"Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all led me straight back home to you"
- Gram Parsons, "Return of the Grevious Angel"
It's been a while.
Since we played. Since we played well. Since we won. Since it felt like it might be safe to look up. Since the most pertinent subject for one of these columns was the action on the pitch rather than off. And it's been nearly six years since we were able to cruise into the relative comfort of a three goal half time lead, having last done it against Fulham in 2012. But, you know, Fulham.
We are the Mark Hughes Appreciation Society
So what an afternoon this was. For all the gloom that hangs over this season like 1930's smog, it can't be denied that this was a beautiful blast of sunshine in the darkness. From the exhilarating start, through the gift of a two goal lead to that glorious third, this was an afternoon to savour. This was a day to make you remember why we do this. Why we throw down our money even when we expect nothing and of how sometimes football can take you and elevate your spirit.
It is worth remembering that this game was supposed to take place at St Mary's. Our August fixture was switched in order to accommodate the reinstallation of that state of the art scaffolding that now adorns our rented home, and we duly crashed 3-2 on the South Coast to a last minute penalty, because West Ham.
Who knows what might have happened had we been at home. Maybe we would have won and kickstarted our season and Slaven Bilic might still be here. Perhaps we'd still have been beaten and instead of having this fixture at home, been forced to go on the road in search of points. It matters not now, but to the extent that you think London Stadium fixtures are an advantage then it's worth noting that we are in that stage of the season where it's non negotiable that we start to get results. Losing here was unthinkable.
And for David Moyes, now was the time to show that all that early praise was warranted. After all, plucky defeats at Manchester City are only useful if you then build upon that foundation. Initially he seemed able to do that, before running into typically West Hamian obstacles such as players having sellotape for hamstrings and selling your top scorer in the transfer window and replacing him with someone called Jordan.
I didn't especially care that the players went to Miami for warm weather training or that they, gasp, went to the beach when they were there. In fact, I would much rather that the club did a few more things that fans didn't appreciate or understand so long as it was done in service of a wider, broader plan that was designed to take this club forward. Whether we are there yet or not, I don't know, but the opening seventeen minutes of this match were justification enough for the activities of the last fortnight.
"I'm aware you're tired and lost"
- The War on Drugs, "Pain"
If you are facing a life or death struggle, it is generally considered helpful to face a suicidal opponent. Never was this better exemplified than the opening quarter of this match, when Southampton appeared to be wandering around in a cyanide fever dream, desperately trying to find new and exciting ways to gift us goals.
L.O. Fucking. L
Saints began with all the urgency of a London Stadium ballboy, and never really improved from there. Mario Lemina started things off by getting dispossesed in our half and then chugging back as Cheikhou Kouyate stormed away down the unmanned right hand side. His cross picked out Joao Mario on the edge of the box, and the Portuguese made a difficult, thrilling finish look easy as he took two swift touches and rifled it past the flailing Alex McCarthy.
This was a David Sullivan wet dream, as any risk of riot or protest was swept away with that goal. One could almost feel the confidence coursing through the stadium as both the home fans and team began to cotton on to the fact that Southampton were absolutely there for the taking. Marko Arnautovic should have made it two nil when Mark Noble slipped him through with a lovely reverse pass, only for the Austrian to skew wide when it really did seem impossible not to score. It proved immaterial as Mario shortly picked him out again with a tremendous cross, and after McCarthy saved his initial header brilliantly, the rebound fell straight to him to tap home and double the lead. Marko then looked up and gave Mark Hughes the crossed Hammers, which I thoroughly approved of as Mark Hughes is such a dickhead you can imagine that he said his wedding vows passive aggressively.
Even with HammerKiller Charlie Austin up front, Southampton looked about as interested in attacking action as the referee in the Anthony Joshua fight, and with Declan Rice imperious, there seemed little serious threat of a comeback. That was all rendered moot with our third, right on the cusp of half time and a salutary lesson to all those who decided to risk trying to beat the fifteen minute half time toilet queues.
Arthur Masuaku was freed on the left after some nice interplay between Kouyate and Cresswell. He carried it forward, but rather than take on Soares instead chose to whip a sumptuous crossfield swerving cross in behind the retreating defence, where Arnautovic met it with a glorious cushioned side foot finish. Had it been scored on another day, in another stadium, for another team, we would be hearing about this goal endlessly. Unfurling like an A3 masterpiece rolled out along a workbench, it was the most beautiful "fuck you" that a man could ever give to his former boss. I really don't understand why a club as progressive as Southampton have hired a manager as regressive as Hughes, but for one afternoon only, it made for a lovely picture show.
I actually have quite a soft spot for Southampton in the post Nigel Adkins era, and have followed their progress closely after we were both promoted together in 2012. They appear well run, with savvy decision makers, a thriving academy and a clear plan for how to progress their club. In short, they are everything West Ham are not. But, for all that, they have declined as we have, and after this result must surely be fearful of the drop.
In many ways, their situation is the example that should be held up for UEFA and the Premier League as an example of the damage they are doing to the game. Saints have produced Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Callum Chambers, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse. They have also introduced Victor Wanyama, Dejan Lovren, Virgil Van Dijk, Sadio Mane and Mauricio Pochettino to the English game. They also fleeced our idiot chairman of eight million quid for Jose Fonte, but ending up on the right side of a transfer deal with West Ham isn't much of a badge of honour these days.
That they have been cherry picked and deprived of those players by bigger, richer, UEFA funded teams such as Spurs and Liverpool is a grave cause for concern. Quite what has happened to all that money is probably another question, but the broader point is that cash isn't an issue to Champions League clubs because they are given revenue streams that the rest of us cannot access.
But while all of that is reason to stand in sympathy with our South Coast brethren in the Brotherhood of Lower Half Teams Hoping to Make a Cup Final and Not Get Relegated, it didn't much matter here. Their team were awful.
"Baby baby, sweet baby
You left me hurting' in a real cold way"
- Aretha Franklin, "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)"
Something was different today. For the first time in two months we were able to call upon Arthur Masuaku on the left, and his ability to retain possession while drawing men to him, was vital. While West Ham were superior to Southampton all over the pitch, that ability to carry the ball from deep positions is something we have been sorely lacking in these recent shellackings and was a key difference here.
I'm not sure that the Caley Graphics xG map is all that useful today as it doesn't tell the tale that the visitors never actually had a shot in anger until after they went three down. In fact the second half of this game was really very Series Two of Heroes, whereby a very promising start just dissipated away completely. Of course, that matters rather less in Premier League matches than it does in network television shows, but I will say that watching Aaron Cresswell nearly volley home an outrageous Mario free kick was more entertaining than anything that Claire the cheerleader did second time around.
With the visitors forced to commit men to wide areas to stop Masuaku advancing, that ensured the central midfield was a less congested place than usual, and the prime beneficiary was Joao Mario, who flitted around purposefully and ensured that we didn't miss Manuel Lanzini as much as we might. It is true that in heavier duty encounters he might not be a luxury that we can afford but it can't be ignored that his two early contributions were the reason we were two nil up so quickly.
Just like West Ham, obviously
What was also noticeable in this game was that we looked rock solid defensively. Angelo Ogbonna is my Hammer of the Year so far, having been our best defender, scored a winner at Wembley against Spurs and never once elbowing anybody in the face and getting sent off in the first half of a game, and he was excellent here again. However, the key to our solidity was the teenager Rice, who came off two stellar performances for Ireland in midweek which, my cousins inform me, have already led to him being called Decenbauer in the Emerald Isle.
What is so impressive about the youngster is that he seems to have such an innate understanding of his own game. His reading of play is outstanding and every time Saints looked like they might be inching into dangerous areas, he appeared to snuff out the danger. We have been dreadful at identifying good young defenders in recent years - primarily because we've only been trying to buy old ones - but perhaps the academy has finally solved a problem for us. The idea of giving James Collins a new contract when you have a talent like this to replace him is crazy. The Welshman has been a faithful servant but it is time to drag our defence out of the dial up era and into the digital age. There is, after all, nothing intrinsically wrong with having mobile players in your team.
And perhaps the greatest reminder of that came when Edmilson Fernandes was introduced for the now seemingly permanently injured Michail Antonio after just nine minutes. Fernandes played in an old fashioned right half role and was, frankly, everywhere. I've never been completely on board with the idea that all of our problems would magically resolve themselves if everyone just ran about a bit more, but you couldn't deny the impact of a mobile pressing midfielder here. That ability to pressure Saints led to several turnovers, which led to all of our goals, and also led to Mark Hughes suddenly busying himself as Arnautovic was substituted. Schadenfreude really can be quite the laugh.
Michail and the Hamstring Theory
As for Antonio, he got injured kicking the ball so I don't really know what to make of him anymore. Some say he overtrains, others that he doesn't train enough, but either way hamstring issues for a player of his explosive physicality are very bad news. If they can get a decent amount for him in the summer I would be inclined to take it. Let someone else do the job of patching him up and trying to find a position where his defensive frailties won't matter. On a day of almost unrestrained joy, watching him limp off in tears was a salutary reminder that injuries remain one of our biggest problems. After all, it takes a remarkable turn of events to have a three week break and get to the end of it with fewer fit players than you started with.
"See if you can tick the man go downtown,
Where all you skins and mods you get together, make pretend it's 1969 forever"
- Babyshambles, "Delivery"
I'm not going to talk much about off field issues this time around.
Well maybe a little, but sometimes we all just need to take a break from such matters. Now and again it's alright to let one pass by outside the off stump without offering a shot. I could comment upon David Sullivan using the club to avoid tax, Karren Brady giving the most self immolating interview of her career, Sullivan sitting down with WHUISA and agreeing to consider a fan on the board or even the emergency SAB meeting which seemingly operated as a way for the Board to get Trevor Brooking to tell us all to stop whinging.
But sometimes that stuff has to take a backseat. Occasionally one has to focus on the task at hand, and here today that was picking up a win against a fellow struggler. After all, I have vehemently argued against the notion that going down would in any way be a good thing for the club. Too many innocent people lose their jobs, too much good work is undone and the clock is reset too far.
So I agree with those who say that the team must come first.
But it should be noted that there is a lot of momentum to the fan movement just now. In the last three weeks I have been asked to comment on stories for The Independent, Bloomberg and Spiegel, written a piece for The Guardian, declined interviews with Talksport and ITV News, and had my articles quoted without permission in Metro, the Irish Independent and by the Press Association. I say none of that to try and suggest that I am some sort of pre-eminent commentator on West Ham - quite the opposite in fact. Each post on The H List is read by around 2,000 people, of whom about half are outside of the UK, a quarter are related to me and the rest are in prison and have restricted internet access. There is a further readership at KUMB.com and that is it. I highly doubt if this column is anywhere near the top ten most visited fan sites for West Ham supporters.
But if a tiny blog like this can get some traction then this is a big story. We will probably never again have such a global platform upon which to float our views. There is little doubt that the protests at the Burnley game have stirred an interest far beyond the usual audience for such pieces, because there is a perfect confluence of public interest around the stadium, the highly visible public figures involved, a political slant, the inherent distrust that football fans have for football club owners and, of course, lots and lots of money.
And so, for those who take the let's-just-survive-now-and-sort-it-out-in-the-summer line, it has to be acknowledged that this is manna from heaven for Sullivan and Gold. They want nothing more than to push all this down the road, and promise to get it fixed in the next transfer window. At this point, after years of saying that exact thing, it is basically their mantra.
It puts us in an invidious position as fans. Protest and try to affect immediate and necessary change within our club, but with possible devastating side effects on the team. Somehow, there has even be a suggestion from Moyes that the Burnley protests would affect our ability to attract world class players in the summer, to which I say - well, what's been the excuse up until now then?
But let's forget that for now. Because on days like today one has to remember that we do support a football team, after all. I alternate taking my two oldest daughters to games, and for the eldest this was her first win at the London Stadium in two years of trying. And when Masuaku found Arnautovic floating on the back of an errant defender, and he cushioned home that magical third goal, it felt like the wait had been worth it. In that single moment, he demonstrated better than I ever could the glories that might lie ahead if she was just prepared to persevere through rain and riot and repeated heartbreak. And walking home, through streets that had previously only ever offered up sad, contemplative reflection we were at last able to talk excitedly of goals and victories. We have won eight league games this season, and just six at home. Let's savour this one.