After I travelled 4,632 miles from New Orleans to walk down the steps of London Stadium for Mark Noble’s final home game, I could feel what the moment meant as I stood there.
No longer was this a vague idea about something to come, but now a present and inevitable reality. Noble was retiring. At the same time that I was lucky enough to stand there in the presence of this all consuming advent, I knew hundreds of thousands of TV remote buttons were being pushed to watch us battle Man City and perhaps catch a glimpse of the final chapter of Mark Noble’s footballing career with West Ham.
I had a hope that with Nobes on the field, one of our players would be fouled in the box and that the referee would give us a penalty so we could see Mr West Ham steadily sink one last cool-as-you-like penalty in the back of the net.
Too good for England
Too good for England, and a more loyal servant to his club than Lionel Messi to Barca in years, Mark Noble finished this season as the longest serving player in Europe’s top five leagues wearing the claret and blue into battle for 18 years and 6 months. Since 2004 he’s made 550 appearances for the club, ranking sixth in West Ham history for most appearances by players following the likes of those who we ascribe legendary status: Bonds, Lampard Sr, Moore, Brooking, and Alvin Martin.
With 63 goals to his name – 47 of those in the Premier League – Noble is West Ham’s third highest goalscorer in the Premier League era. Noble’s cool composure at the penalty spot saw him tuck away 40 out of 45 penalties into the back of the net, giving him the second highest penalty conversion rate at 90.5% after Robert Lewandowski at 91.1%. And for sending the keeper the wrong way, Noble reigns supreme at number one, having 87% of his penalties fool opposition keepers into driving headlong into the empty, ball-less turf.
Noble has stated that he doesn’t practise taking pens so there is no record for how many of West Ham’s goalkeepers he has embarrassed, but this will be among many of the important and telling stats that we have no record for.
We don’t have the record for how many miles Mark ran home from Upton Park to his home in Canning Town in sheer jubilation the way he did after his first match. We don’t have the record for how many fires he’s had to put out in the locker room, or even of the things we haven’t heard that go on, off the pitch.
We don’t know how many sideline asides Noble has had with players to calm them down from not getting picked for the game day squad or because their confidence was gone, or how many late night calls he made to calm anxious new players who were dealing with a new London life far away from home.
We don’t have a stat on how many sacrifices were made in giving a pass instead of taking a shot, or in taking on a position that wasn’t favoured to suit a weaker player who had less ability. I remember Noble giving Marko Arnautovic his penalty at the beginning of the 18/19 season to boost his confidence for the year to come.
These stats we don’t possess. All we have are hard facts about balls being kicked by the left or right foot, miles being run, or how much a body heats up in fluorescent tones the ubiquitous green of the post-match field map.
We do know that over Noble’s total Premier League career he made a total of 18,545 passes, 1,521 accurate long balls, 966 crosses, and 116 shots on target. Defensively he made 875 tackles with a success rate of 70%, 583 clearances, 2,419 recoveries, 82 yellow cards, and surprisingly for all the old school hard tackles – only five red cards. The overall years and penalty stats are the standouts that West Ham will post from time to time on social media to remind us unappreciative hammers of Noble’s stature.
In this modern sport where the latest transfer news is the the only thing of taste to the public palette, it would be well remembered that any player who has survived and captained teams for 16 seasons against the world’s greatest football talents in the highest tier of English football, chosen for the first team by eight different managers, and in a game that often sees teams lose by missed penalty shootouts, Noble is a rare and necessary but overlooked breed.
But rather than force you to muster up a sense of magnanimity over vague philosophical notions of loyalty or sentiment, we should look at Noble’s stats compared to other players in similar midfield positions who’ve played with the big six teams.
Hammer of the Year
In the 2012/13 season and again in 2014/15 season after Noble won Hammer of the Year, Noble was bossing the midfield more so than other midfielders in similar positions at top six clubs in the regular season – but this goes overlooked. Noble possessed a better passing accuracy than that of prime Dele Alli and Eric Dier for Spurs, and Jordan Henderson and James Milner for Liverpool – all of whom were capped for the England team, with Noble left out.
These were players operating in the top six with elite players surrounding them, so that any comparative weight was increased as Noble was dealing with the makeshift West Ham sides that were fighting relegation, which he did while still churning out the same if not better results.
Defensively he had more interceptions than each four of those players mentioned as he has a fine reading of the game, and was second highest in his defensive duties with successful tackles. Not only operating as a holding midfielder, but also in his ability to attack he was highest in chances created.
Mastereing the West Ham Way
Don’t fancy those players because you hate the Spurs or Liverpool and don’t rate them anymore now that they’ve faded? How about some former West Ham boys who mastered the West Ham Way and moved on? In the same 2013/14 season Mark Noble had a higher goal/assists combination record, more tackles and more key passes than Michael Carrick playing for Man United and Scott Parker for Fulham.
To throw all of this out the window and compare his career to Man City’s player of the year Kevin De Bruyne, you might be shocked that from the 2013/14 to current season Mark Noble has made more passes than Kevin De Bruyne at 11,772 to De Bruyne’s 10,952.
And before you object, there were more forward passes made than De Bruyne at 3,989.
Adding those up, Mark Noble has a higher pass completion rate than Kevin De Bruyne at 84% to 82%. He’s also been dispossessed less than De Bruyne at 222 to 244. Defensively he made 348 interceptions to De Bruyne’s 103, and 508 tackles to De Bruyne’s 274.
These are in-game stats, but never mind the fact that Noble has played with 225 different West Ham players, worn almost 50 regular season kits, played with eight abdominal tears in his stomach, and swept anywhere from 200 – 500 locker rooms. These unsung stats go to make the mettle of the man.
It is only now that you realise what it means to miss Noble. He is more than just the name of the team sheet, the on-camera cockney confidence, or the number 16 running up and down the field. Like any loss, such as the change in daily life due to Covid, or for a more substantial loss like that of a relationship or loved one, it will be the small things that start seeping in, it’ll be the things we didn’t know were there. In the world of West Ham football these little things will hit the team hard and impact the overall game.
The instant fate of the captaincy is assured at the moment with Rice who is a more than apt captain on the pitch to take over for Noble as he has done all season – even excelling in some areas. But this is tenuous as the longevity of Rice’s career at West Ham is in doubt.
Last tribal representative
The West Ham fans of old will realise that just like the loss of the Boleyn, and the exodus of a strictly cockney neighbourhood, that their last tribal representative has faded away. There will no longer be a cockney boy as captain, no longer be a player who’s filled his stomach with Nathan’s mash and pies, and who carries your history on the lilt of his tongue, in his respect for the life and heroes of the past.
It’s the second parting of the Barking Road West Ham Way into the modern era. But all depressing thoughts passed through me in an instant when after the first pre-whistle chorus of Forever Blowing Bubbles faded and the subsequent hopes were released into the air, as I heard the whistle blow and realised we were here to play and ready to continue the fight.
We may debate over the perpetual status of Mark Noble as a legend, hero or icon. But there is no doubt that he was a servant of the club that carries a tradition and will continue on in us; The people at the stadium, the people behind the television sets, and in the claret and blue clad children witnessing what it means to be a Hammer. And what it means to respect a servant, and what it means to make a group of people proud for 18 years of that service.