Friday, May 02, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2008

If, back in the desperate days of early March, you’d given us two wishes for the remainder of the season, we would have all answered in exactly the same way. Firstly, to somehow escape the spectre of relegation that was looming as large as a hungry Mark Viduka striding purposefully towards his local Greggs. Secondly, to beat the Mackems at St James’s Park.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, that second wish would have been wasted – of course we were always going to put the Great Unwashed to the sword, no matter how badly we were playing, no matter what our predicament at the time. But all the same, how sweet it was that both wishes came true at the same time, the largely effortless 2-0 victory securing our top flight status. Michael Owen might still have the odd doubter in the stands, but by almost single-handedly firing us to safety and condemning the wretches from down the road to deserved defeat he can hardly have done more to win them over.

Suddenly a season that has been, for the most part, unremittingly awful faded from memory. Anxiety and depression gave way to beaming faces and lustily joyous renditions of unsavoury songs about Roy Keane’s intimate relations with his faithful canine companion. Natural order had been restored.

Inevitably, every other game in April was a footnote by comparison – even the confident and comprehensive demolition of Reading in what was nominally a relegation crunch match. Buoyed by the thrashing of Spurs on their own patch, we set about the Royals with gusto, and the afternoon ended with all three prongs of King Kev’s dynamic strikeforce on the scoresheet for the first time. As against the Mackems, though, the unsung hero was Habib Beye – solid defensively and a secret weapon in attack. Could it be that Fat Sam’s legacy isn’t all bad? Certainly, it’s a cheering thought that Stephen Carr is unlikely to get anywhere near the first team ever again.

Sandwiched in between the wins over Reading and Roy’s rabble was the trip to the English Riviera to play Portsmouth. It proved to be the only time Owen has blotted his copybook since the ultimately costly clutch of missed chances against Blackburn – even if he was extremely unlucky to see his close-range volley clear the crossbar via a deflection off David James’s afro. Thankfully Jermain Defoe chose the same afternoon to be equally wasteful, and we managed to escape Fratton Park and that fucking bellringer with a point.

The derby victory the following weekend made it three consecutive clean sheets – a remarkable achievement in the light of some of the humiliations we’ve suffered this season, even allowing for the calibre of the opposition – but of course it couldn’t last. Half an hour into our visit to Upton Park and we were fortunate to be only the two goals down. But riding our luck and clinging on for dear life like a cowboy on a bucking bronco, we staged an improbable comeback to draw level and extended our unbeaten run to seven games.

The ease with which a West Ham side lacking confidence opened us up will have served as a useful reminder to Keegan that much work remains to be done in the summer – and, to his credit, he seems to have made it his priority this summer to sign the commanding centre-back we’ve lacked ever since Jonathan Woodgate was stretchered off to Real Madrid. Of the players in whom he’s been credited with an interest, Sol Campbell is the wrong side of 30 and possibly set to see out his playing days in the sun with Villareal, while Real’s lanky German international Christophe Metzelder would be expensive. Carlos Cuellar of Rangers might be our best bet, though many more performances like the one in tonight’s UEFA Cup semi-final second leg against Fiorentina and he’ll join the ranks of the “top-notchers” Kev’s confessed are unfortunately out of our league. (That said, we’ve already tried signing a central defender with a big reputation from the Gers, and look how that ended up...)

The season’s not yet over, and we’ve already had the bitter taste of missing out on one “top-notcher”. Defence might be the priority, but we’re also in definite need of a consistent attacking midfielder, and so it was hugely disappointing when Croatian international Luka Modric plumped for one of our closest rivals, Spurs. Hopefully we won’t have to go head-to-head for players too often this summer – Kev’s powers of persuasion are strong and his infectious enthusiasm potent, and cold, hard cash always has an allure, but, with no European football to offer, we could find ourselves repeatedly left empty-handed.

But at least we’ll still be kicking off in the Premier League next season. And one thing’s for certain: if, as has been rumoured, Stoke will owe us £4m for Shola Ameobi if they’re automatically promoted, we’ll be laughing all the way to the bank...


Post a Comment

<< Home