So where are West Ham heading?
Things, reasoned West Ham United fans at the start of this season, couldn’t possibly get any worse. Could they?
Getting routinely swatted aside at Upton Park by the likes of Wolves, Stoke and Bolton? Avoiding relegation solely by being fortunate enough not to be quite as abject as the three sides below them? Plummeting to such depths of desperation so soon after a promising 9th place Premier League finish in Gianfranco Zola’s first season? Surely, held the theory, things could only get better under Avram Grant and the new ownership (though it already feels like years) of David Gold and Sullivan.
Four defeats from this season’s opening four games had Hammers fans fearing that the worst was yet to come. However, four points from two games and a League Cup win at the Stadium of Light later and it would seem that the traumatising first few weeks under Grant were merely a necessary, hot-poker-in-rear-end-inserting extension of the nadir.
Robert Green was not the only Iron making a show of defiance on Saturday – it was pervasive throughout the whole side. While the embattled England goalkeeper was rightly lavished with praise for his excellent performance in keeping Tottenham Hotspur at bay in West Ham’s 1-0 win, a collective patting of backs is merited for a performance marked by resilience, commitment and no little flair.
The return of the no-nonsense and aerially dominant Manuel da Costa at centre-back has coincided not just with an upturn in results but also an overdue upturn in form for Matthew Upson alongside him and, if the pair can continue in this vain, then James Tomkins may be allowed to fulfil his potential in a far less pressurised environment. Certainly, regular football for the Hammers last season seemed to demoralise the 21 year-old as goal after goal against flew in.
The inability thus far of Herita Ilunga to recapture the form of his first season looked to have created a catastrophic vacuum at left-back but Danny Gabbidon has returned from his long absence to fill in admirably in the position, while new signing Lars Jacobsen – who had previously been third choice right-back at both Everton and Blackburn Rovers – has so far been a quiet revelation, if there is such a thing, with the Denmark international’s intelligent positioning and aura of calm in particular coming to the fore.
In midfield, the indomitable Scott Parker continues to provide compelling evidence that excluding him for England in favour of Michael Carrick should be a sectioning offence, while Mark Noble – fresh from his first proper summer break in years – is playing perhaps his best football since the great, Carlos Tevez-inspired revival of 2007. Valon Behrami has also begun to feel his way back into form, while new boy Thomas Hitzlsperger – so impressive in pre-season – will push hard for a first team berth when he recovers from his thigh injury, as should young Jack Collison when he’s over his knee ailment.
Out wide, it suddenly seems like a long time since the 3-0 opening day defeat at Aston Villa, when the right and left midfield spots were filled in uninspiring fashion by Julien Faubert and Luis Boa Morte. Now, however, Grant can call upon all of the exciting and dynamic Victor Obinna, the promising Pablo Barrera and the revitalised Kieron Dyer in what is starting to look like an unexpected yet glittering array of options.
Up front, Frederic Piquionne has brought elegance and a goal-scoring touch to make up for the nosedive in Carlton Cole’s form. However, if the latter can get back in the groove then Grant could be presented with the luxury of being able to switch between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 as and when it becomes necessary to do so. A lack of flexibility was one of the downfalls of the side last season but – especially if Benni McCarthy can shed the pounds and start scoring again – this may no longer prove to be a problem.
Finally, special mention must be reserved for the manager, whose decision to play Marek Stech in League Cup games has done Robert Green well in terms of removing himself from the increasingly unbearable scrutiny which seemed to be affecting his game. If Green’s match-winning performance against Spurs is a sign that he has put his recent woes behind him, then West Ham could come season’s end be several points better off for it.
Life as a West Ham supporter is rarely plain sailing but, although there are doubtless more peaks and troughs to come, the last few games have at least done much to dispel the previously solid-looking notion that the Hammers are relegation certainties.