Forget Manchester United, it’s time to talk about another Great British footballing institution
You’d forgive Mark Noble for looking a bit leggy these days. After all, he is 32 years of age now and rapidly closing in on 500 career appearances. Well, maybe not rapidly, but at that single speed that Mark Noble seems to shift at, a kind of strained, three-quarter intensity head-down rumble, the way you’d imagine Kylian Mbappe trying to sprint in some ski boots.
The thing is, though, Noble doesn’t stop. Or hasn’t stopped. Nor does he seem particularly leggy, in sharp contrast to the ten Manchester United outfield players who all appeared to have been struck down by a severe case of Nemanja Matic-itis, a sudden inability to go anywhere no matter how often or how quickly they moved their legs.
The worst victim of the disease? Nemanja Matic, who is now more of an expensive art installation, a man drowning in custard as a high metaphor for consumer capitalism rather than an actual footballer.Mark Noble almost certainly doesn’t know what this piece does. But that’s why we love him
Mark Noble, in contrast, looked positively sprightly, frequently popping up in all four corners of the London Stadium to press, shield, bob and weave like an old-school East End boxer. This is his greatest virtue, the steady perpetual motion he brings to West Ham. He’ll play around 35 games a season (all competitions), score around five goals (all penalties) and earn himself around seven bookings (all really cynically effective tactical fouls just beyond the centre circle after a quicker player manages to turn him). Consistency has a poster of Mark Noble up in its bedroom.
Of the 35,000 minutes Mark Noble has played as a professional footballer, how many times has he honestly surprised us? He’s probably only changed his haircut like, I don’t know, twice. Three times at most. Remember when Mark Noble picked up and then threw the pitch invader like he was a baggage handler at Gatwick loading a Boeing 737? Was that not the most brilliantly Mark Noble thing to ever happen?
He is what he is and he is. always. there. to. protect. us.
At half-time of West Ham’s 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday, the pundits (and whatever Graeme Souness is – a man who says things) were quick to highlight Andriy Yarmolenko’s movement in the build-up to West Ham’s opening goal.
Instead, there should have been some acknowledgement at just how wonderfully Mark Noble Mark Noble is in the passage of play. First of all, he leaves marker, Matic, for dead with a world-class bit of ‘just running into space’. Completely unplayable to be fair to the big Serb. Then, upon receiving the ball he does what he always does: he looks for a simple pass.
He couldn’t see one, or alternatively he did see one but didn’t think it was on (it was), so he dummied. And then he did it again. Getting that proud, Cockney head up to survey the scene like he’s strolling down Forest Gate high street and isn’t happy with the ever-increasing number of fried chicken establishments he sees.
There is probably another couple of semi-open passes on but Mark Noble is a player that deals exclusively in granite, no-deal Brexit absolutes. So he doesn’t play them. He shimmies, dummies, looks again and still sees nothing. He does it once more before cutting back in on himself and – FINALLY – there it is, glowing like a light at the end of the tunnel, Felipe Anderson popping out of the box to show Noble feet.
amazing movement for yarmolenko on his goal. he just snaked around ashley young after passing it up and popped up in space. pic.twitter.com/RwrCRACLt7
— justin 6lock (@JBlock49) September 22, 2019
This, now this, is all Mark Noble wanted. All he needed. A player coming short, showing feet, presenting the clearest and most obvious pathway to Mark Noble’s hardwired brain. He is, after all, a bit of a laboratory mouse. Intelligent and nuanced in his own way, sure, but also influenced by outside stimuli, set and patterned into repetitive behaviour. Collect the ball from the centre backs, half-turn, play out wide. Press, win the ball, recycle. Rinse and repeat and repeat again.
But even if Noble is scurrying through the same nooks and crannies in pursuit of the cheese, he does tend to find it. After the above passage of play, in which he delays, and delays, and delays, and ignores and ignores and ignores, his almost robotic need for a high probability pass leads to West Ham’s goal three touches later.
Before the opener, Noble had arguably struck West Ham’s best effort at goal too. It was a semi-scuffed volley he didn’t quite get hold of, the result of a smart training ground set-piece move on a deep attacking free-kick. On commentary, Gary Neville chuckled: “I saw Cresswell run into the box and thought ‘What are they doing? Is Mark Noble the right man to benefit from this?'”
No Gary. You’ve got it the wrong way round. Was this the right move to benefit from Mark Noble?
But ‘Nobes’ made the goal to seal it, too. I mean, Aaron Cresswell did the actual hard part, curling in a sumptuous free-kick from all of 30 yards into the top corner. But, let’s be honest, this was all Mark Noble. It’s his bubble and we’re all just living in it.
He collected a square pass in Manchester United’s half and with nothing else on (there were at least a couple of things on but alas, he had his nose down and was firmly in ‘Mark Noble mode’) he decided to drive forward in second, maybe third gear like a rogue Citreon Saxo chuntering up a hill.
As the entire ground urged him to shoot, including the opposition supporters, Mark Noble kept his head, smelled the pungent cheddar hidden away at the back of the maze and wisely chose to lay off his overlapping full-back.
There was, of course, no full-back on the overlap but by then the damage was done. Ashley Young, who since his move to the position has possessed all the natural defensive instincts of Marcos Rojo – which is to say none at all, no defensive instincts whatsoever – had clattered into the West Ham skipper as though it was Lionel Messi tearing towards his box. Cresswell did the rest.
So what is there to say about Mark Noble? He is what he is and he is always there. And probably will always be there, doing the nitty-gritty things to ensure West Ham are always West Ham: a decent, sometimes good, sometimes woeful Premier League side always with the capacity to surprise you.
Which is just about the polar opposite of Mark Noble himself. How funny it is that the club he is so synonymous with lies at the other end of the personality spectrum. He’s like the straight-edged priest to West Ham’s deliriously, chaotically horny Fleabag; the Superintendent Chalmers to its ham-steaming Principal Skinner.
And yet he thrives, irreplaceable in the heart of their midfield through the Mullins years, the Mascherano season, Bowyer and Dyer and Parker and Behrami. That was over a decade ago and he’s still plugging away. Not the turbine or the generator but the liquid flow through it all, Mark Noble on the half-turn stitching everything together. Mark Noble burrowing through the maze, making the simple seem complicated, the complicated simple, an above-average man made exceptional because he doesn’t give up and he just won’t go away.
If there’s a hill to die on, I think it’s this: Mark Noble should have at least one England cap. In truth, he should probably have a fair few. Then again, he does still have a good few seasons left in those sinewy pistons he calls legs yet.
In another life he would have been a Green Beret, a shouty butcher at the market stall, an open-shirted, door-to-door conservatory salesman. Instead, he decided to be a good-to-great Premier League central midfielder for West Ham United. Instead, he decided he would never stop, and simply never die.