West Ham United’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle United at St. James’ Park is a remarkable sign of the progress the Hammers have made in the short time they have spent upon their return to the Premier League. While the win was by no means a comprehensive victory, despite @TheBig_Sam (the best parody account on Twitter) describing the triumph rather differently: “And as the moonlight shimmers across the Tyne, the bloody lumps of a thousand slaughtered Geordies bobble through the water like meaty buoys,” it is a testament to the team’s attitude as well as to Big Sam, whatever you think about him.
Not only was it particularly pleasing for those in the West Ham team that once affiliated themselves with those from the North East, but because Newcastle United are a side well back on their way to returning to their glory years. A solid mid table finish in their first season back, with former honorary Cockney Alan Pardew, in the top flight was followed by an amazing fifth placed finish saw them return to continental football in the Europa League, where they are fairing quite nicely.
So if West Ham United can go to Newcastle United and get a result, does it mean that they themselves can expect a future similar to Newcastle’s path? Or is it just a case of the team lifting the fans hopes up to burst their bubbles?
While the majority of West Ham fans tend to tread cautiously when their team goes on a good run of form, there is always a lingering belief something special can happen. This crop of West Ham players isn’t a particularly stellar squad, but there are a few who stand out. Kevin Nolan had his sceptics at the beginning, but the captain has been an ever present so far running a midfield that has included two other unsung heroes of the Premier League: Mohamed Diame and local boy Mark Noble, who must think he’s never going to get an England call up.
Andy Carroll has added force up front and Winston Reid has somehow gone from becoming the next Pascal Cygan in his first year to one of the most solid defenders that has recently graced Upton Park. Like any team, it’s not without its flaws. Joey O’Brien seems to be punching above his weight and the rest of the squad is incredibly thin. Were an injury crisis to strike, it could be curtains in East London.
West Ham have made it this far with a combination of tactical prowess and team spirit, but self belief can only get you so far so. A lot of the responsibility is in the hands of Allardyce to maintain his guiding light over the side.
Newcastle’s success has been of a similar ilk but with quite a large difference. The Magpies, are quite simply, a bigger team and hold serious financial clout. In their first season back, they already boasted talent including Nolan, Joey Barton, and Cheick Tiote. The team was set up immediately to hold their own. With the addition of midfield supremo Yohan Cabaye, free scoring Senegalese pair Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, along with the resurgent form of the Fabricio Coloccini and the emergence of Tim Krul has a quality goalkeeper, they soared up the table with ease.
While West Ham are themselves an institution steeped in history, it is unlikely that they would be unable to attract such talent. With the Olympic Stadium move up in the air and a reluctance to develop Upton Park, the club remains as one of the smaller names in the Premier League. This season, a lot of faith has been placed in Nolan and Carroll to recreate the same sort of formidable partnership they formed at Newcastle previously. AC has yet to score for West Ham, but is creating chances, while Nolan continues to impress behind Carroll.
West Ham’s recent forays in Europe haven’t resulted in any sort of glory. After the 2006 FA Cup final defeat, the team managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup. The signings of Tevez and Mascherano slashed West Ham’s odds to make it all the way, but the team succumbed to a 4-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of Palermo in the qualifying stage.
Their previous outing abroad was in 1999 following a fifth placed finish in the league under Harry Redknapp. Once winning the Intertoto Cup (remember that?), they went out to a 2-0 aggregate loss to Steaua Bucharest. West Ham United didn’t set Europe alight, and are unlikely to in the near future. Newcastle on the other hand do have successful European history. Often qualifying through the league for either the UEFA Cup or Champions League and performing well, St. James’ was more equipped for the big European nights.
Now in the Europa League, Newcastle United are holding their own once more. Despite being known as the ‘Mickey Mouse’ cup, it is a credible competition that is treated with an embarrassing amount of English arrogance. For West Ham United however, the cup would be a serious distraction from a team that is still under serious redevelopment. The Hammers could make it there, but it may prove detrimental. Focus this season remains on survival, we’ll talk about Europe later.