Well, I didn't have access to a PC at half time otherwise my match report on the first half would have read Real Madrid 1 West Ham 2. For 40 minutes Fulham played us off the park. I would use the old cliche about chasing shadows, but that would imply that our players actually gave a damn. They didn't chase shadows as such, they watched the shadows slide past them, like terrified toddlers in a House of Horrors.
First forty or so minutes, it was a roll call of ineptitude: Tomkins was outjumped twice in the first five minutes; Gabbidon was incompetence personified, weak in the challenge and terrible when on the ball; Kovac was Kovac; one cross apart, Sears was his usual lightweight self; Stanislas looked like a one legged player on the wrong wing and failed to beat the first defender with two of his three corners; Parker was huff and puff and not much else, mindful no doubt of the yellow card hanging like the Sword of Damoclese over his head; Green was OK but punched the cross which led, seconds later to Fulham scoring; Ben Haim was at best ordinary; Upson was hopelessly out of position for the Fulham goal, standing five yards BEHIND any Fulham player as Hughes, completely unmarked, headed home; Cole looked like he was ice skating for the first time in his life, unsure where his feet were and terrified of losing his balance; and Piquionne looked on a different wavelength from the rest of the team.
On 40 minutes, the possession count stood at 65% to 35% in Fulham's favour. Our heads were down. Defeat had been accepted. Grant was standing arms folded and glum on the touchline. There was no way back. Grant's only available option at half time was to give the players a spade each and invite them to dig their own graves. Fulham were playing like Real Madrid and we were playing like George & Mildred. So much for a happy Christmas.
And then it happened! Out of the claret and blue, Sears made a complete hash of a cross and Etuhu made an even bigger hash of his attempted clearance. The ball arrived at the feet of Cole, gift wrapped, with a claret and blue ribbon attached and bearing the message, "Best Wishes of the Season". As gift horses go, this was a veritable Derby winner and even Cole chose not to inspect the interior of its oral cavity. Like the great goal poacher he is, Carlton simply stuck out his foot and deflected it home! 1-1 and we had been murdered, mullered, minced and mashed up until that point!
So there we were, praying that we could get through to half time on level terms, when lightning struck twice. Parker received the ball on the left hand corner of the box, looked up - yes, Parker looked up! - saw that there wasn't a Fulham defender within 10 yards of him, and knocked in a half decent cross that cleared a bus queue of Fulham defenders and arrived at the feet of Piquionne virtually standing under the bar! For a moment I had a cruel flashback to that miss against Chelsea but no, the Frenchman buried the chance and we were ahead! 2-1 up and the whistle blew for the break moments later!
God knows what Avram said at half time. It certainly couldn't have been, "You deserve that"! "You lucky bastards!" perhaps. "No more of the same!" might have been reasonable based on the balance of play! Maybe he just said, "God has forgiven me the massage parlours at last, now go out second half and rub in our advantage." And in the other dressing room? Mark Hughes must have been asking when exactly Fulham had become Arsenal and why the bloody hell they didn't try shooting after stringing together thirty five passes!
And lo and behold, as Fulham took the field for the second half, our mob remained behind in the dressing room, trying to recover their breath after being convulsed in laughter for the whole of the interval no doubt. Then out they jogged, pulling on their Christmas gloves, desperately trying to hide their smirks and with this strange new spirit pulsing through their veins, the spirit of confidence! "Hang on", somebody said. "This is Craven Cottage and we ALWAYS win at Craven Cottage UNLESS Zola is in charge!"
And that was it. We were a new team. Cole performed as if he was in the January shop window and wanted to impress. Upson and Tomkins were suddenly playing together. Sears grew in confidence if not in inches. Parker realised that the referee was competent and wasn't hell bent on giving him a yellow regardless. Stanislas looked like he wanted to start the next match. Gabbidon actually passed the ball to players in Claret & Blue. Ben Haim looked like he was defending his homeland. Piquionne was determined. Kovac looked almost competent. And Green was simply awesome.
THAT save from American Eddie Johnson was simply awesome. I have been a critic of Green but shot stopping doesn't come better than that. I assumed, in real time, that Johnson had simply fired over because there was no way a keeper could deflect that shot high and wide at such point blank range. But Green did. He spread himself and his right hand was incredibly strong, forcing the ball away from goal. Very few keepers in the world would have made that save and if anybody quibbles with my rating of 10 for Green, I say watch that save again. And the way he went down bravely at feet in the first half and his save in the second half when a dozy Gabbidon played Andy Johnson onside and clean through on goal.
Those moments apart, however, we were largely in control. Fulham were now less Real Madrid and more Real Manure. Where in the first half they passed the ball around us as if we were training ground cones, now they passed the ball to Claret and Blue shirts as certainly as if the ball was a magnet and we really were the Irons! Sadly, we still weren't brilliant - the third goal was fashioned in a Keystone Cops movie - but Fulham were suddenly awful. Playing like this, they are very live contenders for the drop!
Cole should have scored after a lovely quick fire move that saw Piquionne, receiving a perfect pass from a Fulham player, release Sears who actually crossed to Cole! We created a chance! But Cole made a hash of it and lost possession. Sears himself had a chance, firing narrowly wide of the near post after clever work from Cole.
And we scored a third! It was an aimless ball forward, Piquionne failed to win it in the air, but for the second time in the game, Cole received a present, completely unmarked, seven yards from goal. To say he couldn't miss would be absurd - Cole misses these chances as a signature tune - but for the second time, Carlton came over all Michael Owen and buried the chance! I queried the Virgin Birth last week. After this, I aint questioning any miracles!
So, the first of three must win games in a row ended in a West Ham victory, our first win away from home since the very first game of the 2009-10 season. Our victory over Pompey on Boxing Day of last season - gained in the teeth of injury adversity - gave us real hope that we could survive and this win has suddenly transformed the table. Not only are we not bottom, Birmingham, Fulham, Wigan, Villa and, whisper it quietly, Blackpool, Blackburn, Newcastle and West Brom, can hear our desperate panting not so very far behind their shoulders. One team always collapses in the second half of the season. Take your pick from that bunch! Could Pards yet prove our saviour?
Mind you, following that victory over Pompey we performed abjectly at Tottenham next game up. We desperately need to build on this win and take a minimum of 4 points from the home games against Everton and Wolves. Do that, and it is game on for the Great Escape mark 2! The only trouble is, Everton are a bogey team and Wolves murdered us in the six pointer at Upton Park last season! Mind you, win those two games and I will be re-publicising the Grantazola Index!
Player Ratings: Green 10; Ben Haim 6, Tomkins 7 Upson 6, Gabbidon 4; Sears 5, Kovac 5, Parker 6, Stanislas 6; Piquionne 6, Cole 7
(The subs weren't on long enough to rate!)