It’s been awhile since I last saw the Hammers play – three months to be precise. Since the Upton Park wobbles in the early part of the season they have proved to be more resilient than most other teams in a poor division and came into the last game of 2011 in second place, just three points behind Southampton. A halfway through the season haul of 44 points has put them on course for an immediate return to the Premier League but it is a situation tinged with some frustration.
I think that any West Ham fan would recognise that the club should have never ever EVER appointed Avram Grant last season. I do not believe that even an averagely competent manager would have got the Hammers in the same poor position. Quite why they chose not to fire him last Christmas is another matter, again failing to take the right course of action ultimately led to the club being relegated. So instead of swimming comfortably in the poorest Premier League we have ever seen, West Ham are huffing and puffing their way in a Championship made up of eighteen former Premier League sides, all of whom seem to be living on the seat of their pants. West Ham’s main issue this season has been the relative lack of goals. Summer “big name” signings Kevin Nolan and Jon Carew had not set the Boleyn Ground alight yet with their promised goals, leaving it to Carlton Cole to become top scorer with few contributions from elsewhere on the pitch. A return of seven goals from ten starts is impressive – a rate that would see him score 32 if he started every game, but we know that is never going to happen.
Despite a couple of opportunities, West Ham still had not topped the table this season. Southampton had proved beatable and when they dropped points, so did the Hammers. Coming into the last game of 2011, thanks to the Saints surprise home defeat to Bristol City, this was another chance to top the pile. Mentally, going into the New Year on top of the table could be as beneficial to the Hammers as damaging it would be to the Saints. However, needing to win by seven goals was going to be a tad difficult, even though we are managed by a man who just 18 months ago claimed he could manage Real Madrid.
The Christmas fixture computer hadn’t been kind to West Ham this season. Birmingham City away on Boxing Day, Derby County away on New Year’s Eve. What happened to the traditional London derbies over the festive period? Crystal Palace, Watford, Brighton, Reading, Ipswich, Portsmouth? All surely better for the travelling fans than a second 250 plus mile round trip in a week? No, stop it Stuart. You are bringing sense into the argument, and we all know that Football authorities and sense do not belong together.
So why was I breaking my away duck of the season on New Year’s Eve? Well I was in the East Midlands to visit my In-laws, specifically Northern Steve to welcome in 2012. And there is one thing that Northern Steve loves more than anything and that is a pie with gravy. Oh, and West Ham. So with Derby almost on the doorstep (everywhere up north is on the doorstep) he agreed to buy the pies and I procured some tickets. But it would be the same if there wasn’t some way for football clubs to spread Christmas cheer. For those who don’t like a rant, look away now.
Football clubs really know how to treat fans don’t they. They play on the blind loyalties we all have, becoming more audacious in their treatment of fans and how much money they can extract out of us. I had forgotten exactly how much tickets were for games like this but as soon as I had agreed to buy the tickets I had a rude awakening. Two adult tickets and two kids tickets came to a total of £108 before the obvious booking fee, admin fee and postage fee were added. Two days later the tickets arrived. In the envelope was a flyer for a special offer – A Family package for the game v West Ham for just £51..two adults and two children. Thanks for that.
I had been many-a-year since I came to Pride Park last. In fact the last time was for a West Ham game when the paint on the new stadium was barely dry, with Derby County winning two nil thanks to goals from Dean Sturridge, uncle of Chelsea’s rising star Daniel. Also on show on that December afternoon was Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, reminding us all of the team we could have had if it wouldn’t have been for some disastrous off the field mismanagement. Since that game back in 1997 West Ham had played the Rams sixteen times and losing only once. So previous was on the side of the Hammers, especially with the memory of the 3-1 win at Upton Park just a month ago. Oh how it has changed as we parked in one of the empty business parks close to the ground. Pride Park has gone all posh. It has it’s own Greggs the Bakers now, and a Starbucks, and I even detected the sign of some free wireless (“dcfcFANS” if you are ever in need). And the crowning moment was seeing the Derby County Official Car in operation. Such was my amazement at the sight that we headed into the ground at 1.01pm.
Derby’s situation must be a frustration to their loyal fans. Playing in a fine stadium, in front of crowds that put the likes of Wigan, Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn Rovers to shame, with a highly rated young manager they always seem to be on contradicting runs. One minute they are red-hot, beating all-comers such as at the start of this season when they won six of their first ten games before then losing all six games in November. Last week’s home win against Leeds United was only their third win in the league since September.
However, whilst other clubs would be putting their manager under the spotlight, Nigel Clough is spoken of in revered terms in the city, thanks to the achievements of his father, who brought the First Division Championship to the unfashionable club back in 1972. Whilst he went on to manage big rivals Nottingham Forest, and bring incredible success which was looked on with envious eyes by the people of Derby, his achievements have never been forgotten.
Derby County 2 West Ham United 1 – Pride Park – Saturday 31st December 2011
But any temporary frustration was lost as we took our seats in the Upper West Stand. As I was reading in disbelief the news that Allardyce had put five forwards on the bench (and no one else) Callum Bell curled the ball from the edge of the box around Robert Green and into the corner of the net. The clock in the corner had just ticked onto 1.02pm. Hardly the best of starts.
Derby seemed to want it more in the opening phases and when another dangerous cross was played into the area, Paul Green stooped to head past his namesake in the Hammers goal. Two nil after nine minutes. If we left now we could still make the kick off at Met Police v Lewes!
The West Ham fans, around 3,000, which considering the date and location of the game was a magnificent effort, started to get into voice. Most clubs would die for an iconic song like Bubbles, but the Derby fans felt it was the “only song” they had. That was followed up by “Is that all you bring away?”…Hello…this is from a team where there is a 10,000 difference between their lowest and highest attendances this season and who brought no more than 1,200 to the corresponding fixture at Upton Park just a few weeks ago. Football fans and reason have never made good bed partners either.
The Hammers back line looked shaky. Winston Reid passed the ball back to Green whenever and wherever he received it, including when he was 10 yards inside the Derby half. Lansbury, yet to fulfil any sign of his promise that Wenger thinks he has seemed to retreat every time the ball came near him, and Piquionne upfront could’ve gone on a bacon roll run to Greggs for all the good he was doing. One bright note was the confidence of Dan Potts at left back. Potts is only 17 years old and is the son of West Ham legend Steve Potts. I am one of the 23,000 in the world who can lay claim to saying “I was there when Potts scored”…399 appearances for the Hammers in a career that spanned 17 years and he scored just one goal – October 1990 against Hull City when he scuffed/deflected shot from 30 yards somehow eluded the Tigers keeper.
As the half wore on, West Ham became more forceful and Fielding was forced to make saves from Nouble and Noble (Confusing I know). Just before the break it was 2-1 as the posh Noble (Nouble) smashed home a lose ball in the box. Half time – time for a pie and a cup of tea.
I opted for the Meat and Potato variety. I scanned the packaging to see what meat it was. No clue there. So I asked the lady behind the counter. She looked shocked, as if she had never thought about the question. “I dunno…probably from a big tin called ‘meat'”…I thought I couldn’t go wrong with the tea but I was mistaken. She gave me the cup filled with hot water and offered me some additional milk. “No it’s fine. There is milk already in there.” I said. “Who put that in there? Maureen, did you start putting milk in tea? I told you not to do that!” It appeared that she didn’t know such basics.
Back to the game. Derby County came out the stronger with the impressive Theo Robinson causing all sorts of problems for Reid and Tompkins. Allardyce threw on Cole and Baldock, replacing O’Brien and Piquionne who had returned from Greggs empty-handed. Ten minutes later Robert Hall was given his chance, with the Hammers throwing five men up front. Yet with all the attacking intent, Fielding was only called into action on a couple of occasions. In fact looking back now considering we had five centre-forwards on the pitch and the team was managed by “Mr Direct” himself, they failed to send any long balls into the area where they would be dangerous. Instead Cole was having to drop deeper and deeper to get the ball.
Despite a couple of shouts for free-kicks around the edge of the area time ran out on the Hammers and another chance to draw level with the Saints had passed by. We made our way back to the car to cross three counties to get back home. The fans had been magnificent but there had been a distinct lack of London Pride from some players. All was not lost though as our return to the Northern branch of TBIR Towers was greeted with a shiny four pack of my favourite brew – Fuller’s London Pride, thanks to the kindness of CMF. All was well with the world. Happy New Year everyone.