WEST HAM UNITED’S visit to Tyneside this season was always going to focus on Andy Carroll in the build up and that proved the perfect distraction for another member of the Newcastle United old guard to turn matchwinner.
During Kevin Nolan’s twoand- a-half years on Tyneside he scored 30 goals. On his return yesterday he turned in the decisive first half goal which left Newcastle with just one win from their last six Premier League matches.
While the Hammers’ former Newcastle boss Sam Allardyce savoured the three points which lifted his team up to sixth, his opposite number and former Upton Park chief Alan Pardew was left wondering when the Magpies will find top gear domestically.
And there was more than a hint of irony surrounding the winning goal, with Nolan on hand to flick the wayward shot from Joey O’Brien beyond goalkeeper Tim Krul seven minutes before halftime.
After the experienced attacking midfielder grabbed his fifth goal of the season he simply stood and waited to be mobbed by those in West Ham shirts rather than celebrate in front of the Gallowgate.
When he was walking off the pitch Nolan merely pointed in the direction of the directors’ box. In truth it was probably to his friends and family sat in the stands, but given the manner of his departure it could just as easily have been aimed at the Newcastle boardroom.
Newcastle – who refused to give Nolan the four-year deal he wanted – have gone from strength to strength since his exit in the summer of last year.
But yesterday, when Pardew was short of options in defensive midfield, Newcastle could have done with Nolan’s presence.
And in the claret and blue of West Ham, the 30-year-old emerged match-winner to frustrate Pardew and all of the Newcastle fans that applauded his return before the first whistle.
Nolan said: “It was a perfect scenario for me to score the winner. It was quite emotional when I did score the goal. I did say I was never going to celebrate scoring against Newcastle and I never will. If I move on from West Ham I would never do it against them either.
“I can’t thank the fans enough for the reception I got.
It was absolutely unbelievable.
I love Newcastle and love everything about it – I made so many friends here along with my family. My boy is a Geordie, he was born here.
“It was a fantastic performance by us and I was delighted with the goal. I would just like to thank the supporters for everything, but especially the reception I got.”
It was not until Nolan’s goal that Newcastle started to find some fluency going forward.
Having failed to test Jussi Jaaskelainen before that, the former Bolton goalkeeper suddenly had to be alert.
But few could argue with the fact West Ham deserved to go ahead. In the absence of Cheik Tiote, it was another African dominating the centre of the pitch.
Senegal’s Mohamed Diame, courted by Sunderland during the summer after leaving Wigan as a free agent, constantly looked to break up play, find space and get West Ham moving forward.
While Nolan and Carroll obviously got all the attention, that allowed Diame to emerge as the stand-out player in the first half and it was him that laid the foundations and set the tone for the visitors.
West Ham, for whom Carroll was well looked after by Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson, might have been unable to seriously threaten, but they still looked the more dangerous and it was no surprise when they edged in front.
George McCartney’s cross to the back post was only half cleared to the edge of the area by Davide Santon to where O’Brien was lurking. O’Brien drove a shot back in to the box and Nolan was on hand to turn instinctively over the line.
There were calls for offside, but Benayoun was not even blocking a view as he waited near to the goalpost when O’Brien’s effort worked its way to Nolan.
It might not have been the breakthrough Newcastle fans wanted but it was what the game needed and from that point on it became more entertaining.
Seconds later Nolan took a touch from Diame’s pass and came within a yard of a quickfire second when his dipping strike flew wide of the upright.
In the remaining minutes of the first half Newcastle were unlucky not to level, raising question marks over why and how it took them so long to get going just days after the 2-2 Europa League draw with Club Brugge, in Belgium.
Yet despite heavy pressure on the West Ham goal, similar to much of the second half, the equaliser failed to materialise despite some routine saves from Jaaskelainen to deny Williamson and the outof- sorts Papiss Cisse.
There was also a decent penalty shout waved away when an aerial Taylor appeared to be shoved to the floor by Nolan as he watched Cabaye’s corner float his way.
The second half went the same way as the latter stages of the first. West Ham counter-attacked occasionally as Newcastle pursued the elusive leveller.
But if it was not Carroll, Reid or James Tomkins heading clear, Jaaskelainen was on hand to make a more than capable backline.
And West Ham – who finished with Carroll as a defender – could actually have made the game even safer.
The Geordie-born striker it was who almost did just that only to be denied by the quick thinking of Tim Krul.
Not that it mattered, Nolan had already done the job.