49 years ago next month, one of the most prolific goalscorers in English football made his debut for West Ham. A certain Jimmy Greaves, aged only 30 at the time, but nearing the end of his career was acquired from Tottenham as part exchange in Martin Peters transfer to White Hart Lane. Greaves England career had ended in 1967 with 44 goals in only 57 international appearances, a phenomenal strike rate at that level, and it was hoped that his arrival would spark a revival in Hammers’ fortunes, as we were languishing in 17th place in the table with half a dozen games to go.
His first game in March 1970 was at Maine Road, then the home of Manchester City, at the time a mid-table team, although two seasons previously they had been league champions. The omens for an immediate impact didn’t look good. I can remember standing on the North Bank at Upton Park on a cold rainy day the previous December and watching in horror as City gave us a 4-0 thrashing. Contrary to popular belief among younger West Ham followers, Upton Park was never a fortress, and that day the atmosphere reached quite a low point. Ironically I can remember us having quite a lot of the game (they didn’t have possession statistics in those days so I have to rely on memory), and we created a number of chances to score with shots rebounding off the woodwork, and goalmouth scrambles.
On a quagmire of a pitch Francis Lee scored the only goal of the first half with a long range shot along the ground, and I can remember watching the Big Match the following day and Brian Moore’s comments along the lines of a suspicion that Bobby Ferguson was a little slow at getting down to it. In modern day parlance we would have said that he would have been disappointed to let it in. A young Ian Bowyer scored two headers in the second half, one from at least a dozen yards out, and the other resulting from non-existent West Ham marking. Doyle scored City’s fourth goal with a long range effort where Ferguson didn’t move. I’m sure he would have been disappointed with his effort to save once again!
So could Greaves inspire us in the return fixture three months later? You bet he could. He had a record of always scoring in his first game for new clubs and at all international levels and he didn’t disappoint. On a pitch that was even more of a quagmire than we saw at Upton Park in December he bagged two goals as did Geoff Hurst, although the game is remembered for a Ronnie Boyce volley from around the half-way line, returning Joe Corrigan’s clearance with interest. We won the game 5-1, astonishingly outperforming City’s win on our ground.
Now you would think that to win 5-1 at City is something that would happen once in a blue moon (sorry, I had to get that in somewhere!), but it wasn’t that unusual in that era! When I was a young boy (in the 1961-62 season) we won our away fixture at Maine Road by 5-3! Ironically we also lost the home game against them that season by 4-0!
Moving on to the following season (1962-63), we did even better winning 6-1 at Maine Road. A young Geoff Hurst, wearing the number 10 shirt for only the second time after being converted from a wing-half into a striker by Ron Greenwood, scored his first ever away goal in that game. In the final game of the season we repeated the early season victory winning 6-1 yet again, condemning City to relegation. Geoff Hurst scored twice this time, and finished the campaign with 15 goals in 29 appearances. As a wing-half the previous season he had netted just once in 24 games. We had unearthed a new goalscorer, and the rest (they say) is history.
Following the 5-1 success in 1970, we haven’t done too well in away fixtures at City since. Our next league win there came in 1982 when Paul Goddard scored the only goal of the game. And then we had to wait until the twenty-first century (2003) before another away win there when Freddie Kanoute scored the only goal of the game in our magnificent end of season revival under caretaker manager Sir Trev, which narrowly failed to keep us up, despite winning six and drawing four of our final eleven games. The damage had been done earlier in the season when we occupied a relegation place almost throughout.
Fast forward to the last season at the Boleyn (2015-16) for the next (and our last) win at City, and our first league win at the Etihad. When we met them early in that season we had already won our away games at Arsenal and Liverpool, so why not add City to the list? Moses and Sakho scored our goals past Joe Hart early in the game, with De Bruyne pulling one back just before half time. The expected onslaught came in the second half but we held firm. The statistics for that match made interesting reading, with City “beating us” 672-279 in passes, 16-3 in corners, 27-6 in shots, 89%-68% in pass accuracy, 50-7 in crosses, 66%-34% first half possession, and 78%-22% in second half possession. I don’t think that they had that nonsensical statistic of “expected goals” at the time, but it reinforces the fact that these statistics are a mere indicator of what has happened; it is only goals scored and conceded that really matters at the end of the day.
So, just three league wins at City since Jimmy Greaves made his debut for us all those years ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, with the financial aspect in English football being (almost) the over-riding factor in the success or otherwise of clubs at the top. It is no coincidence that the six biggest clubs in terms of revenue will finish (once again) in the top six places in the Premier League. City are one of those clubs and have had a lot of success in recent years. After a mid-season wobble they have almost recovered the ground on Liverpool, and I believe that they will go on to retain the title that they won last May with a record points tally. It will be closer this time, but with the depth of their squad I can see them coming out ahead of the nervous Merseysiders.
I have read some West Ham fans on social media talking up our chances tonight due to the fact that City went to extra time on Sunday before winning the Carabao Cup, the first of four possible trophies that they could win this season. The bookmakers don’t give us much of a chance with odds of around 18/1 on a victory (as high as 7/1 on a draw), and West Ham wins with a score of 1-0 or 2-1 around 50/1, or 2-0 around 100/1! It is quite an indictment of football in this country, and the Premier League in particular, that the team sitting in second place, playing at home to another team in the top half of the table, should be such overwhelming favourites to win the game. Of course upsets can happen, and we almost managed it last season, but it looks a tall order to say the least.
Nevertheless I shall have a small wager on a 2-1 West Ham win at 50/1 to repeat our last victory there. I’ll also have another fun bet on Arnie to score the first goal in the game, with Kompany to receive the first card in the game. I’ve got odds of 200/1 on that one. What are the chances? There are words in the lyrics of Blue Moon about saying a prayer I believe. We need to do that. I’m sure that the bookmakers have got it about right, but you have to dream, don’t you?