Iron and Steel or Irons and Steal?

Last updated : 27 August 2002 By Bernard Azulay

With it being the Hammers first home game of the season, after they'd let themselves and their supporters down in their embarrassing opener up on Tyneside, they were bound to be bang up for this one. I was also concerned that after burying Birmingham, the Arsenal might begin to believe in their own press and could become a little too cocky for their own good, certain that they only had to turn up to be sure of a win.

It is a measure of our superiority in recent times that where once I would have been guaranteed plenty of pre-match goading from my West Ham mates, just as with my Spurs pals these days there's been a complete role reversal. The resignation in their voice as they steel themselves for another humiliation has me sympathetically reassuring them that form goes out the window in a London derby and that we're long overdue a defeat! I am not sure whether it's because we've succumbed at last to maturity well into middle-age, or that the Hammers fans grounding gives them such a healthy regard for good football. Yet with the exception of those numbskulls who'll still be offering each other out on their zimmer frames, by and large the intense animosity of yesteryear appears to have given way to a mutual respect between us and Bubble Blowers.

I have enough trouble getting to every game in good time, but the ongoing ground improvements at Upton Park now mean that away fans are forced to walk a circuitous route, away from the stadium, around an estate and through a rather alarming alleyway, to get to our designated entrance. It wasn't so long ago that the police would have done all in their power to point us away from, rather than direct us through, such a perfect location for a post-match ambush! Surprisingly enough this little trek didn't prevent me from making it to my seat before kick-off, only thanks to the minute's silence for Holly & Jessica. There had been some discussion about the appropriateness of this mark of respect at a football match in East London. After all why had we not done likewise for poor Damelola Taylor, or any other tragic disaster and where do you draw the line? Nevertheless it was so impeccably observed that the deafening silence of the entire 35,000 (unusually without even the single disturbance of a soppy Essex man ringtone amongst the thousands of mobiles) was charged with compassion.

There was plenty of football on the pitch worthy of our respect. Similar to the way it was once pointless trying to stem the tide of Utd's pace and potency in attack, by getting all eleven men behind the ball, West Ham proved that against the Arsenal, attack is the best means of defence. Thankfully not all our opponents possess players with the sublime skills of Cole and Carrick, or the pace of Sinclair, Defoe and Kanouté. In taking the game to us, it was horrifying how frequently they seemed to tear our defence asunder. It must have made for terrifically entertaining viewing for the neutral, who could be forgiven for wondering during the first hour, how come the team in claret and blue were playing with the confidence of Champions!

Our record breaking hopes evaporated entirely early in the second half, when the Irons took a two goal lead after Defoe had rescued a lost cause out on the touchline which was proof positive of this youngster's desire. I turned to Róna and said I would willingly accept a draw. Customarily this statement is intended as the spell to conjure up our comeback. On Saturday I lacked any conviction, convinced that with West Ham wanting it more, they were about to win the day.

Thankfully class will out and eventually the Christian was thrown to the lions, as Henry turned and left Dailly for dead, before belting a 70mph screamer past James. Despite the foreshortened view of the pitch from behind the goal, away games often make for a pleasant change, with a different perspective to our seats at Highbury that are perfect for interpreting positional play. If it wasn't for the goal net, we could've almost reached out and touched David James. Many around us were attempting a less physical assault and battery, trying to put off the player who has a penchant for peculiar haircuts with their vitriolic barrage. It is only possible to fully appreciate the superhuman task of stopping an Henry special, when there's only a flimsy net between you and a scud missile aimed straight down ones own throat.

Before Kanu did his Moses impersonation, holding back a sea of West Ham defenders for Wiltord to wallop home the equalizer at the death, he'd managed to do nothing right since his introduction at the break. In fact, with a little more composure in front of goal, the lanky Nigerian could have nicked a winner, but unfortunately he remains right now the weakest link an otherwise sensational strike force. You only had to see the expressions writ large on the faces of our players as they celebrated Sylvain's strike, to know that after being 2-0 down (and almost down and out at 3-0, if not for Spunky's penalty save), coming back from the dead for a draw will do more for our team spirit than any victory. Yet in this instance it was a couple of examples of inspirational genius, rather than our resurgent team spirit which was responsible for this revival.

It is not surprising Upton Park is not Keown's favourite ground, as it is the only match where he gets mercilessly teased "he's got a monkey's head" (naturally we respond "he's got the Championship"). Yet since the pitch alterations, it is nowhere near the intimidating place it once was, when the players were within spitting distance (literally!) of the Chicken Run. Which meant less stick for young Jermaine Pennant and Kolo Toure coming on as subs on that side. We're extremely eager to see some home grown talent given their head, but not in a desperate attempt for a dramatic impact on a two goal deficit. We won't be the only side to struggle at Upton Park, should the Hammers continue to entertain with such exhilarating, inventive football. You wouldn't catch me complaining, but it wouldn't have been fair if they'd ended up empty-handed.

Singing our heads off as we departed (or at least until our bravura vanished as we joined the ashen faced claret and blue hordes), one might have thought we'd just won the Championship again. Only the second encounter of the season and we get a game that has everything. Except, thankfully, for a sending off despite seven unnecessary yellows in a derby that lacked any malice. There's little to beat the buzz of such a comeback. It serves as a reminder as to the addictive nature of this beautiful game of ours. With balls in the hat for the Champions League, what a tasty appetizer for the veritable feast of football to come.