cross which was well dispatched past the helpless Green by Santa Cruz who was making full use of the space vacated by Spector.
During the build up, in particular at the point of Bentley’s pass to Pedersen, Santa Cruz had been about 10 yards offside and, given the fact that he ended up scoring, it’s fair to say that he gained an advantage from being in that position. However, these days it’s all about “phases” and, had he been given offside at the time the ball was played (which is the only time that matters), Blackburn would have rightly had cause to moan that he hadn’t been active. Given the “guidance” given to referees these days, allowing the goal to stand was the correct decision – though that doesn’t stop me wanting to scream every time FIFA issue another one of their “guidance notes” which only ever serve to over complicate matters.
On 22 minutes we saw the first yellow card of the day. Parker just beat Bentley to the ball and ended up on the deck as a result. A foul certainly, but the yellow looked a bit harsh from my angle. Perhaps ref Atkinson was trying to make up for the previous week when he had upset Fergie so much – admittedly something that isn’t in itself a bad thing. The resulting free-kick eventually fell to Parker whose well-wide first-time effort failed to trouble Friedel.
Zamora then got in a cross for Ashton, who seemed as surprised as the rest of us that Samba had failed to cut it out. Ashton’s header was firm and downward but was probably heading wide even before Friedel took the precaution of tipping it round the post for the corner.
Then came an unusual free-kick. Bentley twisted and turned about 30 yards out, lost his footing and fell on the ball, handling it as he did so. Parker took a quick free-kick but was pulled back for no readily apparent reason by the ref. The kick had been taken from the spot where the foul had occurred so there was no reason why play couldn’t continue other than the fact that the ref didn’t want it to. Strange refereeing. Solano’s free-kick, when it finally came, looked to be dipping under but was turned over by Friedel. Bentley’s attempted clearance from the resulting corner was horribly sliced and could have gone anywhere rather than out for another corner, from which nothing came.
Dunn was next into the book for a sliding lunge that seemed to take Solano’s standing foot. That this challenge was worthy of the same punishment as Bentley’s earlier innocuous effort probably says a lot about refereeing standards in this country. Still at least the free-kick proved to be productive.
Green launched the ball forward, Zamora got the flick on to Ashton whose clever flick got him goal side of Samba. Escaping what appeared to be a tug back, Ashton latched on to the ball and sent an exquisite finish over the advancing Friedel to level the scores. This caused those of us who have endured the last few weeks some confusion as we tried to remember what exactly it was we were supposed to do to celebrate a goal. In the end we settled for some undignified jumping up and down – it all came back to us in the end. Dunn and Samba were less than happy – Dunn giving Samba a hard time and Samba responding in kind leading to a bit of a shoving match that the big screen replays managed to cleverly avoid showing by the use of clever editing.
We survived a final scare of the half when Atkinson inexplicably punished Solano for, er, no I give up. I haven’t the faintest idea what the free-kick was for. I wonder if the ref might like to compare it with the challenge he allowed against Ronaldo last week and tell us which one was really a foul. The resulting free-kick was hit too deep but not before a number of players lost their markers. There was just time for Ashton to nod a long throw to the back post for Friedel to gather before the interval intervened.
The half time interval was spoilt by a penalty shoot out competition. Not by the kids themselves (bless ‘em) but by the chap doing the commentary. I don’t have an issue with what he may or may not have been saying, only with the fact that the radio mike feed into the PA system was using a channel on which the volume had been turned up to Spinal Tap’s eleven setting. Jeremy mate when you hand over the mike to someone could you at least try to make sure they don’t shout into it!
Once our eardrums had stopped bleeding the second half commenced. The first proper chance fell to Blackburn who took a quick throw-in. Roberts was allowed time and space to turn and his low cross from the right was deflected out to the unmarked Pedersen who probably had enough time to d a lot better than the skied effort over the bar that followed. This was a let-off.
Zamora broke down the left but his cross was just too long for Ashton who couldn’t prevent the ball from going out for a throw. Card three for the day soon followed as Reid scythed through Ljungberg with a two footed lunge to end a promising break.
On 75 minutes we then made the double substitution that was to have a telling impact on the game. Parker, who had shown signs of tiring, was replaced by Noble whilst Solano, who had tried hard with little success, was replaced by Freddie Sears for the youngster’s debut. Traditionally on these occasions I usually whisper a “good luck son” under my breath. It worked! The effect wasn’t quite immediate as Bentley forced a corner. Again the marking wasn’t the greatest as Green eventually gathered. Tactically, the switch meant a withdrawal back to left midfield for Zamora as Ljugberg was swapped over to the right side that he’d spent much of the match drifting in the general direction of anyway.
Now we all want a youngster to do well and the cheers Sears received on entering the pitch were more than ample evidence of this. The youngster instantly endeared himself to the crowd with a spot of chasing down to block a Reid clearance. This wasn’t a one-off either as he harried and chased throughout the period he was on the pitch. He didn’t appear overawed by the occasion either – taking on defenders in the box to force a corner on 77 minutes. Noble’s corner was cleared easily and Mullins was possibly lucky to escape further sanction for his sly tug on the breaking Roberts. Ferdinand wasn’t so lucky when moaning to the linesman about Roberts equally sly tug and ended up in the book.
So then to the moment that one young lad will remember for the rest of his life. Neill dispossessed the Blackburn midfield and played a fine ball into the box for Ashton who held the ball up well before playing a superb back-heel into the path of Sears. The youngster’s first shot was parried by Friedel but came up invitingly for Sears to put home a diving header. If his arrival had woken up the crowd the goal set them into ecstasy. Let’s face it we were all as proud as punch and made up for the lad. I’ve just seen photos of Sir Trevor taken at that point and his smile said it all. To me it always feels like they count double when one of the lads coming through the academy scores. To do it on debut with so much expectation on your head makes it just that little bit extra special.
There were still 9 minutes left though and in that time we could equally have increased or lost the lead. Mullins’ clever through ball found Ashton bearing down on goal but his spectacular effort had the power, but not quite the direction required to put the game beyond doubt. This was followed by a mix-up between Neill and Ferdinand, who failed to deal with a bouncing ball, allowing Roberts a clear shot at goal. Green’s save was superb and, in it’s own way, was every bit as much of a match-winner as Sears’ goal had been.
Sears once more took centre stage. Picking up the ball just in the Blackburn half he went on a surging run down the middle ending up with a shot that lacked a bit of power and was pulled just wide. The goal kick gave the opportunity for the other Freddie to be replaced by Pantsil to give the midfield a more defensive outlook for the last few minutes. Ferdinand’s air shot put Derbyshire through but the shot at Green – if that is what it was supposed to be – was just embarrassing all round.
And that was about it. Last week as I got drenched on my way from the station to Sp*rs I was wondering why it was I put myself through all this every week. Indeed such comments had been the subject of our black pudding-less breakfast conversations only a few hours earlier. Then you see a young Hammer score on debut and it gives you such a lift that you wondered why you were ever fed-up in the first place.
Looking at the overall performance in the cold light of day there were still a few areas of concern. These principally related to the defence where Upson’s stability was sorely missed – particularly by Ferdinand. The left side of midfield also concerns me. I understand why Ljungberg is picked for that position when Solano starts but I’m not sure he does, displaying, as he does, a worrying tendency to drift further and further right. This is all very well if it supports the attack going forward but it does often leave Linda without an outlet or support.
Still at the end of the day the win was a welcome respite from the trials and tribulations of recent weeks and the manner in which the victory came about has given everyone a big lift. Even the lovely girlfriend feigned interest when I got home. For a bit!
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An uncertain start but more than redeemed himself with a fine save at the end.
Better than of late but there were still some worrying moments – such as the way he was caught out of position for the Blackburn goal.
Decent outing – especially so when you consider the lack of support he had on his side on occasion.
Struggles without Upson and was given a torrid time by Santa Cruz & co.
Did ok without ever quite looking like he ought to be considered a first choice pick in that position.
Steady enough. One nice through ball late on.
Another decent run out, though he looked knackered by the end.
Infuriating. There were little signs now and then of what he can do but all too often he would go missing from the left hand side where he was needed most, thus giving us a lack of width when we were desperately crying out for it.
Tried hard enough but not much went right for him. Unusually for him he displayed a tendency to over-hit his crosses. Good free-kick in the first half though.
Rarely looked like scoring but played a decent part in the build up play. Spent the latter period of the match in midfield and probably saw more of the left hand touchline in 15 minutes than Ljungberg saw in 75.
Sears will grab the headlines but Deano was my MOTM. Worked his socks off with his chasing and caused Blackburn no end of problems. Took his goal superbly and played a major part in the winner. A welcome return to form.
(replaced Parker, 76) Continued where Parker had left off
(replaced Solano, 76) Played as they say “without fear.” Full of running and chasing and the goal displayed both intelligence and instinct. More importantly, he appears to be the sort of striker we’ve been missing of late with Bellamy’s absence. Well done son!
(replaced Ljungberg, 85) Not really on long enough to make much of an impression.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Man of the Match: Dean Ashton.
West Ham United
Robert Green, Lucas Neill, George McCartney, Anton Ferdinand, Jonathan Spector, Hayden Mullins, Scott Parker, Freddie Ljungberg, Nobby Solano, Bobby Zamora, Dean Ashton.
Sent off: None.
Friedel, Emerton, Samba, Ooijer, Warnock, Bentley, Reid, Dunn, Pedersen, Roberts, Santa Cruz.
Substitutes: Khizanishvili (Emerton 46), Derbyshire (Dunn 71), McCarthy (Pedersen 89).
Subs not used: Brown, Mokoena.
Goals: Santa Cruz (19).
Booked: Bentley, Dunn, Reid.
Sent Off: None sent off..