Aston Villa 1 West Ham United 0

Saturday, 6th October 2007
by Alex Shilling

As I ticked off the 14th club in the Premiership and Football League’s groundhopper's list I gazed around before I entered the stadium to get a more accurate view of Birmingham as a city. Walking from Whitton station, the old man and I had passed three brothels, four sex shops, countless run-down bookies and greasy takeaways. 'Not as nice as Greenwich then?' was the comment from pater. 'Not even as nice as Millwall,' I murmured back.

Judas bites back

Aston Villa's programme is not really that bad with decent content, qualified writers, and above all, a decent price at ?2.50. I flicked through it and on page 5 located an article titled 'Nigel's 'priceless' Hammer time'. Priceless? Now Reo-Coker is more intelligent than your average footballer, with no interest in golf, a library built into his pad and a highly academic family behind him (he turned down a career as a doctor to pursue the game he loves) but surely not even he could find the cruel irony in the events of last season?

Fortunately not. It was merely an article about Nigel claiming he had been made a stronger person by last season, where he apparently 'helped' us stay up. Wrong, Nige. You tried to wreck our team when things started to go wrong and then didn't like the backlash. Our survival was despite you, not because of you. I think I speak for the vast majority of West Ham fans when I say that I don't care what you do with your career and your life from now on. Give him a kick for us, Nobes.

One change which Villa had made to their ground, on the back of their new(ish) American owners arriving (and one which I think our owners should make) was to make the view for away fans worse. A pyschological masterstroke. Except it only made us sing louder, and ' claret and blue, you're having a laugh' was soon bouncing around the Doug Ellis Lower.

The Irons looked strong in the opening quarter and with about 20 minutes gone, several obscene gestures were being directed at the Trinity Road stand to our right when Camara put the ball in the net. Unfortunately, they were returned with interest when it emerged that what looked like an incredibly brave diving header was in fact an outrageous recreation of Maradona's first goal against England in '86, ironically on the ground where the two teams from that day were due to play a re-match.

There's trouble at mill

With about 20 minutes gone, Henri Camara started running a bit more slowly. Then he reached the pace of a League Two goalkeeper, and then, given a 40-yard start in a Bentley, even Christian Dailly could have caught up with him. He limped off, and Carlton Cole stumbled on to ironic cheers from both sets of fans. With Camara off and the proverbial three-legged donkey on, the pressure on us increased but with it came huge, ripping attacks down the centre of the park by the speedy Villa front line.

Ljungberg started having to retreat back into his own half more often, and was never far from the near penalty area. About 20 minutes before half time, Agbonlahor raced down the wing (bringing back vivid memories of my favourite childhood film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, with cheetahs playing football, and burning holes down the pitch with their speed). He tried to turn, and was held off by Gabbidon. It looked a fair challenge to me (and emerged later on Match of the Day that the Villa striker had slipped), but it was a challenge from behind on the edge of the penalty area and nine times out of ten, free kicks are given in those situations. Unfortunately for us, this was about the seventh or eighth time. Inevitably the free-kick was scored, after a deflection, but it had been coming for a long time.

The second half started in the same fashion as the first had ended, with Villa playing slick passing football, and us being heavily pinned back and resorting to hoofing long balls out/up to the wings/Deano. It was around this time also, that I realised that Mark Noble wasn't on the pitch. At first I thought his tackle on Alexander Hleb the previous weekend had warranted him a suspension but it turned out that Curbishley had actually dropped him. No bloody wonder we had been pinned back in the first half!

'There have been no changes from either side as we begin the second half' announced the Villa Park tannoy. For the first time that afternoon, the away section fell silent. Carlton Cole really was trying, chasing, harrying, tackling and was finally pushed over in the area by Zat Knight. No penalty. Confused by this, Lucas Neill went up the other end and did exactly the same thing to Ashley Young, and was very lucky to get away with it.

Villa were having most of the play now and had overtaken us in the corner count. Lucas Neill was looking increasingly less confident and was being overrun by the Villa strikers every time they attacked down the wing. Ljungberg was doubling back to cover Neill's backside. He might has well have stayed at home to watch his Australia team get tonked by England in the rugby.

As the game entered its last 20 minutes we desperately needed a midfielder on, and we had a Portuguese international and one of England's brightest young hopes at our disposal. 'Substitution for...' we held our breath, 'Aston Villa.' Curbishley had kept up his impeccable record for not knowing which players to pick and having no idea when to make a substitution.

Noble did eventually get on, as did Boa Morte, but only in the last 10 minutes when the only one of our players who could be bothered to chase anything was Carlton. But, as we did last year at this ground, we had one last chance, with Boa Morte on the wing. Great cross, and Cole... no. Taking it away from Deano and Ljungberg in the process. What you might call a completely wasted afternoon.

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Dealt with most things comfortably apart from one occasion in the first half where he completely missed a cross. Couldn't do anything about the goal.

Lucas Neill
Has looked completely out of his depth in the last three matches and against Villa's pacy forwards today.

George McCartney
Did well. Looked good going forward, and was tidy and efficient at the back.

Danny Gabbidon
Played very well up until the goal. Maybe Collins would be a better choice for Sunderland in a couple of weeks.

Matthew Upson
Dealt with most things well, but was occasionally beaten to the ball by smaller players. Needs to work hard in training this week.

Lee Bowyer
Good effort, good distribution, improving with every game.

Hayden Mullins
Did everything that was required of him, but you do feel that we would have got more out of the game with Noble on from the start.

Freddie Ljungberg
Was at the heart of most of our attacks but his distribution was poor at times and he clearly needs to work on his final ball.

Matthew Etherington
Not bad. Nothing like his rampaging best that we saw at Reading a few weeks ago but got stuck in.

Henri Camara
Looked dangerous when he was on the pitch. Not entirely sure what he thought he was doing when he punched the ball in though.

Dean Ashton
Didn't see much from him, largely due to the lack of service. Looked a bit tired and eventually did his knee ligaments.


Carlton Cole
(replaced Camara, 36) Best work ethic in the whole squad; he tried and tried. I just wish the fans would get off his back.

Mark Noble
(replaced Mullins, 80) If Curbs was trying to get the best out of him by the stick rather than the carrot, this wasn't the game to do it in.

Luis Boa Morte
(replaced Etherington, 81) Decent when he came on for the last five minutes or so. Put in a great cross for Carlton Cole.

Richard Wright
Did not play.

James Collins
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, Lucas Neill, George McCartney, Danny Gabbidon, Matthew Upson, Lee Bowyer, Hayden Mullins, Freddie Ljungberg, Matthew Etherington, Henri Camara, Dean Ashton.

Goals: None.

Booked: Henri Camara 9 George McCartney 73        .

Sent Off: None sent off.     .

Aston Villa: Carson, Mellberg, Laursen, Bouma, Knight, Gardner, Reo-Coker, Barry, Young, Moore, Agbonlahor.

Subs not used: Taylor, Davies, Osbourne.

Goals: Gardner (24).

Booked: Knight (36), Reo-Coker (55), Mellberg (68).

Sent off: None.

Referee: S.Tanner.

Attendance: 40,824.

Man of the Match: Freddie Ljungberg.