As August moves into September, summer begins to turn into autumn, and schoolchildren prepare for a new year at school. The new football season is already underway and, although the league tables mean little at this stage, we begin to get a feel for how the next nine months are likely to unfold. In just a couple of months I will be “celebrating” (if that is the right word) sixty years of following West Ham. My first visit to Upton Park was in November 1958, and my interest in following the team had already begun as that season had got underway in August. Promotion had been achieved the previous May when we finished at the top of Division Two and our return to Division One would be our first season in the top flight since we were relegated in 1932. That disastrous season (1931-32) had begun so well with winning the two games played in the month of August to take us into third place in the league. It ended with losing our last seven games, only picking up one point in our last ten matches and plummeting to the very foot of the table.
So after more than a quarter of a century outside of the elite, we began season 1958-59 with high hopes. There were three games to be played in the month of August, beginning with an away fixture at Portsmouth, followed two days later when we welcomed the champions from the previous season (Wolves), and then a home game against Aston Villa. Three games in a week and we won them all. The 2-0 win over Wolves (who would go on to be league champions again) was particularly satisfying, although the 7-2 slaughter of Aston Villa meant that we finished the month with nine points and eleven goals from the first three games. Incredibly we were only second in the league. An excellent season followed with a final league position of sixth. John Dick was my first favourite player and he ended the season as top scorer with 27 league goals (out of the 85 league goals scored by the team). We were fun to watch as we conceded 70 that season too.
Moving forward ten years to one of my favourite ever seasons (1968-69), we played seven league games in the month of August. Fifty years ago. This was the era of Moore, Hurst, Peters, Bonds and Brooking. The Beach Boys topped the music charts with Do It Again as the first month of the season drew to a close. We’d won five and drawn one of these fixtures, including wins of 5-0 and 4-0 to sit third in the league. We were just about to play our opening league cup game that season where we despatched Bolton 7-2. Despite remaining unbeaten throughout September we couldn’t keep it up but still finished eighth at the end of May. More draws than any other team in the division (18) and failure to win any of our last nine games stopped us from finishing higher.
Jumping ahead another ten years and 1978-79 finds us in Division Two after relegation the previous May. We still had Bonds and Brooking, together with Cross, Devonshire, Lampard (snr) and Pop Robson. Two wins and a draw from the league matches in August put us second in the league, but an inconsistent season followed and we finished fifth, just missing out on promotion, despite the strength of the team.
After our last major trophy winning the FA Cup in 1980 as a second division team, and a record-breaking promotion winning season that followed, we remained in the top flight for a few years but in 1988-89 we finished next to bottom and were relegated once again. Only one league match was played in August that season and we lost it 4-0. Moving ahead ten years again and 1998-99 had three August games, and again we were unbeaten with one win and two draws. And finally ten years ago in 2008-09 we won three of our four August games (two of them by a 4-1 scoreline) to lie fourth in the table.
This season has bucked the general ten year trend in that we have lost all three league games and sit at the foot of the table. I’ve looked back through (my) living memory and find that in the last sixty years our league position at the end of August is better than where we finish up in May roughly half of the time, and not as good as the final league position the other half. One thing is for certain; our final league position next May cannot be any worse than where we are now!
On eleven occasions in the past sixty years we have been in the top three at the end of August, and in two of those we have been top (1983-83, 1989-90). But some of our best ever seasons have not started particularly auspiciously. In our record breaking promotion season of 1980-81 we were seventh at the end of August, before running away with Division Two by the end. And two other second division promotion seasons (1990-91 and 1992-93) found us in 14th and 18th respectively at the end of the first month before the final finishing position of second. In our best ever season (1985-86) when we finished third in the table and came close to becoming champions for the only time, we were languishing in 17th by 31 August.
What does all this prove? To borrow and amend a financial phrase, past performance in the month of August is not necessarily indicative of future results throughout the remainder of the season. So don’t press the panic button yet as hopefully there is still plenty to be optimistic about for this season!