Just as the Premier League run-in was building up momentum, along came the international friendly window to put all the real business on hold in favour of non-competitive matches. At the turn of the month, West Ham fans could have been expected to have spent the last fortnight kicking their heels out of boredom – but at least they had Mark Noble’s testimonial to occupy them.
Amidst all the feather-spitting about Noble’s exclusion from the England squad, at least that meant he was available to play in his own tribute game, which turned out to be something very special. Noble’s testimonial gave many of the club’s biggest names of recent years a chance for one last run-out at a packed Boleyn. Ian Bishop, Paolo Di Canio, Rio Ferdinand, Dean Ashton – they and many more have played a part over the last generation in building up West Ham to the point where they are now; ready for the most momentous, potentially history-changing move, and with the FA Cup and (whisper it) Champions League qualification still very realistic possibilities this season.
If the class of 2016 do achieve success on either of those fronts, the Noble testimonial may have helped play a part. Not just in terms of being a perfectly-timed letting off of steam, but also practically. Amid the multiple substitutions and on-pitch clowning, it was noticeable that the hugely important Diafra Sakho, newly returned from injury, had an extended run-out.
Similarly, Alex Song, whose lack of recent first-team appearances has been linked to a reported loan contract clause saying a certain number of starts would trigger a permanent move, also played a large part of the game – handy for keeping him in shape just in case his big match experience is needed in an end of season run-in.
‘Too good for England’ was the chant that rang around the ground for Noble, but the sight of Ashton – forced to quit aged 26 after an injury picked up on international duty – reminded West Ham fans that sometimes call-ups come at a heavy price. Had he been away with England, Mr West Ham would have missed being guest of honour at a wonderful, uplifting celebration.
As it was, he got to be at the centre of it all. Whilst other teams may be running out of steam, Mark Noble’s testimonial could just have given West Ham’s spirits the biggest possible boost at the perfect time. So come to think of it – thanks England, good call.