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FA Cup
Saturday, 14th February 2009

West Ham United 1
Middlesbrough 1

by Gordon Thrower


This was a match that saw us out of sorts - but not out of the cup.

Pre-match, the usual suspects were in good form at the watering-hole and the mood was optimistic as we anticipated a run-out against opposition whose form has left a lot to be desired over the past few months. It was left to Romford to voice the nagging, unspoken thought that was at the back of every Hammer’s mind: “everything’s TOO perfect”. It was like that bit in every crap movie when the veteran cop – who is often just about to retire- is on a stake out and utters the words “I don’t like it – it’s too quiet”. This of course the precursor for everything to go pear-shaped ending up with the cop being given 48 hours or he’s off the case.

Nagging thoughts aside the mood was still optimistic as the team news came through. GZ had resisted the temptation to give starts to some of the fringe/newer players as he had done in the previous two rounds of the cup. This meant a first Cup match for Matthew Upson, for whom Tomkins had deputised against Barnslet and Hartlepool. The one enforced change from the starting XI from the Man Utd match was the replacement of Behrami, suffering from a hamstring strain, by the ever popular Boa-Morte, which left us lining up as follows: Green, Neill, Ilunga, Upson, Collins, Parker, Noble, Collison, Boa-Morte, Cole, DiMichele.

The first indication that we might not be operating at 100% efficiency came in the opening few moments as Collison misplaced a pass from which a potential goal-scoring opportunity for the visitors was spurned. Unfortunatey it was not the last pass to go astray in the afternoon as we managed to try to create chances for the visitors. A Downing cross was only half cleared to Johnson who thankfully put his shot well wide. Downing himself had an effort go not quite so wide on 10 minutes as we struggled to string anything together.

Eventually we settled down, sort of, and we had a spell of dominance during which a number of good chances were created and spurned, though our failure to score had as much to do with decent goalkeeping as it did with our own profligacy with Jones saving particularly well from a Collins effort from distance.

So with us playing something approaching football and beginning to settle into something approaching dominance, we got to that spot in the cop movie where things go pear-shaped. O’Neil on the right stuck in a harmless-looking curling ball into the box. The bounce deceived Ginge and the ball sat up for Downing to stoop to put us one down against the run of play. There was a bit of cheering from the small Boro’ support that was, as has been the case when we have conceded in recent weeks, drowned out by an immediate rendition of Bubbles. This was surely to be a minor setback wasn’t it?

Well things didn’t improve during the first half. Firstly Cole picked up a knock and was hobbling around for what seemed like a good 10 minutes before finally going down for treatment. The lack of urgency related to Cole’s knock seemed to transmit itself throughout the side and Huth could have doubled the lead with a free header that thankfully was right down Green’s throat. Cole hobbled on for another few minutes but it was obvious that he wasn’t going to make it through to the interval and the change was made on 33 minutes with Tristan coming on to replace the England striker. However things didn’t improve and another Ginge lapse in concentration let in Alves who, thankfully, is that rare breed, a rubbish Brazilian and he put his effort well wide.

Our best chance of the half came on 38 minutes. Noble got in a shot that was deflected towards goal. Jones did really well to scramble back to claw the ball away from inside the post. The ball fell out to Collison who blazed his shot over the bar. Admittedly the angle was tight but I suspect that the Welsh midfielder will score harder chances in his career. DiMichele then played in Tristan but, frankly, the less said about that finish the better.

It was frustrating stuff as the passing game took a day off and, to add to the frustration, Noble picked up a yellow card for a daft lunge on Downing as the half came to an end.

During the interval we were treated to a kids’ penalty shoot-out with the whistle blown by Olympic gold medallist Christine Ohurougu who, thankfully, had remembered where she was supposed to be. Not that I was listening particularly closely but I also believe there was a wedding proposal read out during the interval. Let’s hope the poor sod on the end of it was, like me, too busy concentrating on the penalty shoot-out to have heard the announcement.

Well if the first 45 was frustrating, the second half was doubly so. The officials decided that their kit clashed with Boro’s black & blue and so changed into a yellow and black ensemble that was identical to that worn by Green, thus ensuing that they clashed only with our ‘keeper. Any thoughts that our lack of fluency in the first half had been caused by the officials’ earlier fashion faux pas were well wide of the mark however. Time after time we got ourselves into promising positions only for a pass to go astray, a flick to go wrong or a shot to be too hurried or over-delayed.

The half started with another injury-forced substitution. Boa-Morte came off worst in deciding to head a ball that someone in the Boro’ midfield thought would be better off kicked. The resulting knock didn’t seem too serious but a moment later LBM was off, later reports suggesting that a hamstring problem might have been to blame. LBM left to cheers for the substitution from some, boos from others for having been there in the first place, pats on the back from team-mates and some polite applause from those who wanted to show that they weren’t booing. To be fair to the beleaguered midfielder, whilst he hadn’t set the world on fire in the first half he was far from alone in that respect and the booing seemed illogical if you weren’t also going to boo just about everyone else on the pitch. Sears came on to replace the hapless Portuguese.

We struggled to impose ourselves on the game and we had to be thankful for Alves personal battle with Tristan for the “worst striker on the pitch” award a couple of times. Firstly the Brazilian elected to have a shot with Downing much better placed in the middle. The effort took the supplementary award for “Widest Shot At The Boleyn Without Actually Going Out For A Throw-in” and, barring a return to the Boleyn of John Radford, I can see Alves keeping hold of that title in perpetuity. His next effort, from the right hand side of the box, was closer but still failed to give Green anything to do, though, just after the hour, he had another effort that Green did save, though the save was fairly comfortable. It was a just result to the move bearing in mind the unpunished trip on Noble that had started it in the first place.

Tristan had seemed reluctant to do anything that might actually work up a sweat, though on 68 minutes, he did embark on a wriggling run in the box that harked back to better days. Unfortunately the run came to an abrupt end as the striker ran out of steam and the move ended up with a weak toe poke straight back to Jones. Green’s next save from a long-distance effort from Downing was a much better piece of keeping with the England number whatever it is these days getting down smartly to his right to keep the shot out, recovering smartly to save a possible corner.

This seemed to be the signal to introduce Savio. Unfortunately the ball then remained in play for what seemed like an hour. It was only five minutes but the miss that finally allowed the substitution to be made was a shocker. Collison played in Ilunga with a superb ball inside the full back. Cheri pulled the ball back for DiMichele to blast over the bar from close range. It was an appalling miss – especially as the striker probably had time to take a touch. This was the moment that we thought we’d blown the cup to be honest.

After the seemingly interminable wait Savio came on and, as with his previous two appearances, Noble was the player to depart with the unfortunate Alves going off at the same time. Savio did at least seem both willing and able to take players on and, with less than ten on the clock remaining his industry paid dividends. Combining with Sears on the left, Savio attempted a flicked pass down the line. O’Neill blocked the ball with his hand – it had not been the first such block by the visitors but ref Walton was looking straight at it from four yards and was thus forced to give it. O’Neill kicked the ball away, an act that possibly was the reason for the yellow card received by the ref – though the cynical handball was possibly worthy of one in its own right. Savio’s right footed delivery into the box may have been touched on by Collins on its way through. Whatever the contact, the ball bounced through for Ilunga to stoop to head home from close range. It was a mirror image of the goal that had put us one behind.

The remaining 7 minutes plus stoppage passed with little of incident save for ref Walton taking a dislike to DiMichele. Firstly the Italian was punished for a Johnson dive – one of several the winger had attempted during the afternoon. Then a beautifully clean tackle by the same player on the same player was similarly punished. If we’d been watching the cop movie from the earlier part of the report, DiMichele would, at this point, have become the guy arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

Despite an increased sense of urgency in the final few minutes neither side looked like breaking the deadlock and the match petered out for a draw. This was followed by the journey from hell that involved a wait of nearly an hour in stationary traffic on the approach to the Blackwall Tunnel which had been closed due to an incident, thus preventing me from going out for a Valentine’s Day meal with ‘er indoors.

It is said that the mark of a good side is that it can grind out results when not playing particularly well and, if there is a bright side to the aftermath of this match, it is that we kept going, despite things not quite working out for us. There are a few worries though. Clearly the industry of Behrami was missed whilst neither Parker nor Noble was anywhere near his best. The injury to Cole is also of concern since, on this form, Tristan isn’t someone we should be looking for as a replacement for any length of time – especially with the news that we are unlikely to see Dean Ashton back until next season.

Still, to return to the cop movie analogy, there is to be a sequel. Let’s just hope it’s more like The Godfather part 2 than, er Police Academy!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
One excellent save and a few more comfortable efforts that could be said to have kept us in the cup.


Lucas Neill
Did well to keep his cool in the face of some provocation in the second half. Did ok without Behrami’s help.


Herita Ilunga
One of the few that didn’t have an off day. Nice finish for the goal – perhaps he could give lessons to one or two of the squad.


James Collins
Out of sorts and lost concentration a couple of times – one of which as the goal.


Matthew Upson
Looked a bit “leggy” after the runaround in Spain in midweek.


Scott Parker
Too many misplaced passes and that “drilling for oil” move he has just played him into trouble.


Mark Noble
A silly booking and also guilty of giving the ball away too much.


Jack Collison
Probably should have scored in the first half and sometimes guilty of over-elaboration.


Luis Boa Morte
First touch let him down too many times, though to be fair he was far from alone in that respect.


Carlton Cole
Was doing ok if nothing spectacular before injury curtailed his afternoon.


David Di Michele
Well I suppose he was at least trying to get involved but little came off for him. And that miss…


Substitutes


Diego Tristan
(Replaced Cole, 34 mins) At least DiMichele tried to get the ball back once in a while. Seemed disinterested in getting involved with anything that required movement.


Fred Sears
(Replaced Boa Morte, 49 mins) A lot of running with little service or reward.


Savio Nsereko
(Replaced Noble, 74 mins) Looked quite useful on the ball and gave us an option of running at players that had been lacking until he replaced Noble. Maybe worth a start soon?


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Walter Lopez
Did not play.


Jonathan Spector
Did not play.


Radoslav Kovac
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Peter Walton.

Attendance: 33,658.

Man of the Match: Robert Green.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Lucas Neill, Herita Ilunga, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Jack Collison, Luis Boa Morte, Carlton Cole, David Di Michele.

Goals: Herita Ilunga 83                  .

Booked: Mark Noble 45 David Di Michele 87        .

Sent off: None.

Middlesbrough

Jones, Hoyte, Pogatetz, Wheater, Huth, Digard, Johnson, O'Neill, Arca, Downing, Alves.

Substitutes: Tuncay (Alves 74), Walker (Arca 77).

Subs not used: Turnbull, Emnes, Bates, McMahon, Bennett.

Goals: Downing (22).

Booked: O'Neill (82).

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: Robert Green


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