THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Newcastle, managerless and looking for new ownership, travel to a seemingly far happier club, with West Ham fans welcoming Gianfranco Zola. But fresh turmoil is about to emerge: the papers reporting on the game predict the imminent verdict in Sheffield United’s appeal over Carlos Tevez, writes David Stubbs

I caught this fixture in April, on an unseasonably warm day. The Jubilee Line was subject to one of its rare closures and I had to make the trip in a replacement bus, which, like a mobile greenhouse and packed to the rafters, wended its way at gridlocked-traffic’s pace to Canning Town, then past some of east London’s most eye-catching industrial estates before reaching West Ham. Uncannily, though the journey lasted 40 minutes, the Millennium Dome hovered throughout, seemingly never more than 250 yards away; a curse of the white elephant. West Ham, under the lugubrious watch of Alan Curbishley, darted into a 2-0 lead but then, having blown their ­bubbles, conceded two quick goals to a Newcastle team with the air of having accidentally rediscovered their self-esteem under Kevin Keegan.

Five months on, another unseasonably warm day, and the teams meet again. Just in case the Jubilee Line should be subject to another rare closure, your correspondent sets off an hour early. And sure enough, it has. So, the same drill – mobile greenhouse, check, eye-catching industrial estates, check, curse of white elephant, check.

Fate moves in cruel circles and there is an air of perpetual damnation about both clubs. West Ham are the team everyone leaves, Newcastle the team everyone ends up at, but despite their contrasts they have much in common. Both are prone to changes of leadership reminiscent of Italian politics, each new upheaval bringing a fresh, sanguine burst of energy before things relapse into disappointment. Both have been touched by the credit crunch, with Keeganless Newcastle bearing the slogan Northern Rock like a speculator’s dunce’s cap and West Ham’s players forced to cover their XL sponsorship logo with large, patched-on numbers as if about to try to break the four-minute mile at Iffley Road. (“You’re not flying any more,” chant the Geordie fans at one point during the match, to be met with a mixture of applause and a barrage of counter-derision.)

If there is about Newcastle a lingering air of delusional grandeur and parochialism, despite their potlessness (the “Cockney mafia out” banners are predictably unfurled), the mood among home fans, in greeting their latest saviour Gianfranco Zola, as reflected in the fanzines, is one of optimism. Not that they’ll break into the top four, but that he’ll provide topsy-turvy entertainment in the manner of Harry Redknapp. This is unanimously preferred to the efficient mediocrity of Curbishley.

Today, however, as supporters traipse down Green Street, there is a muttered air of trepidation. “This lot always stuff us,” grumbles one fan, while, mindful of that 2‑2, others suspect this is just the sort of bright, blue-skied, cheery day on which they’re likely to get bitten on the backside. Despite Newcastle’s woes, there is no hubristic pre-match cheering, nothing taken for granted.

Green Street has a certain any-time-since-1970 timelessness about it, with its stench of fried chicken, sausage and onions, open market, precinct concrete, Percy Ingle’s bakery, ­smallholders with floating apostrophes (“Key’s cut”) and the Queens pub, where the ­outdoor‑­drinking fans are hemmed in with metal fences. The pedestrian traffic is largely one way, but it’s notable that those heading away from the stadium are mostly from ethnic minorities. One hears, in and around the stadium, a number of fans in Hammers shirts with foreign, east European accents; but, as a scan around the ground inside confirms, there is barely a black or Asian face to be seen among this disquieting sea of Caucasian-ness.

Of course, the Newcastle fans are almost all white, even whiter with their shirts off, but despite the high profile given to the Kick It Out campaign, despite the number of black players West Ham have fielded (as far back as 1970), they have drawn virtually zero support from the black and ethnic minority population in their immediate catchment area. What could possibly be putting them off? Not the abiding penchant for singing the praises of Paolo Di Canio, surely?

As for the visitors, they are a sporadic, scowlingly defiant presence, dotted about the approaching fans uncowed in black and white, but tempered by a nice, jet-black-haired old lady Toon fan who makes small talk with Hammers fans en route.

Zola is greeted with a mighty cheer which, wrapped up in his own thoughts, he fails to acknowledge – something for which he later apologises, with winning diffidence. And so, with your correspondent wedged into one of the seats reserved for the press, with a fold­away desk and the amount of leg room that suggest it was part of a job lot bought from a closing primary school, the game kicks off.

It’s the usual knockabout fare early doors – Nicky Butt, mostly bald patch these days, clattering into all and sundry, a West Ham right midfielder delivering, under no pressure, a premeditated, precisely weighted, perfectly arced cross ball way over the left touchline into row F. Then, after only seven minutes, the Italian signing David Di Michele breaks through and shoots. Following a deflection so Toon-like in its comedy misfortune the word “BOING!!!” practically appears above it accompanied by a long whistle, the ball sails over a custard-yellow-clad Shay Given into the net.

It’s lucky but not undeserved. West Ham tread gingerly for a while, as if fearing that to score a second would be a foolhardy temptation of fate given what happened in April, but they needn’t worry. Newcastle play like a team of jigsaw pieces from 11 different puzzles. Players such as Damien Duff and Geremi may be past their peak, but ought to have some role to play in the game. Today, however, it is to clash like two strangers on a railway platform at rush hour at the end of a promising surge through midfield.

When Newcastle do co-ordinate, it’s by chance – Butt attempts a shot so off target it turns out to be a shrewd crossfield ball to Charles N’Zogbia venturing up the left flank. They’re as helpless as Subbuteo players, with the defence in particular rooted haplessly to the spot as West Ham flit about them at will. The Newcastle penalty area is now more of a hospitality suite. The mildly dreaded second goal follows a stop from Given that ricochets out to Di Michele, who has the luxury of allowing the ball to bounce not once, but twice without rude interruption from a defender, before firing it home. Only right-back Fabricio Coloccini offers resistance, shaking his shaggy mane in the direction of the ball, as if in the hope that a flurry of ­dandruff might impede its progress.

Newcastle come on to the pitch like dead men jogging in the second half, but reduce the Hammers throng to a low, anxious drone as they make a brightish start, including an elaborate set-piece routine involving the ball bouncing off Butt’s bald patch, which almost comes off. But Etherington soon adds a West Ham third, with the Newcastle back four now reduced to spectators on the pitch and liable to ejection by the stewards.

Di Michele almost gets a hat-trick, with the Newcastle defence having evidently decided that despite the threat he carries, man-marking him would be an excessively drastic measure at this stage. But perversely, Newcastle still carry a sting and, when Coloccini hits the bar, the away end greet his efforts with rousing effusion, as if, hard bastards that they are, being a mere 3‑0 down is no reason to start crying like girls. They’re rewarded when Michael Owen, taking advantage of the torpor into which the game has sunk, bends in a lovely consolation goal from outside the area.

A flurry of substitutions follows, culminating in the appearance of Freddie Sears, a West Ham hero in the making. Indeed, when Di Michele fails to link up with him in successive attacks, the Italian finds himself roundly booed despite his day’s tally. An anxiety has stolen over the Hammers fans, the sort you’d expect when your team holds but a slender two-goal advantage and there are still 120 whole seconds to play. But then sub Luis Boa Morte finds himself clean through, bearing down over empty green yards on goal, and here let us take a break to meditate on the nature of Schadenfreude.

There is no single word English equivalent for the German concept of “shameful joy”, but in the case of Newcastle and all that has befallen them, even Schadenfreude is inadequate. They invite a certain strain of laughter not because they are the mighty fallen, knocked off their perch, but because not only were they knocked off their perch years ago, but here they lie prostrate on the sandpaper at the bottom of the birdcage, like a superfatted budgie, claws in the air, being poked through their ruffled feathers, like malicious boys with biros, by the cruel jibes of fate. What could be funnier?

But back to Boa Morte, with only the keeper to beat. As he shapes up to shoot, you can see him slowing up, psychologically squeezing the confidence out of himself, like a Boa Morte constrictor. The chance is developing before our eyes into a sitter. And, as football history tells us, no one ever scores a sitter. He misses his, as all sitters are missed, by a yard. After a pause, the tension lifts, the whistle blows, the Hammers are happy and even the Toon Army are afforded temporary respite as the entire ground is united in laughter, not at rudderless Newcastle but at Luis Boa Morte.

“Going down with the Tottenham,” jeered the Hammers as they went three up and Zola’s slightly inane perma-smile is particularly emphatic at the press conference. But whereas Newcastle have probably tumbled as low as they are likely to, you sense that West Ham’s euphoria will be short-lived. It’s hard to believe that Zola, with his eager-to-please demeanour, possesses the sort of temperament that will inspire his team to dig their way through tougher days than these. Moreover, no one’s to know this day that a court ruling means West Ham could be liable to pay up to £30 million to Sheffield United over the Tevez controversy. Bubbles can float down as well as up.

From WSC 261 November 2008

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