Richard Brook reports on the Hammers’ resurgence and a player who is turning both his own – and his club’s – fortunes around.
Is it always the early bird that catches the worm? Not in a league season in my observations. Whatever league, whatever the level, the entire bottom half of any division of association football teams must beware the inevitable late season risers. Every league has one: a team that start to find a run of form and results that elevates themselves away from the relegation zone, and in turn drags other clubs into the battle to beat the drop.
Over the month of February, West Ham United have taken strides towards becoming that club in the Premier League. The Hammers have propelled themselves up the Premier League table with a 100% record in the month of February. The East London club’s four wins from four games represents the best current winning streak in the top flight, ahead of Liverpool’s three consecutive victories. Sam Allardyce’s men ended January in the relegation places ahead of bottom placed Cardiff City by a single point, and 19th placed Fulham on goal difference.
The club finished February in a much healthier position, following their impressive run of victories, having not only hauled themselves from the drop zone but by doing so in some style. West Ham now occupy 10th spot in the Premier League – the very mid-point of mid-table.
It truly is a case of what a difference a month makes, as beyond their League position a month ago, the manner of the defeats was at least as concerning as the lack of wins. It must have felt more like being a nail than a hammer, in the opening weeks of 2014, as West Ham were hammered with alarming frequency in all competitions. One win against Cardiff and a creditable draw with Chelsea the meagre rewards. Meanwhile five defeats were racked up, with an astronomical 18 goals conceded along the way. This figure was vastly affected by the 5-0 FA Cup defeat to Championship Nottingham Forest and the 6-0 loss to Manchester City, in the League Cup semi-final – a tie which finished 9-0 on aggregate. It is safe to say that January 2014 was a month to forget for West Ham supporters.
The horror show of the previous month only serves to make the Hammers’ February resurgence more impressive. At the heart of the turnaround has been the goal scoring form of Hammers midfielder and captain, Kevin Nolan. February marked something of a new start for Nolan himself having been branded “irresponsible” by Allardyce as the year turned. The midfielder began 2014, by picking up his second red card, over the course of December and January, for aiming an off the ball kick at Fulham’s Fernando Amorebieta. Allardyce was particularly frustrated by his captain’s actions given the nature of the contest. West Ham had already surrendered the lead afforded to them by Mohammed Diame’s seventh minute strike when Nolan retaliated, when referee Mark Clattenberg denied him a free-kick. Fulham made the man advantage pay in the 66th minute as Dimitar Berbatov wrapped up the points. At 1-1 both teams would have remained in the Premier League relegation zone. Berbatov’s winner lifted Fulham to 16th place, on 19 points. West Ham were left second bottom on 15 points. Beyond this Nolan had already seen red in a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool, in early December, meaning the player was suspended for a considerable portion of both months. The manager’s anger at having been hamstrung by his captain was understandable:
“Our captain was irresponsible. He’s let everyone down and himself. I know their centre-half fouled him but it’s still not an excuse for what Kevin did. That’s two [red cards] in the space of a month now. It’s not something I will allow to happen.”
Nolan has been instrumental in West Ham’s form over February, however, finding the net five times during the four game winning streak. The goals have put the player top of the Hammer’s scoring charts with seven for the season. It was another West Ham player, Andy Carroll, making headlines for a sending off – which was highly controversial – when West Ham opened the month at home to Swansea City. Carroll did last long enough to offer both assists for Nolan to convert before he departed early. Nolan drove home the opener, after neat control, from Carroll’s knock down. The second saw the powerful forward head the ball across to the Hammer’s skipper who found the net with a header of his own.
A week later, at Villa Park, Nolan again bagged a brace as his side ran out 2-0 winners, with the result enough to lift West Ham out of the relegation zone. Stuart Downing displayed deft touch to dance past Ryan Bertrand into the area before pulling the ball back to Nolan, whose neat back-heel beat Brad Guzan via a deflection, straight after half-time. Two minutes later Nolan scored again. This goal was all about his own graft and determination as he caught Fabian Delph in possession on the edge of Villa’s box, before firing home in comprehensive fashion. Allardyce was as quick to praise, as he had been to criticise on New Year’s Day:
“Kevin came up with the goods again. That is four in two games and he showed he doesn’t need Andy Carroll, to score.”
Against Southampton in West Ham’s last match Nolan played in Matt Jarvis to cancel out Maya Yoshida’s early strike for the Saints, with a terrific through ball from a deep position. With 20 minutes to go the midfielder made the result certain by firing home the last goal in a 3-1 win, with a close range volley from Carlton Cole’s header.
Nolan’s creative side to his game should not go unnoticed amongst his recent goal scoring exploits. He has eight assists for the season, including setting up two of West Ham’s three goals in a 3-3 draw with West Brom in late December. Between his February form, his assists and his ability to play centre midfield and as a forward, as well as his favoured attacking midfield role it is unsurprising that there were calls for Nolan to be selected for England.
Allardyce greeted the likelihood of a call-up with scepticism, while rating Nolan as amongst the Premier League’s best. The West Ham manager’s cynicism proved to be not without foundation as Nolan was overlooked for England’s clash with Denmark, on March 5th, as part of their preparations for Brazil 2014. Even before the squad was announced Allardyce commented:
“There are very, very few players better than him at scoring goals from midfield. He has had a lot of times that he has knocked on the door [of an England call-up] and I don’t think that’s going to make much difference for him now. He is in his 30’s now, so he has got to continue his career as long as he possibly can by doing what he has always done, and that is score goals.”
Nolan’s form has been instrumental in West Ham’s revival and club and supporters will be keen to see the collective and individual runs of player and team continue over the rest of the season. The Premier League relegation fight is so close that ten points separates tenth place from 20th. West Ham still have work to do to ensure they stay clear of the pack, but they are now top half requiring just three wins to hit the mythical 40 point mark. In this fiercely fought season, a lesser tally looks like it would be enough to stay up.
West Ham United have six of the current top seven still to play in their remaining 11 games, so nothing should be taken for granted, but with fixtures against four of the bottom six, their form and an on song Kevin Nolan the outlook is much brighter than a month ago.