Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC
FA Cup Fifth Round
Sunday 21st February 2016
Ewood Park, Blackburn, Lancashire
“Where are you going?” my wife asks sleepily.
“Just popping downstairs to chat to a bloke in Texas I tweeted earlier,” I reply. It’s just past midnight on Saturday night.
The man in question is Chase Hoffman, a 36-year-old American and Blackburn fan based in Austin. Having discovered on Friday evening that I’d been generously granted a media pass by Rovers for Sunday’s match, I’ve been on the lookout for a supporter to talk to and his sounds like a particularly interesting story.
As we reach the last-16, Underdog potential begins to wane. A few all-Premier League ties, a third consecutive meeting between Hull and Arsenal and, of course, Shrewsbury Town, the lowest ranked club remaining, facing a Louis van Gaal side that are beginning to make David Moyes look like Matt Busby. That, as well as West Ham at Ewood Park.
As fate would have it, I missed Blackburn’s 4-1 win over Stoke last season as I couldn’t get a ticket. By virtue of not being on the Rovers database, I instead ended up at The Hawthorns where the final nails were hammered into Sam Allardyce’s Hammer-shaped coffin. What a difference twelve months makes.
For Rovers, a fairly miserable season hit a rare bright spot as their convincing 3-0 victory at Oxford in the last round gave hope of another run towards the last eight of the FA Cup. For West Ham, a side transformed under cult hero Slaven Bilic, a promising cup run is adjacent to their excellent league form that’s left them handily placed in seventh going into the final third of the season.
As the dog follows me to my desk, equally confused as to why I’m back up so soon, I scribble a few notes down to ask Chase. First up: with an array of Premier League sides aggressively marketing themselves to the growing U.S market, how does a Texan end up supporting Blackburn Rovers?
He says: “In 1999, I was at the University of Texas in Austin and had the internet for the first time. I made friends with a guy called Neil and he would not shut up about Manchester United. Just to needle him, I looked at the standings and picked the second worst team in the Premier League – I figured the worst team would be cliché – and so I started reading up about the Club to be able to talk about it intelligently.
“I learned about Uncle Jack, how’d he’d won the Premier League and that he was a local boy done good as well as the 1800’s with the three-in-a-row FA Cup wins. I just fell in love with the team.”
By my reckoning, Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic might have also been vying for Chase’s attention as Blackburn dropped out of the top flight just five years after lifting the Premiership trophy.
He goes on: “That was 17 years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. One of my kids is named after Brad Friedel – his name is actually Bradley Walker Hoffman. Not sure how I got that past my wife but it happened!” he laughs. It was that or ‘Tugay’, I suppose.
“In 2008 I was lucky enough to win an auction to hit a guy in the head with a fish in Trafalgar Square,” he tells me, flippantly, as I try to work out if he’s kidding and some of the humour has been lost in translation. “It came with free airfare to the UK. I’ll send you the Youtube link,” he continues (which he did, and it does need to be seen to be believed)
A trip to London is one thing – but did Chase take advantage of his UK visit to make the long trip north?
He says: “I went up to my first, and to date only, match which was also Allardyce’s first game in charge after the disastrous Paul Ince era. We won 3-0, Benny McCarthy scored two. I got to go down on the pitch and meet Pedersen and Danny Simpson and have my photo taken. We even did some charity work for the Club for a few years while I was still single and before I had a house payment!” he laughs.
“There was a big debate on the forum about those who couldn’t go to games every week being criticised as ‘plastic fans’. We pooled our money together, bought a number of season tickets and got Rovers to convert them into match days. We then gave them out to charities around the Blackburn area; mostly to kids to help build our fanbase.”
It sounds like a nice way to stay connected to his side. And, this weekend, with the FA Cup warranting international coverage, it’ll be a rare opportunity to see them play.
He says: “There’s one bar in town showing it so I’m going to go and sit with the twelve West Ham fans in there and try not to kill each other! BEin Sports broadcast one Championship game a week and it’s almost never Rovers. There’s a nice soccer culture here despite not having much of a team. The Arsenal and Chelsea fans have a bar in town which they congregate in. The Manchester United and Liverpool fans another. I, as a Rovers fan, am looked down upon with great laughter,” he jokes.
Before we wrap up our chat (despite my two-hour journey in the morning, it doesn’t seem much given Chase’s ‘local’ side FC Dallas are based 200-miles away), I ask him what the FA Cup means to him.
He says: “To me, it’s the greatest club competition in the world. It’s a source of wonder. My favourite memory was Benny McCarthy’s 95th minute winner against Arsenal to reach the quarter finals. I was at a conference in Georgia refreshing my screen in a hotel room and going completely crazy. The hotel called to see if I was ok! I just hope that we don’t look like idiots on national television. A nice 1-1 draw and a replay at West Ham to bring some money in would be good.”
As I leave Derbyshire on Sunday, I tune into Radio 5 Live. Mark Lawrenson discusses Man City’s supposed injury crisis, while the subjects of Chris Brunt’s coin to the face and whether FA Cup replays should be scrapped are also covered. It’s an engaging discussion that includes Lawro using the words ‘cojones’ and ‘midgets’ in separate segments.
I head up to the media box and find my seat. I’ve been to Ewood several times as a visiting fan, and have actually sat in this general area of the ground before too. Once, as a guest of former sponsors Crown Paints, I had the pleasure of sitting in the Ronnie Clayton lounge and meeting him in person. A Blackburn legend with 581 league appearances and 35 England caps, the great man passed away in 2010 and now has a stand named after him.
I feel a tad out of place, in truth. I’ve been in media boxes before, although only in a radio reporting capacity. With just a laptop and an opening paragraph about talking to Texan man I met on Twitter, I’m feeling self-conscious. Surrounding me are an array of journalists with laptops, notepads and one man with a basic-looking touchscreen smartphone with a retro-looking Tetris-style app that’s probably compiling stats.
The pre-match video shows a highlights reel that focuses predominantly on the Premier League winning side of 1995. There’s a real feeling of those former glories as you enter the ground too. Images of Shearer, Dalglish and Walker haunt the entrance to Ewood Park, and more recent glory too, like the Worthington Cup Final in 2002. It was a match I went to, and I wince as Andy Cole’s goal creeps in at the Millenium Stadium.
The game gets underway with a strong start from West Ham as a nervous clearance from Elliott Ward leads to the first telling attack of the game. A resulting free-kick from the pressure that follows is dealt with.
Ben Marshall opens the scoring on 20mins. As the ball reaches him from a West Ham clearance from a corner, he feints to shoot on his right before cutting inside the attempted block of Payet to find the back of the net on his left foot. There’s a massive reaction around us and I momentarily almost join in, forgetting I’m in the ‘professional’ area despite there being fans just a couple of seats to my left.
The lead doesn’t last long. On 26mins, Victor Moses picks the ball up on the edge of the centre circle and turns towards the Blackburn goal with pace. As the home side fail to close down the Nigerian international, he takes just seven touches to reach the edge of the opposition box and fire a powerful shot beyond Jason Steele. It’s poor defending, in truth.
West Ham begin to dictate play with their rediscovered brand of expansive and attractive football as more than 7,000 visiting fans hit full voice with the reverb of an East London Male Voice Choir.
“COME ON TAYLOR! It’s not bed time!” screams one fan as the midfielder is dispossessed. His attempts to make amends lead to a free-kick in a dangerous area and a booking. Payet steps back and places it over the wall and into the far corner with stunning accuracy. It’s the kind of goal that probably does have a market value of £125k a week these days if the rumours of his new contract are true. You get the feeling the travelling support would happily chuck a tenner in each as they celebrate their hero’s majestic right foot.
Payet appears to be the topic of conversation with a few in an otherwise quiet media room at half-time. I grab a portion of fantastic pie and veg and notice Times journalist Henry Winter across the room. I wonder if he talks to men he met on the internet in preparation for games too.
It’s a good start to the second half as Elliott Ward comes close to levelling things. Soon after, though, Taylor is involved again as he fells the advancing Moses and gets a second yellow. He looks distraught as he leaves the field to a mixed reaction from the fans around us. As he covers his head with his shirt, the Hammers fans sing ‘He’s gonna cry in a minute!’ somewhat uncharitably.
From this point it looks like West Ham could run riot. Antonio comes close and Emenike has a goal ruled offside that looked tight. Emenike does get on the scoresheet soon after, though, as West Ham lay siege to the Blackburn goal and he slots in at the far post.
I think of Chase surrounded by Hammers in a bar in Texas. You wait all this time for a live game and then this happens.
The noise from the West Ham end is impressive – they remained vocal while getting battered at West Brom last season when the outlook was much gloomier. Now, as Bilic hugs every substituted man as he leaves the field, you can feel the spirit he’s created within this West Ham side and the fans have every reason to sing his name.
The game threatens to swing back the other way in the 74th minute as Kouyate gets a straight red for bringing down Adam Henley on the edge of the box. The decision that he was the last man is correct, although Henley might have needed to be Usain Bolt to have caught it. The free-kick comes to nothing.
There’s no resting on their laurels from the visitors. A procession of chances with both sides down to 10 men are thwarted but it’s largely a succession of last ditch challenges, saves and luck keeping Rovers two adrift and in with a chance. West Ham are clearly looking for the fourth rather than holding onto what they have.
Emenike, clear on goal after another masterful ball from Payet, puts the game out of sight on 84 minutes as the home fans begin to stream out. He hits post in the 86th for a hat-trick he might have already had after Payet once again plays him in, and then puts the ball in the back of the net again. The goal is disallowed for a much clearer offside this time.
Despite the competitive first half, by the final minutes, it’s like watching a weary heavyweight taking too many punches. On this showing, the eventual fate of Rovers had it remained 11 v 10 is worrying. The visitors sing loudly of Wembley.
The PA announces that Peter Jackson’s Man of the Match is Ben Marshall, as the former Huddersfield manager and director of Lord of the Rings has his say. Meanwhile, Payet responds to fans singing his name with a mazy run from his own half that leads to West Ham’s fifth. It’s a piece of individual brilliance even the fans to my left applaud.
“Embarrassing!” screams one man in the media box’s direction as he attempts to get others to boo with him. The reaction is fairly angry, if partly resigned. Where to draw the line between Blackburn’s efforts and West Ham’s brilliance – particularly Payet’s – is hard to judge, although the final minutes were a mauling. Payet, and later David Gold, both make their way to celebrate with the away fans.
As I head down into the media room for a cup of tea, a familiar face stands beside me to watch the early stages of what would turn out to be a drubbing for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.
“You wouldn’t want to commentate on this,” he says, gesturing towards City’s line-up of youngsters. It’s Mark Lawrenson. We repeat a conversation quite similar to the one I’d listened to a few hours ago, before he turns to chat to a newcomer to the media room. While it takes me a second to recognise his face, the unmistakeable accent gives it away. I leave discreetly as Lawro takes up conversation with ’95 Premier League winner Kevin Gallacher. It’s a surreal end to quite a surreal weekend.
“A bird shat on my 94/95 kit while I watched under a covered patio,” is Chase’s summary as I pass the banner showing Ewood’s former glories. As Rovers go back to their bid to survive in the second tier, it feels like those halcyon days of Gallacher and co. are even further away than Austin, Texas.
The Underdog Blog record 2015/16:
P 10 W 2 D 3 L 5 F 6 A 16 GD -10
Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC
FA Cup Fifth Round
Sunday 21st February 2016
Ewood Park, Blackburn, Lancashire
Blackburn Rovers FC 1 – 5 West Ham United FC
Marshall (20’) Moses (26’)
Payet (36’, 90+1’)
Emenike (64’, 85’)
Blackburn Rovers: Steele, Marshall, Duffy, Ward, Henley, Akpan, Lenihan, Taylor, Bennett, Conway (Jackson 59), Brown (Watt 78)
Subs not used: Kilgallon, Hanley, Gomez, Evans, Raya
West Ham United: Randolph, Antonio, Collins, Ogbonna (Oxford 78), Cresswell, Noble (Song 73), Kouyate, Obiang (Lanzini 67), Moses, Emenike, Payet
Subs not used: Adrian, Henry, Parfitt-Williams, Browne
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Attendance: 18,793 (7,185 away)