Premier League
West Ham United 2 Wigan Athletic 1

Saturday, 16th August 2008
by Gordon Thrower

Excellent start, a wobble in the middle but a good steady finish to take the honours. But enough of Essexís marvellous victory at Lordís. What of West Ham?

The first game of the season is usually a time for optimism. Unburdened by the experience of recent poor form it is traditional to look on the brighter aspects of the pre-season and thoughts turn to a decent spell in the league, possible qualification for European competition and maybe a trip to Wembley. Older readers will perhaps recall picking up a copy of Shoot magazine and putting together the League Ladders thing with West Ham at the top and Liverpool at the bottom pending the start of the season - a mate of mine used to place his in alphabetical order throughout but we all thought he was a bit strange, especially as he was the only kid in the school who actually knew how goal average worked. This season has been a bit different. Even after relegation I cannot recall so much doom and despondency amongst the faithful, and our pre-match discussions reflected this to a large extent - especially since our initial plan to distract ourselves by watching Essex lift the Friends Provident Trophy against some bunch of caravan-dwellers had been thwarted by the lack of appropriate satellite technology at our chosen venue. Still it wasn't all bad news - I saw Chalks buy a round and, since this event occurs with about the same regularity as the return of Halley's Comet I decided to take this as a good omen.

Team news was largely as expected. McCartney had failed to recover from whatever ailment it is that was troubling him - a virus I think was the official explanation. This meant a move over to the left for Neill with new-boy Behrami fitting in at right-back leaving us with a starting line-up of Green, Behrami, Neill, Upson, Davenport, Noble, Parker, Faubert, Etherington, Ashton, Cole.

Well if we'd wanted a start to blow away some of the gloom we definitely got it as we took the lead with a fine goal. The move started with a clever turn from Noble in midfield that changed the entire direction of the move. Noble moved the ball out wide to Faubert who played a decent ball into Ashton. Scharner gave Ashton about a square foot too much of space and Deano's first touch bought the striker the time to fire an unstoppable shot into the top corner past Kirkland. It was a superb finish - and a timely one with England boss Capello in attendance.

Wigan tried to come back and an unnecessary foul from Parker on the right which caused a few jitters before Scharner clattered Green to bring the move to an end. Another Wigan move down the left ended up with a pull back to Zaki who, not for the last time in the afternoon, troubled the spectators towards the back of the stand rather than Green.

Things got better on 10 minutes. A lively-looking Etherington picked up a nod-on from Cole and forced a corner off Melchiot. Faubert's corner was helped on by Cole and Davenport got a hook shot in which eluded Kirkland leaving Ashton to flick the ball home from close range. Ten gone, two up and the traditional "we are top of the league" chants to the fore. Life at that particular moment was sweet.
We continued to press forward. Etherington, in one of his confident moods, took on Boyce and forced another corner. Faubert's corner found Cole whose clever header required Kirkland to tip over the bar. The usual suspects in our part of the ground were left scratching our heads trying to remember the last time we'd looked dangerous from two corners in a row.

Wigan went forward and forced a corner on the left and a goal-bound header saw Cole turn defender to clear superbly from under the bar, the spectators towards the back of the stand getting a bit more catching practice, this time courtesy of Wigan defender Figueroa.

Ref Bennett was causing concern. Cole was kicked up in the air from behind with no free-kick being given. Fortunately Etherington was hauled down seconds later so there was little harm done but anyone who thought Bennett's performance was worthy of the FA's much vaunted "Respect" campaign clearly needs to look at a dvd of what was, even by the poor current standards of English refereeing, a shockingly sub-standard performance.

Faubert's cross found Davenport whose header caused panic before being smuggled out for a corner. Faubert's corner found its way to the edge of the box but Noble couldn't keep the ball down and there was more catching practice for the customers towards the back of the stand as the half came to a close.

So with the interval over and slimline Kit-Kats having been consumed what was required was a good 10 minute spell to take the sting out of the anticipated early push from Wigan before picking off a third goal to put the match to bed. We lasted all of three minutes. Although Ashton did well to get on to the end of an Etherington cross his volley wouldn't have counted his shove on the defender having been spotted by the linesman.

Wigan are noted for their somewhat unsophisticated approach and the long throw is much applauded in those parts. The emergence of Figueroa in the Wigan defence means that Melchiot can stick to making fou; throws from one side of the pitch only. Unlike the former Chelsea man, Figueroa seems able to deliver the ball without illegally raising his back foot and his throw into the box was nodded on by Heskey and Zaki was able to hook an unstoppable volley home from twelve yards to send the laughably small away support wild until somebody coughed to drown out their celebrations.

It could have been worse when Davenport found himself deceived by the bounce from a long hoof forward. Zaki had got the wrong side of the defender and a slight pull saw the Egyptian throw himself up into the air with a fine display of a mid-air twist, executed presumably just in case Bennett hadn't spotted the foul - admittedly there was a fair chance of that. Bennett - in quite possibly the only correct piece of refereeing he undertook all afternoon- correctly considered the "four Ds" (distance to ball, distance to goal, direction of ball and number of defenders) and decided that a yellow was sufficient punishment there having been no denial of a goalscoring opportunity. Kapo's free-kick was blocked for a corner which was cleared eventually.
The goal had signalled a worrying return to the "lets bypass the midfield" tactics that seemed to be in place whenever Ashton and Cole played together last season. The passing seemed to have gone to pieces as the easy ball trough midfield seemed out of fashion in favour of the hit and hope school of play. We did force a corner from a long punt admittedly and Etheringon's eventual angled cross found Cole in a good position only for the striker to put his header straight wide without getting the angle on the header that the run required.

The aerial onslaught continued. A (laughably foul) throw from Melchiot was cleared to Figueroa whose volley gave the people towards the back of the stand some more catching practice. Faubert then made a bit of space for himself and, in a similar effort to one he had tried in the Villareal friendly, caught a low curling effort maybe a little too well as Kirkland saw it all the way.

We did have a few spells where football raised its head and a flowing move involving Ashton, Faubert and Behrami saw the Swiss international's clever pull-back find Fauber in good position only for the French man to get well under the shot to give the customers towards the back of the stand.....etc etc.

Parker then got caught dallying on the ball but Upson's saving tackle was magnificent - with the bonus of it going out off the forward for a goal kick. Not to be outdone Noble lost the ball in similar territory and the ball ended up being pulled back for Palacios to become the latest player to find me fumbling for a different way of mentioning the fans at the back of the stand.

Bennett then started to give free-kicks for imagined offences and Wigan pushed forward. When we did break out Bennett did his best to haul us back - a two-footed scythe of Faubert being apparently now legal. Respect Mr Bennett? Maybe when you go away and learn the laws of the game but until then your incompetency will draw only deserved contempt from these quarters. Having been given the ball back by Bennett's brainstorm, Valencia - shot from distance - people at the back of the stand - you get the picture.

We started defending deeper and deeper and, with the law on handball becoming the latest part of the referees' chart to be forgotten by Bennett the ball kept coming back with Cole making a couple of good defensive headers. Zaki then got between Upson and Neill only to put a weak header wide - presumably to give the customers towards the back of the stand a bit of a break.

Having tried a few passes Wigan returned to tactic one and another long throw got nodded on to Zaki. You'll never guess where his half volley ended up. (Clue some people may have got a bit more catching practice).

A foul on Carlton Cole was greeted by huge ironic cheers as Bennett gave the free kick but it really was far too far out to be sensibly thinking about a shot on goal even if you are looking for a hat-trick in front of the England boss. Ball? Back of stand. Ashton appeared to pull something in taking the free-kick and hobbled off for treatment not to return. On 72 minutes Parker was replaced by Mullins whilst Ashton - who was already off the pitch- was replaced by Sears.

Palacios then made a bit of room for himself and hit a powerful shot that, unusually, was going in rather than towards the back of the stand. Green was equal to the effort and made the tip over with Davenport clearing the corner. The ball eventually came out to Figueroa whose shot from 30 yards you may or may not be surprised to hear gave some catching practice to some people towards the, er, rear, of the stand.

With five left Boa-Morte replaced Faubert to a response mixed between those who rather senselessly wanted to boo him before he'd had a kick and those who deliberately tried to applaud him a bit louder to try to drown out the boos.

Wigan had one last chance in an almost certainly totally (but thankfully) incorrect period of stoppage time, a cross from the left being met first time by Zaki with strangely predictable results for those people at the back of the stand and we'd hung on for the three points.

This was the proverbial game of two halves. The first half proved that we can play football with a strike force of Ashton and Cole if we want to. The second half proved that once you start defending really deep it's difficult to play the football you proved you could play in the first half - if the midfielders are all in defence who can you pass the ball to? Still at the end of the day it's three points with a glimpse of what could be so there's a slight cause for optimism. Really. And Essex won as well so it's not all gloom. Just half of it.

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Player Ratings

Robert Green
Rarely bothered - unlike the back of the stand - but pulled off a fine save when required.

Valon Behrami
Looked good going forward but our defending deep policy curtailed his forages forward.

Lucas Neill
Looked a little better on the left than he had done in pre-season but I'll be happier when Linda's back.

Calum Davenport
Battled well - the odd lapse of concentration such as the one that led to his booking will have to go though.

Matthew Upson
Excellent and I make him MOTM for his calmness under the aerial onslaught.

Scott Parker
Gave the ball away a bit too often for my liking.

Nark Noble
An ok first half was tempered by his failure to show any authority in the second.

Julien Faubert
Got forward well but his final ball needs a bit of working on.

Matthew Etherington
Lively first half but disappeared from view in the second.

Dean Ashton
Took the goals well in an impressive first period though he was given little of the ball in the second period before he succumbed to injury.

Carlton Cole
Worked very hard throughout though it is perhaps notable that his most telling contributions came from defensive work.


Hayden Mullins
(replaced Parker, 73) Didn't really register in the spell he was on.

Fred Sears
(replaced Ashton, 73) A couple of good runs and won the ball off defenders a few times.

Luis Boa Morte
(replaced Faubert, 85) Not on for too long but tracked back superbly for one run to break up a promising Wigan break.

Jan Lastuvka
Did not play.

Jordan Spence
Did not play.

Lee Bowyer
Did not play.

Kyel Reid
Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Robert Green, Valon Behrami, Lucas Neill, Calum Davenport, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Nark Noble, Julien Faubert, Matthew Etherington, Dean Ashton, Carlton Cole.

Goals: Dean Ashton 3 Dean Ashton 10                .

Booked: Scott Parker 39 Calum Davenport 49        .

Sent off: None.

Wigan Athletic: Kirkland, Melchiot, Figueroa, Palacios, Boyce, Scharner, Cattermole, Valencia, Kapo, Heskey, Zaki.

Subs not used: Pollitt, Kilbane, Brown, Bramble.

Goals: Zaki (47).

Booked: Palacios (68).

Sent off: None.

Referee: Steve Bennett.

Attendance: 32,758.

Man of the Match: Matthew Upson.