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Premier League
Saturday, 2nd May 2009

Stoke City 0
West Ham United 1

by Gordon Thrower


I’d call that three points hard-earned.

I’m not keen on Harvesters. Sure they serve a purpose. The grub’s ok if uninspiring I suppose and in certain parts of the country they act as somewhere to aspire to if you think you’ve “made it”. However, as a place for pre-match pints a Harvester leaves a bit to be desired. Especially if it’s the only place for miles about to get a pint. The only saving grace of the branch near to the Britannia Stadium is that at lest they had an acceptable bitter on tap that didn’t contain the word “smoothicremiflow” somewhere on the pump. Still the weather was clement enough to sit in the beer garden, which was probably just as well given that the design of the bar area meant that there was barely room to swing a cat.

Team news was that Dyer was given the weekend off to be replaced by Kovac and that Jack Collinson had recovered from the dislocated kneecap suffered up at Wigan a while back giving him a place on the bench. Otherwise it was a case of “as you were” with a starting line-up of Green, Neill, Ilunga, Upson, Tomkins, Noble, Kovac, Boa-Morte, Stanislas, Tristan, Di Michele.

The first event of any note occurred in the first couple of minutes when Etherington was upended by Neill, the skipper obviously being as aware as anyone of the fact that one kick is enough to keep Matty quiet for the remaining 88 minutes. Of course Matty has a slightly different role at Stoke. Whereas we kinda hoped he might take on his marker once in while, beating him occasionally and maybe getting the odd cross in, up at Stoke he has the job of winning throw-ins.

It was from the other wing that the first throw occurred, with Shawcross heading straight at Green. The home side celebrate throw-ins with the same sort of fervour that you and I might reserve for a World Cup win or six numbers on the lottery and they got all excited a couple of minutes later. Beattie’s blatant dive was rightly ignored by the ref – though as usual the statutory yellow card remained in pocket. The resulting ball was cleared for a throw. Delap launched it and Fuller’s effort was rightly ruled out for the little matter of him having forced his forearm across Green’s windpipe.

A few minutes later we had the ball in the net, the goal being ruled out by the somewhat erratic ref Walton for, well you tell me. Walton chose to ignore the defender’s challenge on Tristan that flattened him in favour of some perceived infringement on the part of Di Michele.

The game settled into a predictable pattern. The incessant search for a throw in by the home side countered by our passing game. The throw-ins were dealt with superbly by Tomkins and Upson for the most part and we started to knock the ball about quite well. We took the lead shortly after the half hour. Faye’s touch let him down and the ball fell to Di Michele who cleverly flicked the ball up. Faye’s challenge involved two feet and a scissors action. What it didn’t involve was the ball. “Tristan top corner” announced the bloke next to me. “Tristan, Row 9” was my guess. The bloke next to me was, happily, correct (though I suspect if he’s honest he might have been suggesting the other corner) and Schnorbitz’s fine effort sailed into the net for his third of the season.

We could have doubled the lead shortly after. Stanislas’ promising run into the box ended up with a clever back-heel into the path of DDM whose left foot shot was pulled wide, a right foot effort might have been more likely to get the curl required to bring the ball in at the far post. Stoke then broke away and Etherington’s ball into the box found Fuller whose first touch was just a tad too strong. Nevertheless, Green’s save at Fuller’s feet was as excellent as it was brave – and the bang on the head that the ‘keeper got as the forward challenged – fairly – for the ball required a spot of treatment.

Then we had the flashpoint. Boa-Morte and Delap both slid in over a loose ball. Delap won the race drawing a foul from LBM. As the players’ legs became entangled Delap kicked out at LBM. A spot of handbags ensued. When all had calmed down, LBM picked up a yellow which was probably the correct decision. Shawcross picked up a yellow for becoming needlessly involved in the proceedings, which was also about right. However, Delap’s getting away with a yellow for what by any rational definition of the offence satisfied most intelligent people’s definition of the phrase “violent conduct” was a cowardly cop-out on the part of ref Walton.

The free-kick was hit at the wall and LBM was the first to react, breaking away with Stanislas in support to have two-on-two with the stoke defence. LBM unwisely opted to retain the ball rather than feed Junior and ended up in blind-alley territory as the attack fizzled out resulting in a goal kick.

Then, in injury time, the ref rediscovered a spot of backbone. Lawrence won the ball on the right and burst into the box electing to throw himself to the floor with a dive of which Steve Gerrard himself might have been proud. I’m not sure which was more embarrassing, the dive itself or the appalling play-acting that accompanied the yellow card that followed. My own amazement at the fact I’d finally seen a Premier League referee actually applying the laws of the game on “simulation” correctly was tempered by a sad acknowledgement of the fact that the ref would never have had the bottle to do the same to a player in a Liverpool shirt.

Half time was spent in amusement as the Stoke announcer told us that the draw would be made by “former Stoke player Sir Geoff Hurst, the only player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final”. “Blimey” we all said. “Fancy that – he kept that quiet”. I had to express some disappointment that the Stoke no.39 wasn’t on the bench. Anyone with the name Danzelle St Louis-Hamilton has got to be worth watching, if only to see how they fit it all on the back of the shirt.

The second half started with an optimistic effort from the halfway line from Schnorbitz who had clearly got the taste for efforts from outside the box. The game then settled down into much the same pattern as had developed during the first half. Green was having a tough time of it with every throw in and corner seemingly resulting in an attempt to flatten him. Encouraged by the ref’s failure to either spot or take action, the spell culminated with Green being barged over the goal-line in a Nat Lofthouse stylie (ask your granddad) for the ref to give the ludicrous decision of a corner.

Having said that, Upson and Tomkins were in awesome form and were winning most stuff in the air. It was far from being one way traffic though and we ought to have doubled the lead on 67 minutes. Neill went forward down the right and his superb run ended up with a pass that found its way to Stanislas. The lad had a lot more time and space that his actions suggested and his shot curled high into the crowd when, with just a little more composure, he had the goal at his mercy.

Stoke’s best chance of scoring came on 75 minutes. A corner to the back post was, unusually, won by Shawcross - but Noble was on sentry duty by the post and cleared superbly, his header turning the ball round the post to safety.

Then we had “Towelgate”. All through the match Delap had been given the use of strategically placed towels with which to dry the ball. This was something denied to Neill by the ball-boy who was clearly under instruction to keep the towels hidden away when an away throw in was given. Neill was cautioned for delaying the restart, a bizarre decision given that the total time taken by Neill for every single throw he took during the match probably added up to one single Delap effort. The ref then made an even bigger fool of himself by preventing Delap from using the towels, presumably on the grounds that the same courtesy wasn’t afforded to the visiting team. I’m all for seeking an advantage but using schoolkids to do your cheating for you is a bit off to these traditional eyes.

With about 10 minutes left on the clock LBM was replaced by Collison. The phrase “he put in a shift” is one that recently cropped up in Maltese Hammer’s thread on the subject of irritating things said by football commentators. However, Boa Morte certainly let nobody down in this match and the applause and name-chanting he received from the away support were exceedingly well-deserved. Noble was then replaced by Lopez, who came in to bolster the left hand side and with two left on the clock Sears replaced DDM. Fuller stuck one over the bar from close range but the best chance of the closing period came our way. Schnorbitz beat Delap to the ball and, (and I never thought I’d be able to write this) left the defender in his wake. Unfortunately Tristan’s clever lob beat the post as well as the ‘keeper but thankfully the five minutes of stoppage were safely negotiated and the three points were in the bag.

As the teams left it was noticeable that both Zola and Clarke were stood by the tunnel entrance and each player received a public acknowledgement from the management for his efforts as he left. Apart from their obvious strengths as a management team it is clear that there is a decent team-spirit about the place at the moment. All over the park I noted players encouraging each other, whether it be Noble (nearly a veteran these days!) handing out advice to Stanislas or the backslaps and high fives swapped by the defence after every completed clearance. Little things perhaps but all indicative of a team pulling in one direction, something that is a must when you have a weakened squad as we do at the moment.

We were kept behind locked away for a while – though the most annoying thing we were bombarded with was copious amounts of a mysterious white pollen that filled the atmosphere to such an extent that it resembled a light flurry of snow. No doubt those sneezing all afternoon will blame swine flu.

For me the worst part of the day was the journey home. Upton Girlie’s car contains the latest in in-car audio-visual entertainment systems on which I was forced to endure a few minutes of something called Britain’s Got Talent. I spent five whole minutes of my life watching some fat kid playing the National Anthem on his nose. I seriously contemplated jumping out of the car rather than watch any more such rubbish, my desire to escape the horror being only slightly tempered by the fact that we were doing a fast – but quite legal – rate of knots on the M25 at the time. Thankfully we lost the signal before the remains of my intelligence could be insulted any further and I gave mental thanks for the benefit of a multi-room satellite subscription that means that, like Stoke and Blackburn I don’t have to watch that sort of thing every week.

Stoke will survive this season but I’d suggest that the chances of them getting a third season in the Premier League may well depend on them developing a plan B because such a plan was certainly absent from their armoury this week. Still they have enough points to be going on with. I just hope that someone builds a decent pub in the vicinity of the ground before our next visit!



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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Baulked and battered at every turn he still managed to claim a hell of a lot and the save at the feet of Fuller was bravery itself.


Lucas Neill
Another fine run out for the skipper who, apart from his all round performance, was constantly geeing up and encouraging the rest of the team. The towel thing was funny too.


Herita Ilunga
Probably the defender in our back four who had the quietest game as Stoke appeared to prefer our right hand side as a focus for their attacks.


James Tomkins
I’m running out of ways of saying “old head on young shoulders”. The partnership with Upson, from whom he just shades MOTM for me, is developing nicely.


Matthew Upson
Fine performance. He clearly loved every minute of the battle.


Mark Noble
There’s been much comment about the lad’s form of late. Whilst this wasn’t a return to the days when he ran matches, he did a prodigious amount of defensive work that was vital if not eye-catching in this instance.


Radoslav Kovac
Much-improved on last week’s showing v Chelsea. Got some important blocks in but somebody please tell him to stop passing the ball straight into touch.


Junior Stanislas
Flitted in and out of the game a bit. Some good touches but ought to have made a bit more of his second half chance.


Luis Boa Morte
Ran himself into the ground for the cause. Not sure if he picked up a knock or was just knackered but deserved the applause he got when substituted.


Diego Tristan
Fine goal and, for once, he held the ball up well. Still almost totally lacking in pace though and probably should have had a second.


David Di Michele
Few good touches – notably in getting the free-kick from which we scored. Ought to have added a second.


Substitutes


Jack Collison
(Replaced Boa Morte, 82 mins) Only on a few minutes so not much time to influence proceedings.


Walter Lopez
(Replaced Noble, 87 mins) Bolstered the left well on his arrival.


Fred Sears
(Replaced Di Michele, 89 mins) Again not on long enough to have any effect other than running down the clock.


Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.


Jonathan Spector
Did not play.


Josh Payne
Did not play.


Zavon Hines
Did not play.



Match Facts

Referee: Peter Walton.

Attendance: 27,500.

Man of the Match: James Tomkins.

West Ham United

Robert Green, Lucas Neill, Herita Ilunga, James Tomkins, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble, Radoslav Kovac, Junior Stanislas, Luis Boa Morte, Diego Tristan, David Di Michele.

Goals: Diego Tristan 33                  .

Booked: Luis Boa Morte 45 Lucas Neill 80        .

Sent off: None.

Stoke City

Sorensen, Wilkinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Shawcross, Pugh, Lawrence, Delap, Whelan, Etherington, Fuller, Beattie.

Substitutes: Camara (Beattie 72), Olofinjana (Pugh 73), Sonko (Wilkinson 88).

Subs not used: Simonsen, Cresswell, Kelly, Tonge.

Goals: .

Booked: Shawcross (45+1), Delap (45+1), Lawrence (45+3).

Sent Off: None.

 
Gordon Thrower's Man of the Match: James Tomkins


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