Europa League
Birkirkara 1 West Ham United 0

Thursday, 23rd July 2015
by Gordon Thrower

A week in Malta? With a West Ham match thrown in at the end of it? Donít mind if I do!

It was a fantastic week spent largely in the company of Maltese and Mrs Hammer, whose hospitality far exceeded anything ever provided from these quarters, but even on those afternoons spent sat by the rooftop pool with a cold drink there was just a little nagging thing eating at the back of my mind and it was this: how many times have I sat in some bar and said out loud "Dammit I'm having far too good a time. Watch West Ham go and spoil it".
They came close.

A word about Malta. It was hot. And when I say hot I don't mean bog standard Mediterranean hot, I mean blast furnace levels of hot. Now I like the sun. I get a decent tan and don't tend to burn. However, on one day it got so hot that on my walk back from the beach I was forced to duck into an air-conditioned bar and neck a cold beer.

Yes, I suffered for this you know. In case you think I was wimping out as an excuse for a pint, it was 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit out there, the hottest recorded in Malta for 27 years. Though admittedly if there is a better excuse pop in too a bar for a pint I've yet to hear it.

The day before the match the team arrived and did a light training session in the stadium that started at 8.45pm. By this time temperatures had cooled down to a mere "something in the 80's". The session was a light one and notable for the fact that Joey O'Brien spent his time with a fitness coach concentrating purely on stretches. In the event it was Winston Reid who picked up what was later described as a "minor knock" and ended up being left out of the matchday squad as a precautionary measure.

So to matchday and the use of the country's national stadium reflected the fact that this was something of a big deal for the club. The pre-match atmosphere was being pumped up by an announcer who had clearly been drinking full-strength coffee non-stop ever since the draw had been announced.

Chief amongst his armoury of gee-up songs was what I presume from the lyric was the official club song. This was a cheesy slice of 1980s Eurodisco that wouldn't have been out of place as a Eurovision entry. This achieved its aim of stirring up the home support on each of the twenty occasions it was played before the match. Not that the home support really needed geeing up - they seemed quite capable of generating an atmosphere on their own.

On arrival with Mr & Mrs Hammer and Mrs Hammer's Dad we sorted seats which, in the home stand, were based on a free-for-all system. I then managed to locate a team sheet, which listed the players surname first, most amusingly in the case of our central defender, Tomkins, James, Oliver Charles. Bet he keeps that quiet. With Reid's absence the starting XI was San Miguel Del Castillo, Adrian, Cresswell, Aaron, Nolan, Kevin, Tomkins (J.O.C), Jarvis, Matthew, Kouyate Cheikhou, Zarate, Mauro Marias, Noble, Mark James, O'Brien, Joseph, Collins, James Michael, Amalfitano, Morgan. Sadly the unusual team sheet proved a bit much for the chap operating the scoreboard.

The home side kicked off and, with the fact that they would need to score to have any chance of progressing, went onto the front foot early doors, with Collins having to be on full alert to smuggle out a cross from the right. Things settled down for a while after that but, though we had a lot of possession we did little with it, before giving it away too easily. A Jarvis effort from the centre of goal was the best we could muster at this stage of the game, the shot being easily dealt with by Haber.

Our profligacy in possession was to prove costly on the quarter hour as once again a loose pass went astray. Birkirkara broke forward with pace - something notably absent from our game all evening - and Liliu broke down the right, his near post cross being buried by Miccoli to rapturous acclaim from the home support.

The game, which had always had an undercurrent of niggle, began to heat up. Noble picked up a yellow for a sly tug back and things boiled over shortly after as Miccoli stuck in a nasty challenge from behind that had "Made In Serie A" stamped all over it. Miccoli offered his hand in apology that was about as genuine as an election manifesto pledge. Noble was close to breaking point and angrily rejected the proffered hand. The ref had a word with both parties, booking Miccoli in the process. Meanwhile, we sat in fear of a mistimed Noble challenge leading to a red card. As it happened, whilst we were right to fear a red card, we got the identity of the recipient very wrong.

Zarate, putting his trickery to good use for once, got away from Mazzetti whose only response was to bring him down, gaining a yellow as a result. While the free-kick was awaited, the usual shenanigans were taking place. Vukanac grabbed Tomkins in a wrestling hold that included a large chunk of forearm stuck into the defender's face. Tomkins reacted by throwing Vukanac away, leading to Vukanac clutching his face in embarrassing style. No fewer than two physiotherapists came on to the pitch and it took them nearly five minutes to treat a non-existent injury.

Once they had performed CPR on him, Vucanac came out of his coma to be presented with a yellow. Laughably, given that the whole thing had resulted from Vucanac's violent conduct in the first place, Tomkins was given a red. One theory was that the ref didn't know whether to write down Tomkins, James Oliver Charles, or J C Oliver, eventually electing to show a red and let the 4th official sort it all out. As it happened the ref's explanation to Bilic was that Tomkins had elbowed Vucanac. I guess that makes some sense - a fictional offence leading to a fictional injury.

Half Time: FC Birkirkara 1-1 West Ham United (Agg 1-1)

Well it was a half that had started dispiritingly and had gone from bad to worse. We expected changes after half-time but in the end the second half started with the same ten that had finished the first with Kouyate slipping back to partner Collins at in the centre of defence.

I have no idea what the possession stats were for the second half but to me it appears that we had a lot of the ball without doing a hell of a lot with it. Jarvis in particular got into decent space on a number of occasions, only to hit his cross too long, too short or straight into the 'keeper's arms.

We made a double change on the hour. Nolan and Amalfitano left to be replaced by Poyet and Maiga. But the net effect was minimal. Chances were few and far between at either end, especially since the home side had reverted to trying to play on the break.

The worry was that our lack of pace might prove costly in the event of a quick break, something that led to one particular heart in mouth moment as Adrian and a forward were entered into a foot race by a long ball played from the back. For a second it looked 50-50 as to who would win but the 'keeper prevailed. Our hearts stayed in our mouths a second or two longer as the referee's signal looked a little ambiguous in the face of a home crowd baying for a penalty but thankfully this was one decision he got right.

As the game petered out and the crowd were having a breather (note to the dreadful England Supporters Band - Birkirkara's lot know considerably more than four tunes. Just saying.) the announcer who had turned everything on the PA up to eleven gave it some welly for one last time to gee the support up for one last effort; a well-meaning move that sadly will probably cost the club a fine from UEFA, who, having eradicated racism from Russian football are back concentrating on the important things in life.

And so the 90 minutes came to an end with the aggregate scores level.

Full Time: FC Birkirkara 1-0 West Ham United (Agg 1-1)

For the first half of extra time not much happened. We had loads of possession but our lack of pace, shortage of ideas and inability to send over a decent cross meat that little was happening chance wise. The second half was notable principally for the dismissal of Mazzetti for the home side, a second yellow being issued for a spot of dissent after Zarate had been slyly tugged back. Mazetti took an age to leave the pitch and Ginge's attempts to help him on his way earned him a depressingly pointless yellow - MC James you are old enough to know better. Samuelson replaced Jarvis just in time to hear the final whistle.

So penalties then. Cool efforts from Noble and Zarate were cancelled out. Cesswell made it 3-2 before Vucanac skied his into the crowd. Clearly the football karma gods had returned from the tea break they had been on in the first half just in time to give the miraculously recovered defender a spot of justice. The guy on the scoreboard awarded the goal anyway, presumably in the hope that the ref was using the scoreboard to keep count.

O'Brien's effort was quite high into the goal and caused a slight palpitation from our angle. This was cancelled out leaving young Poyet to roll the ball home and seal the tie.

So we scraped through then, Far from convincing, though the all the hand-wringing should be tempered by a number of caveats. There are plenty of new signings and other absentees about to suggest that as we (hopefully) progress the starting line-ups will change significantly. Payet for one would have almost certainly have made a difference for this one. Also, for these players it is still pre-season. These matches are a bit difficult in that they try to combine the usual pre-season targets of building up fitness and avoiding injury with the aim of getting a result - not mutually exclusive aims but often aims that conflict slightly.

That said we need to wise up a bit in certain areas. First Sakho and now Tomkins have been suckered into red cards. Teams in Europe do that sort of thing and the sooner we learn how not to react the better - and I'm including you in that Mr Noble.

After the press conferences I was left with the problem of how to get back to my hotel. Both the cab numbers I had were busy. Seeing my confusion as I milled around aimlessly in the secure area outside the ground, a gentleman offered to call the cab numbers he had stored in his mobile for me. However, his cab firms were also fully booked. Still it was nice of Haber, the Maltese 'keeper (for it was he) to try for me. I can't see Joe Hart trying to help me out if I get stuck up in Manchester next season. In the end Maltese Hammer stepped into the breach one last time braving the traffic to deposit me and a waif and stray heading in the same direction.

Some time on the journey home my phone bleeped to announce the arrival of an email from the club to thank me for my automatic purchase of a ticket for the home leg v Astra. They didn't waste any time in getting the cash in did they!

A few "thank yous" are definitely required for this report. Firstly Romford for pointing me in the right direction on the travel front. Cheers to Rob Pritchard and Sophie Bradley on the media side of the club for sorting me out with the appropriate accreditation and generally being very helpful despite obviously being very busy.

Finally to Maltese & Mrs Hammer an infinite number of thanks for the wonderful time taken to show me around their islands and to look after me. Her Majesty The Queen (gawd bless) will be out there in November for the Commonwealth Conference and won't receive anything remotely approaching the treatment I got from these two wonderful people who took time out of their lives to put up with all my A-Level Geography Student-type questions about their country. I'll definitely be back!

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Player Ratings

Adrian San Miguel del Castillo
No chance with the goal and dealt with what little other threat that there was quite comfortably.

Joey O Brien
Too casual on the ball. Got caught out of position a couple of times and needs to work on his crossing when going forward.

Aaron Cresswell
Tried to keep things moving out on the left but often had no options.

James Collins
Ok defensively but his distribution is always going to function at a more basic level. Stupid booking.

James Tomkins
Silly boy. His reaction gave his marker the chance to con the ref and could have cost us, especially as he constituted our main goal threat from corners.

Cheikhou Kouyate
I'll give him MOTM by default as he slipped back into central defence without missing a beat after Tomkins left.

Mark Noble
Wasteful with the ball and needs to be careful not to get wound up in these matches - he was only one rush of blood to the head away from a red for much of the match.

Morgan Amalfitano
Pretty anonymous I'm afraid.

Matt Jarvis
Tried to get things going on both flanks but ws let down far too often by his delivery.

Kevin Nolan
Yes it was hot out there but he didn't look fit to me. Best contribution was to calm down Noble when he was I danger of losing the plot.

Mauro Zarate
Infuriating. Continues to disappear down blind alleys with alarming regularity. Which is a shame because there is undoubted skill in there, just waiting for a football brain to develop to use it.


Modibo Maiga
(Replaced Noble) I feel quite sorry for him. He must have thought that the days of being used as a lone striker (a role to which he is ill-suited) had disappeared along with the last manager. Sadly while we have injury and suspensions he's destined to be stuck in the job until a new striker comes in the front door.

Diego Poyet
(Replaced Nolan) Bright outing in the second half. He ws at least trying something different.

Martin Samuelsen
(Replaced Jarvis 118) Hard to mark as he came on and the final whistle went seconds later.

Darren Randolph
Did not play.

Stephen Hendrie
Did not play.

Alex Pike
Did not play.

Did not play.

Match Facts

West Ham United: Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Joey O Brien, Aaron Cresswell, James Collins, James Tomkins, Cheikhou Kouyate, Mark Noble, Morgan Amalfitano, Matt Jarvis, Kevin Nolan, Mauro Zarate.

Goals: None.

Booked: Joey O Brien 18 Mark Noble 33 James Collins 108      .

Sent Off: James Tomkins 45    .

Birkirkara: Justin Haber, Zach Muscat, Emerson Marcelina, Nikola Vukanac, Matias Mazzetti, Paul Fenech, Ryan Camenzuli, Joseph Zerafa, Rowen Muscat, Matias Latini, Fabrizio Miccoli.

Subs not used: .

Goals: Fabrizio Miccoli (14).

Booked: Fabrizio Miccoli (33), Mauricio Mazetti (41), Nikola Vukanac (45), Vito Plut (86), Edmond Agius (111).

Sent off: None.

Referee: Enea Jorgji.

Attendance: 9,000.

Man of the Match: Cheikhou Kouyate.