How to make Avram Grant smile
West Ham 5 Burnley 1
Preston North End 1 Burnley 2
Simples: just send Burnley down to play a Cup-tie and by the time the game finishes allow West Ham to look like Barcelona and Carlton Cole look like an England player. Grant, one of the original Brothers Grimm, probably hasn’t smiled like that since his last massage.
We drove from Leeds to Burnley to watch it. There were 140 other optimists in the 1882 Lounge with the big telly. We could have watched it in Rodley in the pub down the road just 5 minutes walk away. But no we fancied the cameraderie of other fans plus the nourishing warmth of the meat and tatie pie and peas. We’d learned from previous experience not to expect mint sauce. So we took a jar of our own. How clever was that?
The pie was as good as ever. The place was full, the atmosphere excellent; the anticipation bright and eager. The place was seriously buzzing. Tell you one thing I notice in there though. The walls everywhere are lined with pictures and blow-up photographs. But unless I’ve missed it/them, there’s nothing of Stan Ternent or Jimmy Mullen. Didn’t they win promotions for us?
We laughed at the white desk that the ESPN pundits sat behind out on the touchline. It actually looked like one of Liberace’s old pianos and for a moment I thought Hartson or Barnes was going to belt out an old Russ Conway hit. Or even Winifred Atwell if you’re old enough to remember her.
West Ham began with a Ba but if we began with a buzz, we left with a bah humbug. What a let down, what an anti climax. What a runaround by the time the final whistle blew. What a great start though. The first half was Burnley’s with some great interplay, intricate passing, most moves down the middle, but a few down the left and right at pace; Mears, Eagles and Wallace racing forward, but in truth nothing that was the killer pass, or final cross that was impossible to defend. West Ham were barely in it. It was all pretty, pretty stuff with some of it that wouldn’t have disgraced Barcelona (ish) but by the end it was West Ham who looked a class above with the inevitable Parker running the show. What class that guy is.
Somehow with what I think was their first shot of the game, totally against the run of play, they were one up; and what a rasper it was from he who had been out of the game for 6 months, Hitzlsperger. But oh what help he had from the three surrounding Burnley players who backed off and backed off and gave him room to let fly from 30 yards and in it went like a missile. And oh what a cock-up Grant made of it though with a flying leap through the air and a strange kind of flap at it. Easy for me to moan I suppose, I find it hard to dive off the sofa and land on a mattress. But it really was a weird kind of waft he made at the ball as it whizzed over his head with him in the horizontal position three feet above the ground. The messageboard cogniscenti looked at him for fault in a couple of the other goals as well. But on the other hand maybe every little slice of luck on the night went West Ham’s way.
Half-time and we shook our heads and wondered how we were 1 – 0 down. If we’d scored a couple it would have been no more than Burnley deserved. Green in the West Ham goal had made more than a couple of timely interventions. Usually he drops at least one clanger per game. On this night he was on top form as luck would have it.
Out we came for the second half, the assembled gathering in the 1882 still confident that Burnley might pull themselves back into it with more of the play they’d shown in the first half. But then within a couple of minutes it was all over as two quick goals went in. The first came when a ball was played through a statuesque back four to a clearly offside Cole. Grant initially smothered the ball but in there somewhere was a possible Cole handball and what seemed to be a ricochet of someone’s boot that was hard to identify. The room groaned. Tables were thumped, indignation roared at the telly. Two bloody yards he was offside was the general consensus. Then a ball was lobbed over the statues again. Cole raced onto it. Slam, in it went. Game over and for us in the 1882 it was just excruciating watching the side crumble in front of our eyes and all spirit disappear. Four, in went another. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there’d been sticky toffee puddings for afters in the 1882. This was becoming a tonking and West Ham stroked the ball around as if this was something they always did. In fact they don’t usually play like this; only when Burnley are in town. They put five past us in the Prem season.
Rodriguez pulled one back somewhere around 70 minutes grabbing the chance to head home a rebound that cannoned off someone when Green and Bridge had made a mess of a defensive situation close to goal. The room woke up, sat up, looked up; bucked up and grew the faint improbable hope that a 4 – 4 draw might just be on the cards. Mind you most people had had a few scoops and Mrs T and me had shared a bottle of house white. So by then the pain was dulled, the senses had softened and daft thoughts like a replay at Turf Moor did flit into our heads. But no: Burnley got sloppier and sloppier, less and less interested, more and more deflated and then when a good Iwelumo header that we all thought had gone in, didn’t, and somehow bounced out after hitting both crosbar and post; we all knew the game was up. From that West Ham went straight down the field to score a fifth to add insult to injury. The lack of some kind of real bolshy leader (Steve Caldwell variety) to do some serious geeing up on the pitch in this game was glaring.
The cameras closed in several times on Avram probably totally stunned at how well West Ham had been allowed to play, then on Sullivan and Gold, the original Chuckle Brothers. It looked like some sort of squirrel was sat on Sullivan’s head, but no on close examination it was a furry hat. All that money and he wears a hat that looks like it’s come from a nursery school dressing up box. To add to the general gloom of the evening the match pundit was Chris Waddle.
A 5 – 1 humbling after such a good start and the inquests began. The arrows of blame rained down on Grant and the static central defending although the Grant sympathisers pointed out to him being hung out to dry by a porous defence. The cries for the return of Jensen and Bikey grew and grew. The pundits agreed, good going forward, but defensively brittle and terribly slow and leaden at the back. A team in the bottom three of the Prem had by the end of 90 minutes provided a humiliating evening. The drive home was silent and thoughtful. But the meat and tatie pie was well worth the journey.
Preston had so far to win a game under new man Phil Brown and were well rooted at the bottom of the Championship. You worried what would happen at a ground where some terrible decisions had gone against Burnley in previous seasons and how morale might have been battered at West Ham. With Howard Webb as referee the prospects of refereeing decisions blighting the game increased tenfold. In every Burnley game where he had refereed so far there had been decisions that left us squirming; none more so than in the Premier game at Everton. He is to refereeing what David James is to goalkeeping.
But not even he could prevent a wonderful Burnley win in front of 6000 travelling fans. For once we did not listen to Phil Bird but stuck to Sky Sports. Dowie was on and off the screen giving his reports, as ever sounding like he had just been to the dentist and come out with a mouth full of cotton wool. There are a number of longer words he simply cannot say in full. In the second half he described an incident when Eagles (he described as mesmerising, it sounded like) after a terrific run into the penalty area was body-checked (his words). Howard Webb did not give the penalty, said Dowie. Presumably the Preston bench thought Eagles was play-acting as they went ballistic with Eagles and the Burnley bench with an epidemic of furious finger-pointing. At that point the score was 1 – 1 and we armchair listeners could be forgiven for thinking, thanks to Webb, it was not to be Burnley’s day as Preston then increased the pressure. But then Elliott now out on the flank replacing Wallace; whipped a great ball in, and a fantastic diving header by Jack Cork made it 2 - 1. Oh how we all want that lad to sign permanently.
Boy did we smile as Sky showed the players at the end of the game. They looked spent. In the tunnel the fracas between various individuals re-started. It moved up a level into a ruck allegedly involving Unsworth and Eagles in its centre. It seemed that the block on Eagles and his penalty appeals were seen by the Preston experts as diving/cheating with Unsworth in particular wanting to rearrange Eagles’ face; whilst simultaneously Carlisle, in his role as Chairman of the PFA presumably, decided that it was Unsworth’s head that needed rearranging. Maybe Preston still hadn’t got over losing 4 – 3 at Turf Moor to all those late goals. My Southern Comfort went down a treat.
Eddie Howe praised the two centre-backs in what he described as a blood and thunder game where they did the nasty bits right. From what fans had to say it seemed that Cork, Duff or Rodriguez were the contenders for man of the match. Dowie on SKY must have said ten times it was a fantastic game. 1 – 1 was no good at all but 2- 1 kept Burnley well in the hunt for the sixth place. Leeds lost to Swansea so that with 2 games in hand at the end of February, Leeds became well catchable. The three difficult away games netted 7 points. In hindsight the daft West Ham score looked more and more surreal. Deflation at Upton Park became delight at Bleakdale. For tea there was sausage casserole with mash and another bottle of plonk. Every time we go to Hornsea we replenish the supplies of pies and sausages from the ace butcher we know. I reckon if I lived there I’d be a stone heavier within a fortnight.
Presumably with possession stats of 68% Preston and just 32% Burnley (surely someone didn’t do their sums right), the Preston fans will consider the scoreline daylight robbery. In two words – who cares? The defeat put Preston 11 points away from safety but I found that kind of sad although I appear to be in a kind of minority.
QPR still top and Preston still bottom, Sheffield United in freefall and Burnley coming up on the rails towards sixth with 3 of the next 4 games at home. Thankyou West Ham, they maybe did us a favour.
Dave Thomas February 26th 2011