West Ham v Huddersfield Preview

A top v bottom clash as the team third in the league following Matchday 3 visits the London Stadium for the first time.

When Huddersfield successfully negotiated the Championship play-offs at the end of last season, they, along with Brighton, became the 48th and 49th teams to play in the Premier League, following the restructure of the Football League in 1992. Previously, of course, those of us over the age of 30 will remember the top flight being named Division One. Many people, being influenced by Sky TV no doubt, believe that football only began in 1992, and so many records and statistics published today only refer to the top division since that date.

But the Football League was founded in the nineteenth century (1888), and Division One was the top level league in England until the Premier League was formed. Huddersfield Town, despite not playing in the Premier League until this season, are one of the clubs that like to keep the old records alive. They were formed in 1908, elected to the Football League three years later, and by the 1920’s they were probably the top team in English football. The Terriers, as they are now affectionately known, roared through the 1920’s, with a domination of English football that has rarely been matched since.

After finishing third in Division One in 1922-23 (the same year that we played in the first Wembley Cup Final), they were champions for the following three years in a row, a feat that has been equalled, but not surpassed, since. They followed this up with runners-up finishes in the following two seasons, too. For good measure they won the FA Cup in 1922 (the final was played at Stamford Bridge), and were losing finalists in 1920, 1928 and 1930. So the 1920’s belonged to Huddersfield Town in football terms.

However, a gradual decline began from there, and by 1952 they were relegated from the top flight for the first time. They did regain their Division One status shortly afterwards but were soon relegated again, and spent some years yo-yoing in the bottom three divisions. A brief resurgence saw them win the second division title in 1969-70, and for two seasons they were in Division One before finishing bottom in 1971-72, when they disappeared from the top level, not to return until this season.

My first and most vivid memory of playing against them was when they knocked us out of the FA Cup in the third round in 1960. I wrote about this in my previous blog article where I recalled seasons 1958-59 and 1959-60. I have only scant memories of our top flight meetings in 1970-71 and 1971-72. We were both relatively poor sides at the time. In the first meeting in Huddersfield, Geoff Hurst scored a penalty to secure a 1-1 draw, and then in the final game of that season they beat us 1-0 at Upton Park. That win elevated them to a 15th place finish, two points ahead of us in 20th. Fortunately only two teams were relegated then, so we just survived.

In the following season we lost the away game 1-0, but thumped them 3-0 in the return game at Upton Park with two goals from Clyde Best and another from Pop Robson. Unfortunately Huddersfield were once again a bogey team in the FA Cup just a week before our league win over them, when goals from Best and Robson were not enough to save us from a 4-2 defeat.

For a number of years beginning in 1966 we had a horrific record in being eliminated from the FA Cup by teams who were either relegated that season or from a division below us. The full horror story reads:

1966 – lost in a fourth round replay to Blackburn Rovers who went on to finish bottom of the table

1967 – lost in a third round replay to Swindon Town of the third division

1968 – lost in the fifth round at home to Sheffield United who went on to be relegated

1969 – lost in the fifth round to Mansfield Town of the third division

1970 – lost in the third round at Middlesbrough of the second division

1971 – lost (infamously) in the third round to Blackpool who went on to finish bottom

1972 – lost in the fifth round to Huddersfield who went on to finish bottom

1973 – lost in the fourth round to Hull of the second division

1974 – lost in a third round replay to Hereford of the third division

It seems incredible to think that after that miserable run of nine years in the FA Cup we went on to win the FA Cup the following season! In fact, between our two FA Cup wins in 1964 and 1975, we were only once knocked out of the competition in the intervening seasons by a team above us in the league (Chelsea in 1965). There were some highly embarrassing League Cup defeats in that period, too, amongst others to Huddersfield(!), Coventry, Stockport County, and Fulham.

So our meetings with Huddersfield have been relatively rare, especially in recent times. Our overall record against them in competitive matches is poor and reveals just 10 wins, 7 draws and 22 defeats in 39 games. Clutching at straws, one fan on social media wrote that Huddersfield have not won on our ground for 46 years. We all know what happens when statistics such as these are quoted in relation to our team!

So many teams when promoted into the Premier League tend to start the season well, especially those who come up via the play-offs, and Huddersfield are no exception. They may not have had the most difficult of fixtures, but nevertheless they have acquitted themselves excellently with an opening day 3-0 victory away at Palace, followed by a 1-0 win at home to fellow promoted team Newcastle, and then a goalless draw at home to Southampton. Seven points from the three games with four goals scored and none conceded represents a start they we could only have dreamed of.

After the third round of matches they sat in third place in the league, and although they have fallen a little following this weekend’s matches played so far, they will hope to regain third spot with a victory at the London Stadium. It is a little ironical that West Ham, at the very foot of the table, are generally quoted as odds-on by the bookmakers to win the game, whilst punters betting on Huddersfield, riding high, can get odds of up to 7/2 to come out as victors! The draw is generally around the 5/2 mark.

Whilst writing this I have no idea of Mr. Bilic’s plans for the game, but he has hinted at changes to personnel and approach. I am hoping that we score an early goal, but I’ve seen that our visitors have an organised approach to defending and will be looking to frustrate us, especially in the early stages. I hope that our fans don’t get too restless if we fail to score early, as this could have a negative impact on the atmosphere in the stadium. If only we could produce a performance such as the one against Tottenham at the end of last season, then much of the negativity surrounding the club could begin to disappear. A win would still leave us in the bottom three, but nevertheless it is a must to get our season up and running, and not become one of the teams detached at the bottom.

West Ham are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Recalling seasons 1958-59 and 1959-60, which included a “memorable” visit from Huddersfield Town

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.

The Enduring Problem With West Ham

The long term lack of professionalism that continues to frustrate at West Ham both on and off the pitch.

A lot has changed in football since the days when I used to pay two-bob to get into the North Bank and listen to Bill Remfry for an hour or so before kick off.  Admission prices have rocketed, booking is essential but you can now turn up with a few minutes to spare. On the pitch the game has lost crunching tackles and sideburns as well as muddy pitches that are devoid of grass after the first frosts of winter. Players have become celebrity multi-millionaires who no longer pop into the local for a light and bitter after the match. Sponsorship is everywhere, ramshackle stadiums have been gentrified (in most cases) and news, gossip, conjecture, analysis appears in a constant stream, twenty four hours a day.  For those of us who resist change the crumb of comfort is the knowledge that West Ham, as a club, remain as accident prone and unprofessional as they have always been.  If there were an Opta stat for ‘shots into own foot’ then the Hammers would be in a class of their own.

Perhaps it is my memory playing tricks but back then football, although a matter of life or death, was very much a match-day activity.  Once the elation or disappointment of Saturday afternoon was out of the way and the Sunday papers had been read there was little to concern yourself with until ‘On The Ball’ was broadcast the following week.  The excitement of watching mainly local lads playing for the local team, that all the family supported, made up for any frustration caused by the lack of success.  In any case we did have our own mini-golden era with four cups in sixteen years to keep the bubbles blowing.  There were excellent West Ham sides in both the mid 1960’s and early 1980’s and yet, even then, a failure to invest and an absence of imagination led to missed opportunities.

West Ham’s record of having only five managers in eighty seven largely barren years up until John Lyall’s departure gave credence to the Hammer’s family club legend.  That there have been ten (plus caretakers) in the twenty eight years since, though, tells another story as the clubs make-do-and-mend muddle through strategy has failed to adapt to the cash rich era of modern football.  When managers only last an average of three years it is negligent and shortsighted not to have someone separately looking after the football strategy of the club.

I suppose it is possible that disaster has struck other clubs with equal regularity but because I have not be looking out for their news it passes me by.  Yet even a cursory trawl of the memory banks throws up enough gaffes and blunders to make a decent mini-series. In no particular order I give you: the Bond scheme, Mannygate, Tevezgate, the treatment of Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds, the Icelandics, Brown sacking Redknapp in a fit of pique, Pardew’s philandering, Curbishley’s constructive dismissal, transfer business conducted by twitter culminating in the unseemly spat with Sporting Lisbon regarding William Carvalho.  There are probably some I have missed and it is difficult to imagine anyone matching this hall of shame.  If it was any other business than the unconditional devotion of football then the loyal customers would have deserted long ago.

Thankfully, the club has (to date) avoided the type of massive financial meltdown or fall from grace that has been witnessed at clubs such as Leeds, the Sheffield’s and Portsmouth.  Arguably we came very close after the Icelandic’s collapse and that we do, in fact, have Gold and Sullivan to thank for saving the day.  Those brownie points, however, do not last forever and now is the time for them to demonstrate a better balance between the interests of their pockets and the interests of the club and its supporters.  While all West Ham’s owners in my lifetime have demonstrated an absence of true ambition, the current board, somehow, manage to combine this with contrary delusions of grandeur; at least in their public utterances.

It is quite apparent that there can be no next level in the current financial environment of the Premier League without massive external investment.  Consolidating as one of the best of the rest should be eminently attainable (for the 15th richest club in the world) if only it were better managed on the footballing side.  Brian Clough regularly complained that football chairmen didn’t know what they were doing when it came to football matters and David Sullivan has proved this point perfectly.  Of course he is entitled to an opinion (he is signing the cheques after all) but it is time he took a step back, as far as his little legs will allow, from his role as self-styled Director of Football.

I do not pretend to understand how transfers work at West Ham but, from what has been written, it is allegedly a joint effort between Sullivan, Slaven Bilic and Director of Recruitment, Tony Henry.  It is said that the players we signed in the summer were all at the top of Bilic’s wish-list which is good (in the sense of due process) but worrying if that is the extent of his vision.  I doubt that any of the signings are bad but are they the best a Slav can get, and what about the ones we didn’t sign to fill the obvious deficiencies in pace and athleticism throughout the team?

Having started the season so badly, the self-back-slapping euphoria that followed almost universal approval of a successful transfer window had started to look a little premature, prompting the supposed pursuit of Carvalho.  I am sure that some sort of approach was made, whatever Sporting Lisbon may say, but whether it was a serious one is debatable.  Would the Chairman who claims to be working sixteen hours a day on transfers really go on holiday for the last days of the window if there was more business to be done?  It would not be the first time that a lot of noise has been made about signing a player who is knowingly beyond our budget.  The Board had done better up until then in maintaining a lower profile on transfers and so it was disappointing that Sullivan was so thin-skinned when criticism arose that he felt the need to shift the blame to the manager as soon as possible; not a great advert for teamwork or collective responsibility!  The excuse about a bid finally being accepted for Carvalho but no time for a medical is pure hogwash.

Carvalho would have been an excellent signing and just the type of player needed to protect a porous defence.  Bilic was reported as saying that such a player had been his priority for the last two years but if that was the case why did he persist with his campaign to buy as many wingers as possible instead?

We now have to make do until January, at least, with the named twenty two man squad plus any youngsters that Bilic elects to trust.  That this squad includes Doniel Henry and Moses Makasi plus the ever injured Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho leaves little room for manouevre on match-days.  With a manager (described in one national newspaper as a tactical dunce) in the last year of his contract he is a dead-man walking and unlikely to command any respect from his players.  At a club where players have typically done whatever they please it would take an eternal optimist to expect Bilic to turn this round.  Players need to be shown discipline, be at the peak of fitness and be thoroughly drilled in what is expected of them; sadly Bilic (and his coaching pals) are not at all equipped to deliver this.

While the efforts on the pitch reflect badly on the manager, the Board are also implicated.  It is they who appointed him in the first place and have overseen the direction he is taking us; this is either nowhere or backwards! They must now act quickly to avoid a repeat of Avram Grant but they must also address the deficiencies that continue to impact the footballing side if any long term change is to be forthcoming.  Better training facilities and a dedicated Director of Football to drive strategy are fundamental, not optional, requirements for progression.  It is all well and good generating more revenues with slick commercial activities but it will all be for nothing without an overhaul of the factors that cause a lack of professionalism on the pitch.

The Carvalho saga lingers on for West Ham

As if we didn’t have enough of the William Carvalho saga for the whole of the last month of the transfer window, we find that it continues even though the window has slammed shut.

I dislike the international breaks that disrupt the domestic football season. It is a bit like starting off any activity and then finding that it continually gets interrupted. It wouldn’t seem so bad if the breaks were spread more evenly throughout the season, but no, we have to have a break for World Cup qualifiers (or Euro qualifiers) every year. The first one has arrived (as usual) just as the season has got underway, this time after just three games. We play four more games before the next break, and then a further four prior to the following one. So we will have only played eleven games and had a weekend off three times! At least it might help West Ham’s players to combat the tiredness that was put forward as a lame excuse following the disastrous performance in our last match in Newcastle.

The transfer window itself was seen by many, before a ball had been kicked, as being a relatively successful one for West Ham, although the evidence of the first three games has suggested to quite a few of us that the jury is out on our new recruits, with the possible exception of Chicarito. Lots of theories are put forward as to why we are currently bottom of the table, and the real reason is probably a mixture of all of them.

But one glaring weakness (of many) in the team from where I sit, is the number of goals that we are conceding. Poor defending is just part of that, which may be down to the individuals themselves that occupy those positions, or may be down to the way that they are organised, and the lack of consistent selection which suggests that the manager doesn’t really know his best defence. Of course this was not helped by the injury to Reid, but nevertheless we have a whole range of international defenders at our disposal.

But a modern football team needs to defend as a whole unit, and this means everyone in the side playing their part when we don’t have the ball. And this happens a lot as we have a tendency to give the ball to our opponents more easily than we should. A vital position in most successful teams is that of the central midfielders, and the ideal players in this position are those that can give cover to the defence whilst at the same time being comfortable in possession, and able to launch attacking moves. Last season’s champions, Chelsea, had Kante and Matic fulfilling this important role. They’ve lost Matic, but bought Drinkwater to resume the partnership with Kante that was an integral part of Leicester’s title winning season the year before. This season’s early leaders, Manchester United, have Pogba and Matic. The great Arsenal side of a few seasons ago had the dream pairing of Vieira and Petit.

In my opinion our best two players in this position in the current squad are Obiang and Kouyate. They haven’t yet started a game as the central pairing this season, with Obiang inexplicably only starting one of our three games, and Kouyate playing just twenty minutes as a substitute at St James Park. Incredibly we began the game at Newcastle with Rice and Noble as the partners in the middle. Now I see Rice as a very promising central defender, and Noble has looked a shadow of his previous self for over a year now. Both Obiang and Kouyate were warming the bench. I just didn’t get it myself, but the manager picks the team and stands or falls by his decisions. The way things are going then falling might come sooner rather than later.

According to the multitude of transfer news in the media during the window, our key target for the last month was William Carvalho, an experienced Portuguese international footballer, who would presumably fill one of the two central midfield slots. And from what I’ve seen of him he would be a perfect addition to the team. I would compare him in style of play to Patrick Vieira. Allegedly we continued to make bids for him, never quite reaching the figure that Sporting Lisbon supposedly wanted us to pay. As time went on I could see that it was unlikely that it would happen, and I was genuinely disappointed when we failed to land him as he looked to me just the type of player we needed.

At the last moment, just as it appeared the transfer wouldn’t happen, we apparently switched our target to Gomes from Barcelona, yet another Portuguese international midfielder, who at 24 (a year younger than Carvalho) was another who might satisfy the demands of fans as an exciting new recruit. Now while this may be the case I would question our strategy in the transfer market. Did we really want a (primarily) defensive midfielder (Carvalho), or one who fulfils a more attacking role? Whilst both would have been excellent acquisitions, we seem to be just trying to get good footballers, rather than looking to fill specific positions in the line-up.

Some West Ham fans have taken to social media slamming the board (in particular David Sullivan) for once again failing to bring in another top level signing, and at the same time Sporting Lisbon are now claiming that we didn’t even lodge a bid for Carvalho. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems destined to fill some pages during the international break, and will continue to do so until the Premier League resumes next weekend and we can once again concentrate on football. The whole saga though just seems to me to be a typical West Ham transfer scenario, and doesn’t shed a good light on the club.

We must move on now, and if rumours are to be believed, then we need to start performing and picking up points very quickly if we are to move away from the bottom, and for the manager to keep his job. Mr. Sullivan issued an unusual statement last week saying that the manager got exactly the players he wanted in the window, and that to me suggested he was preparing to show him the exit door very soon if the results don’t arrive very soon. We shall see.