The last week or so in the Championship have acted as a sudden reminder to anyone who may have thought that the two automatic promotion places might already have been sewn up. Southampton’s stunning start to the season has seen them ascend to the top of the table with West Ham United, relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season, clinging onto their coat-tails in second place. Last weekend, however, both clubs stumbled. Southampton fell to a single goal defeat at loanee-plumpened Doncaster Rovers, while West Ham were beaten at home by Burnley. This weekend, there was a repeat of this stutter, with Southampton requiring a stoppage-time equaliser to rescue a point at home against Blackpool, while West Ham fell to a surprisingly comprehensive defeat at Reading.
Nobody at West Ham United needs to be reminded of the importance to the club of a quick return to the Premier League and, while he continues to have his critics, Sam Allardyce has thus far managed to fulfil his remit at Upton Park. His team has been a lesson in footballing obduracy so far this season, seldom setting the division alight but grinding out win after win – very much as we might have expected from Allardyce. Last weekend’s defeat against Burnley, however, was a shock to the system the jitters continued yesterday afternoon against a Reading side that has an eye on the play-off places just above them, although this was a defeat from which the result only tells a part of the story.
For sixty-five minutes West Ham were very much in this game, although they weren’t playing particularly well and it took them over half an hour to create anything like a goal-scoring opportunity, while Reading had started with greater purpose, Adam Le Fondre’s cross-cum-shot almost getting turned goal-wards by Noel Hunt, Jimmy Kebe and Jem Karacan also came close for the home side. At the other end, meanwhile, Sam Collison shot over for West Ham and Hunt, returning for Reading after an injury, cleared a Papa Bouba Diop toe poke off the line and away to safety. It wasn’t always particularly pretty, but West Ham were very much in the game and the news from St Marys was good – Southampton were struggling at home against Blackpool.
Twenty minutes into the second half, though, the entire tone of the game changed with one ill-advised tackle. Joey O’Brien, who had been brought on as a fifth minute replacement for the injured Guy Demel, had just earned himself a yellow card when he tripped Jobi McAnuff, and with the memory of the previous infringement still fresh in the referee’s mind, a second yellow card reduced the visiting side to ten players. From the free-kick awarded the ball wasn’t cleared, MacAnuff found Alex Pearce and Pearce rolled the ball in from close range. With this goal, West Ham collapsed. With ten minutes left to play, Simon Church doubled Reading’s lead when he tapped the ball in from Adam Le Fondre’s cross.
With four minutes left to play, West Ham’s afternoon went from disappointing to disastrous. Jimmy Kebe was indulging in a little late gamesmanship when Sam Collison launched himself at the Reading player, with one foot aimed just below his knee and his hands in the direction of his chest. Kebe’s reaction was a little on the theatrical side, but the referee was left with little option but to dismiss Collison, a player with a previously good disciplinary record. For the second time in the match, the punishment for West Ham didn’t end with the red card. From the resulting free-kick, Ian Harte’s cross was headed in by Church to guarantee all three points for Reading, and there was further bad news with the full-time whistle, where a late, late goal had rescued a point for Southampton against Blackpool.
The forty-six match Championship season allows room for error, and this may be but a blip for West Ham United. Sam Allardyce will be quietly optimistic that he can get his team back on the straight and narrow with the return of Henri Lansbury and Gary O’Neil, who are expected to return from injury in the near future, and a home match against a Barnsley side which shipped five goals at home against Ipswich Town yesterday looks like a decent opportunity to set the side back on track. Yet West Ham United supporters – whether rightly or wrongly – have expectations, not only of a swift return to the Premier League but also of a style of football with which they associate their club. If Allardyce won’t deliver the style – and this has hardly been a trademark of his over the years – then the pressure to succeed in getting the club back into the Premier League is intensified, and it would not be difficult to imagine West Ham supporters with jerkier knees already starting to get anxious.
For the neutrals, the sight of Southampton and West Ham United pulling clear at the top of the Championship might have been a little disquieting, and the site of Cardiff City, Middlesbrough, Hull City and Leeds United may well give the managers of both clubs pause for thought as the Christmas rush starts to come into view. By the new year, we should have a better idea of whether West Ham United will be involved in a dog-fight until the end of the season or whether their stay back in the Championship will prove to be a brief one. So far, Sam Allardyce has managed to keep most of the critics at a club with high expectations quiet this season. If West Ham’s form doesn’t start to pick up again soon, though, he might find that those voices will start to get louder.
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