Saturday, 24th April 2004
Here comes the sun
An early morning meet in E11 found that forum member Wanstead had only got home at 5am having continued to take on board fluids even though it had been the best part of a week since he'd finished his 11th London Marathon. His liquid intake continued throughout the 2 hour drive until we hit the outskirts of Stoke On Trent when a very croaky voice announced from the back seat that we were now “down to the champagne”. This was duly opened on arrival at the ground which, in the manner of many modern stadia, is located in a sort of retail/industrial park well away from the city centre leaving us with a Harvester as the only other source of liquid sustenance. So there we were, soaking up the sun, sipping bubbly in a beer garden where Ron Manager was promptly located and the world put to rights. It almost seemed a shame to interrupt things by going across the road to watch the football but, since we were there........
The omens were not good to start with. On the plus side the returns of Carrick and Etherington to the midfield were more than welcome. On the minus side the Stoke DJ decided to play “Build Me Up Buttercup”. Twice. In 10 minutes. The opening exchanges were fairly even with both sides enjoying little pockets of possession without really dominating or looking like scoring. The closest either side came was on about 10 minutes in. A long throw from the Stoke left was won in the air by Noel-Williams whose header, though lacking in pace or proper direction, still had Bywater scrambling backwards to tip the ball over the bar.
Following this incident the game really died as any sort of meaningful spectacle and I was convinced that we'd go into the break goalless. So, of course, with about 5 minutes of the half remaining we scored. Mullins broke into the box where the ball was played into Zamora. The ball seemed to ricochet between Zamora's legs and those of the two defenders marking him. Connolly pounced on the loose ball and stuck it past the keeper inside the far post. It wasn't the cleanest of goals but unless clean goals start to count double neither I, nor I suspect David Connolly, will give a damn.
We could have gone 2-0 up almost immediately. Zamora picked up the ball on the right side of midfield and embarked on a tormenting run which finished with a low drive that can't have missed by much and we finished the half looking strangely in control for once.
The second half commenced with a rare chance for the home side when Commons burst into the left hand side of the box before seeing his shot pushed away by Bywater for a corner. However, aside from pouncing on the odd stray kick from Bywater, that was the last effort of note from Stoke as we started to grow visibly in confidence.
The tireless Connolly fed Etherington wide on our left but Zamora was unable to convert the low cross. However things got better on the hour. Much better. Harewood, who was beginning to look interested after a quiet start, won the ball in midfield and laid it off to Connolly. Connolly continued his run forward before playing the ball into the path of Etherington whose cross seemed to clip a defender on the way through. As a result the ball hung invitingly for Harewood to head home from about a yard out in front of the excellent away support.
Following the second goal it really was a case of complete control. Connolly and Harewood both forced Cutler into making saves whilst Carrick saw an effort from distance go high and wide.
If the first goal had gone some way to restoring the confidence of a player or two, the second acted as a veritable shot in the arm. The ball was played around with an attitude bordering on disdain. Players actually worked for each other and it was most pleasing to see people really wanting the ball for once.
With 20 minutes remaining Connolly – who'd run his legs off as usual – was replaced by Hutchison, whilst with a little under 15 minutes left, the tiring Etherington was given a well deserved rest when Cohen came on for him. There was to be no late scare, no late goal causing us to endure a shaky last five minutes and, such was the paucity of opposition, a large portion of the surprisingly small home support was seen to be making its way for the exit well before the final whistle.
There's something great about the journey home after an away win. The conversation takes on a lighter tone, there's always someone worth laughing at on 606 – even if you don't count Alan Green - and even the queue to get out of the car park somehow seems shorter. Not that Wanstead would have noticed – he was asleep and snoring within seconds of the ignition key being turned.
So three vital points gained by way of a good team performance during a week when when some of the other results were favourable but others were less so. A few weeks ago the play-offs looked to be a distant hope – a far away country that we had no chance of visiting. Now, after a couple of wins and a few improbable results elsewhere, it's in our own hands. This season has had so many twists and turns though I really don't want to tempt fate but it would be nice to be drinking champagne for reasons other than the fact that we've run out of beer!
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Made two important saves – one in each half. Otherwise not overly tested. Two dody kicks left hearts in mouths.
Confidence grew as the game progressed and it was probably his best game in a West Ham shirt.
Although a couple of early passes failed to reach their intended destination Mullins recovered to have another strong game.
Stoke's attack was tailor made for the skipper who dealt easily with the limited threat posed.
Plays best when keeping it simple and, after he'd settled down he did just that.
A little bit off the pace to start off with following his return from injury but improved as the game progressed.
Got his sleeves rolled up, got stuck in and directed operations well.
Despite not being quite match fit Matty was still a constant threat to Stoke and we are indeed fortunate that he's made his recovery in time for the run-in.
Caused the Stoke defence a fair few problems. His touch seemed to improve as the game progressed and he started to hold the ball up well.
Started off as if he wasn't interested then, suddenly, he was everywhere. Started and finished the move for his goal.
Must have sweated off a few lbs in the heat as he chased everything under the sun. First to react to the loose ball for the first goal.
(Replaced Etherington, 63) Quietly effective in keeping things tidy on the left.
(Replaced Connolly, 77) Looked quite sharp when replacing Connolly – a fit and hungry Hutch will be an asset durng the run-in.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Man of the Match: Marlon Harewood.
West Ham United
Goals: David Connolly 39 Marlon Harewood 59
Booked: None booked. .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Cutler, Halls, Thomas, Taggart, Marcus Hall, Henry, Clarke, Hoekstra, Commons, Russell, Noel-Williams.
Substitutes: Svard (Hoekstra 45), Palmer (Hall 66), Gunnarsson (Russell 85).
Subs not used: De Goey, Hill.
Booked: Taggart (70).
Sent Off: None sent off..