Has Kevin Nolan become West Ham United's go-to scapegoat?

The influential former Newcastle man has gone from pivotal to pitiful in the eyes of some West Ham United fans who think his time at the club is up.

When Kevin Nolan made the decision to drop down to the Championship and sign for West Ham in 2011 after a fantastic season where he had scored 12 goals as Newcastle captain, questions were raised about his sanity.

Yes West Ham were offering him the long-term deal Newcastle wouldn't, but to Nolan it was always about more than that. He felt wanted, valued. And he was walking into what he has described himself as a club at rock bottom following Avram Grant's disastrous tenure.

Nolan liked the idea of working with Sam Allardyce again, particularly after their time together at Bolton, and Big Sam told West Ham's owners that his signing could prove the most important piece of business they did that summer.

With Nolan running things on the pitch in the Hammers' promotion winning campaign and then firing in another 10 goals on their return to the Premier League, it seemed Newcastle had made a big mistake letting him go for just £5 million.

At that time if you spoke to any West Ham fan they would tell you he was the best captain the club has had for years, that he was Big Sam's lieutenant on the pitch. Now, the reaction from some fans is rather more cynical, with the midfielder often referred to on the terrace's as 'Big Sam's son' on the basis that they believe it is the only way he is still getting in the Hammers side.

The start of what can only be described as a breakdown in Nolan's relationship with the fans came over the Christmas/New Year period in 2013/14 when he was struggling for goals and form.

With his relegation-threatened team drawing 1-1 at Fulham on New Year's Day, Nolan kicked out at Fernando Amorebieta after he had blocked his run on the stroke of half-time. The Hammers went on to lose 2-1.

It was the West Ham captain's second red card in four games after he was also sent off for a lunge at Jordan Henderson in the 4-1 defeat at Liverpool on December 7. There were even calls for Nolan to be stripped of the captaincy. 

Nolan had become West Ham's scapegoat. Mr West Ham, aka Mark Noble, tried a PR exercise to help out his midfield partner as Nolan was forced to sit out for four games and soak up the criticism that came his way.

"Kev has been unbelievable for us," Noble said at the time.

"He’s big enough and strong enough to handle that sort of stuff, so I am sure he will be fine. He is the gaffer’s man and looks after the dressing room and all of the problems in there," he said.

A spree of crucial goals from Nolan on his return to the side sparked a four-game winning run to effectively lift the club out of relegation danger. He was starting to be appreciated again but doubts still lingered amongst a noisy section of fans.

This season with a raft of new signings came new pressure for Nolan to hold on to his place. It is a pressure he has not thrived under. After long spells on the bench earlier in the season when the Hammers were flying high, injuries and a dip in the East London club's form has seen Nolan thrust back into the thick of things.

But a lack of goals - he has just one so far in 2014/15, his worst return for seven seasons albeit from less games than he is used to playing - has coincided with the Hammers' decline since Christmas and he has taken the brunt of the criticism, like after Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Leicester City.

Nolan was jeered off by a section of the away support when he was substituted in that game and heavily criticised afterwards. The fact of the matter is, though, that he was nowhere near West Ham's worst player on the day. If anything he was trying too hard. Closing down space where his midfield partner Alex Song should have been, trying to get up and down to make things happen for his misfiring side. But you get the sense the line has already been drawn with that section of the club's support.

The thing with Nolan is, he is a great professional and accepts that criticism goes with the territory of being skipper at a big club like West Ham. He also recently admitted being stuck on 99 goals is weighing heavy on his shoulders.

His reaction was to front up and rally the troops while reassuring fans that he and his teammates are determined to 'put things right' following a run of just one win in their last nine Premier League games.

"You can never put your finger on it," Nolan said in an interview with the club's official website in the wake of the Leicester defeat.

"It's just that time of year now. Everyone's battling for their lives and going for things. Leicester are battling to stay in the Premier League.

"Over the last few months it's been difficult to have that run, but it's something we want to put right and we're working hard to make the fortunes change."

He will be hoping that change in fortune starts on Saturday against Stoke City, where goal number 100 would be the perfect tonic.

But there is no denying he suffers when good friend and partner in crime Andy Carroll is not around. Together they are one of the best goalscoring partnerships in the Premier League. But without the 6ft 3 Geordie to play off, sometimes Nolan looks lost.

He has more than repaid the £5 million West Ham forked out on him that summer in 2011 and has quite literally been worth his weight in goals since. But when the goals dry up and the fans need a scapegoat, he is the go-to man.

Usually that can only end one way and this summer could well see Nolan heading for pastures new, so he can be appreciated and valued once again.

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