Manchester United 0 West Ham United 1

Sunday, 13th May 2007
by Gordon Thrower

It was a challenge worthy of Michael Palin. Could a self-confessed boreal-sceptic Londoner spend four whole days in the uncivilised North of the country in an attempt to see his side escape relegation.

Warning: the following may contain cheap regional stereotypes and material that some readers may find offensive, especially if they are a whinging idiot by the name of Dave Whelan.

I am not by nature one of life's obsessives. I'm not the sort to spend hours rearranging the toothbrushes in the bathroom into alphabetical order depending on colour. Ok I'll admit to a rabid dislike of a certain song and I shall not rest in my quest to ensure that so-called referee Mike Dean is placed in one of those mummy cases you get in horror films with the spikes on the inside. However, these are obviously aims that anyone with a modicum of taste or sanity should share.

The one thing I do fuss about though is being on time. I'm not fidgety about it but I don't like being late for things. This sometimes makes being a friend of both Upton Girlie & Blue Boleyn a bit of a trial. Don't get me wrong, they are both wonderful people and I am honoured to count them as friends but they do have that strange female trait of applying Einstein's Time Dilation Effect to the simplest of journeys.

So when we were making arrangements for this all-important match I came to a major decision: I would go up to Manchester on the Thursday before the game. OK the firm's annual conference in Manchester had a lot to do with things but I wasn't about to traipse home 200 miles after the conference just to return 24 hours later.

On arrival, I determine not to spend the days before the match mulling over things. I decide to concentrate on tax matters pertaining to my chosen profession. Unfortunately, every time I pick up a paper or turn on the box there is David Whelan spouting rubbish that is so full of deluded and deliberately misleading self-righteousness I end up checking the fixture lists to see if there is a "Hypocritical Ignorant Northerner Of The Year" tournament taking place. In my role as spokesman and media tart, I resolve to slag off the convicted price-fixing one-time slave labour-employing hypocrite whenever the opportunity arises in the usual request for end-of-season comment from the press.

The conference passed off fairly uneventfully, if you don't count a strange late-night encounter in the hotel bar with a team of female cyclists who had been racing at the Velodrome and who, for reasons far too complex to explain, seem convinced that my name is Augustus and that I have somehow escaped from my private nurse. I manage to escape to the disabled room the Holiday Inn have given me before I get even more confused, turning on the TV just in time to see Whelan blame us for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the First World war that is generally acknowledged to have ensued as a result.

Part of the deal with the lovely girlfriend that enabled me to make the trip was that I'd treat her to a couple of nights in a nice hotel thus enabling her to visit two of her offspring who are based in Bolton. Post-conference I therefore make my way to the Golden Tulip Hotel opposite the "Theatre Of Tacky Marketing Slogans" or "Old Trafford" as the rest of us call it. The receptionist, seeing that I am still on crutches, helpfully allocates me a room on the top floor.
Not that I'm obsessive or anything but, having arranged to meet the lovely girlfriend at Bolton at 7pm, I have checked all my transport options and decide to get a cab to Salford Crescent to get my train so that I'll be on time.

The cabby has other ideas and is trying to give Whelan a run for his money in the ignorance stakes. 20 minutes late, he has no idea of where I want to go and, despite my giving him rough instructions and pointing my destination out on a map, he proceeds in completely the wrong direction until I bale out at Deansgate from where I belatedly make my way to Bolton.

I am late and whilst I am not going to get all obsessive about it, I am still annoyed. I board a packed train full of those oh-so friendly salt of the earth "we're so much nicer than snooty Londoners" northern types who somehow have managed to ignore the claims of a tired bloke on crutches to a much-coveted seat. I make the assumption that they are going to join the cabby and Whelan at the "Hypocritical & Ignorant Northerner Of The Year" contest that I am now convinced must be taking place somewhere in the North West.

I'm not that bothered really as, even if one of them had offered me the seat, I'd probably have given it up in favour of the heavily pregnant lady who they'd also managed to somehow not notice, despite her probably being in her 9th month and her loud mobile phone call giving full detail of the time she was going in to give birth. She was probably lucky not to go into labour there and then - the ticket inspector would have charged the baby excess fares.

A Chinese meal with TLG and her offspring in the retail park near the Reebok was pleasant enough to restore my spirits, even the presence of a branch of price-fixing sports goods chain near the entrance failed to dampen my spirits.

So to Saturday when the usual suspects, not having quite the same sense of urgency as myself, are planning to arrive a worrying mere 24 hours before kick-off. Talk about cutting it fine. TLG elects to spend the day with her offspring - wisely considering this preferable to hanging round with a nervous bloke on crutches who will spend the day moaning about how ignorant Whelan is.

I pick up my copy of the Independent and I note that the comments I submitted to their end of season review regarding the obnoxious Whelan have been edited out, possibly on legal grounds but more likely on the grounds of taste and decency. They left the gag about John Sturman QC in though. I turn on the box to hear the aforementioned Whelan explaining exactly where West Ham had been in relation to the grassy knoll and book depositry in November 1963 as JFK was being assassinated and decide that rather than listen to Whelan's rubbish I should bravely venture out into the city and mingle with some natives.

I decide to visit central Manchester to pick up a few bits of shopping and to watch the play-offs over a pint or two, a decision I make on the assumption that even a Manchester cabby stands half a chance of finding the centre of a city that size, though I err on the side of caution by asking the driver to take me to Torquay. The plan works and I arrive in the city centre.

Fed and watered, assisted by a ?30 win on a quiz machine I return to the hotel to meet old family friends Boss & Noreen who arrive just before Upton Girlie and Blue Boleyn and just in time to let them know what an obnoxious little kid I was all those years ago in Plaistow. I note that I haven't changed much in the hope that one of my friends will disagree with me. Predictably, if accurately, no-one does.

My main problem at this point is that the rubber bung on the end of one of my crutches has worn through leaving me with bare metal poking through. This isn't a problem on pavements or carpets but on smooth surfaces I end up doing a passable impersonation of Bambi on ice. This, coupled with the fact that I'm still recovering from a hard night's "conferencing" means that when Upton Girlie and Blue Boleyn decide to go out in the evening I make a late call not to join them and elect instead for a quiet pint in the hotel bar watching football highlights.

This is a plan that works perfectly well for a few hours until a predatory party of women from the wedding reception taking place in the function room come out on the prowl. Imagine a female bunch of Terry Christians . Yup that bad. "What's up with your foot luv?" was the opening question. My quietly patient explanation as to what I'd done was met with the counter question "What's an Achilles tendon". Clearly I was a lot closer to the venue of the Ignorant Northerner Of The Year contest than I'd previously assumed. I finally leg it when the unmistakable sounds of "Build Me Up Buttercup" leak, no, make that ooze out of the function room.

TLG and I meet up with Upton Girlie & Blue Boleyn at breakfast. It's fair to say that they look a little jaded making my decision to have an early night look a wise one. I'm hobbling about and only extra strength painkillers are keeping me going. TLG disappears back to Bolton with her cold - though not before leaving me with the comment that she thought I was daft "for coming all that way when it's on tv".

We await the arrival of Up The Junction who, incredibly, isn't travelling up until the day of the game. Upton Girlie then performs the miracle of all miracles. She produces almost out of thin air a rubber bung thing for the base of my broken crutch. It's not quite the right size but some clever application of some tissue paper renders the thing serviceable. I'm not too sure where the thing has come from but I understand that some alterations may have been made to some fixtures & fittings in a certain hotel room! I perk up as I'd been in enough pain to make the short trip across the road to the ground a bit of a concern.

Then a second miracle occurs. UTJ actually answers his mobile 'phone. He tells us he's stuck in traffic near Birmingham. He seems strangely dismissive of my suggestion that he should have left the previous Thursday like most sane but in-no-way-obsessive people did. He eventually arrives shortly after 2pm relieved that Upton Girlie hadn't taken the offer of ?500 for his ticket.

At last I allow myself to think about the game. My ticket is in the disabled section behind the goal and I'm greeted by the team news that we are unchanged, the starting eleven of recent weeks having earned the right to fight one last battle in the fight for survival. We thus line up : Green, Neill, McCartney, Collins, Ferdinand, Benayoun, Noble, Reo-Coker, Boa-Morte, Zamora, Tevez.

I can honestly say that the first half worries me not one iota. I am strangely calm as the team absorbs wave upon wave of pressure. Things start badly when Linda picks up an early knock from which he fails to recover and he is replaced by Spector. However, whilst the home side has an amount of possession that would have scared the bejasus out of me had I been watching it on TV as suggested by TLG, there are few occasions that really worry me.

The main scare comes with Yossi's incredible double goalline clearance. Otherwise Green seems more than capable of dealing with shots aimed in his general direction. We even have a decent shout for a penalty when Tevez's shot is marvellously saved with both hands by Brown. However, having been on the receiving end of two miracles in one day, I am clearly not destined to see a third in the form of a penalty against the home side at Old Trafford.

News starts arriving from Bramall Lane. Wigan are 1-0 up. The home support gleefully grasp this news by chanting "going down", chants that the 3,000 Hammers in the crowd treat with the contempt it deserves. Sheffield United equalise and the home crowd shut up for a bit as chants of "Champions - and you still don't sing" ring out.

The only thing that concerns me is the alarming propensity the home players have for falling over under the most minimal of contact. In fact I begin to wonder if the new rubber bung on my crutch did in fact come from the soles of the Man Utd players' boots, so easily do they go down. Then, as stoppage time looms and news of what turns out to be Wigan's winner reaches about 3,000 mobile phones, we mount a rare attack.

Tevez battles for a loose ball and swaps a one-two with Zamora. Brown's challenge has all the hallmarks of one made with an eye on a forthcoming Cup Final and the ball loops up for Tevez to place the ball first time past a hesitant Van Der Saar to send 3,000 travelling supporters into raptures of delight.

Half time comes and we are treated to all the usual name-checking announcements for those home supporters from Devon. It's a bit unfair to suggest that they're all glory hunters though. I expect that many of them ended up there simply by making the mistake of getting in a Manchester cab and assuming that the driver would know the way home. The Wigan score is greeted by chants in the usual variety of accents again informing us that we are going down, an error that is again corrected with a chant of "1-0 to the Cockney Boys".

Having been so calm up to this point it suddenly dawns on me that the next 45 minutes could go pear-shaped very rapidly. My heart starts pounding, my mouth goes dry and I'm sure my high blood pressure would have given my GP a fit had he been measuring it at that point. I decide to respond to text messages from various loved ones at this point to tell them how nervous I feel at this point. Worryingly I receive two texts back asking if they've been left anything in my will.

The second period continues in similar vein to the first. The largest chant of the day from the home support is a rather arrogant "Send Them Down" clearly our habit of stitching them up at times when they need the points still rankles. Good.

Most of the pressure is up the other end but again clear-cut chances are at a premium. After a bit grumpy Scots boss Ferguson decides he's had enough of all the messing about and sends on Scholes, Giggs and Ronaldo and the footballer of the year takes advantage of the missing rubber bit on the sole of his boots by falling over with nobody near him to gain a free-kick that is comfortably dealt with.

Harewood replaces Zamora who has got through a lot of running. Some of the chances are beginning to look a little bit close and the home fans bay for the statutory penalty they seem to think is their God-given right each time they play. Boa Morte's challenge gets a little bit of the ball but that's never been much of a consideration in the past with referees at OT. Green makes a point blank reflex save from Ronaldo's header and I start to believe that we might get three points.

Incredibly, we start to keep the ball well and manufacture a couple of excellent chances of our own. A deep cross towards the back post ends up with a shot wide from Luis Boa Morte, Tevez's leap perhaps getting a slight touch to put him off. LBM then emerges from a penalty area tussle with the ball only to clip the ball against the far post with the 'keeper stranded. Tevez departs, possibly for the last time, to be replaced by Mullins and Harewood's hard but optimistic effort is fumbled for a corner by Van Der Saar .

The clock finally starts to count down rather than up as it seems to have been doing all day and after a correct but unusual three minutes - play on until Man Utd score being the usual policy at the Theatre of Arrogance - ref Atkinson blows the final whistle and the collected breath of 3,000 Hammers breathing out for the first time in 45 minutes causes a breeze that should be enough to knock Ronaldo off his feet.

Strangely he stays up - and so do we. Improbably we have done the double over the Champions to stay up and the cheeky "Can We Play You Every Week" chant rings out. The players come down to our corner and Robert Green helpfully reminds the home crowd of the final score - adding the even more helpful information that we'd done it twice.

Not that we give a stuff, but the news comes through that a 10-man Wigan have hung on to send Sheffield United down. I'd rather Whelan had disappeared back whence he came but as a consolation prize the departure of Colin will do. Lest we forget this was the man who may, it was suggested, have ordered his players to feign injury to get a match abandoned and I don't recall anyone moaning about points deductions then.

Having stayed on to watch the home side get their own consolation prize of the Premiership trophy - which still appeared to have the price tags left on it by the previous owners - we return to the Golden Tulip where the security staff recognise the bloke on the crutches as a resident and allow us in despite our having actually checked out some hours earlier. Up The Junction, Blue Boleyn and I try to have a quiet drink whilst Upton Girlie serenades the bar with her version of "Bubbles". The assembled red shirt wearing occupants of the bar seem confused though this may because, like Tevez, English is a foreign tongue to them.

The motorway journey home is punctuated by our waking up every occupant of every Clarks coach we see by hooting at them as we pass. Upton Girlie's idea not mine guys. She then marks the evening by pulling up to a car at some traffic lights and telling them "We Won". The car's occupants respond by telling us that they've just come from France. Upton Girlie wishes them a polite good evening before driving away uttering a somewhat less polite - and most unladylike- descriptive word aimed in the general direction of the other car. Those of you familiar with the "This Much Talent" section of Spinal Tap will know what I mean.

That was it. I'd spent four days in the north and survived, something that most seasoned explorers thought impossible. Well Michael Palin didn't but then again he comes from Yorkshire anyway.

End of season and I ought to end with a load of thanks to the following people for their help, laughs and friendship over the past season:

Romford, Gent, The Internet Hammers, Milly & Pat in the Press Room, Up The Junction, Chalks, Bonehead, Sicknote, Goes To Eleven, Northern Paulo, Rio, Lost Hammer, Dublin Hammers, Newstalk 106 FM, The occupants of rows N&O of the West Side Upper Tier, Blue Boleyn - all of whom get the Gnome bronze medal.

Silver medals go to Upton Girlie & Tomas for much valued friendship above and beyond the call of duty, including sorting out transport and access to matches for me while I've been struggling to get out and about plus, of course, all the half-time confectionary

Finally the Gold medal once more goes to The Lovely Girlfriend for putting up with all the football-related stuff without too much fuss and even reading the back pages once in a while! (The fixtures are out in June and we kick off on 11 August pet!)

See you all next season in the Premiership!

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Dealt with everything thrown at him - unbelievable to think we actually dropped him for Carroll earlier this season!

Lucas Neill
There was one dodgy ball played back towards his own goal but he performed well and I'll be glad to have him on board next season.

George McCartney
Was doing ok but his early knock curtailed his participation in the afternoons events.

Anton Ferdinand
At the risk of repeating myself, he has benefited immensely from Collins' presence in recent weeks.

James Collins
Continued his awesome form of recent weeks by doing it against the best. Ridiculously booked for winning the cleanest of tackles.

Mark Noble
Snapped and harried and hassled for the whole 90 minutes. If we were going to be relegated he was damned sure it wasn't going to be his fault.

Nigel Reo-Coker
Could have been overrun in the middle but he wasn't overawed and stuck to his task well.

Yossi Benayoun
The flow of traffic meant that opportunities to shine in his usual manner were limited. Brilliant goalline clearances saved the day in the first half.

Luis Boa Morte
It all passed him by a bit really. Maybe a bit unfortunate over one chance but having made himself room for another he should really have put it away instead of hitting the post.

Carlos Tevez
Brilliantly taken goal but this wasn't a game where his play was ever likely to dominate. If that is to be his last game - and I hope it isn't - then we owe him thanks for brightening up the place over the past few months.

Bobby Zamora
A game of few chances for us, but, as has been the case lately, he ran himself into the ground for the cause.


Jonathan Spector
(Replaced McCartney, 28) Did well coming in for the injured Linda.

Marlon Harewood
(Replaced Zamora, 63) Bustled about and made a nuisance of himself.

Hayden Mullins
(Replaced Tevez, 82) Not really on for long enough to make much of a difference.

Jimmy Walker
Did not play.

Calum Davenport
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, Lucas Neill, George McCartney, Anton Ferdinand, James Collins, Mark Noble, Nigel Reo-Coker, Yossi Benayoun, Luis Boa Morte, Carlos Tevez, Bobby Zamora.

Goals: Carlos Tevez 45                  .

Booked: James Collins 67 Carlos Tevez 74        .

Sent Off: None sent off.     .

Manchester United: Van Der Sar, O'Shea, Evra, Heinze, Brown, Carrick, Fletcher, Richardson, Solskjaer, Smith, Rooney.

Subs not used: Kuszczak, Vidic.

Goals: .

Booked: None booked..

Sent off: None.

Referee: M.Atkinson.

Attendance: 75,927.

Man of the Match: James Collins.