A quite, considered hush fell over Upon Park about ten minutes into the second half of West Ham Uniteds match against Reading yesterday afternoon. As the visiting team dispatched their third goal, a penalty kick from Ian Harte after a clumsy tackle by Abdoulaye Faye in fifteen minutes either side of half-time and extended their lead to three-one, it was as if this was the collective moment of realisation for their supporters that, having been there or thereabouts for most of this season, the possibility of thereabouts being the sum total of their forty-six league matches us starting to become rather more of a likelihood.

The afternoon had started reasonably well, an early lead grabbed through Carlton Cole and enough possession being maintained to raise the question of what all the fuss over this Reading that has been quietly shuffling its way up the Championship table is all about. In the space of three minutes at the end of the half, however, old unfamiliarities reasserted themselves with two goals for the visitors from Kaspars Gorkss and Noel Hunt to turn the scoreline upside-down. To an extent, the third Reading goal was merely confirmation that the couple of minutes prior to half-time hadn’t merely been confirmation that the couple of minutes prior to the half-time whistle hadn’t merely been some sort of collective hallucinatory experience. Hope came again with a second goal with a little over ten minutes left to play, a header from Ricardo Vaz Te, but this faint flicker of flame was swiftly extinguished thanks to a fourth Reading goal within five minutes from Mikele Leigertwood. There were boos and jeers at full-time, but for the most part there was a sense of resignation that the happier, more care-free days of the autumn and winter might be giving way to a spring of discontent.

That such a result might have been heading West Ham United’s way isn’t, perhaps, a major surprise. A two-nil win at Peterborough United on Tuesday night was a return to form of sorts, after five consecutive draws which had seen their top two position chipped away at, slowly but surely. If West Ham United do fail to win automatic promotion come the end of this season, much will be forgiven should they manage to negotiate their way through the play-offs, but should this mission fail to be accomplished, seven drawn matches in the first three months of this year may well come to be regarded as the protracted period during which a decisive-looking advantage was slowly but surely eroded, even if yesterdays match carried a greater symbolism about it.

With such a result may come the end of the unwritten Faustian pact between West Ham United supporters and club manager Sam Allardyce. It is unfair to draw the immediate assumption from cliché that supporters of the club have an automatic expectation of winning and winning in style. However, supporters of West Ham United had certain expectations for this season and these have been deflated over recent weeks by a steady drip, drip, drip of underwhelming results, and ultimate responsibility for that will come to rest, for better or for worse, with the manager. This us perhaps Allardyce’s achilles heel. He seldom gives the impression of being particularly personable, and his teams have never played terribly attractive football. Allardyce is a results man and he often delivers results on this front, but when he doesn’t he has little else to fall back upon and the extent to which there has been a sense of detente between the manager and many of the clubs supporters has been noticeable from the outside.

It would not make a great deal of common sense to sack Allardyce now – the disruption would be enormous and West Ham United are far from completely out of the battle for an automatic promotion place just yet, and this is without taking into account the second chance saloon that is the play-offs – but it is starting to feel as if the minimum requirement for him to still be in a job by the end of the summer will be for the club to be back in the Premier League by this time. Reading FC, meanwhile, are just four points above them in the table but are inhabiting different universes in terms of confidence this morning. They have only lost once in the last two months, timing the build-up of a head of steam perfectly to sit neatly behind Southampton in second place in the Championship table. Even if West Ham United can recover their form, on the basis of yesterday’s performance there would be serious question mark hanging over whether Brian McDermott’s team will drop another four points this season and let West Ham United back into the race for an automatic promotion place.

This, perhaps, has been the hidden cost of of relegation at the end of last season for West Ham United. Expectation levels are such that there is no point at which the team can play without a care in the world in this division. This, however, has to be weighed up against the superior financial resources that the club has at its disposal, from commercial revenues as well as Premier League parachute payments. There may still be a back door route up should Reading or – and this, considering their form throughout the whole of the season, seems just as unlikely – Southampton stumble once the heat turns up during the run-in. The disjointedness that they displayed yesterday afternoon, however, will give few West Ham supporters much optimism that this team would be able to overhaul these two even if this were to come to pass. The stomach-churning tightrope walk that is the play-offs awaits.

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