Where were you on the afternoon of Sunday, 13 May, 10 years ago? Chances are, if you weren’t at Old Trafford you were in front of a television watching more in hope than expectation as West Ham United battled for their Premier League lives in Manchester.
Two months beforehand, relegation had looked a certainty. Aft er a humiliating 4-3 defeat by Spurs at Upton Park we were bottom of the table, 10 points away from the safety of 17th place with only nine games to go. Th en an unlikely win at Blackburn sparked an astonishing run that was to see us win seven of those nine games.
A 2-0 win at home to Middlesbrough came as a pleasant surprise to anyone who had watched the Hammers struggle all season – a season that started with high hopes, a place in Europe and Alan Pardew in charge. Pards had finally lost the confidence of chairman Eggert Magnusson in December aft er a run of three straight defeats had left us in the relegation zone. Judging by the haunted look on Pardew’s face as we were taken apart at Bolton in his final game, it seemed to many that sacking the man was almost an act of kindness.
By the time of the Boro game, the renewed optimism that had been brought about by a home win against Man Utd in Alan Curbishley’s fi rst game in charge had long gone. But if the win against the Smoggies came as a surprise, what happened the following week at the Emirates came as such a seismic shock it would have been measured as a 10 had there been a football equivalent of the Richter scale. How Arsenal didn’t score in the fi rst half is a question that can only be answered by the Fates and Rob Green. Th en, in time added on, Bobby Zamora made a less-than-perfect contact with a hit-and-hope cross from Lucas Neill and the ball sailed over a helpless Jens Lehmann to give us the most unlikely of leads.
Th e second half was one-way traffic as the Gooners battered us, but the same combination of Green and good fortune held fi rm to give us the points. It also made us not only the last away team to win at Highbury, but the first away team to win at Arsenal’s new home. How West Ham is that?
Next up were relegation rivals Sheffi eld United, who hammered us 3-0 at their place. Funnily enough, at no time before, aft er or during that game did the Yorkshire club once raise a complaint about the inclusion in the West Ham side of a certain Carlos Tevez. Keep that name in mind – there is every chance he will be mentioned again before this article is finished. The misery of the Sheffield United defeat was compounded in midweek when we surrendered 1-4 at home to Chelsea. Deep in the relegation mire, there appeared to be no way back from that.
Then, on the Saturday, we did what West Ham hardly ever do, and actually beat Everton for once. A week later, we went to Wigan – another relegation rival – and comfortably won 3-0. By this time their chairman, Dave Whelan, was getting distinctly nervous about his own club’s chances of survival and was looking for someone to blame for their predicament. Who better than an Argentinian who played for another club? ‘I’ll support any fellow Premier League club which takes action if they are relegated at the expense of West Ham,’ he wrote in the Manchester Evening News. ‘We at Wigan are not whingers, but rules and regulations must be adhered to by everyone. And what West Ham did regarding the signing of Carlos Tevez was way outside the rules.
‘We at Wigan are not whingers!’ Sure Dave, we believe you. We had already been fined £5.5m by the Premier League for irregularities surrounding the registration of Tevez and Javier Mascherano, but Whelan was clearly still upset. ‘This is a very serious offence West Ham committed. They broke the law, told blatant lies and should have got a 10-point penalty,’ he told the BBC.
By this time Watford had already been mathematically relegated, leaving two more to go from the Irons, Charlton, Sheffield United, Fulham, Middlesbrough and – plucky little Wigan Athletic, who just happened to be above us (and outside the relegation zone) on nothing more than goal difference.
‘Justice would be West Ham being one of the two clubs that still has to go down, but justice has so far not been served in this case,’ Whelan reckoned. You would think a man who believed in justice so passionately would be outraged at the thought of honest people being cheated out of their hard-earned money. But that is exactly what had being going on in his chain of JJB Sports shops at the turn of the decade, and the Office of Fair Trading took a very dim of view it.
The OFT discovered that JJB had acted with a number of other retailers plus Manchester United, the FA and manufacturer Umbro to keep the cost of certain replica shirts illegally high – known in the trade as price fixing – and imposed a £8.4m penalty on Whelan’s company. The size of the fine had him spitting feathers, and JJB appealed. It was reduced to £6.3m, but that still didn’t satisfy our feisty friend. He took the matter to the Court of Appeal… and lost.
The OFT’s 237-page report made it plain that Dave was a distinctly hands-on sort of guy. ‘JJB must have been fully aware of the unlawfulness of the agreements to which it was party,’ said OFT chairman John Vickers. ‘The agreements were known to, or negotiated by, Mr Whelan.’ In fact it was this involvement at such a senior level of management that prompted the massive fine. Still, we at Blowing Bubbles are not ones to bear a grudge so we’ll say no more about that.
Back in the basement of the Premier League, the Hammers’ survival hopes were still intact after a 3-1 home win against Bolton in the penultimate game of the season, but no one really expected us to go to Old Trafford and beat the newly crowned champions in the all-important final match. Señor Tevez had other ideas, however, and scored from close range on the stroke of half time to give us a 1-0 victory that has gone down as one of the most important victories in our club’s history.
West Ham supporters will always rightly adore Tevez for what he did to ensure our survival – his contribution in those final games will never be forgotten. But there was an unsung hero 10 years ago, and that is Mark Noble. Despite Curbishley’s determination to use him as little more than a defensive midfielder, the man who has now made his 400th appearance in claret and blue just got better as the going got tougher that season. His contribution is not to be underestimated.
So if you ever hear a particularly distinctive film theme tune blaring out of the sound system as we once again struggle to survive in the Premier League, by all means picture Carlos Tevez in the Steve McQueen role, sailing over barbed-wire fences on a motorbike. But never forget that the man who is now the club captain was riding pillion as we completed our Great Escape.