The stories of our most adored and celebrated footballers are often told through series’ of iconic images that bring with them instant recollection of time, place and emotion, as if they were captured only yesterday.
A famous goal celebration, a trophy lift, or else a moment of madness, heartache or shame. Even a baby-faced debut or an ill-advised haircut can do the trick.
But if the image of Mark Noble that endures as the end finally beckons – East London lad, shirt-tucked in, hair combed over, tidy in appearance as well as on the ball – is a little more difficult to place then perhaps it is because it feels as if so little has changed over the course of an 18-year professional career. So timeless is Noble that that portrait of him could belong not only in any chapter of it, but just as easily in an era before he was even born.
Chris Powell is in as good a position as anyone to talk about the Mark Noble that was merely trying to make his way at West Ham, his one season at Upton Park in 2004/05 notable at the time for a joyous promotion success and, with hindsight, for being the one in which a certain 17-year-old academy graduate made his debut.
“Very early on in my time, we played Derby at home and [Alan] Pardew named the team and Nobes wasn’t in it,” Powell recalls. “He was really disappointed, you could see all over his face, his body language. I went over to him and slipped him a bit of paper and on it I just put: ‘Always be ready’.
“He came on after five minutes because someone got injured and he was outstanding. Afterwards we looked at each other and I just said: ‘That’s the game, that.’ He kept that note in his wash bag for about eight or nine years, I think, until it disintegrated!”
Walking into a dressing room with characters like Powell and Teddy Sheringham, it is little surprise Noble grew up fast, though in comparison to his peers, he did not have a great deal of growing to do.
“He didn’t act like a young lad, he was mature for his age,” says Dean Ashton, who signed for West Ham in January 2006, when Noble was still a teenager but already making his mark. “You could tell even then he really understood what it meant to be a West Ham player.
“I remember him having a little scrap with one of the lads he got on best with, a more experienced player, because he just cared so much about training properly, doing things right.”
Barely out of the academy himself, Noble was already a figure of inspiration for those trying to follow, such as Jack Collison, only two years his junior.
Collison tells a famous story about travelling with the squad to the 2006 FA Cup final in Cardiff, floating on cloud nine only to be bought back down to Earth when returning from a stroll to find Noble and Chris Cohen had “absolutely turned our room over”.
“There were beds everywhere, the bathroom was a state,” he says. “We were in there just assessing the damage and we could hear him laughing round the corner.”
Nothing if not consistent, Noble struck again on another trip to the Welsh capital for a play-off semi-final six years later, when, struggling to sleep, a group of players began targeting the hole on one of Celtic Manor’s putting greens with fruit from their hotel balcony.
“It was pitch black and we couldn’t tell whether this orange had gone in as a hole-in-one or just sat beside it,” Collison explains. “Me and James Tomkins went down to check because it was getting quite heated.
“We got down there and Tonks has managed to throw it back up onto the balcony. We’re walking off and next thing I’m flat out on the floor – the orange has come straight back down and hit me clean on the head. I can’t believe I wasn’t concussed!
“Nobes wouldn’t say it was him but it was definitely him – he had that giggle and that laugh on him again.”
Listening to Collison talk about Noble’s impact on his career and his life more generally – “off the pitch, for me personally, he was magnificent” – one is reminded just why he was marked out as a leader of men while still a boy, captaining England at various age group levels.
“I met Mark when I was 19, playing for England Under-19s, he was Mr West Ham even at that age,” says Joe Hart, who was also part of the U21 squad Noble skippered to the European Championship Final in 2009. “He was a huge character but cool and calm. You knew he’d have a big influence on football even then.”
From day one he was what you’d expect, East End cockney, in your face, having a laugh.
More baffling is quite how Noble never even played for a senior Three Lions side, his elongated snubbing by various managers at odds with the way in which so many different club bosses saw the value in his character and ability, “the mark of a good player” according to Powell, now a coach on Gareth Southgate’s staff.
“To me it just felt inevitable he’d get the chance,” says Ashton. “It’s not like he didn’t give himself the best opportunity. He got everything out of his ability as a player and was just very unfortunate.”
Kevin Nolan is well-placed to sympathise, having held the record for the most Premier League appearances without an England cap until Noble relieved him of it (413 and counting).
He recalls facing a young Noble with Newcastle and chuckling at his apparent infatuation with senior midfield partner Scott Parker (another player that would not look out of place in a pre-war, black and white team photograph) who he would “follow around like a lost puppy”, but his first impression after signing for West Ham himself in 2011 is reassuringly familiar.
“From day one he was what you’d expect, East End cockney, in your face, having a laugh and a joke, being the butt of the jokes. Then, on the field, he shows what he’s got in abundance: intelligence as a footballer and a really technically gifted one.”
“I’m sure he’s had other opportunities through his career but his love’s always been at Upton Park and then moving over,” says Hart, who spent a turbulent season at the London Stadium in 2017/18. “He realised that his beloved club needed a mainstay.”
Noble’s loyalty and longevity have opened him up to his share of stick as well as adulation, some of it serious flack as a figurehead in times of turmoil and much of it less so: Nolan quips that he “doesn’t know what all the fuss is about – he’s only stayed here because no one else wanted him!”; Ashton jokes that in only one sense has his endurance been enviable: “It’s a miracle he still has the hairline he has – it was like that when I left!”
But for all it might not do justice to his ability, nor express the full scale of his achievements, it is that word – mainstay – and an appreciation of all it encapsulates that best sums up the near-unique place in which ‘Mr West Ham’ sits in the hearts of the club’s fans, and indeed, in the wider modern football conscience.
So here’s to Mark Noble, a player who began his career with an unusually wise head on young shoulders, a grounded sense of perspective, and never lost it, one who started out with feverish youthful enthusiasm for the game and infectious desire to play for his boyhood club and, through it all, never lost that either.