What dust mean ‘we’re not off t’wembley’?

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West Ham 1-1 Latics
Saturday 25th August 2007

As is tradition where Wigan Athletic are concerned, the build up to this game paid way too much attention to the stands. Although, in a slightly different twist the focus was on one empty seat rather than the ‘missing’ thousands. The rugby’s failure to qualify for the Challenge Cup final had given Dave Whelan a free weekend for a visit to Upton Park. However, instead of finding out, face-to-face, what West Ham thought of him, the chairman decided that a visit to the sun was in order.

Of course that gives some credence to the opinion that this was a grudge match, but whilst the fans are still busy bickering in the aftermath of the Tevez affair, I’m not sure that either club, especially the players, are particularly bothered anymore. If there was going to be an edge to the proceedings, then the absolute drubbing that Latics took off West Ham in the run-in last season was more likely to be the cause.

That game was arguably the worst Latics performance of the Jewell era and although the squad that travels to London on Saturday will be much changed, the hope pre-game was that there were enough people around who wanted to atone for rolling over last Spring.

Faced with a much changed, and costly, West Ham side, Chris Hutchings decided that a point would be a good return from the game and sent his side out to sit back and defend this one. That was probably the right choice. We may have had the best of our away games against the hammers (forgetting the 4-0 drubbing) but we’ve also had our fair share of luck. Opening ourselves up to defeat here could have derailed the good start to the season.

As with the opening game of the season, it took Latics until half time to get going. It seemed that, following the last two attacking performances at the JJB, the side had swung too far the other way. With West Ham looking like the only team who would get anything from the game, the Latics back four were coming under some real pressure.

A penalty shout and a disallowed, offside goal aside, they coped manfully. Despite the initial misgivings of many, the Bramble and Granqvist are looking strong. If, as expected, their partnership continues to grow then we will have a real bedrock to build our season on.

The most notable event of the first 45 was the substitution of Sibierski. A tight hamstring proving too much of a risk to take on a player has, so far, been key to Latics’ attacking options. His replacement was Aghahowa, who unfortunately is still finding his feet in English football. The hour’s football he got here may have only given us glimpses of what he may be capable of, but will hopefully provide a big step towards his development.

Onto the second half, and whilst the home team had the best of it before the break, the Upton Park crowd were treated to a more even contest. That said, it’s not as if the game opened up much. Chances remained at a premium for both sides, and as time ticked on the clever money switched from a home win to a no score draw.

That discounted a bit of magic from the freshly coiffured Paul Scharner. The long throw and flick on, from Melchiot and Heskey respectively, may have been straight out of Christopher Park but the over head kick wasn’t. The result took everyone by surprise, including the goal scorer, whose celebrations included an awkward “have a hug”, “no I don’t want to” moment with the gaffer.

Anyone who thought that the lead came too late for the home side to anything about it had forgotten one thing. We don’t have a left back in the squad.

The move involved the three West Ham subs, the dangerous Louis Boa Morte and Dean “new Teddy Sheringham” Ashton combining in a good move to give Bowyer his chance but the equaliser quite simply wouldn’t have happened if we’d have had a full time replacement for Baines on the pitch.

It wasn’t that Kilbane let his man go, but where and how. If he had been more than cover then he’d have been lambasted for ending up inside the box, looking in the other direction as the third most hated man in West Ham’s squad (and the fourth in English football) slotted home.

Kilbane has done a decent job as cover at full-back position, but it’s not his full time role. The lad should be applauded, but if a replacement (or two) isn’t on board before midnight on Friday, then we’ll have problems between now and January. If the manager takes nothing else from the game apart from that then it will be valuable.

In all this was a reasonable performance, and a better result, but there was plenty to improve on. At least we’re gathering points on the way to learning this season’s lessons. Another plus point is that Chris Hutchings will get a chance to make those improvements before the chairman finds out. Unless his yacht has a two-metre satellite dish that is.

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