Calling the Shots

Faced with a choice of going to West Ham or going to Lewes, I chose the latter. However, all was not lost as Brian Parish took up the mantle to bring us all the happy news from a foregone conclusion, right?

Just over twenty years ago, Aldershot visited the Boleyn Ground for an FA Cup third round tie. Technically West Ham were actually the away team for the game, but at this time, teams could alter the venue of their game, and after discussion with the FA, the tie was switched to the Boleyn, which it was hoped would generate some much needed revenue for Aldershot. On the day, it clearly worked, as nearly 24,000 turned up and saw Aldershot belie their position in the fourth division (League 2 for anyone under the age of twenty) to gain a very creditable 0-0 draw. Ten days later (and on the eve of the outbreak of the first Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm), West Ham woke up, and promptly walloped them 6-1.

I mention this because these are the only meetings between the two clubs (aside from a testimonial meeting in the mid sixties, which I am informed Aldershot won). Just over a year after the cup tie, Aldershot became the first football league club in nearly 30 years to go out of business during the season, but the new club, Aldershot Town was formed a month later. Accepted into the third division of the Isthmian League for the start of the 1992-93 season, the club enjoyed promotion in their first season, and it’s been upwards ever since. After winning the Isthmian Premier Division in 2003, they won the Conference title in 2008, and made it to the League 2 play offs in 2010, in which they narrowly lost out to Rotherham United in the semi-final. Presently managed by former Wimbledon and Bolton striker Dean Holdsworth, the club have not made a great start to the season, and are currently in 20th position in the division. After an opening day win at Bradford, they have failed to score in each of their last three games, but then this is a game against West Ham. And as all Hammers fans know, this could turn out to be a very long evening, and that’s not just because there has to be a winner tonight.

It’s probably part of football folklore about West Ham’s record against teams from lower divisions. For every win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, there is a defeat to Torquay. Last season seemed to buck that trend, but despite reaching the latter stages of both domestic competitions, the league form went down the pan, and the team won more games in the cup competitions than they did in the Premier League. While they have managed two away wins so far this season, the two at home have resulted in just one point, and in both of them, points were dropped in the last couple of minutes. But with a loss and a draw, surely they must be due a win tonight?

Wednesday 24th August 2011, West Ham United v Aldershot Town, Boleyn Ground

It’s expected that West Ham will field a team made up of some reserves and a few first team regulars. The goalkeepers are the first to emerge, and Ruud Boffin is to start, with the sub goalie someone whose name isn’t listed on the back of the programme. However, as the players come out to start their warm up, it’s apparent that there are more than a couple of first team players out there, with Nolan, Faubert, Sears and Reid amongst the starting line up. To complete the team Callum McNaughton makes his first team debut, and as it will turn out, it’s one to forget.

Despite the cheap seat prices for the game (£10 in advance for adults), the stadium is only just over half full (the attendance is given at less than 20,000), and empty seats are everywhere. Although the enticement of paying on the day has attracted some people along, it’s not enough to disguise the fact that the competition just doesn’t attract the punters to the early rounds, and has already been described by some as being on the way out.

The first few chances all fall to the visitors, with arguably the closest going to Peter Vincenti; played clean through the middle, his shot is only half saved by Boffin, with the clearance completed by McNaughton. If the home fans hope that this will wake the team up, Danny Hylton then tries his luck from outside the penalty area, but his shot is comfortably held by Boffin.

It’s therefore a bit against the run of play when West Ham go into the lead. Barrera loses the ball on the left wing to the Aldershot right back Herd, but Herd himself then loses the ball to Stanislas, who advances a couple of yards before shooting from outside the box and planting the ball past Young. The home fans celebrate and although it’s not quite deserved, at least they have got the opening goal. Hopefully this should lead to a comfortable night.

The half continues without really getting going again, and West Ham seem comfortable at the back, as they are restricting Aldershot to long range efforts which are not really causing any problems. The visitors do have a header cleared off the line before the break, but Stanislas is on hand to clear, and once the whistle goes for the interval, West Ham are still winning 1-0. It’s not been a great game so far, but for a West Ham public used to seeing embarrassing defeats to lower ranked opposition, it’s going well so far.

That all changes, and within the opening three minutes of the second half as well. McNaughton is caught out by a through ball, and while he gets back to tackle the forward, he fouls him in the process. As the last defender, he is shown a straight red by the referee, and begins the long walk back to the tunnel. A few around us holler that it wasn’t a foul, but clearly the rose tinted specs work just as well at night as in the day. The Aldershot manager, Dean Holdsworth gives him a consoling pat on the shoulder, but Sam Allardyce just gives him the cold shoulder; perhaps not surprising, as it’s just put his team under the cosh that little bit more.

The free kick is wasted, but an immediate change (Ilunga replaces Carew) means that West Ham are now sacrificing any kind of attacking play, and immediately Aldershot start to press home the player advantage. The best the home team seem to hope for is to attack on the break, and Stanislas is denied by Young again, but he is the only one carrying any kind of threat. To add something to the rare occasions that West Ham do go forward, Matt Taylor replaces the increasingly ineffective Barrera.

For around a quarter of an hour, there are a few substitutions, but nothing really happens, except that West Ham are simply unable to keep the ball for more than a few seconds, and the visitors are clearly growing in confidence. The next goal is absolutely crucial; if West Ham score it, then they might just hold on. If Aldershot get it, well, it’s going to be a long walk back to East Ham for the journey home.

With around a quarter of hour to go, Aldershot are still trailing, but now they are getting into the area a lot more. Up until now, most of their efforts at goal have been from twenty yards or more from goal, and have been more likely to trouble the fans behind the goal than Boffin. However, only a block by Reid prevents an equaliser, and then Boffin flaps at the resultant corner, before the follow up shot is cleared from inside the six yard box.

Any hope that the storm can be weathered are blown away with thirteen minutes to go. The initial shot is saved by Boffin, but the rebound falls to Luke Gutteridge, who scores in front of the away fans, who promptly go berserk in the lower tier of the North Stand.

Any hopes of holding on are destroyed, and Aldershot continue to press forward. There is the occasional sight of the ball heading towards the Bobby Moore stand (where West Ham are attacking), but it’s more often than not heading the other way. Those well acquainted with West Ham and cup ties now fear the worst, and with two minutes left, it duly happens. Danny Hylton is allowed to get his shot away, across the goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net. Those in home colours start to leave quite quickly, while those in the red and blue (or white for this particular game) have another opportunity for delirium.

Five minutes of stoppage time bring a couple of near misses at either end (in particular for Matt Taylor in the last few seconds), but an equalizer would probably have been cruel on the visitors who celebrate when the final whistle has been blown.

Naturally the sending off changed the game, and it is difficult playing with a player less in your team. However, that would be to take away from Aldershot, who put in a terrific amount of work, and deserved their win. West Ham were poor on the night, and may have held out, but the thing is, they didn’t. Once again, it was a late goal that did for them, and it will take several weeks for them to gel as a unit. Seeing Aldershot for the first time this season, it was a mystery as to why they are that far down in League 2, as they certainly didn’t play like it. However, while cup wins are nice, it’s the League form that counts.

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