Can you imagine a less enthralling fixture to begin a new year of football at the London Stadium than a visit from West Bromwich Albion? It could be worse of course. It could have been a visit from a Baggies team managed by Tony Pulis. But unfortunately for him, although fortunately for lovers of the “beautiful game”, he became one of a number of Premier League managerial casualties in the first half of this season.
Tonight’s game is the first of a ridiculous fixture pile-up which will see us playing two Premier League games and a third round FA Cup tie in less than six days. Although those of us old enough to remember the “good old days” will remember that at this time of the year, footballers were asked to play anything up to four games in a week over the Christmas period, and even play a match on Christmas Day itself back in the 1950’s.
We go into this game as two teams occupying 18th and 19th positions in the Premier League with just over half the season gone. Remaining in these positions at the end of May would mean that next season we would be facing each other again in the Championship. But when you look at the league table the bottom half is very close with Huddersfield in 11th on 24 points right down to ourselves on 18 points. The good news is that we have at least a game in hand over every other team in the league (with the exception of Tottenham), and two games in hand over the majority of the sides in the bottom half. The bad news is that the additional game in hand is at Wembley against our North London neighbours, and despite our surprising win there in the Carabao Cup, that will be a very difficult game to get something from.
For this reason a victory tonight is imperative if we want to lift ourselves out of the relegation zone and begin to climb the table. Our visitors have been in a terrible run of form since winning both of their opening games 1-0 (when they sat in third place in the table) and haven’t won a league game since with nine draws and nine defeats. But as I have written before on many occasions when we have faced a team in such despairing form, we all know what happens when they come up against West Ham! For once we need this to not be one of those times.
After our two games this week we face a run of fixtures which will almost certainly define our season. On paper at least, the next five games, away at Huddersfield, at home to Bournemouth and Palace, away at Brighton, and then at home to Watford, are all winnable fixtures. Of course there are no easy games when you are in our predicament, but if we want to avoid a real struggle in the latter stages of the season then these are games where we must hope to pick up maximum points, and at least avoid defeat.
These are then followed by visits to Liverpool and Swansea, before three home games in a row against Burnley, Manchester United and Southampton taking us to the end of March. At this stage we will have equalised our home and away games (16 of each), before facing a trickier run-in where our six games include visits to Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester, and home games against Stoke, Manchester City and Everton. We must hope that we are not still in danger of the drop when we enter April.
There was a period in the 1960’s when there were goals galore in home matches against West Brom, and I can remember looking forward to the games then because we always seemed to beat them. The first time I remember playing them was in our cup winning season (1963-64). It was in November 1963, shortly before Kennedy was assassinated. We beat them 4-2. Geoff Hurst scored a couple. It was the first time I can remember seeing Geoff Hurst take a penalty (Johnny Byrne was our regular penalty taker at the time) and he smashed it as hard as he could to the keeper’s right. He always took penalties that way and even though the keepers knew that, they couldn’t often get near them (although Gordon Banks famously did in the League Cup semi-final a few years later!).
“Good Friday” (Easter 1965) was a famous game in our history. This was the day when Brian Dear scored five goals in a twenty minute spell either side of half time in our 6-1 trouncing of the Baggies. The following January we beat them 4-0 with Geoff Hurst again scoring twice, and then there was another win in December 1966 when we “only” beat them 3-0. In 1968 we put another four past them with a Martin Peters hat trick. This game was sandwiched between putting five past Burnley the previous week and seven past Bolton four days afterwards. In six consecutive seasons of home games against West Brom we won five and lost one, scoring 23 goals and conceding 6. Martin Peters scored six times, as did Brian Dear, with five from Geoff Hurst. No wonder I always looked forward to games against them when I was young.
In the 1969-70 season we suffered a 3-1 reverse to them. A letter in the Tottenham programme a few games later caught my eye. A Miss Shirley Tiller wrote: “I wish to express my disgust at the behaviour of a section of the crowd at the match against WBA on 23rd August. Have these so-called “supporters”, who booed and slow handclapped, ever stopped to realise that, whilst to them, watching football is a pleasant relaxation, to the players it is their means of livelihood? Some of them do not get paid any more than people in other walks of life; we all make mistakes in our day-to-day work (no one is infallible) and yet for some reason footballers are not expected to make any! In nine games out of ten we get first class entertainment for the 5 shillings we spend (25p) Surely as supporters we should encourage them not chastise them so bitterly.”
Her letter got me thinking how times have changed. Firstly, today’s players are in a different earnings league compared to most people in other walks of life as was suggested. Secondly it didn’t cost us a lot to get in then even allowing for inflation (the programme cost one shilling that season as well), and finally, players still get booed and verbally abused but whatever happened to the slow handclap? That has totally disappeared from the game! There were other “interesting” letters in the programme, one concerning the litter dropped in the East Stand, and another complaining about the pigeons at the ground! Apparently season ticket holders were coming “under fire!” You wouldn’t see letters along those lines these days.
Our game against West Brom in February 1973 was a shocking game to watch, one of the worst I can ever remember. This was summed up neatly by David Miller of the Sunday Telegraph who wrote “This wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” Effectively the referee added on an additional eight minutes to the second half purely to allow for time wasting, although it felt like he just wanted West Ham to get the winner that we deserved. And we did too with Pop Robson’s late goal clinching a 2-1 victory. West Brom were relegated finishing bottom that season. Personally I’d like to see both West Brom and Stoke get relegated this season purely because of their approach to football in the past few years. Of course there is a common denominator there in terms of a manager who was in charge of both of them.
I guess that tonight’s game is likely to be a tight one with both teams not wanting to lose. We are slightly odds-on to win the match, but I’d like a repeat of Good Friday 1965. You can get odds of 500-1 on a 6-1 West Ham victory. Perhaps the in-form Arnie could replicate Brian Dear’s tally of five goals? You can get 90-1 on him scoring a hat-trick. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start 2018?