Towards the end of West Ham United’s victory over Manchester United, shortly after Marko Arnautovic restored the hosts’ two-goal advantage, the olés began.
There were 20 or so unanswered passes, with most of West Ham’s players involved, as the visitors chased shadows for a while before letting the shadows just go about their own business.
It’s one of the last sunny days of the year, they thought – why not allow the shadows their moment in the spotlight, as it were.
This isn’t how it is supposed to work, or indeed how it has ever really worked. As a West Ham fan, I’ve known better than to get ahead of myself, and when Michail Antonio missed with a late chip I was mentally prepared for the visitors going up the other end and somehow score twice with the same attack.
When you support West Ham, you can only enjoy these wins in retrospect, so painful are the memories of past meetings.
This is why, as Felipe Anderson opened the scoring with a delightful near-post flick, the celebrations were tempered by one voice, piercing through the cheers in the corner of the West Stand, asserting: “We’ve scored too early.”
It was uttered in a speaking voice, and yet still stood out above the otherwise raucous noise.
Fortune’s always hiding, as the song goes. However, on this occasion, it was hiding in plain sight.
To understand the significance of the game is to understand that, for West Ham supporters, the challenge of Manchester United is different to that of other ‘big six’ clubs.
With the exception of the 4-0 League Cup win in 2010, which I maintain is not canon, the wins have been so perilous and the defeats so crushing. Within the space of four seasons around the turn of the century, United put four, five, six and seven past West Ham on separate occasions, yet the period also involved two nail-biting wins for the Irons at Old Trafford.
More recently, a come-from-behind United win at Upton Park in 2011 was so devastating that West Ham proceeded to take a single point from their remaining seven games when two wins could have been enough to save them from relegation.
Five years on, the London club would be celebrating after a narrow 3-2 win in the stadium’s last game proved enough to deny the Red Devils Champions League football.
High drama or an early demise was the norm. Cruising to victory didn’t happen – certainly not in this manner.
The game as a whole upset the dynamic one would expect from a meeting between teams which finished thirteenth and second last season, and who entered the game separated by six points after as many games.
Much of the talk surrounded how good a time it was to play United, but West Ham fans know that’s no indicator of anything. This is, after all, a team which last season meekly surrendered to an Everton team with no manager and nine points from 13 games, and which conceded three home and away to a Newcastle side that failed to score that many against any other opponent until March.
Even in Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League season, one in which they fell short of European qualification, West Ham granted them two comfortable league wins.
Even the goals West Ham have scored in their exceptional games have been broadly unremarkable: Paolo Di Canio beating a static Fabien Barthez; Carlos Tevez benefiting from a lucky break; Matt Upson and Anton Ferdinand getting their heads on set pieces.
The opening goal, therefore, might be what made this game instantly different.
Felipe Anderson is the sort of player who in the past would have been scoring this goal against the club rather than for them – a flicked no-look finish to leave defenders and goalkeeper scratching their heads has long been something that happens to West Ham.
It’s only fair to point out that, on another day, the breaks might well have gone the other way: Michael Oliver might have given a penalty for Arthur Masuaku’s tug on Scott McTominay, or the deflection on Andriy Yarmolenko’s first-half shot might have taken the ball wide of the near post rather than just inside it.
However, the ‘you make your own luck’ arguments often used to explain United’s flurry of late goals in the Sir Alex Ferguson era can now be used against them.
Make no mistake, the hosts’ performance was one of a team that knew they were on top, for whatever reason, and were determined to capitalise on their dominance and earn a chance to cruise late on.
They were the climber breaking away on Alpe d’Huez and breaking their rivals enough to ensure a mutual agreement that no amount of expended energy would change the end result.
The third goal was the killer, of course, but this was true of the manner in which it arrived as much as the strike itself: previous incarnations of West Ham United would not have had a right-back winning the ball high upfield just minutes after conceding, while Mark Noble would, on other occasions, have looked to hold onto the ball and calm things down rather than slipping the ball through for Arnautovic.
Ultimately, it was the goal of a team who had their opponents right where they wanted them, almost mentally bullying them into submission after Arnautovic had spent close to 70 minutes doing the same physically to Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf.
Naturally, being a West Ham supporter, my reaction is a reversion to type.
This was clearly a one-off, and all future achievements will also be one-offs, even if and when they begin to provide a pattern.
I’ve looked at the three points as a means to lift the club clear of danger, and fully prepared myself for the impending losing run and club-wide panic.
With the score at 2-0, several fans took shots at United’s players and substitutes as if there was no such thing as tempting fate.
It could never be me.
By Tom Victor
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