A more cynical observer of the current league standings might well scoff, review West Ham’s last two matches, matches they won, and smugly utter some dripping, tepid arrangement of syllables the gist of which indicates that Sam Allardyce’s team are “lucky” to be holding such a lofty position on the table. They would scour the internet for the appropriate snippets that show Burnley striking the crossbar twice during their 3-1 loss to the Hammers last week, and back it up with GIFS of Manchester City doing the same this week. Hands lazily melted over cocked hips, bottom lip protruding greasily, “case closed” the observer might say. But cynicism, hand-in-hand with refined internet research skills, does not a case make, and, try as they might, the cynic would fail to successfully strip West Ham, and Sam Allardyce, of credit they fully deserve.
It can’t have been easy for Allardyce last season, a season that saw him scrape away from relegation, that saw his tenure protested venomously by the West Ham fans, and one that ended with him facing a grave ultimatum from the club owners; play more stylish football, or don’t come in on Monday. Assimilating a raft of new faces into the starting line up and concocting a new, expansive style can’t have been a cakewalk either. With his job hanging by a thread, or, considering how the owners made their money, a string of lubricated anal beads, results had to be good and immediately forthcoming. Andy Carroll was injured again, and Kevin Nolan, Allardyce old boy and club captain, was in danger of losing his place. The ingredients for disastrous implosion were there and all Big Sam needed to do was follow the recipe. But he didn’t and neither did his team. Flourishing under this new style, they refused to stumble under the pressure, in fact the fresh, attacking approach and the injection of talent seemed to unshackle his team, particularly Stewart Downing.
You make your own luck in sport, apparently, and to be sure it seems that the teams that tend to win a lot, also seem to get lucky a lot. Manchester United’s reputation for added-time goal-getting is one wholly earned over the years. Chelsea’s remarkable, manager-less run to the Champions League title was a journey garnished with good fortune. But who could seriously argue that their Hollywood tale of unlikely prosperity was complete fluke, was utterly thanks to blind cosmic benevolence and nothing more, as if Chelsea were a band of impossibly blessed patsies just being swept along. No, they were lucky in part, sure, but they did everything they could so that, in those teetering moments when the Universe extends a sympathetic hand, they’d be the team quickest to land a glorious high-five in stunning Technicolour, to the sound of celestial trumpets, and the sight of John Terry kitting up for the trophy presentation.
The fact that West Ham sit in fourth position, one point behind Manchester City, and two ahead of Arsenal, is no different. Of course, if offered the chance to repeat the moment in endless, Groundhog day style, Sergio Aguero would score the chance he wasted nearly every time. He’d find it hard to hit the bar again like he did on Saturday even if he was trying to. But to boil down the blissful nosebleeds that the Hammers fans are currently rejoicing in entirely to that fortunate moment, or ones like it, is to wilfully ignore the expert passage (forged by three new signings, Song, Valencia and Amalfitano) that led to West Ham’s opener, or the 15 minutes of ass-clenching West Ham defending that followed David Silva’s lovely goal. Because of their heroics in the final stages against City, James Collins and Adrian will never have to pay for a drink in East London again. Collins was desperate warrior, blasting away clearances and timing tackles to perfection; he’s as valuable a man to have when protecting a lead as any defender in the league. Adrian seems to relish navigating the split-second moments after a shot has been walloped at his goal. His save from the Yaya Toure shot that followed Aguero’s bar-rattler was gob-smacking. Furthermore, luck alone can’t explain the fact that Diafra Sakho, a man who was playing second tier football in France last season, has now become the first player to register a goal in every one of his first 6 league games.
We must also designate a moment to appreciate the performance of Alex Song, on loan from Barcelona, who superbly controlled the midfield against City with poise and power. His measured protection of the defence, combined with his impeccably timed forays forward made him the outstanding player on the pitch. Though Mark Noble is often touted as being very secure in possession, he does have a tendency to give away the ball in particularly bad moments, so the security and calmness that Song provides alongside Noble has quickly become essential. The sightof Song sublimely rabona’ing (Raboning? Rabonering?) a cross that fell to Downing, who flashed his shot wide, was a transcendent instance of quality.
West Ham fans aren’t a bunch to count their chickens. The chequered history of the club forces those in claret and blue to actively seek out the potential for soul-destroying disappointment, and then when it’s found, to expect it with a sort of gloomy confidence. Everyone is waiting for the dream run to end, and it would take a genuine miracle for West Ham to remain in the Champions League places for much longer. Still, they say it’s better to be lucky than good, but this season West Ham are showing just how good they are. And the way that they’re playing (and who they’re beating), perhaps even more than their astonishing league position, proves that luck is only partly to thank.