West Ham show value of loyalty bonus

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The Independent Online
A momentous sporting weekend but one in which the most staggering event was not on the turf, the track, or the tee, but in a Wigan committee room.

Football fans will look at rugby league's super league plans and think "but for the grace of God, that could have been us".

Football does have a Premier League, one which increasingly acts as if it were a separate super league, but it has not paid the price the 13- man code is threatening to do. If supporters of Widnes and Warrington want sympathy and help in fighting the proposed merger they should go to Reading and Oxford, or Fulham and Queen's Park Rangers. Remember Thames Valley Royals, and Fulham Park Rangers, those ill-considered ventures by Robert Maxwell and David Bulstrode. Supporter opposition was one of the main reasons they failed.

Fulham may be in the Third Division but they have retained their identity. When clubs merge one will usually dominate. It will be their ground, or their colours or personnel - or, as with the merger between Caledonians and Inverness Thistle, all three. Caledonian Thistle is so much Caledonians in disguise that Thistle supporters have taken legal action to prevent the new club using Thistle's assets.

In such cases some of the smaller club's supporters will convert, but many will drift to other teams, or away from the sport completely.

A rugby league-style English football super league would involve two- club cities such as Nottingham becoming one and clubs like West Ham joining with Orient and Millwall to form an East London United.

Fat chance. Rovers and City cannot even share a ground in Bristol. And who would want it? West Ham supporters arriving at Nottingham Forest's City Ground for Saturday's 1-1 draw were eagerly buying anti-Millwall T-shirts. No doubt the same T-shirts, with the sentiments reversed, were on sale outside the New Den.

Fan loyalty is at the heart of the English game and, on Saturday, West Ham's supporters gave as impressive a display of it as any. Four thousand filled the away end, boosting Forest's crowd to the second highest of the season. They roared their support, inspiring their team into giving a committed and organised performance that deserved to lift them out of the relegation zone.

In the event they got one point, not three, Stan Collymore scrambling a late equaliser to salavge a draw for a subdued Forest. Collymore had had a fitful day. He could have scored in the first minute, hitting a seemingly effortless shot of awesome power which Ludek Miklosko turned over, but was then poorly served.

Had that gone in a repeat of last week's 7-1 drubbing of Sheffield Wednesday (which also contributed to the high attendance) could have followed. But West Ham, with Marc Rieper and Julian Dicks impressive in defence, soon strangled Forest's flow.

Steve Stone maintained his reputation for marring intelligent approach play by poor finishing but Tony Cottee also missed from close in as West Ham added ambition to determination. They were rewarded just after the hour when Colin Cooper fouled Michael Hughes nearly 30 yards out. Forest put seven men in the wall but Dicks' shot beat them all and Mark Crossley.

Forest, roused, bombarded the West Ham goal and, with 11 minutes left, Cooper headed down Bryan Roy's cross and Collymore thumped in the loose ball.

A point was not enough for either side. West Ham, with fixtures againt Blackburn, Manchester United and Liverpool to come, remain deep in trouble. If they are relegated it will be for the third time in six seasons; twice they have come back. Never a dull moment at Upton Park.

The emotions such rollercoaster form induces would be another casualty of a super league. Relegation may create fearful, tension-ridden matches, but it does mean they matter. Without it most Premier League matches would now be meaningless.

Rugby league's super league has no relegation to start with. It is promised later. Maybe. Those who would have a football super league, with all that it entails in terms of financial commitment, would not want to expose themselves to the vagaries of form.

For Forest the point keeps them in sight of a European place. The match programme had a timely reminder of their past success with a feature on their 1980 European Cup-winning campaign. The European achievements of this provincial club, with its moderate resouces and support, were remarkable. Rarely has a club so fulfilled, even exceeded, its potential.

Now they are poised to return, and would do so with a rebuilt stadium good enough to host European Championship matches next summer. Across the Trent is another fine ground and, although County are struggling and seem to have had more managers than wins this season, they, too have a European trophy, the Anglo-Italian Cup, and had a day out at Wembley this year to win it.

Would amalgamation make either of these teams any better? Not a lot. But it would see the end of County, the oldest club in the game, and the end of a regular source of delight or disappointment for both sets of supporters as they check their rivals' results.

It could yet happen. A European league remains a real prospect while the Premier League is becoming increasingly detached from the Endsleigh. Television's inducements - and demands - get ever greater. There is no room for complacency.

Goals: 0-1 Dicks (65); 1-1 Collymore (79).

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Pearce; Stone, Phillips, Bohinen (McGregor, 72), Woan (Lee, 72); Collymore, Roy. Substitute not used: Mercer (gk).

West Ham United (4-4-2): Miklosko; Brown, Potts, Rieper, Dicks; Hughes, Allen, Bishop, Holmes (Whitbread, 87); Boere, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Sealey (g), Williamson.

Referee: G Poll (Berkshire).