I’ve seen better performances before. I’ve seen us sneak a few wins with a smidgen of luck before. I’ve seen plenty of scrappy games which have left us calling for the final whistle before.
But in three decades of regular City watching, I’ve never before known such a match take us seventh in the top division, level with Liverpool and Man City, three points and five places above the other Manchester club. So far so very good in our Premier League return season – it might lack those feelings of starry-eyed glamour and incredulous novelty that we experienced in season 2008-09’s first few months, but it all feels a lot more solid and well constructed this time round.
Grabbing three precious Premier League points, stuffing them in the bag, and zipping it up quickly before anyone could take them back, were: McGregor; Rosenior, Davies, Faye, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Brady; Graham, Aluko.
The big call in that line-up was Abdoulaye Faye replacing the injured James Chester. Faye was the right choice, and he was given a warm welcome by City fans and the impressive turn-out of West Ham fans alike, having been a key player in the Hammers’ promotion season in 2011-12.
It’s not really possible to dislike Faye. The same can’t be said of chicken-dancing, referee-baiting, fading force at this level, Kevin Nolan, who introduces himself to a sun-drenched East Stand early doors by launching a dreadful tackle on Liam Rosenior.
Rosenior writhes. The ref brandishes a yellow card. Nolan has shot his tetchy bolt too soon and is a subdued bit-part player for much of the rest of the afternoon.
If there is any strutting around to be done in the early exchanges, then it’s City doing it. Sone Aluko in particular seems to be walking tall, boosted by last week’s tremendous three-point-grabbing, side-foot-volleyed winner at St James Park. Aluko demands the ball tirelessly, and today he is the central element of most City attacks, keeping the ball under close control, at speed, turning this way and that. Aluko is class – and this week’s news that he’s confident of signing a new contract soon is reassuring.
For all Aluko’s star is shining at the moment, it’s our other speedy and skilful young forward – Robbie Brady – who ensures that City take an early, and ultimately decisive, lead. On 11 minutes, Ahmed Elmohamady, released from his usual defensive duties today by Rosenior being picked at right-back, swings one of his trademark crosses from deep into the box. Brady jumps for it with Joey O’Brien, appears to be pushed from behind during the challenge, and referee Kevin Friend points to the spot. It’s a soft one. Thank you very much, Friend.
Knowing of old how Hammers’ keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen can keep the Tigers at bay, I am not counting any chickens yet. But the bearded Brady is walking as tall as Aluko. A short run-up by Brady, facing the West Ham fans in the north stand, Jaaskelainen dives to his right and watches helplessly as the ball goes hard and low to his left.
1-0 to City.
At this stage of the game, City seem dominant, West Ham lethargic and unable to cope with some of our play. Ex-City loanee and lifelong Hammer, Mark Noble, can only try to stop Aluko by fouling him, and is given a lecture by the ref after he’d let play go on to City’s advantage.
For all his qualities – and he seems to be pretty much the fulcrum of West Ham’s team today – Noble’s play looks churlish set against that of the best Londoner on the pitch, Jake Livermore. Livermore plays some really sweet football. Overshadowed a little, literally and figuratively, by the immense Tom Huddlestone, nonetheless Livermore is fast becoming a key figure for City this season.
West Ham’s contribution to the game has so far consisted of obvious fouls, balls hoofed forward for big men, and central defenders trooping upfield for long throws wound up and unleashed by Razvan Rat. Yes, now that things at the Britannia Stadium have been transformed by urbane Mark Hughes replacing old-school Tony Pulis, West Ham United are the Stoke City de nos jours. I don’t know the mood amongst West Ham fans well enough, but it wouldn’t surprise me one iota if distaste for Sam Allardyce’s preferred style of football has only been held back by the relative success of promotion last year. The days of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall are decades behind us, but fans brought up on players like Peters, Brooking and Devonshire must surely mutter discontent at the less cultured stuff served up now.
Incidentally West Ham’s long-throw specialist has ‘R. Rat’ on the back of his shirt. Players usually use their initial to distinguish them from teammates with the same surname. But, help me here, there aren’t any other Rats playing for West Ham are there?
Right, back to the action. Don’t let me get too cocky, and don’t let me give the impression that silky City ran rings around lumbering Hammers all afternoon. There are shades of that for the first 20 minutes or so, but after that West Ham get far more of a grip on the game. The Allardyce method might not be attractive, but it can be effective.
On 21 minutes West Ham get a free-kick, central, 30 yards out. City clear it for a corner, from which one of theirs heads it goalwards, only for Elmohamady to chest it off the line. They get another corner a few minutes later, and then on 30 minutes West Ham build a good move down the left, feeding the ball in to Diame on the edge of our box, who contrives an air-shot.
It’s a let-off for City. A couple of minutes later a more messy West Ham attack sees the ball fall to Noble who shoots low and hard and just wide. We could do with another goal.
City respond to this West Ham pressure by reviving the attacking threat. An Aluko free-kick goes over the wall, dips impressively, but is pouched by Jaaskelainen. Then another Elmohamady cross finds Brady, who heads it back across the box where Curtis Davies tries a brave diving header, only to the see the ball bundled over the West Ham bar.
Half-time. City 1-0 up in the Premier League, and if it doesn’t quite feel comfortable in terms of getting the result yet, it seems entirely normal. We’ve got a decent squad with the odd weak link. So far, and it’s emphasised today, the weakest is Danny Graham. He doesn’t look good enough for our team at the moment. Just on half-time Graham has been booked. Rightly so. A chipped pass to him in the right inside forward position saw him look startled as he failed to control the ball, and then hurl the ball at the linesman when he didn’t get the decision he wanted. Petulance, brought on perhaps by frustration at not playing to the level required.
In the second half the West Ham way shapes the game more and more. Scrappy, not pretty. Effective in terms of getting the Hammers more possession and creating the odd chance, but not threatening in the way a quality passing side can be. Until, that is, the introduction of Stewart Downing midway through the second half. I’m very glad that Allardyce decided – inexplicably on today’s evidence – not to start with the intelligent and skilful sometime England man.
Even before Downing came on, at the 70 minute mark, West Ham are increasingly forcing City into defensive errors and tactical fouls. Rosenior looks to be suffering a bit from second-game syndrome, having impressed on his return at Newcastle last week, he is less secure today. His potentially strong combination with Elmohamady down City’s right doesn’t really catch fire, though there is the odd spark.
There’s a burst of hectic end-to-end stuff. An Aluko attack down the right is repelled. United stream up our end and get a shot away, well saved by Allan McGregor. They continue to press, and City give away a number of free-kicks around 30-40 yards out. Each one is delivered into the box by Noble, each one is dealt with without too much danger by our defence. Faced with this sort of assault, I’m preferring Faye to Chester.
City get chances too. On 61 Graham meets a cross by volleying it over the bar. On 67 Graham is involved again, entering the area, he checks back instead of pressing on, and lays the ball into the path of Livermore, whose low shot from outside the box beats Jaaskelainen and bounces back off the post.
On 70 United bring on Downing and Ricardo Vaz Te (another ex-City loanee). Steve Bruce sends Yannick Sagbo on in place of Graham. So for the last quarter West Ham are boosted by the pace and skill of their two substitutes – Downing in particular. He’s starting off deep, almost reprising the full-back role he tried out at Liverpool, but repeatedly raids down our left. City are defending deep too, and leaving only Aluko up top so that when we do get the ball there are few options and West Ham regain possession.
On 74 comes the second contentious penalty decision – this one not given, as West Ham players appeal loud and long for a handball. Not one that could be spotted from my East Stand vantage, though the strength of appeals suggest at the time that we are lucky to concede only a corner rather than a spot-kick. Definitely one that could be spotted from the North Stand where the Hammers fans show their anger by getting behind their team still more.
Later on, TV pictures show a clear handball and an unsighted ref. Bad luck West Ham.
Although that’s the last real scare, United continue to have the upper hand for the rest of the match. City are holding on, and – with four minutes added time extended still further for treatment to Rosenior after a clash of heads – eventually that’s that.
So, we’re doing well. Back-to-back Premier League wins are not easy to come by. We’ve won two out of three home games, but both of those wins are by disputed Brady penalties.
Last week’s goal fest aside, it’s fair to say that Bruce has still not solved the forward problem which he tried to address on deadline day. Long sits on the bench at West Brom. There’s a time limit on how long we can say of Danny Graham ‘he just needs a goal’. Sagbo’s sending-off against Norwich stopped his progress before he had time to get into his not inconsiderable stride. Nick Proschwitz’s reward for scoring midweek against Huddersfield was to lose his place on the bench today. And I assume that Gedo when fit will be higher in the pecking order than our enigmatic German.
It’ll be interesting to see how we line up next week, when the vagaries of the fixture list mean we do it all again at the KC against a team in claret and blue. In the meantime, if you find yourself having a bad week for whatever reason, take a glance at the league table. It’ll raise a smile.
Ed Bacon (reproduced with kind permission of Tiger Chat)