When West Ham fans travelled to Birmingham for the Hammers’ last outing, they would have been forgiven for assuming their team would easily defeat Aston Villa and take three points back to east London.
As it was, though, Sam Allardyce’s men put on one of the worst performances their loyal supporters have ever been subjected to. Going into the game, Villa were a side that seemed completely unable to win. They had thrown away leads like they were going out of fashion and even lost to Bradford over two legs in the League Cup semi-final. In short, there had never been a better time to play the West Midlands team. Furthermore, West Ham were coming off the back of an impressive home win over Swansea, who had, up until then, been in excellent form.
The stage was set for the Hammers to build on that 1-0 result at Upton Park and record back-to-back victories for the first time this season. But it all went terribly wrong. On an awful, rainy day in Birmingham, West Ham put on a display that matched the miserable weather. They totally lacked any creativity and lost 2-1 to a Villa side that would have been torn apart by any other opponents.
The game started with frustration for West Ham and ended with even more. Just three minutes in, Christian Benteke shot from outside the area and his tame effort was fumbled by Jussi Jaaskelainen straight into the path of the Andreas Weimann. Luckily, for the Hammers, the young Austrian somehow managed to skew his shot wide of the post from point blank range.
It was a huge let-off for West Ham, and an embarrassing miss for Villa, so it was inevitably met with a hearty cheer from the travelling fans. But giving away a goalscoring opportunity as generous as that one, and so early on, got the Hammers’ nerves jangling.
Strangely, Weimann’s miss would prove to be the most exciting thing everyone in the stadium (and those watching the game on television at home) would see in the first half. Both sides were devoid of endeavour and seemed keener on kicking the ball to the opposition than putting it in their goal. The rain continued to lash down and the temperature remained painfully low, but the Hammers offered absolutely nothing to warm their fans’ hearts.
Although West Ham started the second half well, creating some good opportunities, the match soon reverted back to the sluggish pace the spectators were tortured with in the first half. As the game chugged along, a 0-0 draw seemed inevitable, but then an already dire match took a turn for the worse for the Hammers. In the 72nd minute, Charles N’Zogbia jinked around in the 18-yard box, skipping past Mark Noble, who was drawn in by the French winger’s trickery and tripped him as he attempted to win the ball.
Referee Mark Clattenburg actually made the correct decision for once and awarded Villa a penalty. Benteke was on hand to slot the spot-kick into the net with ease.
Despite seeing their side go 1-0 down and having lost the sensation in their toes, the travelling Claret and Blue Army retained their spirit and defiantly bellowed Bubbles at the top of their voices. The players on the pitch, however, were ignorant to their fans’ display of unity and quickly conceded a second goal.
James Tomkins, who had been excellent throughout the game, gave away a free-kick just outside the penalty area and N’Zogbia stepped up to intensify the misery he had already heaped on West Ham. The defensive wall typified the Hammers’ entire display as the players stood there lifeless and just looked on while the N’Zogbia’s curled effort flew over their heads and into the goal.
In the space of five minutes, an ugly 0-0 had turned into a hideous 2-0 defeat. And, even though Villa had given away numerous two-goal leads in the build-up to this game, no away fan seriously considered that West Ham would pull level; they simply had not looked good enough against one of the worst teams in the division.
The Hammers did at least try to get a goal, though. In the end, Villa must have taken pity on the side that share their colours and just put the ball in their own net. Ashley Westwood misjudged his header as he attempted to clear a floated cross and it looped into the home side’s goal with three minutes of normal time left on the clock. Just one goal now separated Villa and West Ham. This, of course, made for a nervy finish, especially with four minutes of time added on.
Wave after wave of attack was sent towards the Villa goal. The Hammers started to believe. Brad Guzan was pulling off heroic saves to deny West Ham, but an equaliser seemed imminent. In the final minute of injury time the ball dropped to the Hammers captain. Time appeared to slow down as Kevin Nolan worked the ball out of his feet and into a shooting position on the corner of the six-yard box. He then drove the ball towards goal at a tight angle.
But Guzan was again equal to the shot and the final whistle went shortly after. This was a terrible day for West Ham fans and one that could prove to be a turning point in the Hammers’ season. With a run of tough games coming up, the vile defeat to the Villans could be the game that the fans remember as when West Ham were dragged into another relegation battle.