Nostalgia

The Story of West Ham’s Maddest Season

One of the most stereotypically male traits, alongside leaving the toilet seat up and the inclination towards ‘banter’ as a means of demonstrating affection, is the desire to list things. This may explain the conspicuous lack of female train-spotters. While life is essentially many different shades of grey, rankings are often used by people attempting to order the subjective and have formed the basis of countless pub conversations. Scores of Top 10 lists, under the guise of provoking debate, proliferate the internet in a manner that screams content filler.

Many football outlets have resorted to this ubiquitous technique in order to compensate for the absence of any live action to discuss. For example, the BBC recently asked voters to select the most miraculous escape from relegation in the Premier League era. Options ranged from Portsmouth’s survival in 2006 under Harry Redknapp to Sunderland’s late surge in 2014 inspired by Connor Wickham’s heartbreakingly brief transformation into the Mackem Aguero.

There was one glaring omission. In March 2007, West Ham United were rooted to the bottom of the league and ten points from safety with nine games remaining. Just over two months later, the team had won seven matches and completed a miraculous escape by winning at newly-crowned champions Manchester United. Most incredibly of all, they achieved the impossible and made millions of neutrals sympathise with Dave Whelan and Neil Warnock.

For this was perhaps the maddest season in the history of the club, with twists and turns that would have been rejected as too outlandish by Hollywood scriptwriters. It involved the most left-field double transfer in recent history, an Icelandic takeover, unprecedented legal challenges, turmoil within the changing room and staggering incompetence on the pitch before the unexpectedly dramatic season finale. At times, it seemed the whole country wished to see them relegated. Their eventual survival proved incredibly controversial.

As ever pride came before the fall. Led by Alan Pardew, the club had managed an eye-catching return to top-flight football finishing ninth in the league and playing some attractive football. Alongside this, West Ham were minutes away from winning the FA Cup and were incredibly unlucky to lose the final to Liverpool. With a young squad packed full of exciting players such as Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Dean Ashton, optimism was high that the team could push on the following season.

However, cracks were beginning to appear beneath the surface. In retrospect, the heartbreaking nature of the Cup Final defeat took an emotional toll on the group. The club signed numerous players in the summer of 2006 but only goalkeeper Robert Green seemed ready-made for the first-team.

Most galling of all was losing Ashton, a revelation since his January move from Norwich. Days before his England debut, a heavy tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips in training injured the striker’s ankle and he would subsequently miss the entire season. Despite the club possessing numerous strikers, his absence would be keenly felt.

These developments were soon overshadowed by a remarkable double transfer, setting the tone for a chaotic season. When asked about the prospect of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano joining West Ham, Pardew replied ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s never going to happen’.

So he might. The idea of two of South America’s hottest talents, who had starred for Argentina in that year’s World Cup, plying their trade in East London seemed remote. By the end of August, Pardew was stood introducing the two players with the same disbelieving air of a Tudor king discovering the internet.

The deal was shrouded in mystery. It eventually turned out that the rights to Tevez and Mascherano were owned by four companies representing Kia Joorabchian. Premier League rules prohibited third-party ownership and a sense that the deal was more than a little shady began to permeate discussions surrounding the Argentine pair. The old adage that something too good to be true probably is rang true.

Results capitulated. The Hammers failed to score a goal in seven successive games and slid towards the bottom of the league. The club’s first European campaign in seven years ended in the First Round and they were ignominiously dumped out of the League Cup by Chesterfield. The feeling grew that a culture of complacency pervaded throughout the club.

Rumours circulated that the arrival of Tevez and Mascherano had put noses out of joint. The dependable Hayden Mullins was replaced in the team by Mascherano, while Bobby Zamora made way for Tevez despite starting the season in hot form. Both Argentinians struggled with the pace of English football. After his substitution during a home win over Sheffield United, Tevez stormed out of Upton Park and Pardew decided to leave his punishment up to the rest of the squad. They made him train wearing a Brazil shirt.

Alongside the on-field slump, the club had a change of ownership in November. Surprisingly, the new owner was not the expected Joorabchian but Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who installed Eggert Magnusson as chairman.

Possessing the world’s shiniest head, Magnusson immediately gave his support to Pardew. However, a miserable run of defeats that culminated in a televised surrender to Bolton Wanderers in December was the final straw. Pardew was sacked.

There is an argument that Pardew was hard done by. He had built the squad that had rescued the club from Championship purgatory and had done an impressive job the season before. On the other hand, there were claims that the manager was too soft on his players and discipline had suffered accordingly. His sacking was probably justified.

He was replaced by ex-Charlton manager Alan Curbishley who was also a former West Ham player. The change had an immediate effect – the team managed an improbable home win over Manchester United but this proved a mirage. The club would not win another league game until mid-March.

The period would be marked by a succession of embarrassing defeats. West Ham managed to lose twice at home to bottom club Watford – once in the league and once in the FA Cup. New Year’s Day saw a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Reading. There was also a 4-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic, now managed by Pardew. Chants of ‘You’re Not Fit to Wear The Shirt’ reverberated amongst the support.

By now, the toxicity of the dressing room was becoming apparent. After the humbling at Reading, Curbishley tore into his players and denounced the player’s penchant for fast cars and flashy lifestyles. They were instantly dubbed the ‘Baby Bentley brigade’ by a gleeful media enjoying rubber-necking at the enfolding car-crash.

No player epitomised this more than captain Nigel Reo-Coker. His impressive debut season in the Premier League led to his inclusion on the standby list for England’s World Cup squad. There were subsequent rumours of interest from Manchester United and Arsenal. Many sources within the club claimed that the midfielder’s head was turned and doubts began to surface about his attitude. He was central to a dressing room clique that also included Anton Ferdinand, Mullins, Zamora and Marlon Harewood. Curbishley was aghast.

There were also concerns about the gambling culture within the squad. Two members of the team, Etherington and Roy Carroll, undertook counselling and treatment for addiction problems and players were haemorrhaging vast amounts of money to each other during card games. According to The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson, figures were as high as £50,000 during one sitting. Attempts at eradicating these card schools were repeatedly unsuccessful. It was perhaps no wonder that the atmosphere in the dressing room was appalling.

Magnusson attempted to remedy the problem by embarking on a January spending spree that was unprecedented in West Ham’s history. The signings of Luis Boa Morte, Calum Davenport, Lucas Neill, Nigel Quashie, Kepa Blanco and Matthew Upson were aimed at creating a more professional culture within the club. Disheartened at the prospect of challenging Quashie for a midfield spot, Mascherano escaped to Liverpool. He had lost in every appearance he made for the club.

Despite this, the situation seemed hopeless. Resentment grew amongst senior players at the wages being paid to Upson and Neill. Neill had reportedly rejected a move to Anfield due to the more lucrative salary offered by West Ham and Upson only made two injury-curtailed appearances before the end of the season. Players, staff and directors were privately resigned to relegation.

These feelings intensified after an extraordinary match against Tottenham in early March. The team’s performance was notably more committed and Tevez scored his first goal for the club with a delicious free-kick. Leading 2-0 at half-time and 3-2 in the final minute, West Ham conspired to lose the game 4-3. Words cannot do justice to gut-wrenching nature of the defeat and a young Mark Noble wondered round the pitch in tears at the match’s conclusion. Relegation seemed certain.

Yet something had clicked. In their very next game, West Ham came from behind to win at Blackburn Rovers with a goal from Zamora that failed to cross the line. The revitalised team carried this piece of good fortune with them and wins followed over Middlesbrough and Arsenal, the latter a heist founded upon an outstanding performance by Green.

Tevez had finally come to life and his performances galvanized the team. However, this narrative overlooks the vital contribution of other players. Ferdinand formed a sturdy partnership with James Collins in defence. Noble belied his tender years with mature performances in midfield. Zamora contributed vital goals. Above all, the leadership of Neill proved invaluable.

In the background, the prospect of a points deduction loomed. However, despite an independent Premier League commission charged West Ham with breaking third-party ownership rules, the club instead received a record £5.5m fine. Even though, in the manner of The Producers, the defendants had been found ‘incredibly guilty’ there was still all to play for on the field. Fellow bottom-dwellers, particularly Wigan and Sheffield United, sharpened their knives.

The day after the commission’s announcement, West Ham won 3-0 away at Whelan’s Wigan. Following a Tevez-inspired win over Bolton, the club were out of the relegation zone for the first time in months. Going into the final game of the season, the Hammers only had to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to survive relegation. In another plot twist, Sheffield United hosted Wigan with the away team needing a win to stand any chance of survival.

West Ham were battered by Manchester United with the home crowd chanting ‘send them down’. Shots were cleared off the line and the defending became increasingly desperate. Nevertheless, United failed to score and on the stroke of half-time Tevez slotted home the decisive goal of the game. At Bramall Lane, David Unsworth’s penalty saved Wigan and relegated Sheffield United.

The Blades were apoplectic. Sir Alex Ferguson had rested Manchester United players with the following week’s FA Cup final in mind and manager Neil Warnock accused him of compromising the integrity of the competition. This declaration ignored the presence of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes on the pitch at the end of the game. It also conveniently overlooks how Sheffield United thrashed West Ham 3-0 in mid-April, Tevez included.

Eventually, Sheffield United had their day in court. In 2009, they agreed a settlement of £18.1m with West Ham paid in instalments that ended in 2013. In spite of this windfall, the Yorkshire club would spend another decade outside the top flight. By 2015, FIFA had globally outlawed third-party ownership.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s Icelandic owners saw their wealth wiped out by the global recession and sold up in 2010. West Ham were relegated a year later. It can also be argued the club’s reputation never fully recovered from the Tevez saga.

Tevez himself departed for Manchester United in 2007 having written himself into West Ham folklore with his performances. Having pulled off the Great Escape, Irons fans everywhere breathed a huge sigh of relief having somehow managed to survive.

It truly was the maddest and most surreal season in the history of the club.


Nostalgia

Remembering Andy Carroll’s hat-trick against Arsenal

A common trope in British sitcoms is the evocation of unfulfilled potential. Whether its Kurtan Mucklowe longing to leave his village but not possessing the wherewithal in This Country, Dawn Tinsey’s desire to become an illustrator but settling into becoming David Brent’s receptionist in The Office or the underlying sadness in the lives of Mark and Jez in Peep Show, comedy writers make their characters relatable by hinting at their inner frustrations. After all, the workplaces of this country are littered with people who felt they could have been more. Nobody dreams of working in a call centre.

Footballers are not immune from this description. Upon his release by West Ham in 2019, scores of articles appeared lamenting the unfulfilled potential of Andy Carroll. Portrayed as an analog player in a digital age, Carroll was the ultimate example of a striker who was unplayable on his day. Possessing unrivalled heading ability and the energy of a one-man mosh pit, defending against Carroll must have felt as futile as attempting to stop lava pouring out of a volcano.

Happily for defenders these occasions were as infrequent as they were brilliant. For most of his time at the club, Big Andy could be found on the treatment table and was unable to string together a full season of appearances. If he were a racehorse Brian Clough would have had him shot.

During an era where elite football became obsessed with possession stats and every club began to demand beautifully constructed football, there was something intangibly raw and elemental about watching Carroll play. When on form, this was a player you simply could not take your eyes off – in the words on The Guardian’s Barney Ronay watching him attack a cross into the penalty area was like witnessing an ‘angry buffalo being hurled off a hotel balcony’. Although unfashionable to admit, this was an arresting sight and one that proved thrilling football was not the sole preserve of Pep Guardiola.

This was no more evident than during one afternoon in April 2016. On his first league start since January, Carroll scored a nine-minute hat-trick against Arsenal and his overall performance was reported as ‘demented’ by the BBC.

In the midst of an occasion described by Danny Baker as a ‘super inept farce of a football match’, Carroll’s exhilarating exploits were enough to kickstart rallying cries for his inclusion in England’s Euro 2016 squad. It was one of the last great Upton Park moments and effectively ended Arsenal’s title challenge.

However, the afternoon did not start promisingly. In need of points to boost their unexpected push for the Champions League, West Ham were unlucky to find themselves behind to strikes from Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez as half-time approached. Despite this, there were signs something was stirring within Carroll. Fired up from his pre-match meal of raw steak, the Geordie received a booking within four minutes for a wild hack on Laurent Koscielny.

Soon after, he was at the centre of the game’s first controversial moment. A nonchalant flicked cross from Mark Noble was met with a spectacular overhead kick, comparable with a table footballer being spun violently on its axis. The ball was mishit into the ground and upon bouncing up was headed in by Manuel Lanzini. Although the Argentine was being played on by Hector Bellerin, the goal was disallowed for offside. Early indications were that Carroll would inflict chaos upon the Arsenal backline.

These suspicions proved correct minutes before half-time with a goal that was beautiful in its simplicity. A magnificent swirling cross from Aaron Cresswell was watched by a static defence in the manner of a group collectively observing a firework display, allowing Carroll to thunder home a header. The Arsenal goalkeeper, David Ospina, looked genuinely alarmed as he fell powerlessly to the floor. Game on.

Relief would turn to euphoria seconds later. After Arsenal had only partially cleared one delivery, the ball found its way back to Carroll in the penalty area. After controlling with his chest and mishitting a right footed shot, the striker contorted his whole body to bludgeon home a left-footed volley. The introduction of unorthodox acrobatics into Carroll’s repertoire produced a double take usually reserved for discovering a Page 3 clipping in the Bible. Fittingly, the replay showed the strike was largely off his shin but that did not detract from the elation of the moment. As a breathless first half ended level, it was possible to see why late-Wenger Arsenal were destined not to win the league.

It would have been no surprise if the start of the second half represented a lull after the intoxicating first forty-five minutes. However, the message had clearly not got through to both sets of players, the commotion of Carroll’s presence acting as a catalyst for the game’s tempo.

Already on a yellow card, a stray arm in the face of Gabriel could have seen the West Ham striker sent off. Minutes later, an impromptu wrestling match with Koscielny sent both players tumbling to the floor, along with Ospina. Dimitri Payet’s resulting tap in was correctly disallowed. It seemed as if Carroll was channelling the energy of a police horse who has had a cigarette stubbed out on its behind.

The atmosphere of bedlam reached its crescendo in the fifty-second minute. Winger Michail Antonio sped past one defender and stood up a wonderful cross from the byline towards the back post. Leaping imperiously above Bellerin as if engulfing him, Carroll powered a header past the helpless Ospina to complete his hat-trick.

The stadium erupted with joy and disbelief. With a nine-minute salvo, Carroll had transformed the game and set West Ham on their way to their first home win against Arsenal since Arsene Wenger’s unforgettable spat with Alan Pardew. Ever the killjoy, Howard Webb declared on BT Sport that Carroll should never have been on the field after his earlier fouls.

Alas, his defining performance did not result in victory. Pushing desperately forward, Arsenal equalised twenty minutes from time through Koscielny and a riotous game ended 3-3. For those numbed by the incessant over-promotion of the Premier League it must also be acknowledged that occasionally the hype is justified by a match as good as this one. A draw was of no real use to either team – Arsenal failed to win the title and West Ham missed out on Champions League qualification.

The calls for Carroll to be taken to Euro 2016 also fell on deaf ears, although some wags suggested he would be better suited for Aintree. The way Carroll’s potential inclusion was discussed bought similarities to shipping out and deploying a huge First World War artillery gun, albeit a rusting one with large spells out of action.

Unfortunately, Roy Hodgson resisted the temptation to include the target man in his squad. While supressing sniggers as England slipped to defeat against Iceland, it was impossible to shake the feeling that bringing Andy off the bench may have given the Scandinavians something tangible to worry about.

His West Ham career never matched the peak of that spring afternoon in East London. Despite a goal-of-the-season contender the following year against Crystal Palace, Carroll soon resumed his habitation in the physio’s room. Concerned he may become isolated and lonely, the club bought Jack Wilshere to keep him company.

During a rare appearance in an away match at Burnley in 2017, Carroll managed to be sent off for two identical challenges within a minute. Incredibly Antonio Conte wanted to sign him for reigning champions Chelsea, prompting frantic checks the Italian had not been replaced by a mysterious figure called Sam Allardici. Disappointingly for satirists everywhere, the move failed to materialise.

For all the jokes at Carroll’s expense, his performance against Arsenal represented all that was being airbrushed out of top-flight football. Mirroring big corporations in other industries, elite football clubs wished to exercise unprecedented levels of control over events, to minimise risk and impose a gentrified method of doing things that favoured those with the most money.

Andy Carroll presented a throwback to the very essence of sport that entices people from around the globe; its unpredictable mayhem. For all the advances made in football tactics and player conditioning, Carroll epitomised a unique challenge to the modern defender and was occasionally impossible to play against. Ronay labelled him ‘the man with a head like a foot’.

Despite his frustrating injury record and obvious limitations, we should celebrate Andy Carroll as part of football’s rich diversity. The sense of unfilled potential is only exacerbated by glimpses of what might have been. No glimpses were as tantalising as one afternoon against Arsenal in 2016.


Nostalgia

An Ode to Carlton Cole

There are many different ways of getting to know someone. For some, there is no more efficient ice breaker than a trip to the pub and overcoming any initial awkwardness with copious amounts of alcohol. Alternatively, introductions to a group of colleagues centred around ‘one interesting fact about yourself’ can be more nightmarish than sharing a lift with Katie Hopkins.

One housemate of mine uses a more binary technique. The first few weeks living together were marked by a barrage of questions that felt more relentless than the Manchester rain. For example, eating a banana would provoke a discussion on our favourite fruits. Wearing a green jumper would instigate inquiries into my favourite colour. One evening, polite small talk about the weather was met excitably with the question ‘what’s your favourite season?’ Conscious of my audience, I answered spring instead of the final year at Upton Park.

Far from being annoyed, this disarming tactic led me to question how we come to acquire our tastes and preferences. The realisation that nothing makes you question your sense of self quite like being asked about your favourite things was unavoidable.

I was reminded of this housemate when making my profile for this website. The question ‘Who has been your favourite West Ham player?’ initially had me stumped. The method used by supporters of more successful clubs of picking the player with the most trophies was obviously redundant. Equally, any player of world-class talent (e.g. Carlos Tevez or Dimitri Payet) only stayed at the club for a fleeting period of time.

Eventually, I decided to pick the player that best epitomised the club during my formative years. Once the criteria had been decided, there was a clear and obvious choice.

Carlton Cole joined the club from Chelsea for two million pounds in the summer of 2006 and was released in 2013, neatly bookending my years at secondary school (although like many performances, he was to have an unexpected encore). He never scored more than fifteen goals in a season, despite being the team’s primary striker for much of his time in East London.

Accordingly, he was christened with the nickname ‘Can’t Control’ – a tad harsh, although the best nicknames tend to have a grain of truth to them. Carlton is also the subject of one of the more ironic football compilations on YouTube.

Yet there has arguably never been a player that better epitomised the experience of supporting West Ham than Cole. Much of the time he was mediocre and sometimes downright appalling. On the other hand, there were occasions when Carlton would produce something brilliant – the unexpectedness of such an event heightening the disbelieving euphoria.

Following West Ham is effectively signing-up for a lifetime of frustration and thwarted ambitions. For a period of time, it seemed as if Cole represented this truism in human form. Despite this, it was impossible not to root for him.

Much of this can be attributed to his appearance. It is easy to feel distanced from elite footballers, many of whom seem fuelled by a sense of their own self-importance. While it must be essential to have a strong sense of self-belief, a quick glance through many players’ social media accounts demonstrate they are hardly relatable to most supporters.

These trappings largely seemed to allude Cole. His goal celebration, wheeling away with arms outstretched as if mimicking a jumbo jet during a game of charades, can be described as improvised rather than arrogant. Photographs of him tended to show a toothy smile in the manner of a bashful child having their school picture taken.

Overall, he exuded the vibe of an endearing and sensitive younger relative. As such, you instinctively wished to put your arm around him and offer encouragement when he was going through a bad run of form rather than chide him. It was hard to stay mad at Carlton for too long.

One favourite memory of mine came in January 2011. Having seen his mishit shot squirm under Blues keeper Ben Foster for the winning goal in the League Cup semi final first-leg, Cole was chosen for the post-match interview. Despite the match having been played in freezing winter conditions, the BBC naturally conducted the interview on the pitch. While Cole spoke about his contribution to the game (something he described as ‘overchuffed’) vast amounts of steam poured off his head like an unattended kettle – providing a new twist to the phrase ‘steaming’.

Another part of Cole’s appeal were the match-winning performances that occurred almost randomly. After just one goal in eighteen games in 2010/11, he scored twice in a magical 4-0 League Cup win against Manchester United. In the semi-final second leg at Birmingham, Cole crashed in a 25-yarder to put the team on the brink of a Wembley cup final. It was only West Ham’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory that prevented Cole from appearing in the showpiece final against Arsenal.

He did have his day at Wembley one year later. In the first half of the Championship Play-Off final, Cole bought down a terrific crossfield pass from Matt Taylor and placed a cushioned shot past Blackpool goalkeeper Matt Gilks to give West Ham the lead.

However, the big man produced an even greater contribution for the winning goal. Pouncing on a loose ball in the penalty area, Cole lunged in front in Gilks and managed to shield the ball from a horizontal position back for Ricardo Vaz Te to emphatically fire home. Cole’s selfless thinking was the difference between promotion and lower-league stagnation.

Alongside this were the snapshots of genuine quality. Again, it was impossible to predict when such moments would happen. For while many top strikers thrive when given time to think about their actions, Cole seemed to perform best specifically when deprived of it – almost as if extra seconds to deliberate would see his confidence squeezed out of him by a boa constrictor.

One such moment came in a Premier League game at Wigan Athletic in March 2009. In the form of his life, Carlton had earned a call-up to Fabio Capello’s England squad while the team looked tentatively well-placed for Europa League qualification. Fittingly, the only goal of the game was a special one.

Midway through the first half, slick interplay between Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Herita Ilunga and David Di Michele ensured the ball found Cole on the edge of the box. Rather than taking a touch, Cole swept the ball first time past Chris Kirkland to cap an outstanding team goal.

Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his 2014 autobiography that he would like somebody to explain the ‘West Ham way to him’. He could do worse than re-watch this goal. It was as if Carlton had momentarily transformed into Thierry Henry, a metamorphosis that lasted a whole three minutes until he was sent off.

Arguably Carlton’s defining moment came at the start of the following season. Drawing 0-0 with Tottenham, Cole (who had already missed a tap-in in the first half) scored a sensational opener – instinctively flicking the ball up and smashing it in on the turn. It was a goal that no player without natural talent could have executed. More than that, he had given West Ham the lead against a more talented local rival.

Five minutes later, the full extent of Cole’s Jekyll and Hyde personality became apparent. Receiving possession on the halfway line, he attempted to pass the ball back to one of his defenders under no pressure from the opposition. This proved the perfect assist for Jermaine Defoe who duly equalised for Tottenham.

It was an inexplicable choice and demonstrated Cole’s ability to self-destruct at any given moment. As Carlton slumped inconsolably to the turf, it was hard to remember a clearer example of a player shooting themselves in the foot so rapidly.

There will be some that would argue this article is merely a celebration in mediocrity. That, while fans indulge players like Cole, West Ham have no chance of establishing themselves as a top team. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on the club’s transfer record that Cole stayed for seven years and was re-signed for two further seasons months after being released.

Nevertheless, the club’s failure to adequately replace him was hardly Carlton’s fault. He gave West Ham years of committed service, never putting less than full effort, and provided us with some unforgettable moments. The mishaps and many frustrating performances only serve to emphasise how human Cole was, marking him out as more relatable than the average Premier League footballer.

His standing with the fanbase can be measured by the success of the ‘Sex, Drugs and Carlton Cole’ T-Shirts that were sold outside Upton Park – he is unquestionably a cult hero. Cole returned this affection and genuinely seemed to love his time with the club.

There have been many more talented players to have played for West Ham. On the other hand, none perfectly epitomised the experience of supporting the club better than Carlton Cole.


Nostalgia

Great Goals Revisited: Dimitri Payet vs. Manchester United (2016)

It’s never just about the music. A tedious refrain perhaps but, while time machines remain the preserve of science fiction, music has the power to effortlessly transport us back to certain times in our lives. Whether it evokes the festival where you came of age, the song playing on the car radio while digesting difficult news or the soundtrack to the first eye contact with your future spouse, humans have the ability to invest their own meaning onto a subjective artform. An innocuous noise for one person can equally be life defining for someone else.

While not as universal as music, goals hold a similar place in the lives of football fans. Some are shared by many – fans of a certain generation will all remember Gary Lineker’s equaliser against West Germany at Italia ’90 or Eric Dier’s winning penalty against Colombia at Russia 2018. Equally, it can be as individual and unique as the first goal you ever saw live.

However, there are also the goals that represent moments of unadulterated joy. When Saturday Comes described the typical outlook of a football supporter as a ‘fusion of cynicism and stoic despair’ but some goals represent times where pessimism is trumped by hope. When, against all ingrained instincts, you believe this might be the moment where your team finally achieves tangible success. The moments that remind you why you fell in love with football.

Four years ago this month, Dimitri Payet scored an stunning free kick to put West Ham ahead in their FA Cup quarter final against Manchester United. The team’s outstanding player, Payet was the focal point of West Ham’s best season in a generation. At Old Trafford, his goal had put the club to within twenty minutes of the FA Cup semi-finals, where their opponents would be either Crystal Palace, Everton or Watford. At the time, it tentatively felt as if West Ham’s name was on the Cup. Looking back, it all seems as remote as the possibility of personally witnessing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It also seemed unlikely in the summer of 2015. After four years in charge, West Ham parted company with manager Sam Allardyce. A balanced individual with a chip on each shoulder, Allardyce claimed he was treated harshly by the club’s owners. While he had re-established the club back in the Premier League, the team was unarguably going stale under his tutelage.

In fourth place over Christmas 2014, Allardyce’s decision to reinstate Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll to the starting line-up destabilised a previously successful first eleven, playing in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. The team limped to 12th by season’s end and Allardyce’s time was up. Nevertheless, he left behind a solid if unspectacular squad that was crying out for some creativity.

Enter Payet. A squat, diminutive attacking midfielder, Payet seemed a throwback to playmakers from previous eras where technique trumped physique. The Frenchman had created the most goalscoring opportunities in Europe’s top five leagues with Marseille the previous season, so it was a coup when new manager Slaven Bilic managed to convince the player to move to Upton Park. Proving that even broken clocks are right twice a day, co-owner David Sullivan exclaimed the Hammers had signed a ‘world class player’.

Supplemented by another summer signing, obscure Argentine midfielder Manuel Lanzini, West Ham were a revelation during the 2015/16 season. The previously stodgy football played the team seemed transformed by the introduction of midfield creativity and the club started picking up some notable scalps.

There were eye-catching victories away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, alongside a home win over Chelsea where Jose Mourinho was sent off at half-time for arguing his innocence with the match officials with a conviction only held by the truly guilty. Successive wins over Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton left West Ham just outside the Champions League places by March 2016.

The promising league form was accompanied by an FA Cup run. Wolverhampton Wanderers were dispatched in the Third Round, followed by Liverpool after a dramatic winning header by Angelo Ogbonna in the last minute of extra-time in the Fourth Round Replay. In the Fifth Round, Championship side Blackburn Rovers were demolished 5-1 with a man-of-the-match performance by Payet.

Two goals, including a free kick described as a ‘humdinger’ by Guardian reporter Jamie Jackson, crystallised the view that West Ham possessed one of the form players in world football. A season that had started with fears of relegation in the final season at Upton Park had turned into something much more romantic – attacking football sound-tracked by Billy Ray Cyrus. Consequently, 9,000 West Ham fans travelled to Old Trafford for the quarter-final with quiet confidence.

This mood was also down to the travails of Manchester United. By now firmly stuck in a post-Ferguson funk, United were below West Ham in the Premier League table amidst protests at the quality of football on show. Under the management of Louis van Gaal, a man with such preposterous self-confidence that he made Boris Johnson seem like Mark Corrigan, United played the kind of slow-paced possession football that saps enjoyment from players and supporters alike. Tellingly, the midfield was anchored by Wayne Rooney, his attempted metamorphosis into Andrea Pirlo hampered by crab-like athleticism.

Eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League, and subsequently the Europa League by arch-rivals Liverpool, a consensus began to grow that only an FA Cup victory could potentially save van Gaal’s job. Alternatively, many Stretford End regulars hoped that defeat against West Ham would hasten his departure. By the time of the quarter-final the stakes were high.

As is often the case with such occasions, the first half failed to live up to expectations. West Ham created the better chances despite having less possession while United failed to have a shot on target. The presence of Marouane Felliani, a player almost exclusively composed of elbows, in a midfield once graced by Paul Scholes demonstrated their decline.

Payet had a quiet first half, although he demonstrated his class with some nifty footwork to release Aaron Cresswell to cross for the half’s clearest opportunity. Emmanuel Emenike, an otherwise forgettable loan signing, headed straight at David de Gea when a header into either corner would have put West Ham ahead.

By contrast, the second half was later described by journalist Rob Smyth as ‘wild, desperate and richly enjoyable’. Payet became increasingly influential, picking up a booking for a foul on Jesse Lingard and was the centre of the game’s first controversial moment. Escaping Felliani with the ease of time escaping an alcoholic, Payet fell just inside the penalty area under the challenge of Marcos Rojo.

Subjectivity comes into play here. Howard Webb, working on the match with BT Sport, claimed it was a clear penalty. His manager, Slaven Bilic, argued the same point vehemently after the game, offering to ‘defend my point at Cambridge’ presumably having mistaken the post-match interview for an episode of University Challenge.

A more balanced interpretation would suggest Payet had dragged his foot to ensure there was contact with Rojo, attempting to win a penalty. Certainly, it would have been a soft decision and referee Martin Atkinson waved away the claim. However, if Payet was adjudged to have dived, by the letter of the law he should have been shown a second yellow card and dismissed. This ambiguity would impact what was to follow.

Minutes later, West Ham were awarded a free kick around thirty-five yards from goal. There was no doubt who the travelling fans wanted to take it; Payet’s chant filled Old Trafford with enough intensity to suggest the game was being played in London. On BT Sport, co-commentator Michael Owen remarked how Payet was practising free kicks in the pre-match warm-up without ‘hitting any on target’.

What happened next was described by Smyth as ‘close to perfection’. With a five-step run-up, Payet hit a curling right-footed free kick that managed to curve inwards and beat de Gea. Deliciously, it hit the inside of the right-hand post on its way in – it is one of football’s truisms that a goal that hits the woodwork before crossing the line provokes immense satisfaction. Demonstrating Nemo-like memory, Owen cried that ‘practise makes perfect!’.

In his post-match report, Daniel Taylor emphasised the ‘almost impossible amount of curl’ Payet had put on the shot and it was generally agreed to have been a magnificent goal. Typically, Paul Scholes commented that de Gea should have saved it. It was all a long way from Sam Allardyce.

It could be argued that Payet scored an even better free-kick weeks later against Crystal Palace. From just outside the penalty area, Payet managed to lift the ball over the defensive wall and just below the cross bar – many Palace fans behind the goal initially jeered an effort that seemed to be heading into the crowd.

However, this was more than just a terrific goal. BT commentator Ian Darke emphasised that West Ham were ‘on their way to Wembley’ and many neutral viewers would have agreed. After the game, van Gaal agreed that his team had been ‘second best’ up until that point and given the trajectories of both club’s seasons, it seemed likely that West Ham would go on and win. Elusive success seemed tantalisingly close. Like Di Canio and Tevez before him, Payet seemed to have scored a famous winner for West Ham at Old Trafford.

Some things are just too good to be true. With the withdrawal of Felliani, United belatedly pressed for an equaliser and found one ten minutes from time. Ander Herrera lifted a cross to the far post and, with the considerable aid of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s backside, Anthony Martial had an empty net in which to turn the ball home. West Ham protested afterwards that Schweinsteiger had fouled goalkeeper Darren Randolph but to no avail. If Payet should have been sent off before, then Martial’s goal should have been disallowed. For all its deserved criticism, VAR would probably have ruled it out.

The game petered out into a 1-1 draw. At this point, West Ham were favoured to win the replay but goals from the emerging Marcus Rashford and Felliani saw United win 2-1 at Upton Park. Despite winning the competition, manager van Gaal was sacked almost immediately afterwards.

For West Ham, the feeling of lost opportunity was overshadowed by immense satisfaction with the season as a whole. Finishing in their highest position since 2002, with a positive goal difference for the first time in the Premier League era, the club seemed well-set for a period of sustained success. Payet, included in the PFA Team of the Year, was central to these hopes.

There was to be no fairy-tale ending. By the following January, the team were mired in a familiar relegation battle and Payet wished to leave. He claimed that a 1-0 win over Hull, in which the man of the match award was given to the goalpost that saved three certain Hull goals, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rumours abounded that his wife wanted to return to Marseille and that Payet had to be talked into staying after starring at Euro 2016 with France.

Whatever the truth, it cannot be denied that he defecated upon his West Ham legacy from the height of the Eiffel Tower. Images of him that adjourned the London Stadium were hastily removed and the club felt inclined to accept a £25 million offer from Marseille. In less than a year, Payet had captured the imagination of West Ham fans and managed to squander this affection. Like many intense relationships, the ending was bitter and acrimonious. No wonder he was quickly re-christened ‘le snake’.

Yet to solely remember Payet by his departure masks the cherished moments he provided. For one season, West Ham possessed a player that was the envy of English football and fitted the image of maverick playmaker the club has always craved. His goal at Old Trafford encapsulated the feeling that success was just around the corner, that the club was on the verge of something special.

As Tim Canterbury said in The Office, ‘Life isn’t about endings is it? It’s a series of moments’. In this context, Payet’s free kick deserves to be remembered without being overridden by his complicated legacy.

If the words to ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ summarise the feeling of supporting West Ham, Payet’s goal was the moment the bubbles nearly reached the sky.


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