They could have been forgiven for believing that they had turned a corner, of sorts. Going into this afternoon’s match at the Stadium Of Light, West Ham United had won two straight matches following a run of just one win since the end of September. Now that this particular semi-inflated balloon has been pricked, though, a feeling of claustrophobia has begun to lower itself upon the Boleyn Ground this evening following a defeat at Sunderland that leaves West Ham back at the bottom of the Premier League. While they are still in touch with the pack of clubs above them (they could yet be out of the relegation places by Christmas), this season long ago started to take the feel of a relegation season.
Recent messages from the club regarding Avram Grant’s future at the club had been mixed, with talk of his position being untenable being coupled with a statement from Karren Brady to the extent that Grant would not be replaced, even if relegated come the end of this season, should they have failed to beat Wigan Athletic last weekend. They managed this and followed it up by thrashing a second string Manchester United in the League Cup during the week. This may have left Grant feeling a little more secure than he was eight or nine days ago, but the fragility of such confidence was in evidence as Sunderland, without breaking much from second gear, saw his team off with a single moment of brilliance from Jordan Henderson that was, if we’re being brutally honest, out of keeping with a match that was scrappy and accident prone.
Henderson’s moment came nine minutes from the end of an indistinguished first half. Asamoah Gyan’s cross had an element of the collector’s piece about it, such was it’s accuracy, and Henderson caught the ball on the half volley, sending it wide of Robert Green and into the net. A couple of the minutes after the goal, Gyan hit the top of the West Ham crossbar from around forty-five yards (the sort of cross-cum-shot that makes the viewer wonder whether the player concerned meant a cross, a shot or neither), but West Ham’s brief forays into the Sunderland half were much like watching a mugging being carried out with a cheese knife. Sunderland deserved their half-time lead, but there wasn’t much for anybody to get overly enthused over.
As the teams started to properly defrost in the second half, the match opened up somewhat. Typical of West Ham’s problems so far this season has been Carlton Cole, who nearly left the club during the summer and may yet during the transfer window in January. He has had a slow start to the season, but he still managed to flash a shot across the face of goal that showed at least a signal of intent early in the second half. It is this is sort of combination – a dash of poor form, a soupçon of bad luck – that helps the worries to pile up, and it would be typical if, should Cole be sold in January, he were to score fifteen goals before the end of the season. Any remaining sliver of a hope that West Ham could pull very much out of this game trickled away when Victor Obinna (who was West Ham’s best chance of a goal all afternoon) hit the outside of the Sunderland post.
A result, then, that pushes Sunderland up to seventh place in the table and considering the possibility of challenging for a place in Europe next season. Ultimately, the difference between the two teams this afternoon, however, was not enormous. While Jordan Henderson may not be worth quite the £20m price tag that Steve Bruce has (optimistically, it has to be said, although if Manchester City are getting to the end of January and are depserate…) placed upon his head, but his goal was the one moment of this match that was of any real, genuine class. Upon such narrow differences can the difference between relegation and survival or between mid-table and a place in the Europa League be determined.
Which way next for West Ham United? Their forthcoming fixtures are a mixed bag, with arguably winnable matches such as trips to Blackburn Rovers and Fulham coupled with home matches against Everton and – possibly most importantly of all – Wolverhampton Wanderers on New Years Day. The nature of the Premier League so far this season, however, has been unpredictably unpredictable. The one match in December that would stand out as being the toughest of the lot, a home match against Manchester City next Saturday, could well, knowing what we do of City’s occasional tendencies towards self-destruction, result in a home win. After all, West Ham United have already beaten Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at home this season already.
In some ways, this has been the single most frustrating thing about West Ham United this season. They are good enough to stay up, but feel unlucky enough to go down, and the question now facing those running West Ham United is whether they should stick or twist with their management team. The supporters, it seems, would be at best ambivalent if Avram Grant was to get the push, but where would a replacement to keep them in the Premier League – should such an individual extist – at this time of year come from? It’s too early for West Ham supporters to fall into the depths of despond, but it looks like being a nervous Christmas for them, to say the very least.