One, two, three times he came and they cut him down. They saw yellow, we saw fear in their eyes. Not dirty or cynical fouls these, merely desperate. Let him past and disaster lay ahead. The fans were spellbound, defenders mesmerised as Gareth Bale was unplayable for the final twenty minutes. No option but to stand off. He began a move in the centre circle, a few short passes set him up and created a little room to work up a head of steam. Switch it onto the left, from 25 yards the keeper cannot move save to allow his shoulders to slump in defeat. Top right hand corner, a matchwinner to surpass efforts that could not be bettered, or so we had thought.
This is crackpot crazy Boy’s Own stuff of dreams, a throwback to Brylcreem, toe-caps and dubbin. The star-man weaves through flailing, futile tackles to score the last gasp winner when all seemed lost. The celebrations turned to black and white jerky ungainly jumps, then a dutiful trot back to the centre circle, fade to sepia and gone.
Except what Bale did was to dash into the welcoming arms of his manager, to be joined by most of his team-mates. Remind me again about that players’ revolt so gleefully reported by the media in August. The bit about how Villas-Boas can’t communicate with his men, how does that go? Together and loyal, this is a proper team, and their stellar performer knows he is part of it, not just an individual.
There were other stars at Upton Park last night. Dawson is one of the grunts, unsung and unswerving in his dedication to the cause. With Andy Carroll up against him, under bombardment from crosses and those long, straight free-kicks that beg for the second ball to be gobbled up by an opponent’s boot, Dawson bent double in that familiar crouch of concentration, slapped his thighs and was ready for battle. He did not flinch for a moment.
Behind him, I fail to think of anything Hugo Lloris could have done better. Not a foot out of place, or a hair for that matter, he came to catch those crosses and snaffled every one. Two early decisive low saves, then one rush from the line in the second half when the defence dozed off for a second. Outstanding.
Oddly, as everyone was bouncing in the stands and I was bouncing off the walls in my living room, as the players left the field I felt a sudden moment of complete calm. I wanted to shake him by the hand, to say how we appreciate what he has brought to the club. It seems like he doesn’t do fuss, but he needs to know. This is the Age of Hugo.
Third in the table, playing our best football when the pressure was on. Opponents preyed on our vulnerability to late goals not so long ago. Now they fear the final ten minutes as we are never out of it. Think what we could do if we had a striker.
Parts of this game were very average, interspersed with periods of downright scratchiness. An early Bale goal, the other side of his shooting, from distance and left footed but slotted low into the corner. The great goalscorers always passed the ball into the net from inside the box. Bale does the same only from long range.
However, we allowed the whammers to get back into it. Parker, a player I admire, is fit but a fraction off the pace and that’s all it takes in that influential role in front of the back four. Some good things but wayward passes and, criminally for him, giving the ball away. A fraction of a fraction late at Carroll’s feet and it’s a penalty. He would have been better advised to stay on his feet. It feels as if last season, he would have.
And the ball kept on coming back because we could not keep it in their half. Abebayor was poor again all round. Last season the goals came regularly, this the lasting image is a miss when the keeper is lying on the floor. Another last night.
This became worse as the match went on. We had no respite, meekly conceding possession. Wham won every 50-50. Dembele was playing too deep, emasculated by an early booking for a petulant revenge foul, Holtby’s hustle and bustle wasted by being constantly moved out wide. He has to stay central to have an impact. There were times when I thought of Sandro. When he played, we only needed one defensive midfielder.
Cole scored for the Hammers, well-taken after Vertonghen had made a major error in stepping up for an offside that never was rather than simply tracking the attacker. It was a bad decision, created perhaps by a mind conditioned to play the trap. You sensed that was his instinctive first thought, whereas as a defender his gut should tell him to stick with his man.
Chasing goals and you bring on a midfielder without a Premier League start. No strikers on the bench is not good. But Tom Carroll and Sigurdsson both pepped up our efforts just as we began to droop. It looked like we may not need a striker as Caulker had three headers from corners all saved. He had so much time, Allardyce must have gone bananas. We should have scored from at least one of them.
Never mind thunderbolt and lightning, my pre-match dream of a tap-in came true. I find it reassuring that highly paid professionals can occasionally have absolutely no control over the football whatsoever. The ball pinged about in the box, defying all physical laws known to human kind, before it rested at Siggy’s feet, begging to be tucked home.
Caulker had a good game too alongside Dawson. Our Andre got the tactics right with Jan at full-back, another big man to combat the set-piece threat. Lennon was quiet. Parker was the DM furthest forward when it should have been Moussa, who delivered one cutting through ball to Bale to remind us of how decisive he can be.
Big Sam will no doubt spout post-match stats to reveal some hidden injustice but it shows how he relies on the percentage game whereas he might be better advised to make more of the talented players like Cole and Nolan rather than just kicking the ball over their heads. I imagine him muttering something about wishing Kevin Davies could be five years younger because he can’t do without him.
Arsenal to come, an intolerably significant potion of pride, history and league position makes this one of the most important derbies of recent years. We are ready.