Friday night football. A fairly recent invention, unless you were a fan of Crewe or Tranmere in the 80s and 90s. Back then these two teams played home games on a Friday night so as not to clash with the bigger teams in the same geographical area. Two of my friends “adopted” one of each of these teams and would sometimes go and watch a Friday night Crewe or Tranmere game if the Albion were away up North as part of a football weekender. And why not? After all, in those days, 87/88 excepted, we were a solid second division team and Crewe and Tranmere were confirmed minnows. Then, all of a sudden we were playing them. Then, even more suddenly we were looking up to them. And now? Now we’re playing on a Friday night because Sky says so and Crewe and Tranmere are minnows once more, but it’s worth remembering our heritage. Mainly to remind Mark Noble how shit we once were so he can have a good old entitled cockney rant up in the dressing room. “We should be beating the likes of Brighton”. But in cockney. Ha ha.
So yeah, Friday night, and the good thing is if you win it sets up your whole weekend to come. If you lose, however, it ruins your whole weekend. So there’s a lot at stake. Plus evening games, while good fun when you’re there, can be a pain to get to in the rush hour by public transport. We took no chances, setting out early, but not before I’d wolfed down three portions of delicious lasagne made for me by my lovely wife. I have a ten mile race to do on Sunday morning and I figured this was just starting the carb loading early, even though you don’t need to for a ten miler. Harvey’s added to the carb load. And then I saw it, calling my name with its porkiness, a huge Piglets sausage roll. “I’ll just have one of those” I thought. Which explains why I spent the whole pre game with a stomach ache and the meat sweats. At least it stopped me drinking beer, so that I could concentrate on the action.
The action, from the team selection, proved to be attacking. Montoya was out injured and captain Bruno returned, but, unless my eyes deceived me, we were also going to play three wingers. Ali J was in for Bissouma but Knocky and March were retained. With three wingers and only two wings on the pitch, one of them would have to play the Groß role. Debate raged on who it would be, though the team sheet tweeted out by the club suggested March, and so it proved.
We’d all agreed a fast start with plenty of closing down, like we had against United, would be the way to go and that’s just how we started the game off. West Ham had a lot of the ball but they were often rushed in to mistakes when they had it, and they often had it in benign areas of the pitch. They looked dangerous from set pieces, a couple of early corners causing panic in our defence, but otherwise Ryan was untroubled. Stephens was still out but Kayal was in, allowing Propper to play the defensive midfield role and Kayal to create. And, boy, was he creating. He was a menace from early on, breaking up play and setting up our two wide men who were already swapping wings regularly in an effort to find space.
On twenty five minutes it all came together as Kayal broke up play and went wide via a lovely one-two. His perfect low cross found an unmarked Murray, who made a difficult finish look very easy indeed. The stands erupted, and the usual jumping, hugging and high fiving ensued. Just as a Friday night game can set up your weekend, so a goal, especially to take the lead, can leave a whole heap of happy coursing round your body.
West Ham tried to come back, using the lively Arnautovic as their fulcrum. One great thing about Premier League football is the number of genuinely great players who now grace the Amex turf. Last season it was Coutinho and Hazard and, while Arnautovic isn’t quite in that league, his movement and deft little touches were outstanding at times here. Plus he’s strong. Really he’s wasted at a team like West Ham. *hides*
But for all their possession and pressure they weren’t forcing Ryan in to a serious save. Yes there were set pieces. Yes there was excellent build up play, the lively Andersen involved in everything, but the end product was often a blocked shot or a tackle by us or thoroughly wasteful finishing.
This was the pattern for the whole second half. Able to talk again, having finally recovered from stuffing half a farmyard in to my gullet, my outpourings were those of frustration and worry as West Ham dominated the ball and we found ever more weird ways to give it back to them. At one point we had a promising looking break but March found himself in a dead end. His outside of the foot pass was Hollywood but accurate. Unfortunately the player in space was Bruno fifteen yards behind him. From there we contrived to knock it around before giving it to Kockaert, still in his own half and facing his own goal. He dribbled round half the ground before scuffing another outside of the foot effort straight to an attacker. In their half it would have been frustrating. In ours it was unforgivable.
West Ham proceeded to throw away chance after chance. Balbuena headed incredibly wide from a corner four yards out. Arnautovic missed from six. Free kicks were scooped in to the away end. Pellegrini must have been doing his bits before finally realising they were never going to score.
We were content to hit on the break, something that the introduction of West Ham’s tormentor in chief Izqueirdo only made more dangerous. With Locadia on and looking typically incongruous we suddenly broke down the left, Izzy cutting on to that favoured right foot that West Ham hate so much, and bringing a reflex save out of Fabianski. The ball spilled to Locadia who tapped in. YEEEEESSSS! He’d done it. Except the flag was up. Wrongly as Locadia had been onside, Murray the culprit. A goal for our record signing, so badly needed, so cruelly denied, but it would have been massively harsh on West Ham.
Five minutes of nervous injury time followed but, in truth, West Ham were never going to score. Our defence, marshalled by the returning Bruno and dominated by the freshly rewarded Dunk and Duffy, were never going to let that clean sheet go. And they didn’t. Massive relief at the end. Three points, no goals conceded and the weekend kicked off. A solid as you like start, mainly in my stomach.