Martial twice tore a hole in the defence for 2-1. Time for one last push Irons, now or never – and don’t you just know it, they did it.
First, Michail Antonio headed them level and then with four minutes later, Winston Reid’s header ensured the perfect finale. There was only one team who were going to win this game, because the crowd would not let them lose. United’s players are used to playing in front of the biggest crowds, and handling the most pressure – but apart from their two goals, they barely bothered Darren Randolph, and had no answer against a team being relentlessly pushed forward by the clamour of their fans.
The last FA Cup match at the Boleyn – against United – was a huge anti-climax. The final regular Saturday kick-off against Swansea was an unmitigated disaster. But when it really mattered more than at any time, the Irons rose to the occasion. After the final whistle went, the fireworks began for the formal closing ceremony, but nothing could match the excitement of the 90 minutes.
The good – the match. The bad – the pre-match. And the brilliant – the atmosphere; this game had it all. From game one, a 3-0 win over Millwall, to game 2,398, this epic, the Boleyn has seen everything. Now it is history. The old chapter for West Ham could not have ended in more thrilling fashion. Now a new one begins.
As for Slaven, can you remember what we were all warned at the start of the season? Careful what you wish for – well that turned out to be worthwhile advice, didn’t it? Irons supporters may just have been happy to see one of their own in the hot seat after five uninspiring years under Avram Grant and Sam Allardyce, but given Slaven Bilic’s near 20-year absence from England, few were setting high pre-season targets.
Ok he’d done well in Russia and Turkey, and impressed with Croatia so long-term he might turn out to be a good choice, but let’s just see how things go, shall we? The stats don’t lie. A record number of Premier League points and second highest finish, the most top-flight goals since 1986 and even a flirtation with the Champions League. With European football now confirmed, it is certainly not bad for a beginner.
But most importantly for West Ham fans, what made the difference in this of all seasons was the home record. For too long, despite the atmosphere off the pitch, on the field, West Ham was an easy place for visitors, particularly with home fans being so quick to get on the manager’s back. This season, with a boss they believed in, that never happened – and the team responded. For those too young to have seen him play, Bilic was a class act as a central defender, and West Ham fans’ only regret was that his time at the club was so brief – just a season and a half – before he was sold on to Everton at a profit.
This soon proved to be shrewd business, though, as injuries caught up with him, slowing him down, and it became clear West Ham had sold at the right time. That meant there was a degree of unfinished business about Bilic’s return to the Boleyn – but no-one can realistically have expected him to complete it so quickly. For years, the two plastic turrets of the West Stand seemed to stand as monuments to Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, home-grown talents sold to flourish elsewhere around the time the stand was built. This season they symbolised a fortress where opponents turned up – and more often than not, were turned away
In hindsight, the first home game loss to Leicester was no disgrace, and although losing the second to Bournemouth was an eyebrow-raiser at the time, after that, things just clicked.
Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United – West Ham took points off them all. In 2014-15, West Ham lost six home matches. The year before that, nine. The year before that, four. This season – three, unbeaten from August to May. And that final ever home win was the stuff of legend.
If asked what they wished for, most football fans would probably say someone who understood their club, cared about it, could make it work, and who would make them proud. In Slaven Bilic that is exactly what West Ham fans have. Careful now.