Five Takeaways: West Ham’s Tame Surrender To Manchester City

Defeat to runaway champions may have been predictable but the manner of West Ham’s capitulation once again causes frustration, concern and disappointment.

An Expected Result

Getting a score prediction correct is rare for me but I was spot on with this one although, in part, that was thanks to Manchester City for taking it easy and playing at half pace.  The outcome was pretty much as expected and so probably changes very little in the scheme of things except making the Hammer’s goal difference even more desperate than it was before.  Right from the start there was a general air of resignation around the ground that West Ham were sure to lose this one.  The players did their best to reinforce this belief by only putting up a token effort of resistance, as if they had mentally written off the game.  The only brief period of optimism was that short spell before half time when Aaron Cresswell pulled a goal back to make it 2-1, but the half time pep talks quickly restored equilibrium; the Hammers not even having a sniff at the City goal in the second period.

Record Breakers

Manchester City already have or are about to break all sorts of Premier League records this season as far as wins, points and goals scored are concerned.  Not to be left out, West Ham themselves have managed to snatch the baton for worst defence in the league by allowing the goals against tally to rocket to a whopping 67.  Having leaked three goals or more six times in the last ten games does not bode well for the remainder of the relegation threatened season.  The Hammers are also closing in on the record for all time Premier League defeats and currently sit just two behind Everton (350 to 348).  Ironically, if they manage to claim top spot it is likely to mean relegation and an inability to retain the title next season!

Selection Headaches

Once again the Hammers find themselves with a situation of limited competition for places which so often leads to complacency.  Strangely the exception is with strikers where the strategy of playing none is really keeping them on their toes.  In truth the problem is that the team is so poor defensively and in midfield that playing with more than one striker is regarded as a huge risk.  That each of the recognised strikers are ill-equipped to play a lone role means that Marko Arnautovic (brought to the club as a midfielder) has become the obvious choice to play up front.  Arnautovic is in a one-horse race in the Hammer of The Year stakes and it would be no surprise if he wanted out in the summer.  Despite these selection limitations why anyone would believe that Patrice Evra would be the answer to the defensive frailties against the runaway champions is beyond me.  The recruitment of Evra and Jordan Hugill in the winter transfer window was the icing on the shambolic, muddled, ill-judged and short term cake of boardroom thinking.

Lazy and Unacceptable Performance

In last week’s defeat to Arsenal there was at least an attempt to make a game of it until the late capitulation intervened.  This week the players offered nothing!  David Moyes would not have been my choice as manager but I was prepared to give him a chance because I believed he would get the team fitter and better organised.  For a while it looked to be working but now we are back to where Slaven Bilic left off.  How can a side still battling for Premier League survival put in that type of disinterested performance even if they were outclassed?  Where is the leadership both on and off the field?  What is the downside for simply going through the motions as opposed to earning those huge pay packets?  Out of yesterday’s game maybe Arnautovic and Angelo Ogbonna were close to adequate but the rest were dreadful; with special mention for dreadfulness going to the woeful central midfield pairing of Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate.

A Sorry Squad

Moyes cannot take full responsibility for all of the weaknesses in the squad.  I have no insight to what attempts were made to strengthen in January but my guess is that the Board thought they could muddle through without having to dig into their pockets – a survival at minimum cost strategy.  It was already known that Obiang would be out for the season and the failure to bring in a replacement was mindbogglingly negligent. Further, why the two Reece’s and Fonte were allowed to leave when numbers were already short is a major puzzle.  I am sure Declan Rice will go on to have a great career in football but he could be severely damaged by the recent experience of too many games too soon in such a difficult and high pressure position.  The running of the club (at least on the football side) remains completely amateurish.  West Ham are  going backwards without any pretence of a strategy for progress.  Filling the squad with past their best, ageing players is penny pinching short-termism posing as a policy of acquiring Premier League experience.  Putting up with an under-performing academy and sub-standard training facilities will do nothing to attract and retain the type of players who have other offers on the table.  From the current squad I see Arnautovic, Rice and Manual Lanzini as the only real assets and each of these could easily leave in the summer.  Of the remainder I wouldn’t lose any sleep if the lot were shipped out – they are either too old, too fragile or don’t care.

West Ham v Man City Preview

With the success yesterday of teams who can still be relegated this season, we are still in potential danger

Yesterday’s results were not the best from our point of view. With just a fortnight of the Premier League season to go there is still a lot to play for by the teams at the foot of the table. Even West Brom who have looked doomed for a long time are not yet mathematically relegated, but surely they have left it too late? They are the only team who cannot overtake us. Stoke managed an unexpected goalless draw at Anfield, perhaps something to do with Liverpool’s continuing participation in Europe and their return match in Rome this week? Had Liverpool won the game we wouldn’t really be worrying about Stoke any more in view of their poor goal difference. But they have two winnable games left and can reach 36 points, one beyond our current total.

The other three teams below us, Southampton, Swansea and Huddersfield can all overtake us. Swansea and Southampton in particular have winnable games, but it could be a blessing that Swansea still have to face both Southampton and Stoke, and can take points off each other. I certainly wouldn’t want to change our position with Huddersfield who are level on points with us, but with an inferior goal difference. Their three remaining games are away at both Manchester City and Chelsea, with a final day at home to Arsenal.

It could be that we have enough points already, and I think that just one more will probably be enough, but that may not necessarily be the case with an unfortunate set of results. I just hope that we can achieve safety sooner rather than later, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go into the final fixture at home to Everton with the possibility of relegation still there. Everton have picked up in recent matches and have taken fourteen points from their last seven. Just imagine how Big Sam would relish that situation.

So where can we pick up any points in our final four games? Today will be the toughest task of all with bookmakers odds at 9/1 for us to win, and as long as 9/2 to even get a draw. If we do lose, and even wearing my optimistic hat I am afraid that is a likely outcome, then I hope that unlike their two most recent visits to us, they don’t inflict too much damage on our goal difference.

It would be absolutely brilliant to be walking back to Stratford station at 4.15 today with three points under our belt and almost certain safety. Stranger things have happened but if offered a draw now then we would surely bite the hand for it. But it is the most unlikely outcome of the game, and it looks as though we will need to get something from the last week of the season, either from our visit to Leicester, or from our final two home games against Manchester United or Everton.

Trust me, we will be OK.

Will West Ham Set A Lack Of Possession Record Against Manchester City?

A pivotal weekend in the Premier League survival stakes where West Ham may need to pin their hopes on events away from the London Stadium

As a schoolboy I used to spend my Sunday’s checking coupons for Zetter’s Pools as a way of supporting my extravagant lifestyle; following West Ham, watching live bands at Dagenham Roundhouse and drinking light and bitter.  The pools was not just about Treble Chance and score draws and punters were also able to seek their fortune by predicting five matches that were likely to result in away wins.  If anyone had been looking for an away banker from this weekend’s matches then they wouldn’t need to look much further than the uneven contest scheduled to be played out at the London Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The rationale for drinking light and bitter back then was that in the days before electronic measures (and with the assistance of a friendly barmaid) you could end up with close to a pint and a half for your two shilling’s worth.  It seemed like a bargain (it probably wasn’t) but for a cheapskate it ticked all the boxes in the same way that the West Ham board approach the business of football – cheap and cheerful at the expense of quality and class.  The Hammers are the light and bitter to Manchester City’s cellar of fine wine.  They are the Zetters to City’s Littlewoods – for people who can’t really afford to compete and who wouldn’t win anything worthwhile anyway.

Without doubt today’s visitors are worthy champions and manager Pep Guardiola has (at great expense) assembled a fine team that plays attractive and inventive football.  I can’t help feeling, however, that managing is rather more straightforward where money is no object; where if you sign a few £50 million duds (normally the English ones) you simply throw them away and sign some more.  The inequality caused by money is slowly but surely ruining the game for the regular paying customer and City are the worst of the current culprits.  Being owned by a small middle eastern country with a questionable record on human rights just plain seems wrong but it is amazing how a blind eye can be turned when money is involved and it is in one’s own interests.  Maybe I would be just the same if it were to happen at West Ham and perhaps the Supreme Leader will be wanting to invest a few billion in a Premier League club now that he is making overtures to rejoin the international community.

By the time our game kicks off on Sunday the Hammers could have slipped to fourth from bottom just three points outside the bottom three.  By the end of the weekend we cannot have sunk any lower but there is a good chance that goal difference could be considerably worse if recent encounters with City are anything to go by.

Head to Head

Victories over City are rarer than a blue moon with the Hammers winning just two of their last twelve home games against the visitors; in 2009 and 2014.  We can but hope that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Team News

With the news of Abba reforming after 35 years I wonder if there is any possibility of including Brooking and Devonshire in tomorrow’s starting eleven?  Could they do any worse?

I have read that David Moyes has been using training sessions to teach the West Ham players how to play without the ball.  It seems to me that we have already had plenty of practice with that during the course of the season. Time might have been better spent on practising not giving the ball immediately back to the opposition once possession has been gained.

I don’t see many changes in lineup (apart from Adrain returning in goal in place of the ineligible Joe Hart) from that which tried hard but were ultimately left wanting at Arsenal last week.  It will be painful to watch Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate floundering against City’s quick and slick midfield interplay.

City will field an array of talent each of whom will have cost more than our entire squad (probably!)

The Man in the Middle

Making his fourth Hammers appearance of the season is Neil Swarbrick from Lancashire, near Manchester.  His previous associations saw West Ham defeats away at Newcastle and home to Liverpool plus the home draw with Palace.  In 23 games this season he has shown 65 yellow cards but has yet to see red.

Predictions

Reinforcing the banker away win claims, Lawro says 2-0 to City while Merson plumps for 4-0 to the visitors.  The most desperate of straw clutching leads us to the hope  that City might take their foot off the pedal now that the league title is sewn up – a shame that they are still not playing in Europe.  Damage limitation will be the name of the game and, given that we do normally score in a game, I am predicting a 1-4 away win.  Naturally, I am hopeful that I will be sensationally wrong. The games played elsewhere this weekend are likely to have more bearing on the potential for survival than our own game.

West Ham Prepare To Poop The Wenger Boys Farewell Party?

West Ham look to add to their collection of survival points as Arsenal balance Europa League glory against the ignominy falling out of the top six.

Earlier in the week I had planned to begin my review on the assertion that surely this would be West Ham’s last encounter with an Arsene Wenger Arsenal side.  That speculation has been subsequently overtaken by events as the Frenchman announced that he would jump rather than wait to be pushed from his long running position as Gunner’s manager.  It has been a reign that has had many highs but one which, in recent years, has seen his team fall away from pace setters to also rans in the top six stakes.

The timing of the announcement was unusual and I will admit, to borrow from Arsene’s repertoire, that “I didn’t see it” coming!  What effect it will have on the afternoon’s proceedings and Arsenal’s priorities is now a puzzle.  My hope was that Wenger was prepared to put all the Arsenal ‘ouefs’ into the Europa League basket as he went all out in search of the rear entry into next season’s Champion’s League qualification.  Now the conundrum is whether to go out with one last trophy or failure to finish in the top six as Burnley remain hot on their heels.  At the same time those Arsenal fans who have been vociferously calling for his head are now able to get back behind him and create an emotional afternoon at the Emirates Stadium.  My original theory that the Hammers could take sneaky advantage of a half-hearted Arsenal is now up in the air.

West Ham’s failure to beat Stoke last Monday leaves them with a bit a work to do before any lingering thoughts of relegation can be entirely dismissed – at least we cannot now finish bottom of table.  The chances of either Stoke or Southampton collecting enough points to overhaul the Hammers are slim but it is still possible and  it will be as well for the health of all concerned to gather those additional two or three points sooner rather than later.  Then we can get down to the messy business of a World Cup year transfer window where our hopes can once again be dashed by a raft of over-aged, underwhelming panic signings that do little to resolve the underlying weaknesses in the squad.

Head to Head

Today will be the 42nd West Ham fixture in all competitions against an Arsene Wenger managed Arsenal. Of those past encounters the Hammers have won just five, drawn ten and lost twenty six.  Three of those wins came in a period of just over a year between February 2006 and April 2007 while the most recent was the famous season opener in August 2015 (the only win in the last 21).  The remaining victory (and most memorable for me) was in October 1999 courtesy of a Paolo Di Canio brace in an incident packed 2-1 win at Upton Park.

Team News

By all accounts, apart from the long term injured, the only other player not available for selection is James Collins.  It is probable that David Moyes will remain in safety first mode to reach the survival target one point at a time.  His dilemma being that although Arsenal are now very suspect at the back they still have more than enough flair and movement in forward positions to dazzle West Ham if they do not have sufficient bodies as well as organisation and concentration in their defensive ranks. Thus I believe Moyes will stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation with Marko Arnautovic once again given the free lone striker role.  The only uncertainty for me is who the two immediately behind him will be – quite possibly the returning Manuel Lanzini alongside Joao Mario.

Many supporters will be hoping to see a start for Javier Hernandez but I expect to see him once again a little pea’d off on the bench.  Likewise Andy Carroll will be used as an impact substitute as needed.

It will be interesting to see whether Joe Hart keeps his place following his gaffe on Monday and the newspaper talk of the Hammers wanting to keep him (for some reason) beyond the expiry of his loan.  I can’t help thinking that if it had been Adrian that fumbled the ball leading to the Stoke goal he would be straight back to the bench.

Difficult to judge the Arsenal approach to the game.  In recent Premier League games in the lead up to European action they put out weakened sides and looked below par despite (fortunately) seeing off both Southampton and Stoke.  The players that always worry me in exposing West Ham weaknesses are Ozil and Bellerin while Welbeck is in a rare run of goal-scoring form.

The Man In The Middle

Lee Mason from Lancashire is today’s referee.  The Hammers have had little luck with Mason this term recording defeats away at Southampton and at home to Newcastle and Burnley.  In his 23 outings this season he has shown 61 red and 4 yellow cards.

Predictions

A rare alignment between Larwo and Merson who both believe that Arsenal will stroll to a leisurely 2-0 win.  I think we have a chance as no matter what is said in the dressing room the Gunners will either have a weakened team out or else the players will have at least one eye on Thursday’s semi-final.  I can see us sneaking that odd goal win but would be happy to settle for a draw.

Arsenal v West Ham Preview

Will the announcement of “Wexit” this week inspire Arsenal to victory or can West Ham edge closer to safety?

After the disappointment of our failure last Monday to beat a Stoke side that look doomed to spending next season in the Championship, we can take heart that as we go into today’s game against another of the top six elite sides, we are still in fourteenth place in the Premier League. A victory over the Potters would have virtually seen off the threat of relegation, albeit not mathematically, but nonetheless the point gained was also a point that ensured a single point for Stoke that leaves them with an uphill task of catching us as they are seven points behind with only four games to play. Similarly, Southampton who also have four games remaining are six points adrift of us. Of the six teams below us in the table, only Swansea have five games to play like ourselves. The others only have three or four games to save their season. Surely we can do enough in these remaining matches to ensure top flight football for another season, even though all of our outstanding games are against teams in the top nine of the table.

Before the announcement of the impending departure of Arsene Wenger this week I was of the opinion that this was as good a time as any to face a trip to the Emirates Stadium. So many ungrateful Arsenal fans have been staying away in protest against their manager of 22 years, who has only brought them three league titles and seven FA Cup final victories during his tenure! In 20 of those years Arsenal have finished in the top four and qualified for the Champions League each time. Virtually every other club in the country would be happy with such a record. But Arsenal fans, like all the other fans of the top six clubs, believe they have a divine right to be at the very top. When “Wexit” hit the headlines on Thursday there was some relief among the Gunners faithful and perhaps a renewed enthusiasm to follow the team, a situation that might add something to the Arsenal performance today.

Of course, Arsenal have a Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid next week, and some might believe that they could take their foot off the gas and rest some key players today, but I doubt that this will be the case. They are certainly not the invincible team that we have faced so often in recent years, and they lack the pace up front that was so regularly our undoing against them, but nevertheless they still play with a certain style that can cause us problems.

Unlike so many of our fans I would like to see Joe Hart retain his position in goal, even though he will be forced to step down in the forthcoming fixture against Manchester City. Yes, he dropped a clanger for the Stoke goal, but I was interested to read some statistics that showed he has made fewer errors that have led to goals this season than either Cech for Arsenal or Lloris for Tottenham. There has been much speculation this week that Moyes wants to sign him permanently, which has led to some fans taking to social media to express their displeasure. At his best he is a fine keeper, although I accept he has not been at this level this season. Three other goalkeepers who have played for England could also be in sides that are relegated this season, Forster, Butland and Foster. Perhaps we could be interested in one of those, although only Butland would perhaps be better than Hart in my view. Depending on whether or not Fulham are promoted to the Premier League, their highly rated custodian Bettinelli is another we might fancy.

I expect an unchanged back three of the ever-impressive Rice alongside the in-form Ogbonna and Cresswell. Zabaleta and Masuaku will probably continue as the wide players, but I fear for Noble and Kouyate being over-run in the middle. It will be interesting to see who is selected in attacking positions, with only the Hammer of the Year elect Arnie being certain to start. Mario, Lanzini, Hernandez, Carroll and Fernandes will all be vying for a place in the starting line-up. I thought that the manager was too negative with his selections for the Stoke game leaving Arnie too isolated, but I doubt that he will change for this game until we fall behind. Fernandes will be a fine player in time, but I don’t see him as an offensive threat, and if selected for today I would like to see him bolstering the middle alongside Noble and Kouyate. Carroll has a fine record against Arsenal, and thinking of horses for courses perhaps this is one game he should start. But I suspect he will once again be on the bench alongside Hernandez. Perhaps Lanzini will play in a more advanced role alongside Arnie?

But whoever is picked I am hoping that we can pick up another point to edge us closer to safety. The bookmakers don’t have us as such big outsiders as they have done against other top sides recently. We are only 5/1 to win the game and 7/2 to share the spoils. But whatever happens today we should retain our league position unless Swansea win unexpectedly at Manchester City. I’m going for 1-1.

West Ham Play Stoke In The Monday Night Cinderella Match

Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Monday Evening Games. Can West Ham All But Secure Their Premier Status At The Expense Of Stoke?

The Premier League season has entered its final lap with today’s visitors, Stoke City, in pole position to claim one of the three unpopular relegation places.  Should the Potters come away from the match without at least a point then their chances of survival will look extremely grim indeed.  The Hammers themselves are not yet completely clear of the relegation scrap even though a long awaited second wind has lifted them to fourteenth place and six points above the drop zone.  A win today and that could well be survival guaranteed; at least for one more season.

On the evidence of their last two matches (against Arsenal and Tottenham) Stoke will offer plenty of effort but with very little in the way of quality to match it.  Against a weakened and very disinterested Arsenal they huffed and puffed but still managed to run out as 3-0 losers.  An equal measure of commitment was on show the following week against Tottenham until the hairs on Harry Kane’s shoulder struck the killer blow and left them pointless once more.

West Ham should go into the game with their confidence high looking for rare back to back wins at the London Stadium.  An atmosphere similar to that seen at that other Olympic Stadium (the one in Rome) on Tuesday night or in the home victory against Southampton should inspire the Hammers to a comfortable victory.  As always with our boys, though, the enemy  is complacency or tactics that react to Stoke’s desperation for points by sitting back and letting them attack – fine if it is backed up with clinical counter-attacking play but suicidal when paired with the, more often seen, giving the ball away cheaply ploy.

Monday night games were always great fun when it was one of the days on which midweek fixtures were played; but now that it is reserved for the weekend’s afterthought contest it has just become an irritating wait.  Whether good things come to those who wait remains to be seen.

Head to Head

The all-time record against Stoke is neck and neck with the Hammers having recorded just two more wins than the Potters in the 108 games played.  In more recent times the Midlanders have held the upper hand with a four to two win advantage (six draws) in the last twelve encounters.  In home matches West Ham have won five of the last twelve although have not been victorious at home since March 2011 when a 3-0 victory was the last of a season that led to relegation.

Team News

The West Ham starting eleven is unlikely to show too many changes from that which took the field at Stamford Bridge just over a week ago other than the potential forced replacement of the injured Aaron Cresswell by Patrice Evra.  The only other change I would expect is for Edmilson Fernandes to step down following his ineffective display against Chelsea, but whether that will mean a return for fit again Manuel Lanzini or a start for last week’s goal hero Javier Hernandez is the million dollar question.  The dilemma that Moyes faces is whether the inclusion of Hernandez diminishes the threat created from Marko Arnautovic’s free role or whether Lanzini and Joao Mario can be realistically accommodated in the same team.

There have been mumblings of a Andy Carroll return to the bench and fans of nostalgia might be excited at the prospect of both Carroll and Peter Crouch on the field at the same time.  I am not fan of the one dimensional target man but you cannot help but admire Crouch’s longevity and attitude.

Stoke have few injury worries with the major threat likely to come from Xherdan Shaqiri  (who always has me imagining he is from a Harry Enfield sketch) and in midfield from Joe Allen (who I hope is well and truly crossed off of our summer shopping list).  At the back Ryan Shawcross will continue to audition for a role as Bond villain henchman.

Also in the Stoke ranks is Glen Johnson, the most junior of the Hammer’s youth golden generation who between them amassed a raft of Premier League, Champion’s League, FA Cup and League Cup winner’s medals – sadly none with their academy club.  The shame with Johnson is that he played so few games in claret and blue before a relegation fire sale prompted his departure.  Fingers crossed that we won’t be repeating the same words about Declan Rice in a year or two’s time.

Man In The Middle

Sorting out the ‘went down too easily’ from the ‘was entitled to go down’ decisions will be Northumberland referee Michael Oliver, fresh from his midweek Bernabeu controversy.  Oliver has previously ref’d two West Ham games this term, defeats at home to Tottenham and away to Everton.  His 2017/18 record from 37 games is a whopping 134 yellow and 7 red cards.

Predictions

Both Lawro and Merson see the Hammers running out victorious at 2-0 and 2-1 respectively.  Anticipating that the coaching staff will not let complacency creep in and that we play the match at a good tempo I fully expect a West Ham by two or three goals.

Reminiscing about some West Ham v Stoke fixtures in the past

If it is not exactly a “must-win” game for the Hammers then it certainly is for the Potters if they are to have any prospect of playing Premier League football next season

Being of a certain age I can fondly recall the days when the prospect of a visit from Stoke City was one of the highlights of the season. For those of us who remember watching top flight football in the 1960s and early 1970s there were some epic fixtures against the Potters, who at the time were an attractive team that played entertaining football.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early October 1967 with a crowd of 24,000, we took our places on the “big step” on the North Bank at Upton Park about half way back slightly to the left of the goal. The Bee Gees were about to take over from Englebert Humperdinck at the top of the charts with Massachusetts. We were looking forward to the game and the first half didn’t disappoint us. Our first goal arrived when Geoff Hurst volleyed home a cross from the left from Peter Brabrook wearing the unfamiliar number 9 shirt. We had gone into the game with three out and out wingers in Brabrook, Sissons and Redknapp. The second goal was a spectacular overhead kick from Martin Peters following a cross from Redknapp. Shortly afterwards Bobby Moore sent Redknapp hurtling down the right wing, and he crossed from the bye-line to Hurst who headed home from six yards. Game over. Or so we thought!

Stoke had nothing to lose and came out attacking in the second half. When they pulled one back we weren’t unduly worried, but when a second went in we could see how the game was turning. Then our keeper Bobby Ferguson badly fumbled a weak shot and the rebound was turned in to bring the scores level. Stoke were now rampant and scored again to win the game 4-3. It is over 50 years ago now, but I remember the game very clearly. I’m not sure of the exact timing of the Stoke goals but my recollection is of them going in one after another in a very short period of time, a complete defensive collapse.

A couple of seasons later, almost to the day, a record which was banned by the BBC for its overly sexual content, Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus (Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg), was about to hot number one in the charts. If anything could be guaranteed to enhance the success of a song, being banned by the BBC was it. On a cold October Monday evening in front of a crowd of 27,000 we met Stoke again and raced into a three goal half time lead with strikes from Best, Brooking and Sissons. I can’t remember why, but Moore, Peters and Hurst who played in virtually every game at the time, were all missing for this fixture. From our customary North Bank vantage point we joked that we would probably lose 4-3 just as we had two seasons earlier. And we very nearly did! Once again Stoke came storming back to equalise the game at 3-3, and with almost the last kick of the game they struck the post.

Two seasons later we met Stoke in a League Cup semi-final that went to four games. In those days there were replays rather than penalty shoot-outs. On a Wednesday evening in December the first leg was away in the Potteries and we won the game 2-1 with goals from Best and a Geoff Hurst penalty. We were getting ready for a trip to Wembley! Almost 39,000 crammed into Upton Park for the second leg a week later. Stoke scored to bring the tie level at 2-2 before very late in the game we were awarded a penalty right in front of us in the North Bank. Geoff Hurst powered the spot-kick to the keeper’s right (as he always did), but the legendary Gordon Banks pulled off a magnificent save, and we went to a replay at Hillsborough in early January. That game ended goalless, so the tie went to a second replay, this time at Old Trafford three weeks later. For the whole of January the New Seekers were topping the charts singing (in Perfect Harmony!) that they’d like to teach the world to sing, a song made even more famous when it was used as a TV advertisement for Coca-Cola.

This second replay was incident packed, and one of the all-time great cup ties. It is remembered for Bobby Moore going in goal to replace the injured Bobby Ferguson who was concussed from a kick in the head early in the game. Incredibly Moore saved a penalty, although the rebound was turned in to put us 1-0 down. Incredibly we fought back and scored twice with goals from Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking. Ferguson returned to the game to resume in goal seemingly still concussed (it couldn’t happen today!), but we conceded two further goals, and Stoke won the game 3-2 to reach the Wembley final, where they beat the strong favourites Chelsea to win their first ever major trophy. They haven’t won another since.

Those heady football (and charts) memories are distant now, and neither Stoke (nor ourselves for that matter) are renowned these days for the entertaining style of our play. In recent years beginning with the Tony Pulis era, Stoke have become a team that I particularly dislike to watch. Their time wasting, blocking off the ball (American football style), and long throw game made them one of the most unattractive fixtures of the season. They regularly played the game to achieve throw-ins in the opposition half, and then Rory Delap would spend an age wiping the ball with a towel before launching the ball towards the penalty area to meet the head of one of their giants. One game I remember in particular was in the 2008/9 season when Stoke had returned to the top flight. Abdoulaye Faye (who later played for us in our promotion season three years later) scored for them in the first five minutes and then they killed the game stone dead with their tactics. We attacked them relentlessly and Carlton Cole scored an equaliser in the second half. The recriminations amongst the Stoke players led to Ricardo Fuller hitting one of his own players and getting sent off. With ten men, their time wasting went up a notch (if that was possible) whilst we continued to press for a winner. In the very last minute a Cole shot hit Diego Tristan (remember him?) and it fortuitously went into the goal. Stoke got exactly what they deserved.

So now we meet them again on a Monday night with a lot at stake. Our point at Chelsea last week took us closer to safety, and I hope that we can put another nail in the Stoke relegation coffin with a victory that would almost certainly mean we will retain our position in the top flight. With most bookmakers we are around even money to win the game which I believe to be very generous odds. Hopefully we can unlock the Stoke defence, which has conceded more goals than any other Premier League team this season (and they have the worst goal difference). In their position, with games fast running out, they surely will not sit back and play for a point as they really need to win most of their final games to stay up. After the game here they face Burnley, Liverpool, Palace and Swansea.

We have some tough fixtures ourselves after this game, so let’s hope we can put further daylight between us and the bottom three with three more points. A three goal lead by half time would be good! When we raced into a three goal advantage at half time in our last home game against Southampton it got me thinking as to how many times we had been three goals ahead just half way through a game in the sixty years I have been following West Ham. I couldn’t think of many, and with Stoke being our next home fixture, it reminded me of those two classic fixtures from the late 1960s. Of course this game will be nothing like those; it will be a tight, tense affair. Or will it?