West Ham United 3 Middlesbrough 0

Saturday, 15th September 2007
by Gordon Thrower

I had been looking forward to this one. Partly because the performance at Reading had been good enough to instil a sense of guarded optimism in even the most cynical of us, partly because I had watched Bellamyís stunning performance for Wales in midweek, but mainly because Iíd had a bloody awful time of it during the week as a result of the rather nasty stomach bug thatís been doing the rounds in the office over the past few days.

To be honest I was just looking forward most of all to getting out of the house into the glorious sunshine that is currently passing for 2007's belated and half hearted attempt to give us a summer. Of course the choice of opponents wasn't going to damage the mood too much either, Boro's record at the Boleyn in recent years having been less than impressive.

Paper talk of a first appearance for Parker and a possible return to the squad for Zamora proved to be wide of the mark and, in the end, the only change to the starting line-up from the Reading mach all those weeks ago was the introduction of Collins for Ferdinand, the latter having picked up a knee injury in training earlier in the week leaving us with a starting XI of Green, Neill, McCartney, Collins, Upson, Bowyer, Mullins, Noble, Etherington, Ashton, Bellamy.

The first point to note was Boro's kit. Ok the white shirt was alright, but whoever thought of teaming it up with pus coloured shorts and socks either needs their eyes examined or they are a Newcastle fan having a laugh. (It later occurred to me that the kit was in fact all white - the shorts & socks had just been left out to dry in the Middlesbrough air for too long).

We started the brighter of the two sides, though faced with the prospect of having to break down an away side we seemed short of a bit of pace and cutting edge and, though we had much of the ball clear-cut chances were a rarity. An early corner headed harmlessly wide by the Ginger Pele was about the sum total of it. This was followed up the other end by a 30 yard shot that came down covered in snow from Wheater.

Ref Bennett was obviously a bit bored so he decided to get involved when Arca went through late on Bowyer, who had laid a nice ball into the path of Mullins giving us a promising position to build on. The failure to play advantage might have been partially excusable had he deemed the challenge worthy of caution - which it possibly was. Even then play could have been allowed to continue with the ref sorting out the paperwork as soon as the ball went dead. However Bennett decided that a chat was enough, thus infuriating everyone and effectively penalising the wrong side.

Shortly after we had the ball in the net. Some good midfield harrying saw us gain the ball deep in opposition territory. Bowyer fed Bellamy who slipped the ball through to Deano whose finish was excellent. Unfortunately Bellamy had dwelt on the ball for a fraction leaving Ashton a foot or so offside as the pass was played.

Bellamy had been quiet but we did get a glimpse of what is possible on the quarter hour. Clearly the side have been told to look for opportunities to exploit the Welshman's pace and Mullins played a fine early ball down the right hand channel. Bellamy did well to get on the end of it but, lacking any real support as a consequence of the speed of the break he was only able to hook the ball harmlessly in the general direction of the goal where it drifted out for a goal kick. Tellingly Bellamy looked knackered as he walked back.

Boro's first proper chance came on 19 minutes. Mido held the ball up well and fed Aliadiere whose side-footed shot came back off the post with Neill waving his hand in the air desperately for offside. It wasn't - both Linda and Neill himself were playing the forward on and we had the poor finishing to thank for the scores being level as Linda cleared the loose ball for a corner. The corner was played straight out for a goal kick.

The rare, nay, hitherto unique foray forward by Boro' gave them some confidence and the following few minutes gave them their best spell of the match so far. A Rochemback pull-back found Aliadiere in a good position but thankfully the Ginger Pele got enough of a block on to see the ball loop safely into the arms of Green.

The game entered an even scrappier spell as neither side found it within them to string passes together. We had noted that Etherington was spending time with a lot of space without getting any service. As a result of this Matty was being drawn inside to seek the ball.

This, we surmised in our usual analytical way, was why Bellamy had suddenly started hugging the left hand touchline. We were wrong - and the real reason for Bellamy's change of position was more worrying. Obviously not 100% fit Bellamy, had moved over to ask to be substituted, a change which took place on 25 minutes with Carlton Cole being the replacement.

The move required a tactical change which we never quite sorted out in the first half. There was one promising move however, Ashton, Mullins and Etheringtom all combined to set up an Ashton side-footed effort which deflected off Wheater for a corner - a few half-hearted claims that the ball had come off Wheater's arm being ignored by the ref.

Boro' broke from the corner and Boateng's deflected shot brought Green into play, albeit in saving the corner. Green threw the ball straight out as Aliadiaire had very obviously done a hamstring in the break and was to play no further part in the match. Tuncay being the replacement.

Worryingly we had started trying to play an offside trap - and we were rotten at it. Downing fed Tuncay down the left whose cross was cut out by Green. The loose ball fell to Arca who should probably have done better but Noble's brave block deflected the ball for a corner.

Little had been going right for sub Cole though he did have a part to play in one of our better chances of the half. Noble played the ball out left where Cole gathered. His cross was poor really - Boro' had the choice of two defenders and the 'keeper to deal with it. Schwarzer's call was loudest but, instead of catching the ball which is something he seemed to have time and space to do with ease, he elected to do a rather girly flap which found Noble on the edge of the box. The youngster should have made a better effort of the shot which went a yard or so wide with Schwarzer stranded. That was effectively the last action of the half.

Half time saw the return of the Kit-Kats - and the welcome return of their provider, (though her claim to have picked up my stomach bug by way of having spoken to me on MSN will require further investigation by the medical authorities before they accept it as gospel). The interval discussions included the breathtakingly abysmal piece of journalism that had allowed the Daily Mail to link West Ham with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

I kid you not - they were actually making something of the fact that the media consultant used by the club had also been retained by the McCann family. Even for a paper as poor as the Mail this has to plumb new depths. However, since I am by nature a helpful chap I'm willing to put them onto a new exclusive that they might not have previously considered: Peter Sutcliffe and Kevin McCabe are both Yorkshiremen. Go make something out of that irrelevance you morons.

We needed a sharper, more incisive start to the second half - and, thankfully we got it. Within 30 seconds. Bowyer started the move with a nod-down to Mullins who fed Cole. Cole's subsequent pass was as good as his first half efforts had been poor and he played a smashing little ball into Bowyer who had continued his run from deep to bury a first time volley home inside the post.

It was a fine goal - good build-up and an excellent finish that reminded one of how Bowyer had played back in the days when he had been playing European football for teams like Leeds. It was also probably the first bit of direct and pacy football that we'd seen from the home side all match. It was a lesson well-learned.

We only had to wait another five minutes for the lead to be doubled and Cole again was involved. The move started deep in home territory with Collins feeding Neill whose ball inside to Mullins looked a bit risky in all honesty. However, Mullins found Matty who played the ball wide right to Cole. There seemed little danger at first as Cole had no support out on the right but the Boro' challenges were week bordering on the non-existent as Cole was able to advance to the edge of the box. His attempted pass to the unmarked Mullins found Luke Young in the "Corridor of Uncertainty" and the full-back could only divert the ball past the stranded 'keeper.

To their credit Boro' didn't sit back and sulk and they put together some moves of their own and Green had to be alert to deal with a curled Mido effort from distance - though Tuncay's run in front of the 'keeper might have had us all asking for offside had Green not made the save.

Matty had decided to get more involved and a good run found him get the better of Young only for his cross to be pulled-back behind everyone and from the resulting break Tuncay found himself one-on-one with Green only for his lob to beet the 'keeper and bounce off the top of the crossbar. Collins had been the guilty party in the move running up well after the ball had been played to leave Tuncay onside - though Neill was also playing him on at the same time.

Cole's part in the goals had given him confidence and he did well to win a corner. Some restrained mayhem ensued with the ball getting stuck under players' feet in the manner of a playground match. Or perhaps Spurs. Upson restored some sense of order by pulling the ball out and driving over from 12 yards.

Any problems we had were largely of our own making - principally arising through the day's habit of trying to play a bleeding offside trap. Downing fed Tuncay only for the hapless Turk to find Green in fine form at his near post. Green rightly did his nut at his defence - you often see 'keepers doing this because it's part of the job description but in this case he really had a point.

We finally got the breathing space the insane use of the offside trap demanded on the hour. Again it started from deep. Collins mopped up a long ball from Boro' with a calm but effective pass inside to Mullins who had the time and space to play a marvellous ball out to the unmarked Etherington. Matty measured up his low cross to perfection.

Cole went near and committed his defender Ashton was following up at the far post and buried the ball for his first proper goal since a certain afternoon in Cardiff. I had a dodgy stomach that day too. The smile on Ashton's face was wider than the gap between a Mail journalist's ears and who can blame him after a year like that.

The goal settled us and we started going forward in waves. Mullins found Linda whose cross was a shade too high for Cole to get a decent touch on. Another ball from the back saw a resurgent Cole feed Ashton who nearly played in Mullins only for a block to thwart the midfielder. The ball came out to Etherington whose cross was again at a height slightly too awkward for Cole to get a proper touch.

There was still time for more offside shenanigans though. A long ball from the back found Tuncay in miles of space, Neill being the guilty party on this occasion. Tuncay screwed his shot across the face of the goal and harmlessly wide to the amusement of the Chicken Run who greeted the miss with the umpire's signal for a boundary four. The amusement turned to bemusement as the ref and linesman between them came to the conclusion that the miss had been the result of a Rob Green save though it had appeared that the 'keeper's intervention had not been required. Thankfully Boro' made nothing of the corner.

With a shade under a quarter of an hour left Matty was replaced by Boa-Morte, a move that was swifly followed by the replacement of Ashton by Ljungberg as Curbishley signalled his intention to play five across the middle. Ljungberg's first contribution was to get himself booked for a tug having lost the ball. Hardly worth a booking in the context of the match really but given one just the same.

Much better was his contribution to the move that should have seen us go four up. Combining well on the break as Boro' pushed forward in search of consolation, Freddie found Cole totally unmarked with just the keeper to beat only for him to screw the ball wide when he ought to have scored.

It was a similar miss to that performed by Darren Bent for Spurs against Arsenal with the possible consolation for us that ours had been about ?14m cheaper. It was a shame as Cole had had a poor first half but had got into the game in the second period through sheer bloody-mindedness and, on the whole, had probably deserved a goal for his efforts.

Cole it was who won a late free-kick that was drilled over from 25 yards by LBM. Cole won yet another free-kick on the right and Collins met Neill's angled delivery with a firm unchallenged header that sadly lacked direction. The last bit of meaningful action came at the death when LBM retrieved the ball on the right hand side to play in Bowyer whose fierce drive brought a good save out of Schwarzer. Nothing came of the corner and the final whistle went to make it six on the trot at home to Boro'.

This was the classic "game of two halves" and comments to the effect that the international break had taken something out of some of the players were spot on. Neill in particular looked like someone who had flown to Melbourne and back. Having said that no amount of jet lag could excuse the number of times we tried to play the offside trap and the score could have been a lot different but for the excellence of Green and some frankly awful finishing from the visitors.

It seems churlish to be finding stuff to criticise after a 3-0 victory but it was heartening to hear that the post-match talk in the changing room had been about the defence - it indicates to me a refreshing lack of complacency. Having said that 3-0 is 3-0...

Next up is Newcastle where, no doubt, the local editions of the Mail are somehow linking us with the demise of the Northern Rock bank which is based up in those parts. See you up there - I'll be the one carrying the oxygen cylinders for the ascent to the away seats!

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Punched one that I thought he ought to have held in the second half but kept us in front with some important saves. England's loss is our gain.

Lucas Neill
If you spend 36 hours on a plane in midweek you are going to be struggling come Saturday. Which presumably is why they make the pilots take a few hours off from time to time.

George McCartney
Another who had an interesting flight home midweek - though it didn't take 36 hours. Occasionally slow to push up thus rendering the offside trap useless.

James Collins
Generally sound although he was another one who was guilty of offside antics from time to time.

Matthew Upson
Clearly not quite at ease in the absence of Ferdinand with whom he has been developing a decent partnership.

Hayden Mullins
Much-maligned in certain quarters for me he was the pick of the midfield today. Got his foot in and, as the game progressed, his distribution was excellent - particularly out to the left.

Mark Noble
Clearly he feels the effects of two games in a week but he ran his socks off and got through a lot of work without quite stamping his authority on the game as we know he can.

Lee Bowyer
Is beginning to make those late runs from the deep that have been his trade mark in the past - fine finish for the goal.

Matthew Etherington
Starved of service in the first half he came into the match a lot more in the second period culminating in his role in the third goal.

Craig Bellamy
Clearly suffering from the combined effects of a groin strain, a midweek international and the joys of new parenthood, the one decent run he made did for him after 25 minutes.

Dean Ashton
Not quite back to his best but a good game nevertheless and a vast improvement on his run out at Reading. A fully fit Ashton with a fully fit Bellamy will be worth watching.


Carlton Cole
(replaced Bellamy, 26) Nothing went right for him in the first half but he was bizarrely effective in the second, playing a major part in all three goals. Sadly, when given a gilt edged chance to make it four he failed to capitalize.

Luis Boa Morte
(replaced Bowyer, 81) Some good link-up play on the left in the short period he was on.

Freddie Ljungberg
(replaced Ashton, 81) Like Boa-Morte, he was involved in the move that laid on a sitter for Cole late on.

Richard Wright
Did not play.

Danny Gabbidon
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, Lucas Neill, George McCartney, James Collins, Matthew Upson, Hayden Mullins, Mark Noble, Lee Bowyer, Matthew Etherington, Craig Bellamy, Dean Ashton.

Goals: Lee Bowyer 46 Luke Young (og) 49 Dean Ashton 62              .

Booked: George McCartney 50 Freddie Ljungberg 85        .

Sent Off: None sent off.     .

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Young, Wheater, Taylor, Woodgate, Boateng, Rochemback, Arca, Downing, Aliadiere, Mido.

Subs not used: Jones, Lee.

Goals: .

Booked: Tuncay (68).

Sent off: None.

Referee: S.Bennett.

Attendance: 34,351.

Man of the Match: Hayden Mullins.