Sixteen was definitely the magic number for West Ham’s final home game of the season against Manchester City. It would be the last time that Mark Noble would wear the number 16 shirt and we were all braced for something emotional. There was of course the final game away at Brighton, but in most people’s minds this final home game would be his ‘last’ appearance for the Hammers.
The throng of fans converging on the London Stadium was more intense than usual. Queues for the programme sellers felt twice as long as they normally were; even the hideous half and half matchday scarves seemed to be selling more quickly. The club shop also, somewhat predictably, chose this day to launch the exclusive MN16 clothing range designed by Mark Noble.
With rapidly forming bottlenecks, I abandoned my customary pre-match visit. Everyone wanted a souvenir of the day. I’d never seen so many replica shirts adorned with the same number. Once inside the stadium tributes met the eye at every turn. A giant West Ham shirt with ‘that’ number covered the centre circle.
The jumbotrons ran interviews with fans who eulogised about their favourite son. One reasoned with conviction: ‘I was here at the start of his career so I wanted to be here at the end’. The cover of the programme featured a montage of Noble at various stages in his career. At the centre was the man himself holding aloft a trophy which I struggled to recognise.
I then realised it was the trophy from the play-off final win in 2012. How unfortunate he never held aloft a major trophy; two League Cup semi-finals and the defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League was the closest he got to a final.
A storybook ending would have seen Noble come on as substitute against Rangers in the Europa League final; and score the winner with a coolly struck penalty. But such trinkets are merely cherries on a very rich cake. Noble found a different happy ending and gained something more important; a settled family life unfettered by constant moves feeding ravenous ambition.
Just before kick-off Noble took the field for the first of many bows that would pepper the next two hours. To bask in the love and affection of 60,000 fans must be gratifying but also deeply embarrassing. The jumbotrons beamed a supersize image of our hero.
His expression was caught between two moods; trying to smile and trying not to cry. He failed miserably with the former and quickly gave way to the latter; his eyes looked puffy and had already been crying. But this isn’t false sentiment, more genuine emotion at the fulfilment of a childhood dream that’s now drawing to a close. He retreated to the subs bench as the game kicked off. In the 16th minute the jumbotron piped up to remind us that Mark Noble is our captain; a standing ovation swept around the stadium like a Mexican Wave.
The Hammers played with a gusto and confidence that had been missing of late. Freed from the distraction of Europe there was still plenty to play for; nail down a place in the Europa Conference League or even nick a spot in the Europa League. The usual round of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ made the Conference a more likely outcome.
In an exhilarating first half West Ham raced into a two goal lead. Jarrod Bowen was in majestic form as he teased and tormented the Manchester City defence. He scored both goals from counter attacks that became a trademark for us last season. To be 2-0 ahead at half time was a pleasant surprise although many doubted we could defend it for 45 minutes. Whatever the outcome it would be a fitting send-off for Nobes.
At half time former player and current U18 coach Kevin Keen paid tribute to one of his former charges. Glowing with pride at his role in Noble’s development the superlatives quickly ran dry. He berated those who denied him a full England cap. Keen was also adamant that a role had to be found for him post retirement. Talks are under way but he seems a shoe-in as a club ambassador and player mentor.
City predictably clawed their way back into the game with goals from Grealish and an own goal by the unfortunate Coufal. Thirteen minutes from time, Nobes came on as substitute for Lanzini and the house rose in unison.
After the final whistle came the final presentation. Noble entered the pitch flanked by his children. TV presenter and lifelong Hammers fan Ben Sheppard was emcee. Sir Trevor Brooking beamed as he held a framed shirt. Nobes found the right words as he so often does: ‘I’ve got a lot of family here today — and when I say family I mean 60,000. I hope in the last 18 years that I’ve done you proud’.
There was not a dry eye in the house and quite right too. We’ll not see the likes of Mark Noble again, more’s the pity.