Having been a regular visitor for almost sixty years to Upton Park, and now the London Stadium, I continually have a wry smile to myself when I read our fans comments on social media bemoaning our performances, with comments such as “worst ever”, and “it’s never been this bad.” I have to say that, believe me, it has. The thing about supporting our team is the sheer inconsistency. If Forrest Gump’s mother had been a fan then I’m sure she would have said that West Ham are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. When we go to watch them play, we never know what will happen from one season to the next. We never know how we will perform from one game to the next. And what is more, we never know if our second half performance will bear any relation to what we have seen in the first forty-five minutes.
So, for example, compare our first season under Bilic, when we were impressive for much of the time, eventually finishing seventh, but if some dubious refereeing decisions had gone our way, it could have been much higher; to last season, when we started badly, flirted with relegation, before finally finishing eleventh, just a point off eighth place.
For a “one match to the next” example of inconsistency, look back to the end of last season, and that Friday night at the London Stadium just four months ago when we hammered our disliked North London rivals with probably our best performance of the season, before collapsing at home to Liverpool (4-0) just a week later. We then travelled up to Burnley, who had one of the best records at home in the Premier League, and beat them 2-1 to round off the season.
For an example of “one half to the next”, you can look back to Middlesbrough last season when an abject first half performance was followed by a dominating second-half one. You can even see massive inconsistency in a shorter time frame than that. In the first 30 minutes at home to Watford last season we really turned it on and raced into a two goal lead before collapsing defensively, and losing the game 4-2.
To demonstrate further how topsy-turvy our performances have been for so long now, I’ll take you back to when I first started to visit Upton Park to watch the team as a young boy, and recall my first two seasons as a supporter. My first season was 1958-59, our first back in the top division (Division 1 it was called at the time). We finished sixth in the end, an excellent achievement, although we topped the league in early September following an excellent 3-2 win over Manchester United, but dropped to 14th just before Christmas with a defeat to Manchester City. The City game was the final game in a 6 match winless run, including four consecutive defeats, which we then followed up with five straight wins on the bounce over the Christmas / New Year period.
Home league attendances that season varied from as low as 21,000 who witnessed our 6-0 demolition of Portsmouth the week before Christmas, to over 37,000 for the visits of the champions Wolves (who we beat 2-0) and Arsenal. The average home crowd was a little over 28,000 and our top scorer was my favourite, John Dick, with 29 goals in all competitions. Two notable youngsters made their debuts that season, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. We were dumped out of the FA Cup in Round 3 by a poor Spurs side that finished fifth from bottom. Wolves finished as champions for the second season running, and Forest beat Luton 2-1 in the first FA Cup Final I remember watching.
1959-60 was less successful as we finished in 14th place (just four points above a relegation place), despite topping the league towards the end of November. This was quite a dramatic fall in the second half of the season. I hoped I wouldn’t see that again! It was my first taste of the “coming down with the Christmas decorations” legend that existed for many years, although in truth it is perhaps a myth, and on a number of occasions the second half of the season has been better than the first.
On a cold Saturday afternoon in November 1959 I had watched Johnny Dick score a hat-trick as we beat reigning champions Wolves 3-2 to stay at the top of the league. The following Thursday I had to go into hospital for the removal of my adenoids. I was five years old when I went into St. Mary’s in Paddington. Hospitals were very different in those days – parents couldn’t stay with their children and I was left in this frightening place with just early evening visits from my mum and dad. Some of the nurses were very nice and some were very formidable ladies.
I had been in for three days, my adenoids had been removed, it was Saturday afternoon and I was due to come out the next day. I asked one of the nurses if the TV could be put on so that I could see the football results at five o’clock. I was told no, the TV is only turned on for childrens programmes. However when I burst into tears a kindly nurse took pity on me and switched it on. I was desperate to find out how we had got on. When the classified football results came on the screen I looked down the list of games to find West Ham (we were playing away to Sheffield Wednesday) and was horrified to see that we had lost the game 7-0! I burst into tears again and vaguely remember the kindly nurse who had put the TV on for me being admonished by one of the scary nurses and told to turn it off. This was one of my first examples of the “one game to the next” inconsistency that I’ve witnessed for the past sixty years.
But we were really a leading (despite the inconsistency) team at the time, and following our poor performance in the FA Cup the previous year, I was looking forward to an exciting run this time, and being just a small boy, I was hoping to see us at Wembley in May! We were drawn away to Huddersfield Town, who were one of the top teams in the second division at the time. Two of their star players were Denis Law, who went on to have a top career as a legend in Italy and Manchester, and Ray Wilson, who following a move to Everton in 1964, was England’s left back for a while, including when we won the World Cup in 1966.
A tricky game, but we came away with a 1-1 draw thanks to a John Dick goal. Surely the replay the following Wednesday would be just a formality? But on a snowbound frozen Upton Park pitch, in playing conditions that would not see a game go ahead today, I can recall West Ham players slipping and sliding all over the place, whereas Huddersfield seemed to have footwear that enabled them to breeze through the game on their feet. Huddersfield scored two early goals, and despite our left-winger Malcolm Musgrove pulling a goal back, we were 3-1 down at half-time. By the end of the game we trudged off the pitch having lost 5-1 to a team from the division below us. This was the first time I remember, but by no means the last time, that we exited a cup competition at the hands of a team from a lower division.