A friend of mine was visiting London over the weekend. A football fan and keen groundhopper in general, he jumped at the chance when I offered him a spare ticket to West Ham vs Swansea.
It was never going to be El Clásico, but that didn’t matter. Who needs Iniesta when you’ve got Renato Sanches, a player whose start to life in Wales has been so awful, watching him was genuinely the number one aspect my mate was looking forward to.
Also on his list, for more positive reasons, was the prospect of seeing Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini in the flesh for the first time. The injury news had not looked good all week, which had led me to fear his £30 would be money not-well-spent. How wrong I was.
As we watched the afternoon unfold, a turgid affair between two sides desperately lacking in cutting edge ceased to be the main attraction. The lack of quality of the football we came to see started to pale into insignificance, and what we actually found was that the spectacle was richly entertaining, a cracker for the neutral. And it was pure Schadenfreude.
My mate’s checklist was ambitious. Alongside the fairly basic appetite for red cards, penalties and controversial incidents, he was also after the clichés associated with struggling sides in general, specifically new-era West Ham. I hate to say it, but he was indeed yearning for booing, and a punch-up in the stands. I assured him he’d be disappointed (perhaps trying to convince myself at the same time).
Then there was the game-specific stuff. Of course, we’re not talking goals here. He was here to see Sanches misplace more passes than he makes; Bony doing his best impression of George Weah’s cousin; Antonio go on blind runs that look like dead ends, before succeeding in making something of them; Lanzini come on to change the game; a hilarious cameo from Masuaku; Joe Hart do some shouting and Carroll do something Carroll-ish.
When Antonio tested Fabianski early and Bony forced Hart into a decent save, the noise of the crowd picked up and we were hopeful of an actual game of football. But the brief optimism quickly evaporated, and it became very poor very quickly.
West Ham had succeeded in making even Sanches look comfortable on the ball, with Noble standing far off him and allowing him to distribute. Swansea were getting nowhere though. Close to half time, I turned to him and apologised. Then Tom Carroll passed the ball straight out of play from about 8 yards away. We both laughed.
Into the second-half, the hilarity continued. It was West Ham’s turn to play on the front foot, and they managed to look even less assured, even less comfortable playing football than their opponents. Fans were getting frustrated with the backwards passing and lack of movement. Boos surely weren’t far round the corner.
My personal favourite moment of the game was a free-kick situation left of the field half-way into the Swansea half. Cresswell stood over it, waiting for his teammates to crowd the penalty box. Cresswell waited, looked up, waited, looked up, waited. A good ten seconds elapsed, before he stepped up and.... sent the ball four yards behind him to Winston Reid. Loud booing. Another one ticked off the list. They got even louder when Hernandez was taken off with 15 minutes to play. Diafra Sakho came on. Awful substitution, Slav.
We were rattling through the list by now. Boos, hilariously awful play, Sanches misplacing passes, Carroll playing on the wing (Andy Carroll that is). It was becoming the funniest crap 0-0 of the season, even if Lanzini had started to change its tempo. But a punch-up too in the stands too? That’s surely going too far, too much of a media cliché to actually happen.
Sakho got the winner in the 90th minute, my mate giving me a wink and a nudge when it was the now-heroic Arthur Masuaku putting the ball in for him. But before we could see Sakho celebrate (we were hoping he’d do an aeroplane celebration. I like to think he did), our eyes were drawn to several rows in front, where some fans looked like they were about to go at it. When it all finally calmed down, others around us were speculating it had been instigated over an argument over Bilic. Sad times, whether the Bilic factor was true or not. It calmed down before anything happened though. My mate looked delighted.
On the down side, Swansea unfortunately didn’t have enough dangerous set-pieces for Joe Hart to shout ‘AWAY’ quite enough for our liking. On the plus side, we got to see his classic positioning and kicking skills. At one point, he had backed so far onto his goal-line he looked like he was about to join us in the crowd. It made up for the lack of red cards, at least.
The final whistle blew and the fans cheered. It seemed strange given the preceding 90s minutes, but the 55,000 crowd had probably, like us, tried to block out the spectacle of the game by the end.
For my own part, I can’t remember the last time I left a West Ham game feeling apathetic about a victory. I’d forgotten about the game within minutes as we got talking over a post-match pint about Twin Peaks and a friend’s trip to America. OK, it’s an important three points, but what happened had seemed so predictable; Bilic did just enough to limp on, the team’s victory vindicating the tactical decisions and thereby prolonging the cluelessness. Hunky dory. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here...
But I’m really happy my non-West Ham friend came along to witness this dreadful affair. It helped me see the funny side to my club again, as well as recapture the glorious ineptitude of Premier League footballers misplacing five-yard passes. When your team keeps playing badly, you can often forget the incompetence can actually be incredibly funny. I was reminded of that this weekend. The opposition were actually funnier anyway. “It needed a Mark Noble reducer for a full bingo card”, he did manage to add.
My mate’s crowning moment came mid-way through the second half. Swansea had a free-kick in a dangerous spot, with Tom Carroll stood over it, the position favoring the left-footer.
“I hope Sanches takes it”, he dared to whisper to me.
Commentator’s curse. And lo, the Portuguese stepped up and blasted the ball into the top tier.
“That’s it. That’s what I came for.” He grinned from ear to ear.