The Theatre of False Hope
West Ham United 2-0 MiddlesbroughWhen you consider that West Ham United are little more than a feeder club for the Premiership's genuine trophy contenders, the expectations weighing them down this season have been more than a little curious.
The long list of brilliant kids they have nurtured and sold for big money in recent seasons have gone on to enjoy successful careers at big clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham, yet those who bizarrely like to sing a slightly camp song about blowing bubbles every week still dare to believe they are on the brink of something special every season.
To be fair, Alan Pardew's success during his spell as manager gave them the chance to dream. This team of perennial flops came within a matter of seconds of lifting the FA Cup in Cardiff last May and having come so close to ending a 26-year wait for a major trophy, it was natural for them to come into this campaign in good heart.
UEFA Cup football was on the horizon and if improvement could be made on the 2005/06 campaign, anything was possible. It was logical optimism for Hammers supporters, but for those of us with a neutral slant on this East End soap opera, the crash and burn they have suffered was all too predictable.
If West Ham were a contestant on the Deal or No Deal show, they would turn down the offer of £85,000 and end up winning 1p. They would be the tragic hard luck story that lost the winning lottery ticket on a night when they hit the jackpot. It seems, tragically, that sob stories are destined to hang on their battered shoulder.
The Insider has resisted the temptation to visit the Theatre of False Hope known as Upton Park this season, but on an afternoon when the Hammers almost inevitable fate as Premiership deadbeats could be confirmed, it seemed apt that Soccernet had a reporter on site.
Were it not for the fact that the majority of their long suffering fans look as if they have just graduated with a degree in thuggery, you could be tempted to feel sorry for them, but as I risked life and limb to make the culturally enlightening walk from Upton Park tube station to this impressive stadium, so many shattered dreams were on display.
One skinhead with a scar on his cheek told his pal that captain Nigel Reo-Coker is to blame for the lack of passion in the squad. I wasn't going to argue with him. Others pointed the finger at Anton Ferdinand, Yossi Benayoun, former chairman Terry Brown and even Frank Lampard, who opted to join a big club long before this minnow began its latest drowning trick.
With 23 points from 30 games ahead of this visit from Middlesbrough, their fate seemed bleak whatever they result of this game and the subdued atmosphere around the stadium before kick-off confirmed as much. Yet as their bubbles anthem struck up and the claret and blue shirts came into view for the first time, those supporters again dared to dream.
Their dreams were fuelled by an opening goal that gave even the most pessimistic of fans real hope after just two minutes. Carlos Tevez's assist may have deflected a couple of times before it found a way through to Bobby Zamora in the box, but the recalled striker made no mistake to send the Upton Park hoard wild.
With West Ham in control from the off, it was easy to believe a second Hammers goal would come, but we are talking about the masters of disaster here so until Tevez managed to double his side's lead on the stroke of half time, the nerves jangling around Upton Park were felt by all. Again, there was a touch of luck involved as the ball found its way to the Argentinean's feet, but the goal sparked wild scenes around a spacious press box populated by more than a few Hammers followers.
There may have been a few sitting around me in the press box who had come to this game keen to tell their readers about a free flowing Boro performance of the type they never managed under the guise of their ex-manager, the much maligned Steve McClaren. They were to be sorely disappointed. With little to play for, Gareth Southgate's men looked as if they had spent their two week international break flicking through holiday brochures as their minds clearly were not on the job in hand.
Their poor showing made for a rare easy victory for the Hammers, but manager Alan Curbishley was not complaining. 'To get back to back wins on the board gives everyone a massive lift and while it still looks like an uphill struggle for us to get out of trouble, all we can do is win our games from now on,' he stated. 'We are attacking teams now and the confidence is starting to come, so we are still alive. We have got to keep going and see where it takes us.
'When you have players with a bit of belief, it allows them to express themselves and once we got ourselves into a comfortable position at half-time, I made sure we kept it tight. The second half wasn't great to watch and that was partly my fault as we didn't want to take too many risks, but the points we all that mattered today.'
An honest Southgate apologised for what he described as his side's 'worst performance in months' and admitted Boro made life far too easy for West Ham. 'They didn't have to do much to win this game and that's very disappointing,' he conceded. 'We trained well in the run up to this game and I just didn't see a performance like that coming.'
While this was a decent win against pathetically uninspired opponents, it's still hard to see how West Ham will grind out enough points to reach the 38-40 point target they need to survive. It could be that West Ham's fate as a yo-yo club is be terminal.
They will be able to call themselves a giant once again if they travel to Scunthorpe on the opening day of next season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Carlos Tevez
A class above the rest on show, this stocky little hit-man has found his feet in a West Ham shirt just before he makes a summer exit. 'We are getting Carlos doing his work in dangerous areas now and he is making a big impact for us,' was Curbishley's view of his star turn.
HELP THE AGED: A couple of the more seasoned hacks looked to be on the brink of collapse before the game started after scaling the eight flights of stairs required to reach the press box in the upper tier of the stand.
BORO DISGRACE: Gareth Southgate has done a decent job in his first season as a manager, but he has a massive job on his hands to lift a group of players who clearly feel their season ended with the FA Cup quarter-final exit at Old Trafford a couple of weeks back. Supporters who made the trip down from Teesside deserved a better performance than this.
WEST HAM VERDICT: It's hard to know how to assess a victory against opponents whose willingness to roll over and die was alarming. The Hammers have managed to blow bigger opportunities than this in recent weeks, but you wonder whether they have what it takes to pick up another three or four wins against opponents who will be prepared to compete for every tackle. Relegation still looms large.
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