Filed: Monday, 3rd November 2014
By: Paul Walker
They say you learn something ever day in life…well, we certainly do every weekend if you follow West Ham around the country.
It has so far been a spectacular season, fourth for a couple of weeks, now fifth, these are days I never thought I would witness. Usually we are worrying about the results of the also-rans, the cannon fodder that makes up the lower reaches of the Premier League.
The only time I normally bother about Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, etc is hoping they win their games against the ordinary folk we normally rub shoulders with. Now I have found myself hoping the same clubs drop points so we can stay in the top four. It was fun watching Man United and Liverpool fail to win their games in hand to overtake us last week.
Yes, I know I cannot expect this to last, surely we do not have the strength and power to maintain our current position. But who knows? It’s just fun looking at the top of the table for a change.
And I must admit to being constantly surprised by what I am watching. At Stoke on Saturday we were worse than poor for an hour, two down and back to the bad old ways. But then we come back from two down for the first time on our travels in three-and-a-half years. And now have the best opening run of results since 1999. Sometimes it’s hard to make it up.
What we saw at Stoke was just another step on the learning curve we are all on with this team. Not so much that we hit back so well, but why we hit back. The manager changed tactics, the players refused to give up and our new men showed they had backbone. And that brings me to Mark Hughes and his band of innocents.
Last season we scored first but were easily rolled over 3-1 at the Britannia. Normally at two down, we would have lost by four after being given the usual kicking from those delicate flowers from the Potteries.
When Tony Pulis sent out his team to be thugs, he gave it the “little old Stoke, no money and having the do this to survive after promotion,” bit. And we all felt sorry for them.
Now Hughes, who has never been an innocent from his playing days through to management, sends out his team to throw in all the dark arts in a far more cynical way than the obvious Pulis regime. And then Hughes has the cheek to complain about referee Chris Foy not sorting out Alex Song for that tackle.
Referee Foy had a poor game. And the Daily Mail’s campaign against penalty box wrestling did us no favours. The Mail waged a week-long character assassination of Ryan Shawcross, described by Jamie Carragher as a “serial offender.”
Foy, seemingly unwilling to be swayed by the media, seemed to be bending over backwards not to be accused of such a thing, so Shawcross and pals got away with plenty of cynical stuff that may well have been punished in other circumstances. Big Sam mentioned it in the aftermath to try to defend Song.
When you have Shawcross in the side, you can have no complaints about dodgy tackles. I don’t understand why Foy decided to suspended for the duration of the match the law about challenges from behind. It meant Shawcross battered Enner Valencia at every opportunity.
And this is what we learnt about our Ecuador star. He is brave and having realised that moaning to the referee was not going to help, decided to hit Stoke where it hurt. With talent. A fine diving header and then a superb run and cross for Stewart Downing’s equaliser said it all about our new signing.
The cross for the second goal had all the hallmarks of his assist for the first against Manchester City put away by Morgan Amalfitano, who was one of several of our players who couldn’t stop complaining about Stoke’s tactics. He was belted in the mouth, while Winston Reid, Mark Noble, Adrian and James Tomkins all needed treatment for some dodgy tackles.
Amalfitano was rightly withdrawn at the break and we reverted to the diamond system with Carlton Cole on to do battle with Shawcross. Cole is looking as fit as I have ever seen him, and he is not quite so easy to knock around as Valencia. Still not sure why Big Sam, who knows only too well what to expect at Stoke, didn’t start with Cole when Diafra Sakho was ruled out.
I will try, and I know it’s hard, to produce a case to defend Song. His trailing leg was , marginally, not off the ground, he looked to be bending his knee to avoid impact and there was no hint of contact. So Foy was right to play advantage, that Victor Moses messed up and gave us the ball is no fault of the referee and he cannot then go back and change the initial decision.
He could have eventually booked Song. But after seeing Sergio Aguero get away with a late tackle that could have broken Mark Noble’s ankle the week before, my sympathy is very limited for Stoke’s cause, or Hughes‘ outburst. Live by the sword, die by it, is my view.
So we discovered that our team has heart and a willingness to fight back. Last week against Man City we realised that they were capable of a high-tempo, intense performance with the capability to concentrate throughout and put in the hard yards needed to nullify better players.
The buzz in the bars at half-time during that game was something special. Fans were blinking in disbelief at the quality of our play to halt the champions. The previous week against Burnley the team showed they could collectively raise their game to over-power brave, willing but inferior opponents.
And during the summer we also learnt that our board and manager can put together a top quality transfer window. Yes, I am still surprised at that.
All in all we have gone up a class throughout the side, and now we don’t go away with fans not expecting much. And those away crowds are impressive. We sold out at Stoke, all but sold out at Burnley and are already well into the allocations for West Brom and Everton, with the club seemingly prepared to take bigger allocations than last term.
Our fans are singing “Barcelona, we’re coming for you” which shows a sense of humour, some irony and the ability not to take ourselves too seriously. But underneath all this is a club waiting to explode. We have put up with so much dross, so many relegation battles, that the mere hint of a barmaid’s apron is too intoxicating.
It is producing a following who believe that anything is possible, and a team who respond to constant support. At home, too, the noise was fantastic for the City game, a fervour I have not experienced in years.
It tends to back up my feeling that we will not be playing at a half-empty Olympic Stadium. Our support is vast and all it has needed is belief that something is worthy of their backing. It has been like taking a cork out of a bottle recently, seeing the expectation and the backing burst out into the open.
Frankly I don’t really know where this is going. We are going to hit a bad patch for sure but we only need about seven more wins from the final 28 matches to be safe from relegation. I know, that sounds like an old hand talking, but it is always my first requirement.
But the way we are playing, and with the confidence and team spirit on show now, maybe we will all start to look to the top half rather than the bottom of the table in months ahead. That will be a learning curve worth witnessing. Price of a plane ticket to Catalonia, anyone?
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
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