“Must win game”. Is this an overused phrase? In reality there are only a few and we should know all about them. Cup finals, playoff games and Middlesbrough. We all know what they meant, win or lose. But games in February? Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic? And yet I’m sure at some point in the build up I described West Ham at home as “must win” and I’m sure a few of you did too. With the bottom of the Premier League massively congested and West Ham down there with us, and with a mass of players out injured, this was a genuine six pointer. Wednesday’s game against Saints may have divided the crowd between a point gained or two dropped (for me a point gained, albeit with a frustratingly poor and unambitious performance) but there was no doubt the Amex wanted, expected, demanded a win.
Talking of Wednesday I will never complain about getting to and from the Amex again. Having taken three and a half hours to get to Southampton via Chichester in rush hour traffic and still having to park miles from the ground, here was a return to normality. Nice easy meet up at the station, trains on time, walk to ground from Falmer. A bit crushed perhaps but otherwise all good.
A pint then and a chat. The boys, now familiar with the whole place, getting sweets and a programme and sitting in their favourite spot. All so very normal and routine that it seems mad to remember that without Hereford which was, of course, a must draw none of this may be happening. But it feels like we’re already taking the Amex for granted. In return, yesterday, it staged a beauty for us.
Now. Wednesday had seen us dominate the first fifteen minutes, and in that time we’d missed a sitter after only a couple, and then scored a penalty. After that we’d sat back and invited Southampton back in to it (for my money anyway, but the debate rages on, I appreciate you may not agree). So was scoring early here going to be a good thing or would it lead to a bus parking? We were about to find out anyway, thanks to the best piece of refereeing all season. Stephens picked up a loose ball in midfield and fed Knockaert who was chopped in half by Cresswell. The ref had the whistle to his lips but the loose ball fell to Groß who fed it instantly through to Murray. Play on was the call and Glenn coolly slotted past the keeper to give us an early and deserved lead. After the celebrations had finished I turned to Steve and grinned “eighty three minutes of defending now”. It was meant only half-ironically, but luckily I was to be proven completely wrong.
And the early signs were all about West Ham being there for the taking. Is there a slower and more obviously deficient centre back combination in this league than the one they put out yesterday? Collins looks about eighty bless him. Someone should have nipped on to the pitch and given him a hat, some Sanatogen and a rug. As Creswell picked up a yellow for his challenge (and replays suggested it was quite red-like) I really should have been weighing up how many we’d score.
So while we’re talking refereeing let’s discuss this. Who understands the handball rule better, Roger East or The Complete and Utter Shyster (aka Mike Dean). I say that because exactly the same incident – a shot blocked from point blank with a raised arm – resulted in a free kick against Dunk at Southampton, thanks to Dean, but now did not get us a penalty after good work from Bong on the left, thanks to East. Two identical incidents, one given, one not. Both going against us. Had it been given we’d have had a great chance for two and the game would have been buried. The boy howled, though he habit of marking referees in the minus one millions seems to have gone for now. Besides, East was still in credit for our opener.
So, for a while we sat back and, guess what, West Ham had their only decent passage of the game, culminating in a lovely goal. At this level it doesn’t matter who you are playing, you can never switch off, and there’s always some quality just round the corner. Would Burton or Bolton have scored a goal like this? No way. It was a beauty. Hernandez picking up a loose ball and exchanging two quick one-twos before dribbling in to a gap and driving in to the top corner. One all and we needed to get back on top.
The rest of the half played out evenly. The boy was tense, the North Stand tried, West Ham sang Bubbles and Sack the Board at alternate moments and we went in at 1-1. Half time chatter thought we could win it though, that West Ham were poor, there for the taking and it proved prophetic. It took though, a moment of genius and one that will live with me no matter how old I get. Indeed, when I’m dribbling porridge over a copy of TV Weekly during my bedbath, all but incapable of speech, I will still manage to bore the nurses with the story of Izquierdo’s brilliant goal and celebration.
It started innocuously, the ball scrambled forwards and West Ham putting it out for a corner under pressure from Schelotto, who we decided on last week’s Albion Roar, is a marauder. The ball in was knocked out to the corner of the penalty area where it found Izquierdo. He curled, quite deliberately, an absolute beauty in to what the Boy calls top bins. The. Very. Top. Corner. Then he took off down the length of the Amex wing, ripping off his shirt, before Ryan put his skills as an Aussie to use and rugby tackled him. BUNDLES! We, meanwhile, were going just as potty, though without the ability to do a length of the stadium.
West Ham were vanquished there and then, you could see the heads go down. We, however, were not done. The woeful Collins gave the ball away to Propper under pressure and he found Groß who turned in to space and fired a wonderful shot in to the corner, in a similar finish to the one Hazard had produced at the same end against Chelsea. And there was more. Groß again having a shot saved with Izquierdo missing the rebound, and March firing over an open goal.
Were we happy? Yes. Did I have TWO beers afterwards? Hell yes. Was The boy grinning from ear to ear? Absolutely. Was it a must win game? Certainly.