We’ve all seen Green Street, a none too accurate depiction of football hooliganism around West Ham’s infamous Inter-City-Firm. It’s easy to forget that West Ham’s Boleyn Ground is actually situated in Green Street and that the most dangerous spots (as an away fan in the days when going to Upton Park was a major ordeal), were actually away from that main thoroughfare.
Returning to West Ham after 35 years was very different. For a start, it felt safe – there was always a feeling of caution when you visited the Hammers as a visiting supporter and ran the gauntlet that was Green Street. Secondly, West Ham’s ground loomed large over the neighbourhood, the stadium dominating the skyline. And the demographics of the area, like much of London, had certainly changed. Amid all this, it was good to see that the old Hammers Social Club was – surprisingly – still open.
But it is no wonder West Ham want to move to the Olympic Stadium. Upton Park tube station is woefully inadequate for a club with ambition and let’s be frank, the people running the station, clearly know little about football. “If you are going to the Hammers v West Brompton game, please move up the stairs.” West Brompton? So it’s a local derby?
West Ham v West Bromwich Albion didn’t promise much. West Ham, in 19th place in the Premier before kick-off, had not win in the league since the end of November, although thgey had beaten Tottenham away in the Football League Cup. In their previous two games, they had lost 3-1 both times, at Manchester United and on Boxing Day, at home to Arsenal, despite taking the lead. West Brom, meanwhile, last won at the beginning of November, and their suspect form had led to the sacking of manager Steve Clarke.
Albion’s treatment of managers is curious for a football club. They made Roberto Di Matteo “redundant” couple of years ago, implying that the manager’s role was no longer needed. And now, they have sent Clarke on “gardening leave”. One suspects that the people running Albion are steeped in the culture of the corporate world. Albion had drawn their past two games, at home to Hull and at Tottenham on Boxing Day.
Meetings between the two clubs have equalled out over the years, with both winning 37 times. The last time Albion won at Upton Park was in 2003-04 when they won 4-3 in the Championship.
Supporters at West Ham have always seemed different than Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Perhaps it is the relative lack of expectation at the club. West Ham have always hidden behind the myth that they have always played “cultured football”. True, when the likes of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters were wearing claret and blue, there was a certain quality. This was perpetuated, to some extent, by Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire and latterly by the production of players like Frank Lampard [junior] and Joe Cole. But today’s West Ham team is a combination of hired guns and academy players who have struggled to make an impact in the Premier.
It’s more function over form these days, as evidenced by the appointment of Sam Allardyce as manager in 2011. Allardyce is an honest broker of a manager who gets the job done. He took the Hammers back to the Premier in 2012 and they finished 10th in 2012-13, no mean feat. The last time I saw Allardyce in the flesh, so to speak, was in 1978 as he scythed the ball into his own goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In many ways, when the West Ham board appointed Allardyce, they broke with a club tradition.
One tradition that still exists, however, is the pre-match ritual of singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles”, which was belted out with gusto, accompanied by some soap-sud bubbles from the sidelines.
West Ham opened the game well, scoring after just four minutes. A long goal kick by Jussi Jaaskelainen was nodded on by “free agent” Carlton Cole and former England winger Joe Cole nipped in to shoot past Ben Foster.
But the rest of the first half was dull, until the final stages when West Bromwich turned the game around. Nobody much cares for Nicolas Anelka, who added Albion to his extensive list of clubs in the summer, but he showed, even at the age of 34, he has an eye for goal. But he didn’t have to work hard for this brace – West Ham’s static defence helped him along his way.
Five minutes from the interval, Chris Brunt’s tame through-pass rolled in Anelka’s path and the Frenchman easily pushed Joey O’Brien aside to walk the ball into the net. And just before the whistle, a header by Jonas Olsson from a corner was cleared off the line by Carlton Cole and Anelka prodded the ball home with a weak shot. Lots of claret and blue shirts in the area, but nobody at hand to clear the danger. The Hammers were jeered off at the break.
West Ham brought on Modiba Maiga in the second half and he made an instant impact. In the 65th minute, he received the ball from Kevin Nolan and sent a low, curling left-foot shot past Foster from just outside the penalty area.
Maiga returned the favour for Nolan less than two minutes later, heading the ball across goal for the former Newcastle man to shoot high into the net. The Hammers were now 3-2 ahead.
But the old defensive problems emerged once more two minutes later, Brunt setting up Saido Berahino, with too much space, who shot in off the post. Berahino nearly added a fourth for Albion when he hit the woodwork with a free kick. Full-time: West Ham United 3 West Bromwich Albion 3.
We had seen more entertainment than we had dared hope for, but quality was in short supply. With such a defence, West Ham may not be good enough to escape the drop this year, but Allardyce is generally good at fixing problems like a leaky back-line. As for Albion, they certainly have the quality to move away from danger – they just need a manager to do the job.
And what about Anelka? He’s landed himself in trouble over his goal celebration, which resembles an inverted fascist salute. Not something pointed out by fans at the game, but by the French sports minister.