Nolan ignites the flames of hope and history
West Ham United 1 Aston Villa 0: Beating Villa 1-0 brings early joy to the Upton Park traditionalists, faced with the prospect of moving to an Olympic Stadium bereft of intimacy
Sunday 19 August 2012
The faithful trotted out the old anthems while the powerbrokers peered through the heat haze at West Ham's proposed new home on the horizon. The Olympic Stadium is little more than two miles away from Upton Park, but on days such as these it belongs on a different planet.
When the noise rolls around the main stand, which is bookended by huge portraits of Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking, the game comes alive and the ghosts come calling. Kevin Nolan's goal, five minutes before half-time, was enough to guarantee the observation of celebratory traditions which unite the generations.
It mattered little that West Ham were unfortunate not to secure a more comfortable victory when Nathan Baker cleared off the line from the substitute Modibo Maiga in the last seconds of added time. A capacity crowd was in a mood to excuse the inelegant muscularity of a trademark Sam Allardyce team.
The Boleyn is unashamedly old- fashioned. Even the six bubble-blowers clustered around the dug-outs seem an unnecessary concession to modernity. It is an authentic English football ground. Its intimacy and intensity expose the artificiality of the modern, multi-tiered mausoleums which have transformed the landscape of the Premier League.
The fans are drawn into the action as participants in a passion play rather than as observers at a social function. They get up close and very personal. That may not be entirely good news for Allardyce, who is tolerated rather than admired, but it is a reminder of what West Ham are in danger of sacrificing in the name of financial opportunism. The Olympic flame had barely been extinguished when the club launched a PR campaign to acquire squatter's rights at a reconstituted Stadium in Stratford Park. No East End legend, real or imagined, was spared. Celluloid mobsters, celebrity comedians and athletic icons, in the form of Ray Winstone, James Corden and Sally Gunnell, were wheeled out to pledge allegiance to the cause. The rower Mark Hunter circulated before kick-off, allowing a succession of children to wear his Olympic silver medal. Boxer Nicola Adams, by all accounts a Leeds supporter, was nevertheless swathed in a West Ham flag. Boxing and mini-tennis demonstrations were staged at half-time, and the PA announcer shoehorned the L word – Legacy – into as many announcements as possible. Subtle it was not.
Allardyce has previous in the promotion of delusions of grandeur – his insistence he would be a natural Real Madrid manager was a classic of its kind. He has gone on record suggesting the move would elevate West Ham to the levels of Arsenal and Manchester United. His implication that only "a club with the history, fanbase and potential of West Ham" suit the Olympic site captured the hyperbolic mood.
Joint owner David Sullivan, never knowingly upstaged, believes it is "morally" right to install them as tenants. Oblivious to the dangers of using such a word in a football context, he subsequently suggested "it would be wonderful for the country". Repayment for West Ham winning the World Cup for England in 1966, presumably.
David Gold, his partner, used the start of the new season to unveil his plan to save the Premier League's soul: a debt cap to prevent clubs spending beyond their means. "Top- level football in this country is on the brink of diving into a financial abyss," he announced, ignoring inconvenient home truths.
West Ham have hardly been prudent since winning promotion. They have discarded 12 underachievers, but they have been a one-club transfer rumour mill. Allardyce has recruited eight new players, on substantial wages, and is agitating to sign at least another three.
Paul Lambert, by contrast, has a more difficult search for compensations. Villa lacked penetration and the manager will doubtlessly be reminding the owner, Randy Lerner, of the wisdom of reinvesting some of his billion-dollar windfall from the sale of his NFL team.
The frustrations were obvious – one misjudged cross prompted Lambert to pirouette across his technical area and punch the back of his seat – but he is at least attempting to fashion a team who play in the right way. The popularity of his appointment was crystallised by the travelling fans, who delivered a tart farewell to Alex McLeish.
"We're passing the ball," they sang in mock disbelief. "We're Aston Villa. We're passing the ball." This went down well with the locals, whose most cherished values were being vindicated by the opposition.
Allardyce's functional football is justified only by results. Villa were bombarded by a succession of high balls in a sterile first half, enlivened only by Nolan's contentious goal. The home fans didn't care about its lack of clarity. Linesman Simon Long put his flag up for offside against Ricardo Vaz Te, then changed his mind before the striker pulled the ball back for Kevin Nolan to score. The protests were long, loud, and tinged with desperation, but would not have made an Olympian blush.
Even the managers were on their best behaviour afterwards. Both praised referee Mike Dean for his diligence in spotting that Villa's Ciaran Clark got a fateful touch before the ball reached Vaz Te in the build-up to the goal. Whether they will be so even-handed as the season progresses remains to be seen.
West Ham 1 (Nolan 40) Aston Villa 0
West Ham (4-1-2-3): Jaaskelainen; Demel, Reid, Collins, McCartney (O'Brien, 70); Diamé; Nolan (Tomkins, 72), Noble; Vaz Te, Cole (Maiga, 80), Taylor.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Given; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Baker; El Ahmadhi, Delph (Bannan, 76); Holman (Weimann 60), Ireland, N'Zogbia (Gardner, 72); Bent.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Nolan (West Ham)
Match rating: 4/10
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