It would be wrong to put West Ham's apparent revival down to the return of the striker Dean Ashton, who missed the whole of his club's chaotic campaign last season with a broken ankle. After all, the Hammers' manager, Alan Curbishley, has spent something in the region of £50m during Ashton's absence and, should he ever have all his new players fit, he is fully entitled to expect some improvement.
Yet there is no doubting Ashton's importance to the team and his popularity among supporters, who greeted his goal – a mere tap-in – that crowned Saturday's victory over Middlesbrough almost as enthusiastically as they had his previous strike, in the 2006 FA Cup final defeat by Liverpool.
It did not matter that West Ham had already ended the visitors' first-half superiority with a flourish early in the second, Lee Bowyer's exquisite volley 23 seconds after the restart being followed by an own goal by Luke Young.
No, the important thing was that "Deano" was back. He may not have the anti-hero status of a Paolo Di Canio or a Carlos Tevez, but he has a presence of his own when leading the West Ham line.
"It was great to get that first goal and, more importantly, it was a good result and puts us right up there in the table," Ashton said. "It had been a long time since I scored so it was special for me. The international break did me good and I got a couple of reserve games under my belt so I felt a lot better."
An international break is something he will appreciate less the fitter he gets, for he is ambitious to get back into the England reckoning. However, he has echoed his manager's caution with regard to his recovery.
"I am still worrying about scoring again to show people I am fit and to win a place in the team," he said. "The ankle [problem] is not something that will go away, as people who have had similar injuries would say. I have got to work for six months to a year to eradicate it. It's little things I know about myself and which everyone else would not notice. That takes a bit of work."
Boro paid for two missed chances in the first half from Jérémie Aliadière, the first of which hit a post, and for three later on which the Turkey international Tuncay Sanli, his replacement, was unable to convert. "He apologised for those misses afterwards," said Gareth Southgate of Tuncay.
"But you can't pin the blame on him. We should have been in contention by that stage anyway. But he has adapted well to English football and always looked a threat." However, an Ashton he is not.
Goals: Bowyer (46) 1-0; Young og (51); 2-0; Ashton (62) 3-0.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Upson, Collins, McCartney; Bowyer, Noble, Mullins, Etherington (Boa Morte, 77); Ashton (Ljungberg, 80), Bellamy (Cole, 26). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Gabbidon.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Wheater, Woodgate, Taylor (Davies, 83); Boateng, Arca, Rochemback (O'Neil, 67), Downing; Mido, Aliadière (Tuncay, 30). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Lee.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Man of the match: Bowyer.
Attendance: 34,351.Reuse content