West Ham United’s season is starting to play like an episode of “Dream Team”. Alan Curbishley took over a fortnight ago, probably thinking that this is something akin to a dream job. Sure, West Ham are in a bit of trouble, but a bit more confidence, a bit more application and they’d be okay, wouldn’t they? It all kicked off excellently, with a 1-0 win over Manchester United, but since then the wheels have well and truly fallen off the wagon again. Being interviewed after their 6-0 defeat at Reading this afternoon, Curbishley gave the impression of being a man with plenty to say, but scarcely able to say it.
On “Match Of The Day” this evening, Mark Lawrenson (perhaps surprisingly) summed up the malaise at Upton Park fairly succinctly with the phrase “too many big time Charlies”. Footballers exist in a peculiar parallel universe to the rest of us – a strange world which manages to combine enormous egotism with an emotional fragility that ebbs and flows which each result. West Ham currently have the worst of both worlds. When they were promoted back into the Premiership, there was an enormous hunger within the club to prove the critics, all of whom said that they would go straight back down, wrong. It was enough to propel them into the top half of the table and get them to the FA Cup final. This season, though, things have changed. Rumours coming from within the club are hinting at increased egos brought about by new, fatter contracts. The fight has gone from the players. The lack of confidence could be clearly seen this afternoon against Reading. On two separate occasions, Reading scored from free kicks inside the six yard box that should have been being defended on the edge of the penalty area. It seemed to sum up their situation quite neatly.
This “second season syndrome”, which is a relatively recent phenomenon, most famously hit Ipswich Town. In 2001, they made fifth place in the Premiership in their first season back (and were only denied a place in the Champions League on the last day of the season by Liverpool), but, the following season, their league form collapsed and they were relegated back into the Championship. West Ham aren’t the only team currently suffering from it. Wigan have slumped to fourth from bottom in the table, from a position of relative security in mid-table. This afternoon, they collapsed as well, 3-0 at home to Blackburn Rovers. If West Ham do successfully strengthen their squad in the transfer window, or if Charlton’s revival doesn’t turn out to be a flash in the pan, they could find themselves with a real crisis on their hands come the spring.
The team that avoided any of this, Fulham, are continuing to buck the trend of getting sucked into relegation battles (they seem destined to perpetually finish between ninth and fourteenth in the Premiership – the footballing equivalent of limbo), but there was at least some excitement in their 0-0 draw with Watford at Craven Cottage this afternoon. First up, Heidar Helgusson, playing against his former club, had the ball in the back of the net twice but was incorrectly called offside both times, and let the ball bobble through his legs in front of an open goal from four yards out in front of an open goal. The headlines, however, will go to goalkeeper Antti Niemi, though, who should really have broken neck after rushing out of his goal, misjudging a header and landing vertically on his head. Having had the opportunity to see it, and having checked on the updates from the hospital, it would the injury should have been much worse than it was. He’s a very lucky boy indeed.