Tuesday, March 17

Drawing drawing West Ham

West Ham 0 West Bromwich Albion 0

Somehow you know we’ll struggle to beat the bottom of the table Albion, even if Adrian Chiles doesn’t know what he’s doing. Collins, Collison and Behrami are out and Cole is suspended, meaning we’re down to seven-year-old Freddie Sears up front and Kovac and Savio in midfield.

Still, in Ken’s Café Matt has his medals on the table. He just happens to be carrying the medal he won for an NUJ side that thrashed the Morning Star (a whole side of left wingers) in a penalty shoot-out by a nuclear power station. Matt scored the first penalty in the shoot-out and attributes his mental toughness to years of watching Tomas Repka.

Mind you, Nigel has edged ahead in the work trivia quiz, identifying the side with five former England captains (Southampton in 1982). On our way into the East Stand Matt is trying to name all the players who have returned to West Ham, and we come up with Cottee, Dicks, and, erm, that’s about it, not that we’re sad Statto bastards

As we enter the ground Matt makes a dash for the recycling bins behind the East Stand, proving that football fans are now irredeemably middle class. Maybe that's why the ICF hate Millwall so much, they failed to separate their paper and bottles.

“There aren’t many household names,” says Matt, scanning the WBA squad in the programme.

“And that Fortune’s always hiding,” I quip, spotting that Marc-Antoine Fortune is up front for the Baggies.

WBA are the livelier side from the off, and you can see how thin our squad is since the transfer window. If only we had Ashton, Gabbidon and Dyer, but with their injury records you doubt if any of them will play again with any regularity.

Fortune slices into the side-netting. Lucas Neill escapes punishment for a crafty shove in the penalty area. Morrison waltzes past Tomkins and co and looks certain to score before Green pulls off a fine stop with his legs.

After 29 minutes Upson goes down with a calf problem and is stretchered off, to be replaced by Spector with Neill moving to centre back. Five first-teamers out now.

We produce little. Kovac doesn’t look up to it and plays too close to Parker and Noble. Savio provides a brief spark, Noble almost beats Carson and Sears has a couple of efforts blocked, but without Cole we lack all focus up front and Di Michele is having a mare, playing far too deep, then dribbling into trouble and losing possession.

At half-time Fraser note that Zola has said he’s targeting ninth spot as we finished tenth last season. Even though we’re seventh.

“So in ten years we’ll be Champions,” suggests Nigel.

The second half sees us holding on. In fact, considering the injuries, we’ll be pleased with a point.

Martis hits our bar with a header after Robert Green is felled by Jonas Olsson’s elbow. The ref misses the incident, but thankfully Green, a man who knows about the warrior spirit from reading Homer, rises Odysseus-like from the assault by the Cyclops to manfully steer us towards Ithaca, or at least survival.

Stanislas replaces Savio and has a promising debut, putting in several good crosses, the best of which is headed wide by Di Michele. At least Freddie Sears puts in unrelenting effort on his lone role up front.

“What the f**k was that?” hollers the vicar’s son next to me as Di Michele hopelessly slices a volley that goes out for a throw-in. “Take him off! What is Di Michele for?”

Late on Greening is through but chips over both Green and the bar. We’re lucky they’re so rubbish. Mercifully the three minutes of stoppage time ends.

“The unbeaten run continues,” beams Fraser. “Three clean sheets in a row!”

We head to the Central where Nigel’s mate Mesh is waiting and we’re eventually joined by Matt’s mate Peggsy, a rigger from Setanta. This man can tell us about Northwich Victoria and the gantry at Grays FC, earning instant respect from our firm.

Still, we’re on 40 points and virtually certain to stay up even if we lose our final nine games. We’d have taken that after the Everton defeat. Seven points from the last three matches. The game’s been strangely satisfying in a masochistic kind of way. We haven’t played well but in an injury-ravaged side the likes of Tomkins, Spector, Parker and Green have shown huge character to scrap for a point. Even Boa got cheered when he came on and helped us dig in.

Meanwhile there’s a bizarre new boxing machine in the corner of the Central. You pay your cash and belt a punchbag to measure the speed of your punch. A couple of West Ham fans belt it between pints of Stella. Who needs the ICF? You wonder if Tony Mowbray might be tempted to come in and use it. If ever there was a chance for Albion to get three points it was tonight.

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