WEST Ham United Football Club should be ashamed of themselves. Kicking a man when he is down is neither sport nor entertainment yet they charged thousands of Newcastle United supporters to watch it happen to them at the weekend.
It wasn’t even the Hammers doing the kicking, it was Newcastle’s players. Not in the literal sense, of course. On Saturday’s form they would have missed.
It is bad enough seeing a bedraggled group of men publicly humiliated by anybody but it was more painful because their tormentors were West Ham, that most London of clubs at a time when Cockneys are as popular on Tyneside as Gordon Brown is at a Labour Party Conference; a club who when Kevin Keegan was negotiating his latest St James’s Park exit was going through similar political in-fighting, but who already appear to have come out the other end; a team whose best player on Saturday – Carlton Cole apart (yes, you read that correctly) – was Scott Parker, formerly of this parish.
Keegan could make the most average footballer believe he was a world-beater. His departure has had the reverse effect. You could not wish for a better advert for sports psychology than Newcastle’s abysmal defensive display as the turmoil of a club in crisis caved in on the players’ heads.
Fans know left-back is not Charles N’Zogbia’s best position, that Steven Taylor still has his moments, that Fabricio Coloccini is not the world-class defender the Magpies crave, and that David Edgar is a youngster still learning his trade. But none are as bad as the performances they put in at the weekend.
There is only one logical explanation for the way they allowed a West Ham forward line shorn of its two best players to cut them to ribbons. The parallels with the last time a managerless Magpies travelled away from St James’, to Manchester United in January, were obvious as their rock-bottom morale was again laid bare. Last time Keegan rescued them, it is hard to see anyone doing so again for some time.
One newspaper yesterday claimed eight managers have already turned the job down, but whatever the reality, the turmoil threatens to continue until Mike Ashley finds a buyer. That is surely some way off and every performance this miserable will only make the Middle Eastern billionaires he is courting wonder if blowing the best part of £400m on the Magpies is such a good idea after all. If Chris Hughton turns his squad into something resembling a football team in time for Wednesday’s now-crucial League Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur, never mind a full-time contract, they should give him the Manager of the Year trophy there and then. Hughton can keep his finger in the dam but this is a mess only the players can clean up. They must summon the mental resolve for a fight with whatever Lady Luck and a struggling Tottenham throw at them.
Hughton made reference on more than one occasion to “the rub of the green” at the weekend but United’s luck was of their own making. David di Michele’s opener looped in off Edgar’s shins but it was poor judgment not luck which made a uninterested-looking N’Zogbia play a perfect pass to Julien Faubert to start the move. And it was not the gods Shay Given was cursing for granting di Michele the freedom of Upton Park 29 minutes later – or for allowing the Italian to collect the ball again and score from Given’s initial save.
The luck was with Newcastle when the on-loan journeyman, unmarked at the back of the box in the 58th minute, blazed an excellent hat-trick opportunity wide, and when Luis Boa Morte missed an even easier chance in added time.
The savage way West Ham sliced through Newcastle early in the second half, Matthew Etherington beating Edgar to di Michele’s cross, killed the game after United’s bright start to the second half. Michael Owen’s 11th goal in 13 league games against West Ham was a reminder of the class that exists at St James’s buried beneath a mountain of self-doubt.
N’Zogbia’s petulance late on was as pathetic as Danny Guthrie’s the week before, though it was just the ball on the receiving end this time and the punishment was simply a yellow card.
Two players can be absolved of blame – Owen and Geremi – while it was impossible not to have sympathy with Given, seemingly struggling to contain his frustration at the 11 years of defensive ineptitude he has tried to smooth over. Owen fed off starvation rations as usual but most of United’s creativity came from Geremi, whether deployed on the right of midfield or at right-back.
The next episode of this gruesome spectacle takes place at St James’s on Wednesday. Those of a squeamish disposition would be advised to look away.
The game at a glance
CHARLES N’Zogbia, a capable left-back, was a liability when Hughton asked him to play there. Switched to midfield for the final half hour, he not only looked more accomplished but also more focused. Draw your own conclusions.
IT was actually won by Newcastle. Seriously. A decent 4-4-2 side could have taken Gianfranco Zola’s fancy formation to the cleaners. With Noble, Etherington and di Michele floating where they pleased, United had the freedom of the flanks but decent crosses from Duff, Geremi and, later, N’Zogbia, went unconverted.
KILLING THE PLANET
ON a sunny Saturday afternoon in London, it was a mystery why West Ham switched their energy-guzzling floodlights on. But as a waste of money, it was nothing compared with some of those in black-and-white shirts beneath them.
CHARITY BEGINS SOMEWHERE ELSE
AFTER the collapse of travel company XL, West Ham wore squad numbers on the front of their shirts despite a supporter campaign to give a free advert to the Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research. West Ham have “a financial duty to secure the best possible sponsorship package” explained the shameless money-grabbing club whose ground is plastered with adverts cashing in on Moore.