Can West Ham beat the unbeatables?

Champions Manchester City (unbeaten this season) visit the London Stadium to face a West Ham side who have been known to upset them before. But is the gap now too wide?

On a cold Saturday afternoon almost half a century ago (30 November 1968), I travelled to Upton Park to see the (then) in-form Hammers team take on the champions from the previous season (1967-68), Manchester City. It was our 21st league game (no international breaks in those days!) which marked the half-way point of the season when there were 22 teams in the top division of English football (then called Division 1).

After a terrific start to the campaign, which saw us top the league towards the end of August, typical West Ham inconsistency crept in, and we failed to win a game throughout September and half of October, until Sunderland were our visitors on 19 October. That day Geoff Hurst bagged six goals and we beat them 8-0. This was the start of some entertaining home games and we followed this up beating Queens Park Rangers 4-3, with a magnificent volley from Harry (Jungle) Redknapp to win the game. In the next home match we thrashed Leicester 4-0 with Martin Peters scoring the best goal I have ever seen to this day.

WHUMCI3

So bring on the champions! Manchester City had captured the title just six months previously, narrowly beating Manchester United and Liverpool to the top spot, but losing ten games in the process that season. This was only their second title (the first was in the 1930s) and their third would not arrive until well into the 21st century. With friends from school I stood on the South Bank. I can’t remember why we swapped ends that day because the North Bank terracing was our normal viewing position of choice. Perhaps we had a premonition that West Ham’s two goals would be scored in front of us.

And the two goals were virtually identical, with moves dreamt up by Ron Greenwood and practiced on the training pitch at Chadwell Heath. By this time West Ham had perfected the art of the near-post cross, and they executed it on two occasions in the first half, Geoff Hurst crossing for Martin Peters to head home the first, and the reverse, Peters to Hurst to nod home the second. Both crosses came from the right wing, mirror images of the Peters to Hurst headed goal that beat Argentina in the 1966 World Cup Quarter Final that came from the left. The 2-1 victory was our ninth win of the season (just four defeats at that point) and kept us fifth in the table.

Roll on almost exactly 50 years (now where did that go?), and Manchester City arrive as champions once again, but this time they are unbeaten so far (winning ten and drawing two of the first dozen league matches). They only had two defeats in the whole of the last campaign, on their way to setting a record points total. So in their last 50 league games just Liverpool (4-3) and Manchester United (3-2) have beaten them, so what chance does an injury ravaged West Ham team have? Bookmakers rate us at around 11/1 to win the game, which given the current form of the two sides is not particularly generous.

This week I looked through my programme collection to unearth the one shilling (5p) offering from 50 years ago. The back page told us that Christmas was coming and advertised items from the Hammers shop, which included a fleece lined anorak for 70/- (£3.50), and Hammers Waterproof Caps for 3/6 (17p) (I cannot remember them!). The back page also gave us the codes for the half-time scoreboard, where the scores after 45 minutes were posted on a board at each end of the ground.

The two teams were numbered 1 to 11, and many famous faces from yesteryear were playing. The programme featured articles introducing “The Champions” and the usual pen pictures of the visitors. There was also a match review and an appeal to the “North Bank Boys” who had “disgraced” the club by “train-wrecking activities” returning from Ipswich. “We know who you are” was one of the phrases used in the article. There were some (black and white) match photographs, and also a Sunday Telegraph description of the Martin Peters goal against Leicester that I referred to earlier – “A gem of a goal, fashioned in equal parts of beauty and power”.

Communications from fans included one from a 15 year old lad from Hockley (only just older than me at the time) who pleaded “We have waited a long time for this challenging position: please, please, please West Ham, don’t disappoint us now”. Well Colin, 50 years on and they continue to disappoint us regularly; we are still waiting to be league champions!

Lacey’s coaches advertised coach trips to Liverpool for the game the following week at 26/- (£1.30) for adults and 17/6 (87p) for children, and a day return from Euston to Liverpool on British Rail was 70/- (£3.50) for adults and half price for children. The season’s scores, scorers, attendances and league tables featured along with an article called Remfry’s Records. For this match programme, Bobby Moore had the “player’s choice” and he quoted Chopin as his favourite music, but suggested that Bill played Revolution by the Beatles. A lucky programme draw offered two prizes of £5 each, and two prizes of grandstand tickets for two for the next home league match. Good value for 5p I reckon. I don’t bother to shell out the £3.50 for today’s “matchday magazine”, so much information is available via various media.

Until recent times when the fortunes of our visitors have improved dramatically following the injection of money into the club, our record against them was fairly even. But in the last ten years we have faced them in 16 league games, losing 11, drawing 3, and winning just twice. Those two victories in October 2014 at Upton Park and a rare away win in September 2015, were both by the same score (2-1) as that win 50 years ago. And to add to that we have the 9-0 reverse in the two-legged League Cup semi-final, and a 5-0 defeat in an FA Cup tie.

What are the chances of another surprise win, by 2-1 perhaps, with both goals coming from near-post headers? Have we scored a headed goal this season? I can’t remember one. We can dream can’t we?