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Premier League
Sunday, 28th December 2008

West Ham United 2
Stoke City 1

by Gordon Thrower


Strange one this. And flipping cold as well!

Traditionally we’ve never been at our best over the festive period and certainly six points over the holiday season have been something of a rarity if memory serves correct (though I expect a more reliable look at the Christmas stats disprove the theory). However, despite the perceived unlikelihood of winning two on the trot, I felt optimistic for this one. This was despite the changes to the team that had stuck four past Portsmouth on Boxing Day. Skipper Neill’s ankle that saw him miss the second half at Fratton Park had failed to heal, Bellamy Noble and Davenport were all absent for differing reasons meaning a return to the back four for Collins and a rare start for Boa-Morte in an unfamiliar central role. Starting line-up: Green, Faubert, Ilunga, Collins, Upson, Collison, Berami, Parker, Boa-Morte, Di Michele, Cole.

It wasn’t the brightest of starts – even though we were treated to the incredibly rare sight of Delap taking a shot throw. Fuller made some space on the left before putting a shot past the far post. After a lengthy delay – one of many in the match – whilst a player received treatment having been caught late by LBM in the build-up, the corner came across and Ginger Pele made a complete hash of the marking job and Fuller’s header in at the far post was so simple it didn’t even require a jump. 1-0 down in 4 minutes.

We should have equalised almost immediately. Some good work by Collison down the left ended with a clever low cross curled in with the outside of the youngster’s boot. Cole, however, snatched at the chance and put it wide without testong the ‘keeper.

Then the time wasting started. Yes after as few as 4 minutes. Delap’s throws have long been notorious for the length of time taken to execute – I timed a few out of boredom and they average half a minute each. However, his colleagues were scarcely more hurried. Sorenson in goal was particularly tardy – every gather being accompanied by his throwing himself to the floor and rolling around as if he’d made the save of the season, though doing so when retrieving the ball from the ball boys was really taking the mickey. The ref wasn’t helping matters much. Mr Jones, in his first season as part of the ludicrously-named “Select Group” did little to suggest that he’d ever done more than given a passing glance at the laws of the game, as evidenced by the mysterious caution given to Cole for, well you tell me.

We created a number of chances over the next half hour or so. Faubert delivered a rare accurate cross from the right but Cole got underneath the hearder. Upson put a corner from the left wide. Another Cole header that was seemingly goalbound with DiMichele hovering about at the far post to make sure was hooked away by Higginbotham. Some fine work down the left by Cheri was spoilt when his low cross eluded everyone. And all the while time ticked away with the visitors encouraged by Mr Jones’ complete lack of urgency. It was clear that they’d come wit the express intention of taking a point back up to the Potteries with anything else being a bonus. Only at Delap’s throw-ins did there appear to be any urgency and, having recovered from his blip for the goal, Ginge returned to better form, dealing with the aerial onslaught.

As the time-wasting reached Chinese Democracy proportions so the frustration increased for both players and supporters. Behrami caught Pugh inches from the touchline. Yes, a foul and yes the player may have required treatment but, having established that it wasn’t that serious, referees are instructed to ensure that the player is removed from the field of play to allow play to continue. Clearly this part of the Laws was one that Mr Jones had by-passed during his brief skim through the chart. Boa-Morte’s reminder to the ref, whilst helpful, was potentially stupid in that he already had a yellow though Mr Jones’ insistence on calling Upson over for a word in his capacity as skipper was a touch melodramatic.

Stoke came closest to troubling Green through a deflection that put one in mind of Villa’s streaky winner a couple of weeks back. Higginbotham got a shot in that was partially blocked and looped up menacingly. However Green was alive to the danger and gathered safely. Despite the optimistic shouts from the away support the ball didn’t get anywhere near the line.

Half time came with boos from the home support largely directed at the visitors for their tactics and the referee for his ineptitude. Still we at least had the consolation of birthday cake in honour of young Tomas achieving double figures, even if the sparklers did take as long to light as Sorenson took in taking a goal-kick. However, in what felt like sub-zero temperatures, I’ll admit a certain amount of regret that the idea of having a birthday Madras never caught on.

Despite my pre-match optimism I’ll admit to some concern at the interval – though there had been attempts to impose some football on the match, there were signs that we were in danger of being dragged down into some sort of long ball contest. Clearly, Zola and Clarke had some work to do in the interval to ensure that this did not happen. However, nothing could have prepared either players or spectators or what was to follow.

The second half started as the first had ended, with us pressing forward and them taking longer than ever to restart the game. Mr Jones continued to encourage the time-wasting through his inactivity. His positioning was also giving cause for concern, with him getting in the way a number of times, even blocking a pass to set up a Stoke attack on one occasion. Clearly the spirit of Norman Wisdom lives on – and, as with the late comedian, few people outside Albania were actually laughing.

The match was beginning to have a “one of those days” look about it as Cole had a couple of shots blocked but, on 51 minutes the world took a strange dip into one of those weird parallel dimensions much-beloved of sci-fi writers when they are too lazy to think of a proper explanation for something they wrote earlier in the book. Cole muscled his way into the box but appeared to have lost control of the ball. However Griffin, presumably confused by the half-time instruction to “waste more time,” dallied on the ball allowing Cole’s sheer bloody-mindedness to win it back. Cole’s swivel and curled shot on the turn from 12 yards were superb and you had to feel pleased for the much-maligned striker who has come in for a hell of a lot of stick in recent weeks – not all of it deserved by any means.

Then it got really funny. I’ve been watching professional football for about 40 years now and I’ve seen most things. I’ve even seen Chalks buy a round. However, I’ve never been present to see a player get sent off for fighting with a team-mate, until today. As the players gathered for the restart, Fuller turned around and walked towards Griffin to give him a piece of his mind, despite his not having shown any signs of having that much to spare. Fuller strode menacingly towards his foe showing all the intent of someone who meant to “settle this once and for all”. Sensing the danger, a Stoke player bravely placed himself between Fuller and his skipper but this was not enough to deter Fuller who reached round and delivered the girliest of girly slaps to the cheek. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a football pitch – oth funny peculiar and Funny Ha Ha. Mr Jones, who, as you may gather, had hitherto shown every sign of having won his position on the Select Group on some sort of reality show (“Britain’s Got Idiots”?), had absolutely no choice but to dismiss Fuller, much to the amusement of all present, with the possible exception of his team-mates and certainly his manager. Griffin lasted a further five minutes or so before being withdrawn to the helpful advice from the crowd that Fuller was waiting for him in the changing room. Possibly wisely, Griffin elected to spend the remainder of the match watching from the racing car seats.

Well if Stoke had been playing for time up to that point, what we had seen was nothing to what was to follow. Sorenson took over a minute to complete one goal-kick and some of us grew beards waiting for Delap to retrieve, drop, clean, polish, drop again, clean polish and finally throw the ball onto Collins’ head. We pressed forward, though it was frustrating to see a lack of width on occasion. I know from the sides it’s easy to see the space but given the numerical superiority that Fuller’s mad moment had caused one would have hoped that the players might have had the intelligence to utilise the extra space. Cheri bombed forward time and time again but often had nobody ahead of him in support.

In the end, DiMichele, who had been as guilty as anyone of not looking wide, was pulled out to the left where his team-mates continued to ignore him in favour of the more congested shipping lanes down the middle. Stoke’s ambition by this point had been reduced to hoofing it as far as possible though the penny finally dropped for Mr Jones after 65 minutes when the won a throw in front of the Chicken Run. Higginbotham, in retrieving the ball, seemed to remember an old war wound and collapsed holding his leg. As if by magic the wound healed itself and he recovered to receive what was, astoundingly, the only yellow card for time-wasting in the match.

We nearly took the lead on 68 minutes. LBM’s run into the box ended with a shot that was only half saved by Sorenson. The ball trickled agonisingly towards goal only for Higginbotham to clear off the line. We should then have had a penalty. A corner from the left was headed back by a defender finding Parker on the goal line. The challenge was chest high and, even in rugby, would have resulted in a penalty and a card. It might have been given by Mr Jones had he actually been looking at the incident instead of apparently waving to a close personal friend in the crowd. Christmas has come and gone and we still have received no penalties – an amazing feat when you look at those given against us in the same period and yes I’m looking at you Mr Diving Cheat Crouch.

With 15 left Zola rang the changes and Parker and Collison were withdrawn in favour of Mullins and Tristan respectively. LBM moved out to the left with DiMichele moving back inside to give three up front. We pushed forward with wave after wave being blocked or saved by Sorenson – who continued to annoy with his antics. With a few minutes left, Zola was preparing to throw on Sears for a last throw of the dice. However Cole found himself in space 12 yards out and his low shot was deflected past Sorenson by Tristan, who knew little of the finish. Complaints about offside were unfounded with Tristan being level at the time of Cole’s shot.

The Sears transfer was put on hold and Spector replaced DiMichele instead. Of course now Sorenson seemed to be in a hurry. Every free-kick was characterised by a flurry of speed, accompanied by ironic cheers from the home support . Despite Sorenson coming up for a late corner we saw out the 4 minutes of added time (which could have been a lot more) with little discomfort and points 4,5 and 6 for the weekend were in the bag.

The win was deserved – we were the better team and certainly the only one trying to play anything resembling football over the 90 minutes. There were occasions when we did make hard work of it I suppose but when a team comes to the Boleyn with the sole intention of cutting down the playing time to the barest of minima it was always going to be tough. Just for once justice was served an we finish the year in 10th place where we spent so much of the year. As the vultures hover around the carcass of BG’s business empire we’ll need to keep hold of the likes of Bellamy though and it is to be hoped that the assurances given to Zola are slightly more watertight than those apparently given to his predecessor. Past experience suggests that this may not be the cast – I just hope I’m wrong in that respect.

Happy new year – I hope!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
A spectator for most of the match – was probably as cold as I was. Did what he had to do without fuss.


Julien Faubert
Defensively not given much to do. Going forward he got into some good positions but boy does he need lessons in how to cross a ball.


Herita Ilunga
An easy afternoon at the back but when we were going forward he lacked support from the midfield. All too often he was given the ball with nobody alongside to provide extra width.


James Collins
At fault big time for the goal when he left Fuller unattended. Otherwise coped well with Delap’s throws.


Matthew Upson
The expected aerial onslaught didn’t materialise and he coped well with what little came his way.


Scott Parker
Gave the ball away a bit too much for my liking before his replacement by Mullins late on.


Jack Collison
Got through a lot of running before being sacrificed as we searched for the winner.


Valon Behrami
Tireless. Didn’t stop running all day.


Luis Boa Morte
Swapped between the centre of midfield and wide left. Did ok without really dominating. Needs to cut down on the silly tackles though.


Carlton Cole
Some of the stick he’s got of late has been ridiculous – one bloke near me had a go when a defender got a brilliant block on him. He missed harder chances than the one it took, it has to be said, and there are times when he could make more of an effort in chasing down defenders. The goal was excellent though.


David Di Michele
Ran around a lot to little effect. Will hopefully only ever be a deputy for Bellamy.


Substitutes


Diego Tristan
(replaced Collison, 77) So he does exist! The goal was streaky but they all count.


Hayden Mullins
(replaced Parker, 77) Came in for the tiring Parker and did his usual job.


Jonathan Spector
(replaced Di Michele, 89) Came on at the death with little time to influence matters.


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Bondz N'Gala
Did not play.


Lee Bowyer
Did not play.


Fred Sears
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Michael Jones.

Attendance: 34,477.

Man of the Match: Valon Behrami.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Julien Faubert, Herita Ilunga, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Jack Collison, Valon Behrami, Luis Boa Morte, Carlton Cole, David Di Michele.

Goals: Carlton Cole 51 Diego Tristan 88                .

Booked: Carlton Cole 23 Luis Boa Morte 32 David Di Michele 36      .

Sent off: None.

Stoke City

Sorensen, Griffin, Abdoulaye Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Delap, Olofinjana, Whelan, Pugh, Cresswell, Fuller.

Substitutes: Pericard (Pugh 53), Davies (Griffin 58).

Subs not used: Simonsen, Lawrence, Soares, Tonge, Sonko.

Goals: Faye (5).

Booked: Olofinjana (45), Higginbotham (65), Faye (73).

Sent Off: Fuller (54).

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: Valon Behrami