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Premier League
Saturday, 15th November 2008

West Ham United 0
Portsmouth 0

by Gordon Thrower


Nil-nil draws always leave one with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s often the football equivalent of going to a restaurant and leaving 90 minutes later without having had a meal…..more of which later.

This turned into a bit of a long weekend all in all. Those of you who have been reading this stuff for a few years will remember our old mate Maltese Hammer. We’ve kept in touch since his return to the George Cross island and we regularly discuss the vital issues of the day, such as capital punishment and why, in Ian’s opinion, it should be reintroduced for Julien Faubert. Usually at the end of such conversations I issue the standard invite over for a match with the promise of use of the Gnome sofa-bed should it be required.

Last month, just for once the invite was accepted – largely thanks to a well-known (if not particularly consumer friendly) airline’s introduction of a route between Malta and Luton. You know the sort of thing – as the old gag puts it: “in the event of a drop in cabin pressure oxygen masks will drop down – we accept sterling and Euros for the oxygen”. Which is why I found myself in the small hours of Saturday morning driving round the M25 joining in with a moan about the poor quality of Preview Percy’s match previews.

In honour of Maltese’s first visit for a good few years we agreed that an early start would be in order to avail ourselves of a full English breakfast at the historic Cassetari’s café. First though we stopped off at the club shop to stare in wonder at the marvel that is the latest must-have gadget - a claret and blue toaster that leaves part of the bread un-toasted so that the pattern reads “WHU”. I could probably think of at least 12 reasons why nobody would want such a device – not least of which amongst them would be the £40 price-tag. Yup that’s forty quid for a toaster that doesn’t toast all of the bread!

Following a pleasant number of beers in the company of Romford, who seemed to be intent on telling everyone within earshot that he was definitely not gay, we adjourned to the ground to receive the team news. Behrami was available for selection and came into the side at the expense of Faubert, much to Maltese’s joy. Cole returned from his ludicrous three-match suspension to see us line up in a 4-3-3 thus: Green, Neill, Ilunga,Upson, Collins, Parker. Collison, Behrami, Cole, Bellamy, Sears.

The first shock of the day preceded the match itself. What appeared to be a pre-recorded sample of a crowd chanting “Come On You Irons” came over the public address system. This either segued into, or possibly was part of, a track that commenced with a drum-pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has heard Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. It was several seconds – and about a third of the way through the song – before anyone realised that the vocals that were buried deep in the bowels of the mix were in fact singing “Bubbles”. Thus the crowd was robbed of its traditional pre-match f(v)ocal point as a result of somebody wanting to mess with tradition.

The pre-match, well shambles isn’t too strong a word or it, was compounded when the team line-ups were announced. There’s no reason why Matthew Upson should feel paranoid about his position in the team but, if he were prone to spells of self-doubt, his mood would not have been improved by the announcer’s omission of his name from the team sheet – though at least his picture appeared on the screen, something that resulted the appearance of an hilariously out of synch slide show. Those that used to moan about Jeremy Nicholas may wish to reconsider their position in the light of the performance of those who have replaced him.

As one might expect from the final scoreline, the early exchanges were not exactly overflowing with much in the way of chances. Ref Atkinson penalised Diarra for handball and, whilst everyone jogged back to get ready for the free-kick, Collins elected to take a run-up of fast bowler proportions before driving a 35-yard effort tamely along the ground into the box, an effort that was cleared easily. Of course, with Collins being involved he will probably claim that it wasn’t him and that he is the victim of mistaken identity.

Cole then got a header from a long angled cross from Parker that lacked power. Though James gathered easily his distribution placed the defence under pressure and sears did well to nip in and rob the defender to send in a cross that was clearly handled by Distin. Though the ball did come off the defender’s knee he had put his arm out and clearly controlled the ball preventing the cross from getting into the danger area. It is a particular irritation to me that many referees seem to think that there are two sets of Laws of the game – there apparently being an unpublished secret version that only applies to offences that take place within the penalty area. Atkinson had shown no hesitation in punishing Diarra for a similar infringement earlier on and the suspicion was, yet again, that had the offence occurred a few feet the other side of some white paint a free-kick would have been given. It should be noted that the ref was at the centre of Joe Kinnear’s “Mickey Mouse” rant last week, and my legal advisers inform me that I should leave it at that until the notoriously litigious people at the Disney Corporation decide whether or not they want to sue.

For the visitors, a roundly-booed Defoe then might have done better at the near post when getting in front of Collins, though thankfully the first-time effort went well wide. Another former Hammer was next to try his luck as Johnson cut in from the right and let fly with a drive that Green gathered only at the second attempt, something that was probably not the wisest of moves with Defoe sniffing about. Defoe then forced a corner on our left which was gathered easily by Green. A slightly scrappy exchange ensued with the useful looking Collison taking control before feeding sears on the right. Sears’ effort convinced neither as cross nor shot though the defensive clearance did have a mild element of panic about it.

Folowing another Pompey corner Collison brought the ball out of defence and, using a technique that appears to be a mystery to many professional players, he actually kept his feet after a foul challenge. Receiving the ball back from Bellamy the Welsh youngster – I wonder if he calls Collins “Dad”? – made a bit of space for himself before putting a 25-yard effort about 8 yards wide.

Crouch had been almost invisible throughout the first half – which takes some doing when you think about it. He did get on the end of a Collins header but screwed his shot well wide under pressure from Ilunga. Bellamy then caused a mild ripple when nearly getting on to the end of a through ball from Parker but James had anticipated the move and came out to make a comfortable gather.

Defoe then tried to make space but his shot was blocked and Neill did well to tidy up with Crouch lurking with intent. We survived a potentially beigger scare when Defoe once more made some room on the edge of the box. His shot was week and would have been an easy stop for Green but the ball clipped Ilunga on its way through and spun away for a corner with Green looking more than a little stranded.

We saw the first yellow of the day with five minutes of the half remaining as Behrami got the better of Pamarot only to fall foul of a rotten lunge from the former Spud that required lengthy treatment. It’s another irritation that, in such cases, the victim is penalised by having to go off following treatment whilst the perpetrator remains on the pitch. Bellamy took the free-kick deep but Collins and Neill at the back failed to communicate and the move ended up with Ginger Pele heading the ball away from the skipper. The last action of the half saw us defend a corner with Green punching clear after Papa Bouba Diop had headed goalwards. The header had painful repercussions for Ginge, the back of whose head also connected with Diop’s forehead and the defender spent the first part of the interval stretched out on the pitch whilst his team-mates were enjoying their half-time oranges or whatever pseudo-scientific isotonic stuff it is that players have at half-time these days.

Of course in our part of the ground the Kit-Kat reigns supreme as the interval confectionery of choice and a clearly hungover Upton Girlie had remembered to pack the chocolate, despite having obviously over-celebrated her 21st (yeah right) birthday the night before. Our matchday experience presentation team (as I expect they are called) managed to plumb new depths in an interview with Phil Parkes that took place under a big screen caption entitled “Alan Taylor”. (I suppose it is possible that that was the name of the interviewer but such was the presentational shambles I’d advise anyone involved that it might be a good idea to keep a lower profile in future).

The problem with 4-3-3 is that it can leave a side without much width and this had certainly been the case in the opening 45. It was therefore no surprise to see Matty Etherington warming up and doing stretching exercises. There were no captions on the big screen to accompany the winger’s warm-up routine which was just as well though there would have been some comedy value in seeing him listed as “The Archbishop of Canterbury” which is what would probably have happened.

At the restart Sears was the player sacrificed and, for a few moments, it was the subject of some debate as to whether Matty would reprise his 4-3-3 role or we would revert to 4-4-2. 4-4-2 (or as the announcers would have had it 3-4-2 what with Upson not being in the side) won the day.

The second half was a bit more lively than the first – just. Neill needlessly dived in on Defoe which gave the striker acres to run into. Using Collins as a shield Defoe shot but Green, who must have seen the ball fairly late, reacted excellently to tip the ball over. The defence went to sleep for the corner, which was taken short to Belhadj. Thankfully the resulting shot was terrible, resulting in possibly a net loss of yardage, as I believe our US cousins like to refer to such things.

Green had to be on his toes soon after, Cole, who looked to have been fouled, lost out and a long ball from the back was well controlled by Defoe who flicked the ball in the air goalwards. Green, who had come a little too far out for my liking, just managed to get fingertips to the ball and Collins was able to mop the ball up and save the corner. It was a good save but it was one I reckon that was made unnecessarily more difficult by the ‘keeper’s positioning. There again what do I know – I thought Alan Taylor was a striker not a ‘keeper.

Cole then held the ball up well and fed Bellamy but the Welshman scuffed his shot harmlessly towards James’ whose save was, as a result, barely worthy of the word. We then came closest to a goal of our own. Behrami, who had a decent match, robbed a visitor in midfield and embarked on a dribble that saw him upended on the edge of the box. Bellamy curled the free-kick onto the bar and, had the effort been an inch or two lower, James despairing dive would not have kept it out. The rebound fell to Collison who did well to keep down a first time volley but James had recovered and was well-placed to make the follow-up save.

We then forced a couple of corners from which, as usual, nothing came, though James’ handling on the second one looked a little suspect. Our second change then took place and it was a bit of a weird one. Ilunga didn’t seem to be too troubled by injury but clearly felt unable to continue and was replaced by Faubert, prompting a text from the Maltese one which simply read “Oh joy”. From the tone of our previous conversations on the merits of Faubert I have a suspicion that the text may have been ironic in nature. The change meant a move by Neill from right to left-back and Faubert going over to the right.

Etherington then saw his marker fall over at a throw-in and took advantage by running into space and pulling the ball back to Bellamy whose shot was high and wide. Etherington and collision then combined to feed Parker who made space well but couldn’t keep the shot down.

Behrami then forced Distin into conceding a corner which, yet again was far too deep to be of use. Pompey broke and fed Defoe who had only Faubert for company. Defoe’s shot was awful though and bobbled nicely into the grateful arms of Green. With 15 left Parker was replaced by Mullins – clearly Zola wasn’t going to repeat the previous week’s error that saw the change come far too late. Behrami then won another free-kick in similar territory to that from which Bellamy had hit the bar. James came out and made a mess of the cross but, obeying that secret copy of the Laws of the game that the general (paying) public are not allowed to see, the ref gave a foul for Upson’s, er, well, not so much a challenge as more for being the player nearest to a goalkeeper when he messes up in the six-yard box. Suffice to say that had an outfield player made similar contact with Upson elsewhere on the pitch he’d have been awarded the free-kick.

We won a further corner after a run down the right but again nothing came of it and the ball eventually ended up with Kanu who once more played a long ball out to Defoe who was one on one with Upson. Upson forced the striker wide but he still got a shot in which brought another fine save from Green who spread himself well to save with his legs. Green then claimed the corner well under pressure.

Up the other end Upson then got on the end of an Etherington corner but could get no direction on the corner. Etherington then decided to finally take on Johnson and did him for pace. Johnson’s cynical barge was worthy of a yellow card but none came, though the Disney Corporation’s lawyers were by this point in the match contemplating a bumper crop of fees from anyone unwise enough to mention a certain cartoon rodent. Etherington’s free-kick saw james come and get absolutely nowhere near the ball – Capello having unfortunately left early to avoid the queues at the tube. Etherington then got an attempted volley horribly wrong and his air shot resembled that of Mullins up at Boro’ – though sadly without the same result.

That was about it as far as the match was concerned. We adjourned for a beer and Plan A had been for the Maltese one and I to meet the lovely girlfriend for a bite to eat. However, and bless her it was probably diplomatic, she developed a bit of a headache thus allowing us to have a few beers on something of a boys’ night out. This pleased Romford no end since he’d been contemplating joining us for a bite in Greenwich, something that would have involved crossing the river. Several ales later- having laughed ourselves hoarse at the footage of Gomes in the Spurs goal- we decided to get a cab to Stratford. Romford was in fine form getting involved in a bizarrely one-sided conversation with a cab driver from Afghanistan. How much of the conversation the poor cabbie understood is open to debate but Romford’s valuable insight into the local geopolitical situation may have lacked a certain subtlety “Romford’s a bit like Afghanistan – some nights it’s like war but we haven’t got around to sending in the Marines just yet.”

After a swift pint in Stratford we found the Indian restaurant that had been recommended to us only to discover that we’d have to wait for 90 minutes for some food. Undeterred we adjourned to a Thai restaurant in Maryland and ordered a set meal. Now I’m not an expert on the restaurant trade but I’d have thought that Set Meal A for 3 would have been just about the easiest order of the night – especially as the place wasn’t exactly heaving – though two couples did arrive after us. We know this because over the course of the next 75 minutes we saw them served with their starter and main courses whilst we had received only a plate of over-hard prawn crackers. Eventually we gave up and walked out. There’s only so much time you can wait for grub when starving and our complaint at the lack of service met with undisguised indifference so we upped sticks and went back to the original restaurant that welcomed us like long-lost brothers, so much so that we did the usual trick of ordering far too much food though what we had was excellent – so hats off to the Himalaya and thumbs down to the Thai!

As for the football, well given that we’re a club not exactly noted for participating in 0-0 draws it’s a statistical quirk that Maltese Hammer has seen so many of the bloody things – when he lived here a few years ago it seemed like every match he saw ended up scoreless. It was good, of course, to get a clean sheet at last – though we did need Green to be awake to ensure that the points were shared. Up front we didn’t look quite as dangerous as we had done in recent weeks though – and I lost count of the number of potentially killer final balls that didn’t have quite enough on them to set up more clear cut chances. Having said that a draw was the right result in this case and I’ve long been of the theory that we need to draw a few more games that we might otherwise have lost – it always seems to be win or lose with us. One thing’s for sure though – we’ll need to start picking up a win or two sooner rather than later given the fact that the danger zone is something like 10 clubs large at the moment!

Finally big cheers to Maltese Hammer and Romford for the company beers and food (eventually!) – Maltese mate – we’ll call you back later in the season if we need a 0-0 to qualify for Europe – or stay up!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Made a number of decent saves – though his handling let him down a bit early on.


Lucas Neill
Did ok at both right and, eventually left back when forced to move by Cheri’s injury.


Herita Ilunga
Not as impressive going forward as he has been of late but sound enough defensively. Not sure how serious the knock was.


James Collins
Same as Upson. Kept Crouch quiet. Had a battle to keep up with Defoe.


Matthew Upson
Looked ok against the ineffective Crouch. Defoe’s pace caused problems though.


Scott Parker
Tried to run the midfield but the final ball was lacking – at least he was replaced on time this week.


Jack Collison
Another good run out for the lad who continues to impress. In the unlikely event that we ever get a fully injury-free squad it’ll be interesting to see where he lies in the pecking order.


Valon Behrami
Got some good bursts in and his runs often ended up with us gaining free-kicks in decent positions. If only we could make more of them count.


Fred Sears
It wasn’t quite working for Freddie out there in the first half though his pace caused an occasional problem.


Carlton Cole
Failed to cause too many problems for the Pompey defence – I expected him to look a little hungrier after his enforced absence.


Craig Bellamy
The free-kick aside he failed to show what he can do. Badly needs a goal.


Substitutes


Matthew Etherington
(replaced Sears, 46) Failed to take on the full back when he should have. Did so when he shouldn’t have. Ignored when he should have been fed. Played in when he shouldn’t have been. Gave the ball away too much.


Julien Faubert
(replaced Ilunga, 61) An improvement on his nightmare of the previous week. Glad he wasn’t exposed to Defoe for much longer though.


Hayden Mullins
(Replaced Parker, 75) Did his usual defensive shore-up job in the last 15.


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Calum Davenport
Did not play.


Lee Bowyer
Did not play.


David Di Michele
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Martin Atkinson.

Attendance: 32,328.

Man of the Match: Robert Green.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Lucas Neill, Herita Ilunga, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Jack Collison, Valon Behrami, Fred Sears, Carlton Cole, Craig Bellamy.

Goals: None.

Booked: None booked.           .

Sent off: None.

Portsmouth

James, Johnson, Kaboul, Distin, Pamarot, Diop, Davis, Diarra, Belhadj, Crouch, Defoe.

Substitutes: Traore (Diarra 19), Kanu (Crouch 75).

Subs not used: Ashdown, Hreidarsson, Nugent, Hughes, Mvuemba.

Goals: .

Booked: .

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: Robert Green