They say that 90 minutes is a long time in football. Certainly for anyone who was at the City of Cardiff Stadium on Saturday, the last 20 minutes seemed to last a lifetime. But a game that began with the usual gallows humour of fans deciding anything other than a 3rd successive crushing defeat being a success, the day ended with joyous scenes and a newfound sense of excitement.
So what has made the difference? Amidst accusations of players not pulling their weight, and rumours of dressing room divisions, the much maligned Sam Allardyce has long assured us that things would turn around eventually, that the fans needed to understand that the issues were not personal, more personnel. And so he may be proved to be right but how much of our victory was actually down to his apparent tactical nous, and how much of it was purely down to the returning players and their positions?
Let’s take the defence as a key example. Against Man City, Adrian was outstanding. But exposed time and time again by the lack of defensive cohesion in front of him, he conceded six. An opportunity to play behind two recognised centre half’s against Cardiff and he flourished.
It appeared as though every shot Cardiff took was straight at him – but this is due to his footwork and positioning. Similarly he was dominant under the high ball, and commanded his area excellently with the confidence of a man who knew those in front of him were doing what they should be. Partly, because instead of having full backs filling in, James Tomkins returned and looked an assured presence in front of him. Well, for the first 70 minutes until his needless red card anyway. But a defence of Tomkins and the soon to return Reid will certainly provide the stability in front of him, and give the team a platform to build on. If rumours of Lescott joining turn out to be true, then we have a defensive pairing that would grace most sides in the top six.
When talking about notable absentees this season, there have been none more notable – or indeed more absent – than club record signing Andy Carroll. His presence on the subs bench clearly gave a lift not only to the fans, but the players around him. They, as much as we, must realise that there is a far higher chance of goal scoring opportunities being converted with him on the pitch. He offers a far more physical presence up front than anyone else we have – evident against Cardiff.
Whilst Carlton Cole took his goal well, he was being outmuscled throughout the game by Steven Caulker. As soon as Carroll came on, Caulker knew he had a battle on his hands, and sure enough lost out on the majority of contests between the two. When down to 10 men within 60 seconds of his arrival, he also played the lone front man to perfection – chasing down their back four when they had the ball, holding it up and taking it into the corners – all of which showed an appreciation and intelligence of his role and the situation.
Sure, there were a few times his lack of match fitness was evident – a couple of miscontrolled passes which rolled into touch – but there were massively encouraging signs of the way we will play off of him when he’s back fit and fully functioning. His deft pass to Noble for our second demonstrated the old adage of having good feet for a big man. An Upton Park return against first club Newcastle will surely have him straining at the leash.
So players are starting to return. Vaz Te is not a million miles away from a return having played 30 mins for the development side. James Collins was close to making it for the Cardiff game, and will be vital filling in for Tomkins against Newcastle. Nolan will return after sitting out the final game of his ban, and Ravel Morrison will hopefully start to shake off his hampering groin injury and show himself to be the exciting young talent he showed us he could be with his early season form.
So whilst Saturday’s win at Cardiff was aided by the returnees, it wasn’t all about them. After a week of criticism aimed at the playing squad, there can be very few who would have been more affected by it than Mark Noble. Very much “one of us”, he is not one who can be faulted for playing without passion. Wearing the captains armband in what was an obvious must win game for us, he was simply outstanding and lead by example.
Time and time again he put his body on the line to break up Cardiff attacks, he almost single handedly shackled their creative threats and when in possession of the ball used it wisely and to great effect. It was certainly the sort of performance that leaves fans wondering exactly what it is he has to do to get a call up to the England squad, and quite what Tom Cleverly brings to a game that Noble doesn’t. But England’s problems are England problems. Not West Ham’s. And whilst we’ve certainly had our fair share of problems this season – none more so than in the last few weeks – it certainly seems as if our win in the Welsh capital could just turn the tide.
Our talismanic record signing is back. Our previously solid defensive partnerships are close to being formed again. Players are also starting to show more heart, passion and endeavour. We are close to being able to put out the side that most neutral observers had pegged as a mid-table team. Out of the bottom three, with injuries healing and reinforcements imminent. We’ve not seen it at Upton Park for a while, but is that a sense of optimism hanging in the air?
Many fans will find it difficult to forgive the way he appeared to be so disinterested in the game against Forest. His refusal to acknowledge that as fans we deserved an apology for the team’s performances will also sit uneasily for some. However, he has long said that when his players are back and available, we will pull clear of the bottom three. Either way, we’re in for one hell of a ride.