We emerge from the bowels of London’s expansive underground system at Seven Sisters tube station into pouring rain. Where the hell did this come from? It wasn’t doing it in Brighton, where it was fine and bright, and it wasn’t doing it at Elephant & Castle, where we switched from the train to the tube. Maybe the Gods where angry with me for selling my soul for the day to the Premier League. They don’t appear to have been terribly happy with Tottenham or West Ham recently. Since their League Cup win against Chelsea, Spurs have been thrashed by, of all people, Birmingham City and beaten at home in the UEFA Cup by PSV Eindhoven. The consolation for Spurs is that West Ham are playing just as badly at the moment. A couple of weeks ago it looked as if they might have an outside chance of getting fifth place in the Premier League, but two successive 4-0 defeats against Liverpool and Chelsea appear to have put paid to that pipe dream for another season. In spite of this, their supporters have made the trip across from East London and Essex in good voice. Rather too good for the liking of the police, in fact – as we arrive at White Hart Lane, two lines of policemen are separating the opposing supporters. Between the stony faces of the yellow-jacketed officers, I can just about make out some of West Ham’s finest, their faces strained from singing, “We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham” at the tops of their voices. They are, indeed, the Tottenham haters. I wander through the police cordon and get separated from my companions. It briefly crosses my mind that I might get punched in the face, but I’ve had a couple of pints and, in any case, I’m a smallish thirtysomething bloke with glasses and a beard. Avoiding eye contact seems to be enough to deliver me to the East Stand and my seat.
This being the Premier League, this afternoon’s match matters, even though neither side has got that much to play for in the league this season. The truth of the matter is that, although both Spurs and West Ham would consider that their biggest rivalries lie elsewhere (Spurs with Arsenal and West Ham with Chelsea), they’ve got more in common than either would like to admit – a “tradition” of attractive football, and lofty ambitions that are seldom met whilst their rivals disappear into the distance chasing the Champions League and global domination. White Hart Lane has the significant advantage of being, by some distance, the best ground in the Premier League for atmosphere. The stands are tall and narrow (a seat in the Upper East Stand isn’t for those that are prone to bouts of vertigo), and the match kicks off to a cacophony of noise. Spurs initially look nervy, with Paul Robinson spilling a shot and having dive at Ashton’s feet to grab the ball, but the game turns early on with two identical goals from Dimitar Berbatov, who rises easily above the static West Ham defence to head the ball home from Tom Huddlestone crosses. It all looks rather too easy for Berbatov, a picture of whom could easily be put into the Oxford English Dictionary to replace the definition for the word “languid”. Compared to him, Aaron Lennon is a constant flurry of activity, who takes on the appearance of the Tasmanian Devil whenever he gets the ball. West Ham, by comparison, look strangely disinterested, and the game effectively ends as a contest just before half-time, when Luis Boa Morte picks up a second yellow card for a clumsy late tackle on Lennon. I manage too miss this – the bars in the stand at White Hart Lane are notoriously difficult to get served at, and the area is already filling up when I get there. The distinctive cheer that accompanies any sending off notifies us of what has happened, and it only takes ten seconds’ worth of Chinese whispers to establish who the miscreant was.
The second half turns out to be a fairly straightforward affair for Spurs. West Ham’s biggest danger comes in the form of Dean Ashton, who at least looks like he is putting in an effort, but the visitors seem to have settled for an exercise in damage limitation, even though Spurs, whose defence is so brittle that a 2-0 lead with twenty minutes to play is no cause for the supporters to start relaxing, aren’t pressing them too hard. A flurry of substitutions breathes more life into proceedings, and both of Spurs’ substitutes have got something to prove – Darren Bent is rapidly gaining a reputation as a flop since his transfer from Charlton Athletic last summer, whilst Gilberto shouldered much of the blame for Spurs’ UEFA Cup defeat. Both players manage some degree of rehabilitation in the closing stages. First up, Chimbonda’s low diagonal cross is dummied by Lennon for Gilberto to add the third, and in the closing minutes, Bent throws himself at a deep cross from Alan Hutton (who looks like an excellent acquisition) and heads the ball past an again exposed Robert Green to complete the rout. Seconds later, it’s full time. Chas & Dave belt out “Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur” and the majority can go home happy.
After the high excitement of last season, West Ham United have made significant progress this season, and they’ve already accumulated enough points to be safe from being dragged into a relegation battle. One suspects, however, that their summer has started three months early, and Alan Curbishley has got his work cut out if he’s going to keep them in the top half of the table. Rumour has it that the pressure is growing on him, too, and the humiliation of a 4-0 thrashing in a derby match might just make his position at Upton Park untenable. This afternoon, West Ham looked like they couldn’t really be bothered, and this was a match that they could have taken something from. Meanwhile, Spurs remind me of the proverbial little girl – when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. The difference, I suspect, is the management. One could scarcely countenance Juande Ramos tolerating another performance like the ones against Birmingham City and PSV Eindhoven, and it is likely that the players were told several home truths on Friday morning. With next season’s UEFA Cup place already guaranteed, they also have a lot of work to do to keep the concentration up until the end of the season, and on this evidence I would be less than surprised if they end the season in the top half of the table. Whether they can challenge for a Champions League place next season, however, may depend on how restless a certain Bulgarian striker starts to feel in the summer.
You can see the goals from yesterday’s match here.