Michail Antonio & a record-equalling goal that was ‘not bad for a right-back’
For all of last season’s success, fans of West Ham United were never more at peace with themselves than after five minutes of the season opener at Newcastle.
Callum Wilson, who has scored 16.7% of his 54 Premier League goals against the Hammers, had opened the scoring with a close-range header and a summer of underinvestment looked set to bite West Ham on the arse. And not for the first time.
West Ham have a tendency to follow one excellent campaign with a year of nonsense. Think back to relegation in 2002-03 after finishing seventh the year before. Think back to Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and the clusterfuck of a season following their 2006 FA Cup final appearance. Think Simone Zaza.
So, when Newcastle took the lead on a wet Sunday afternoon in the North East, most West Ham fans would have rolled their eyes and braced themselves for another season of turmoil.
Yet Michail Antonio was having none of it.
Antonio had been employed as a right-back by Slaven Bilic – who was presumably indulging in some strong psychedelics at the time – the last time West Ham started the new season in Europe.
Antonio was a liability in defence, conceding a penalty during a defeat at Chelsea in August 2016 and generally inspiring supporters to give birth to puppies, kittens and foals with anxiety.
But David Moyes has transformed the 30-year-old into one of the Premier League’s most unique forward threats and Antonio was at the forefront of the Hammers’ comeback triumph.
It was his accurate centre that Said Benrahma converted for West Ham’s second equaliser in a moment that fundamentally changed the course of the match.
And, with Newcastle stretched further than a student’s finances, Antonio sealed West Ham’s 4-2 win with a thumping finish to a swift counter-attacking move.
Freddie Woodman make a token dive in the direction of Antonio’s shot, but was well-advised to stay out of its way for his own personal safety.
— Goal (@goal) August 16, 2021
The West Ham striker isn’t perfect – his earlier weak penalty was saved by Woodman and Antonio contrived to hit the post with a header from point-blank range just minutes before.
But his effort at St James’ Park meant Antonio became West Ham’s joint-leading goalscorer in Premier League history, drawing level with club legend Paolo Di Canio.
Which, as he archly observed in his post-match interview, is “not bad for a right-back.”
Antonio is crucial in this impressive West Ham side and not only because he’s currently the only conventional striker on the club’s books.
His energy, willingness to dribble at opponents and essential unpredictability make him a nightmare for defenders to play against.
Alongside this, his physicality allows the band of underrated playmakers behind him – Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals and Benrahma – the room and freedom to express themselves.
With West Ham aiming to have two consecutive good seasons for the first time since UK Garage dominated the charts, the record-equalling Antonio will be integral to their hopes over the coming campaign.
By Michael Lee