THERE aren’t many things that make me angry, really. Apart from rudeness, over-officiousness, smugness, moral hypocrisy, nepotism, traffic jams, late trains, practical jokes, practical jokers, people who go on and on and on about “political correctness gone mad” (translation: “Why won’t people laugh at my racist/sexist gags?”), bicycles left in communal hallways, coalition government cuts loaded towards councils in areas that are Labour strongholds, the technical flaws and lazy plot twist in David Nicholls’ almost-great novel One Day, Chris Moyles, Nicky Campbell, dog mess left on the street, Facebook users whose every status update is about how happy their marriage is, Twitter users who give ‘Follow Friday’ shouts to the same people every week, cold callers who keep trying to get me to change my electricity provider, neighbours who play loud music and charity muggers. Oh, and sloppy punctuation.
But one thing that really did get me riled was a newspaper column written by Martin Samuel in the late spring of 2003.
I can’t remember which paper it was in, as Samuel has worked for so many. Indeed, he’s worked for almost as many papers as I have. Except that while all the publications he has worked for are nationals, most of those to have employed me are locals based in the North West of England.
Still, have you ever covered an agricultural show in Kendal, Martin? Or shadowed a milkman in Stockport for a morning? Have you? No, I bet you’ve only done World Cups and Champions League finals and all that nonsense.
Anyway, when Samuel wrote this particular piece in May 2003 for whoever he wrote it for (The Times, it would seem), I was working at the Bolton Evening News. This may have coloured my judgement, although I should stress that I am not a Bolton fan.
The final weekend of the 2002/03 Premier League season was a couple of weeks away, and Bolton were in a straight fight with West Ham to avoid the final relegation place. Samuel’s argument was that, if Bolton survived, it would be huge setback for the English game, because they would have done it with the help of a clutch of foreign players brought in on loan, while the Hammers had some useful young homegrown players.
“Whatever admiration I feel for [manager Sam] Allardyce and the tiny miracle he is performing in difficult circumstances, I cannot escape the suspicion that Bolton, specifically Sam’s Bolton, are the unhealthiest thing to happen to English football since the marketing department annexed Soho Square,” Samuel wrote.
In his defence, he did admit during the course of the piece that he was a West Ham fan, that his team had been badly run, that Tomas Repka was a hopeless defender and Paolo di Canio a spoilt brat. But to me, sitting in an office in Bolton, surrounded by Wanderers supporters, Samuel’s piece seemed a touch one-eyed. I almost understood those supporters who flood the internet with indignant rage when a reporter dares to criticise their team. Almost.
As it turned out, Samuel’s hopes did not become reality. Bolton stayed up, West Ham went down. And he’s not had much luck when the two sides have met since, either. Wanderers have tended to flatten the Hammers.
Back in 2003, Bolton were struggling to establish themselves as a Premier League club. Their final-day survival that year was a key point in that struggle. This summer, they will celebrate a decade in the top flight, their longest spell of continuous service at the highest level since the days of Nat Lofthouse.
And while the football under Big Sam wasn’t always a joy to watch (even with the wonderful skills of Jay Jay Okocha), Wanderers play some tidy stuff under Owen Coyle. Having kept them up last season, he has lifted them in the Premier League’s top half this time around.
West Ham, after a few ups and downs, are pretty much back where they were in the spring of 2003; under-performing and under threat. Avram Grant seems to have spent the entire season being between three and five games from the sack, apart from a few days in January when more or less everyone thought he was hours from getting the boot.
Grant looks more put-upon than the average Last Of The Summer Wine character at the best of times. These are not the best of times. A 2-0 lead against Manchester United last Saturday was not converted into points. Against a Bolton side with an FA Cup semi-final coming up, they had to get something today.
Most teams have a bogey ground. West Ham’s is the Reebok Stadium. They’ve never won there. They rarely looked like changing that today.
Neither they nor I had a good first half. The Hammers, after a decent first 10 minutes, played like strangers after that. Daniel Sturridge curled in a lovely opener for Bolton 14 minutes in when Matthew Upson allowed him too much space to turn on the edge of the area. Chung-Yong Lee then headed in Martin Petrov’s left-wing cross for number two. The excellent Johan Elmander, a striker playing in central midfield, played a part in both goals.
Up in the stand, where Grant was stationed as he began a two-match touchline ban for saying something he shouldn’tve about referees, I was having as much of a mare as the visitors. My internet connection ignored all my gentle coaxing and quiet swearing as I tried to get it to work (I should add that to the list of things that annoy me). And then I almost lost my report, as the reporter sitting next to me had unwittingly unplugged my laptop when climbing into his seat at kick off, and the battery had run out.
As I plugged my charger back in, West Ham midfielder Scott Parker trod on the ball in the centre circle with no one near him, allowing Fabrice Muamba a clear run at goal that came to nothing. Parker, a deserved PFA player of the year award nominee, had a day to forget, and left the field with an injury before the end.
Two down at half-time, West Ham were less abject after the break, but the game was soon beyond them anyway. Sturridge collected possession on the left flank and darted past Manuel Da Costa, then ran at a stationary Parker before guiding a delightful shot into the bottom corner.
Sturridge has scored six goals in eight games for Bolton since arriving on loan from Chelsea in late January, just as Fernando Torres was making his way south. Carlo Ancelotti got a £50million striker who can’t score; he let out a forward who cost less than a tenth of that who is scoring freely. Whoever is in charge of Chelsea’s transfer policy needs to take a serious look at themselves.
The only pity for Bolton is that Sturridge can’t play in next Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Stoke, because he is cup-tied. He has only made four starts for Chelsea this season, but the most recent of those was in their FA Cup third-round thrashing of Ipswich in January, in which he scored twice. If only someone at Stamford Bridge had got the hint then.
Coyle suggested afterwards that a loan spell at Bolton could do for Sturridge what it did for Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere last season. “They’re both set for glittering careers,” said the Bolton manager. Sturridge, who has never scored a senior hat-trick, passed up four good chances to complete one. But there will be other days for that.
Grant, meanwhile, faced a barrage of post-match questions along the lines of: ‘What the hell kind of performance was that?’ In truth, they might have had a goal after the break, with Jussi Jaaskelainen clawing away goalbound headers from James Tomkins and Demba Ba, who also hit the post later on.
Jaaskelainen, though, was not to be denied a clean sheet on the day he equalled Lofthouse’s Bolton club record of 503 appearances. If Grant might have felt a little aggrieved that his team didn’t manage to score, he could have no complaints about the result.
“We started the game well but the first goal affected us,” he said. “After that, we let them control the game. We lost almost every battle in the first half, That was the key.”
Hardly encouraging words, although Grant is sure he can keep West Ham up. He won’t managed it if they play like that every week. It’s just as well for my health that I’m not a West Ham fan, otherwise I’d have something else to be angry about this evening.