Miracles after midnight

When you get to a certain age it seems that nights cease to be those blissfully long unknowable periods in one’s life and, instead, begin to be become indeterminate sleep periods punctuated by unwanted, yawning chasms of wakefulness in the wee, small hours.

And believe you me it’s quiet during the wee, small hours when you could be forgiven for thinking that you are the only person awake. It’s a sort of cloying, impenetrable silence wherein even turning over in bed seems to be a noisy affair. And there’s not much to do either.

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Apart from the occasional muted sounds of solitary cars on the road nothing seems to stir. Sometimes I turn the light on and try to read for a while; sometimes I toss and turn in a, usually, vain attempt to regain the bliss of peaceful slumber; sometimes I just sort of give in to wakefulness and lay quietly and let my mind wander.

Now there are a number of things that can happen if you let your mind wander during periods of early morning sleeplessness: you can become desperately pessimistic – my default setting anyway! - or you can get caught up in a sort of aimless drift through life’s possibilities or – a much more rare occurrence in my experience - you can drift off into flights of fancy that would, under normal circumstances, be most unlikely.

So it was that in the quiet darkness of the morning of Sunday, 7th November, I became gripped by the idea that West Ham might, in this their best season for some little while, if they were really at it and on good form, be able to offer something more than scoring practice for the frankly rather frightening front three that Liverpool normally field. And the really strange thing was that the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that some sort of result – and let me be quite honest here and say that I would have taken a draw and moved on without a qualm – that some sort of positive result was not out of the question.

Middle of the night madness – right?

Then, in the pre-dawn stillness my mind meandered its way through the first half performance against Genk on the previous Thursday evening and my unusual optimism was tempered somewhat. Remembering how easily Genk had torn the West Ham team apart in the first thirty or so minutes of that game and then imagining similar dominance from Liverpool’s front line left me clammy with apprehension. Suddenly my almost childlike fantasy of a West Ham performance to challenge Liverpool’s dominance evaporated and I was gripped instead by the more familiar desire for the team to simply avoid an embarrassing scoreline.

In the darkness my left hand snaked out from under the duvet to reach for the bedside light. I decided I would have a read to distract myself from gloomy thoughts of a dominant Liverpool. But before I flicked the switch my hand was stilled momentarily as my mind, not content with the doubts it had heaped upon my optimism, replayed the instant when Antonio scored the winner against Tottenham and I experienced again the joy of that moment.

Then, with consummate ease and directorial excellence, the Steven Spielberg in my head put together a newsreel-type montage of the many good moments in the West Ham season to date: Fornals, Antonio, Benrahma, Rice and Bowen all had starring roles. Smiling once more in the darkness, all thoughts of reading banished, I recalled the second half performance against Genk and my optimism was re-energised; the fluid, incisive passing; the movement; the finishing. Because let’s be honest now; West Ham were good in that second half and, but for a rather stunning finish from Soucek – albeit in the wrong goal! - they would have achieved a fourth win in the group stage of the Europa League...

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The next thing I knew it was morning and daylight was filtering in around the edge of the blinds. Sunday morning. November 7th. West Ham United versus Liverpool at the London Stadium. Nine-and-a-half hours until kick-off. A strange mixture of excitement, apprehension, confidence and uncertainty filled my head as I quietly made my way downstairs to make a pot of tea. I just wanted the time to pass so that my son and I could have a couple of beers and a burger at ‘The Boats’ and then stroll towards the stadium and the mounting excitement; towards all the uncertainties of the permutations of luck and chance and skill and error which would, in just a couple of hours or so, become memories but which for now were merely the hopes and aspirations of a couple of poor, benighted West Ham fans.

Just a father and son walking towards a concrete and steel edifice; but the hopes and dreams woven, it seems, into the fabric of that structure make the heart beat a little faster. And every step you take draws you closer to the moment when what might be becomes what is with all the possibilities for joy or anguish that that transition holds in store.

Steady on mate! It’s only a football match.

Anyway, we got to the stadium and I had another beer – don’t tell the missus for goodness sake! - and the minutes ticked away until, at last, the teams were walking out onto the pitch and a choir of 55,000 happy souls gave a stirring rendition of ‘Bubbles’. Then it was kick-off and and an early gallop down the left wing by Antonio led to the first corner of the game which, in turn, and almost unbelievably, led to the first goal of the game. The merest flick of Allison’s glove on the wonderfully flighted delivery from Fornals meant that West Ham were leading one-nil and Alisson was the scorer. Of course Klopp would later be outraged that Liverpool were not awarded a free kick for some imagined infringement against Alisson and the goal disallowed. Sorry pal; not this time. No foul; no handball; no way out for you. One-nil to the Cockney boys.

I really don’t know where the time went. The first half-an-hour seemed to fly by. Lots of Liverpool pressure but West Ham were always a threat on the counter. Ogbonna had to be replaced by Dawson due to an injury – an elbow in the face from Jota apparently which, surprise, surprise, Klopp didn’t feel the need to refer during his post-match sulk! - and as the first half entered its final five minutes Liverpool were awarded a free kick in a very dangerous position just outside West Ham’s penalty area.

I suppose in some ways it seemed inevitable that Liverpool would score, but it was disappointing nonetheless. A lovely little free kick routine following which Alexander-Arnold curled a beauty into the top right hand corner of Fabianski’s goal. Fabianski simply didn’t move – well other than, with a small shrug of resignation it seemed to me, to pick the ball from the back of the net. The half ended without further incident and the interval passed in a blur; mostly in a queue for the toilets to allow the pre-match lager to complete its journey from glass to drain.

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If anything I thought West Ham were better in the second half than they had been in the first. There was lots of Liverpool pressure but West Ham’s midfield were resolute and kept breaking up play and then setting a counter attack in motion. Eventually a corner from the left was met by the head of Rice/Dawson and hit the bar – with Allison beaten by the way – before cannoning away to safety.

Then on 67 minutes another midfield battle won by West Ham released the ball to Bowen who powered over the halfway line and deep into the Liverpool half, pursued by no less than three Liverpool players. He shrugged off their attempted challenges and cut inside another Liverpool player before sending a beautifully-weighted pass into the path of a superbly timed Pablo Fornals run. He controlled the ball and advanced a few more yards before unleashing a shot which Alisson was able to get a touch to but could not prevent continuing into the back of the net. For the second time in the game the Hammers were in front and the stadium was rocking.

Seven minutes later and with chances for both Fornals and Antonio having gone begging a corner from the right was met at the back post by Zouma who powered his header past Allison from a narrow angle and into the goal. Three-one to the Cockney boys and if I mentioned that the stadium was rocking after West Ham’s second goal, well it was just a wall of constant noise now; singing, chanting and cheering rolling around the tiers. The only quiet area in the place was the Liverpool end.

Of course there was still plenty of time for Liverpool to stage a fightback and with many a nervous West Ham fan watching as the drama unfolded the digital clock seemed to slow down as full time approached. When Divock Origi swivelled and shot past the despairing dive of Fabianski and into West Ham’s goal to make it three-two I cannot deny that I began to get very nervous indeed.

A late, very soft, free kick presented Liverpool with another good chance and a deftly delivered cross to the back post was met with a diving header by Sadio Mane which, mercifully, passed harmlessly a couple of yards wide of the post. And that, as the saying goes, was that. Mere seconds later the referee gave a blast on his whistle which was met with delirious joy by the West Ham faithful and many a chorus of: "West Ham are massive everywhere they go; West Ham are massive, everywhere they go... everywhere they go... one, two, three, four: West Ham are massive..." – and so on and so forth (and absolutely fabulous to be a part of, let me tell you).

And then later on, down on the concourse queueing up for a post-match pint the atmosphere just went on and on; more singing; strangers hugging and back-slapping; a joyous outpouring in celebration of something that us West Ham fans don’t seem to get much of: sustained performance and a modicum of success. It is an absolute joy to be a West Ham fan right now and I, for one, am loving every moment.

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