A Mark of respect

From Mark Noble’s pre-match tears to the cuddle with Pep and the emotions of the long goodbye as our skipper took pride of place in West Ham’s lap of honour, pretty much everything went right in an unforgettable last home game of the season at the London Stadium.

As they say, it was a Lovely Day, one that tested the champions elect Manchester City to the limits. It was a game that saw Jarrod Bowen underline why he should be in England’s World Cup squad and why Lukasz Fabianski is so good at saving penalties, his fourth of the six we have conceded this season.

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And what a season. The deserved 2-2 draw with Manchester City, one of the world’s richest and best clubs, ensured back to back qualification for Europe - the first time we have ever achieved that by our league position.

That in itself is a tremendous achievement. Fair play tables and waiting for Manchester United to win the FA Cup hardly come close to two top seven finishes. Back in the 1960s we won the FA Cup to qualify for Europe for the first time and then the European Cup Winners’ Cup, which meant we were back in Europe as holders.

But I reckon two successive, high quality league campaigns is far tougher and a greater indication of where we are at the moment.

So it’s the UEFA Conference League for sure and the Europa League if we win at Brighton on Sunday and Manchester United fail to win at Crystal Palace, so much better a goal difference do we have over the Old Trafford club.

Europe, whatever competition, enhances our coefficient, establishes the club as a regular European competitor and makes us a genuine consideration for next level players .

It may ‘only’ be the third European tier but it’s been a success already, with Jose Mourinho’s Roma facing Feyenoord in the final on May 25 in Tirana. This season’s competition also included a reluctant Spurs, Leicester, Slavia Prague, Partizan Belgrade, AZ Alkmaar and Rennes. Decent opposition.

West Ham will have to play a qualifying round, on August 18 and 25 to reach the group stages which start on September 8, and mirror the same weeks as the Europa League. To get to the final in Prague on June 7, 2023 we would have to play 16 matches, it would only have taken 12 games to reach the Europa League final this season in Seville, where Rangers will meet Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday.

The clearer need for extra squad depth and strength is obvious as we were stretched to the limits in this season’s European campaign.

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But that’s all for the future. The present produced one of those West Ham events that we seem to do very well these days. It reminded me of Noble’s testimonial six years ago at Upton Park when 35,000 turned up to see Paolo, Ludo, Deano and the rest on what was another Lovely Day, just about us and our past heroes to which, frankly, the outside world were not invited.

A few outsiders were there on Sunday. Pep Guardiola showed a lot of class by putting aside his team’s failure to virtually clinch the title to take time to congratulate Noble with that long cuddle and whispered praise which may, or should, have been an invite to show his superstar team how to take penalties. Mark being one of the best in Europe!

City’s fans applauded our academy youngsters, then when Noble did his ‘walk on’ and then again in the 16th minute applause (that marking Noble’s 16 shirt number).

Annoyingly Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian sought to sneeringly claim that it was in the 17th minute in a picky, snide piece about the whole affair that included an unnecessary dig at David Moyes by someone who I believe is a Sunderland fan. Leave it Mr. Wilson. Moyes has now picked up 121 points in 74 matches these past two seasons, finishing sixth and, probably, seventh. Get over it pal!

And West Ham have certainly got over the gut-wrenching anguish of losing that Europa League semi-final in Frankfurt. Certainly Norwich were their obliging self but Manchester City a tougher nut, but we have clawed back four points since returning from Germany to cement European qualification again.

Bowen grabbed two outstanding goals, taking his tally to 18 for the season, the first time a West Ham player has reached such a total since John Hartson in 1997/98. You can sense that Moyes worked on getting players behind City’s high line and exploiting what was likely to be a lack of pace from Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte.

We have now scored in every home top flight league game for the first time since the late 1920s. It may well have been more had not the outstanding Michail Antonio not been subjected to a fearful battering by City’s defenders without a shred of protection from referee Anthony Taylor, who was shocking and even prompted the Sky commentator to suggest Antonio was getting nothing from the Wythenshawe official.

Now that sort of appointment bothers me. Wythenshawe is part of Manchester, and referees should not be appointed to matches involving their home city clubs. All Premier League officials have to complete a form that confirms which team they support and their previous history with clubs. Now Taylor says he supports Altrincham in the National League, so he gets appointments with both Manchester clubs.

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Our fans accused him continually of bias, which obviously I cannot prove or repeat. But a little investigation shows that of 21 Premier League officials, only four admit to supporting a Premier League side. And 17 reveal they follow clubs outside the top flight or their support is unknown. That’s a percentage a little out of synch with the rest of the population, and can be easily misinterpreted I suppose.

But back to our retiring captain. That he got on towards the end was perfect for the script, with Moyes insisting there was need for a player to control midfield and keep possession, it was not a testimonial-style decision.

Moyes could not afford that. He had set up the side to maintain a low block with four across the front - Fornals, Rice, Soucek and Bowen pressing from start to finish. The aim then was to hit City on the break with the pace and power of Antonio and Bowen.

It worked superbly in the first period, and even in the second when we came under expected sustained pressure. Both Antonio and Bowen could have scored again. Moyes and his coaches have done this to City in the past, and it’s one of the reasons Guardiola insists we are outstanding, organised opponents.

He said as much again afterwards while praising the longevity, quality, knowledge and loyalty of Noble. He insisted that we may not see such one-club-manship too often in the future. Respect from all angles.

The lap of honour, for Noble as well as our team who have done so well this season, was a joy to watch. And right at the back, with a Ukraine flag and his wife and family, was Andriy Yarmolenko, who is coming to the end of his contract.

Our fans reserved a special ovation for the experienced forward who has had to cope with unspeakable horrors as the war in his homeland continues. To Noble we all wish a fruitful and long retirement with our thanks for a wonderful career. To Yarmolenko, the wish is for peace and good fortune.

Our thoughts will always be with you.

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