‘He was in Parker’s shadow and Noble did all of Nolan’s running’

During the expanses of his 18 years and over 450 appearances for West Ham, Mark Noble has been blessed (and cursed) with a plethora of partners in the middle of the park. Sometimes playing in a two, at other times part of a three-man midfield, Noble has constantly adapted his game, learning from those around him and evolving with time (and age) to ensure his longevity as the beating heart of the Hammers side.

Noble made his debut as a 17-year-old during the promotion season of 2004-05, and despite winning the Young Hammer of the Year award, he found it difficult to dislodge the experience of Hayden Mullins and the energy of Nigel Reo-Coker in the middle of Pardew’s midfield. Carl Fletcher and Steve Lomas also restricted his appearances, and when the youngster was sent out on loan to Hull the following season and Ipswich the season after (for a three month stint), you could have been forgiven for thinking he would be added to the list of academy graduates that failed to make the grade.

However, when he returned he found the FA Cup finalists of the previous season in a relegation dogfight and Curbishley turned to the boy from Canning Town to help drag us to safety. With Mullins happy to sit deeper and break up play, Noble was given a box-to-box brief. He had the licence to be all-action and Noble looked like he would be an east end Gerrard. His youthful enthusiasm and boy from the terrace’s heart undoubtedly provided a catalyst to the team.

The arrival of Scott Parker the following season would prove to be a formative one for the future club captain.  For four years Scott Parker carried West Ham on his back. The combative number eight would win tackles, drive forward and lead by example on the pitch.  

Under Curbishley and then Zola, Noble was often Parker’s partner of choice. Whilst Noble had always been willing to get stuck in, being paired with Parker meant learning to be more disciplined.  When Super Scott would drive forward, Noble would have to curtail his own attacking instincts and cover.  

In truth, for all the lessons learnt both on and off the pitch, Scott Parker and Noble were not the perfect partnership. Noble, in many ways, was in Parker’s shadow and his growth was stunted. He was neither creator, all action number eight or anchor, as Parker took on an almost omnipresent role.  

But his maturity and willingness to sacrifice himself for the side, even at such a young age, just speaks of the team-first mentality the captain has always had. However looking at the partners Noble has had since Parker, learning the defensive side of the game has been a blessing in disguise.  

None more so than Kevin Nolan. Nolan joined as the goalscoring midfielder to fire us back to the Premier League and it is safe to say that he and Noble formed the bedrock of the side that won promotion and then secured Premier League football the following year.  Aptly aided by Jack Collison, the midfield trio formed a perfectly balanced engine room, with Noble the deep lying playmaker, Collison the box-to-box creator and Nolan the more advanced of the three, waiting for knock downs and pull backs from the target men such as Cole, Carew or Carroll et al.  

And whilst Noble would joke that he spent years doing Nolan’s running for him, it was a partnership that worked for all involved. Over the intervening years, Alou Diarra, Antonio Nocerino, Gary O’Neil, George Moncur and Diego Poyet all tried to supplant Noble in the holding role, but none succeeded.  

The closest anyone came was Alex Song who at times looked like a player on another level but his lack of consistency meant it would be Noble who resumed responsibilities as the anchor in the midfield – as West Ham entered their last season at Upton Park.  It was this season, playing most consistently in a double pivot alongside Cheik Kouyate, behind the creative talents of Manu Lanzini and the mercurial Dimitri Payet, that Noble enjoyed his best season in a West Ham shirt.  

Kouyate’s legs and boundless running stretched the pitch and supplemented Noble’s game perfectly, allowing him to dictate games from deep and really showcase his range of passing. Following that historic season, the Kouyate-Noble partnership was insurmountable. Havard Nordveit, Pedro Obiang, Edmilson Fernandes, Carlos Sanchez, Josh Cullen and Jack Wilshere all had a go at dislodging the duo at the base of the midfield.

It wasn’t until the emergence of Declan Rice that the club moved on from what was a highly effective pairing.  Since then, the evolution of Mark Noble has come full circle. The youngster from Canning town has adapted his game, learnt to lead and become the teacher to a player we can only hope stays half as long as his mentor.  

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