GILES SMITH: OUR TREAT

Posted on: Thu 30 Jan 2014

Matthew Harding Stand season ticket holder and columnist Giles Smith is playing a waiting game this week, expectantly for a goal but less so for a half-time event to match one recently witnessed…

 

We had 39 shots last night. Thirty-nine! How on earth did none of them go in? Talk about a murder mystery. It should be an Alfred Hitchcock film. 'The 39 Shots'.

To use the cliché, 'a goal was coming'. It was coming for 94 minutes, to be precise - yet somehow, incredibly, without ever actually arriving.

It definitely was coming, though. And, for me, you have to bring into consideration the fact that the four minutes of time added on was about seven minutes short, realistically speaking. If the officials had properly compensated for the amount of seconds West Ham wasted over goal-kicks, throw-ins, free-kicks, substitutions, etc (and, let's face it, it's pretty rare to see a side begin attempting tricks with the clock as early as the 14th minute), we probably would have had two or three before the night was out.

Actually, Frank Lampard alone would probably have had two or three. Because if a goal seemed to be coming, a goal especially seemed to be coming for Frank Lampard.

Still, you can't blame West Ham for wasting time, packing the penalty area (even with Andy Carroll for a considerable percentage of the match, lending a whole new dimension to the meaning of the term 'lone striker'), endlessly breaking up attacks with fouls, ceaselessly slowing the game down by feigning injury, and so on.

In a season in which any one of 10 teams could plausibly go down, but in which at least seven of those teams seem less likely to do so than West Ham, every point becomes crucial. The one they gained last night by standing in extraordinarily large numbers in their own penalty area could mean the difference between finishing second from bottom and going down, and finishing third from bottom and going down. That's how important it was for them.

And, similarly, as undignified as it might have seemed at the time, you can't blame their fans for celebrating a 0-0 draw as buoyantly as they did. Those visitors seemed to be in a pretty frisky mood from the beginning in any case - presumably because it was nice for them to come somewhere where they would see some actual football played, which clearly isn't something that happens to them very often at home.

Consider it our treat, on this occasion. And we'll just have to try and make the points back at Manchester City next Monday night, when, coming off the back of a 39-shot goalless streak, surely the simple laws of probability insist that we will score.

A goal was coming. It still is. Even more so.

All too predictably, people thought it was clever to phone up Radio 5 Live last night and say that, if we'd only had Juan Mata, West Ham would have gone home with the nothing they so richly deserved.

Now, nobody disputes that Mata, as well as being a very nice man, is a good player - and nobody disputes that he will have no difficulty looking like an essential one in the far less competitive squad that he has landed up in at Manchester United.

At the same time, last night's was exactly the kind of match (11 defenders behind the ball, Sam Allardyce in the technical area, 18-yard box congested to the point of being an oxygen-free zone, frequent runs back into your own half made obligatory by the lumped defensive clearance) in which Mata, and his tendency to run in arcs around the penalty area, quite often failed to distinguish himself.

It also needs to be said that no team that can muster the combined and far more direct aggression of Hazard, Oscar and Willian will ever reasonably be felt to lack Juan Mata in a freakishly blank turkey-shoot against an entirely unambitious West Ham. If even one of the desperate legs that our cowering opponents blindly flung in front of our 25 or so otherwise goal-bound shots had failed to connect with the ball, the debate simply wouldn't have arisen.

I like Juan Mata and took a lot of pleasure from what he did for us in recent seasons. We owe him nothing but gratitude, and the club treated him with due respect in the matter of his transfer. But how much did last night's draw illustrate that we still need him? We were the thickness of Adrian's socks from demonstrating that we don't need him at all.

We can't allow the week to pass without acknowledging the half-time pitch-walk undertaken at the Stoke City match last Sunday by Frank Blunstone. Never in the history of the interval show-round has one man travelled so far, so slowly, to please so many.

Not for Blunstone the casual wave from just outside the penalty area. The 1955 League Championship winner, now 79, set out to stick as close as humanly possible to the advertising hoardings, having apparently taken the decision that his brief included the mission to shake the hand of every member of what was a crowd in excess of 40,000.

The five-times England-capped outside left was a full five minutes working his way up the back straight of the East Stand Family Section, and spent almost as much again negotiating the Matthew Harding Lower. Fingers were clasped, wrists were grasped, fives were highed and highs were fived. This was saying hello to the fans, done properly.

Blunstone

We didn't have a clock on it, but hopefully somebody somewhere did, because this was also a lap-record at Stamford Bridge which will be a long time in the breaking. Blunstone was still out there when the players re-emerged for the second half, when he was able to shake the hand of the arriving Frank Lampard - and would probably have gone right round the rest of the team if Neil Barnett, escorting him, hadn't done the decent thing by the television schedulers and diverted him carefully down the tunnel.

Last night it was the turn of Ray Lewington, who, in the role of returning dignitary, did his best, even while understandably keeping his hands in his pockets against the cold. It wouldn't really have mattered what he did though: the moment was always going to have something of the 'after the 1955 hero's show' about it. There's half-time walks - and then there's Frank Blunstone.

Personally, I used to like it when the draw for the following round of the FA Cup took place on the Monday after the current round's ties were played. That way, you used to get at least 24 hours, and sometimes as many as 48, to sit back a bit, enjoy the sensation of going through, and reflect a little on what destiny might have in store for you.

All of which is very different from what happens these days - or certainly from what happened to me on Sunday: which is that, even as you're still crossing the Fulham Road on your way out of the ground, you get a text from someone telling you that you've drawn Manchester City away. That was news I could have hung on a bit longer for, I don't mind admitting.

Although, of course, we shouldn't make too much of the scale of the task. After all, technically, looking at City's performance in the last round, we only have to do slightly better than Watford managed in order to go through. And no disrespect to Watford, of course - but doing better than Watford is something which this club has historically tended to specialise in.