LONDON — With an exceptional solo goal, Dimitri Payet briefly put the smiles back on West Ham fans’ faces. But only briefly.
The nutmegs and stepovers that bamboozled Middlesbrough’s defense before Payet clinched the 1-1 draw were as good as it got for the Hammers on Saturday. Their worst ever start to a top-flight campaign has coincided with a fraught move to a new home, and the latest fan unrest produced yet more arrests.
Outside the Olympic Stadium, two men were arrested on suspicion of affray, and a third was held on suspicion of assaulting an officer, London police said in a statement following tense post-match scenes. Despite policing inside the 60,000-seat venue being enhanced in response to ugly clashes in the opening weeks of the season, police reported further disturbances in the stands against Middlesbrough.
“Only a small minority (was) intent on causing disruption,” the Metropolitan Police said.
There wasn’t just unrest but restlessness among the home crowd as their team remained winless since the opening day of the English Premier League in August.
Avoiding a fifth successive loss, though, will take some of the heat off manager Slaven Bilic. So too will the focus on Payet’s goal.
The France international dropped a shoulder to turn past Antonio Barragan on the left touchline, jinked around Marten de Roon and then skipped past Calum Chambers and Ben Gibson as George Friend collapsed on his bottom. All that was left to do was put the ball in the net and Payet struck a low shot beyond Victor Valdes.
As a former Barcelona goalkeeper, Valdes was accustomed to seeing Lionel Messi scoring similar wonder goals. And Bilic likened Payet to the Argentina and Barcelona forward.
“I don’t see many players scoring these types of goals,” Bilic said. “You see free kicks, you see volleys, scissor kicks, all different types of goals, but this was like Messi’s goals.
“It was a brilliant, brilliant moment of magic. But we can’t rely on him doing that every week.”
Especially not if Bilic wants to keep his team in the Premier League rather than enduring another relocation — to the second-tier Championship.
This isn’t the bright new era Bilic’s club envisaged following last season’s seventh-place finish when it swapped its crumbling home of more than a century in the summer for the new gleaming stadium further east.
Whereas Upton Park provided a formidable atmosphere, fans are separated from the pitch by the running track in their expansive, largely taxpayer-funded new home. It is only being rented from the company in charge of securing the legacy of venues from the 2012 Olympics and some fans wish they could leave already.
“We should have stayed at the Boleyn,” they chanted during the first half, using an alternative name for Upton Park, which is going to be demolished.
Another pocket of supporters chimed up with “Stratford’s a (expletive), I want to go home.”
The West Ham players are doing little to endear themselves to fans at the moment either. Some were pictured partying late into the night this week despite the poor run of results.
Bilic, captain Mark Noble, and co-chairman David Sullivan all used their columns in the match-day program to justify what they characterized as a team-bonding session.
It looked like they would have to drown their sorrows again when Cristhian Stuani put Middlesbrough in front early in the second half with a header that Noble failed to clear off the line.
But then came Payet’s mesmerizing contribution in the 57th minute. Troubling for West Ham, he’s only the second West Ham player to score a league goal in the stadium. But he won’t want to stick around unless the results start improving.
“It’s a lot to keep asking Dimi to come up with goals like that, so it’s something we need to work on,” defender James Collins said. “Obviously it’s been terrible the last four or five weeks so we knew we had to stop conceding goals and a point is what we needed … it stops the rot.”