This week I went to see Only Fools and Horses – the Musical. As a fan of the TV programme I thought that this stage musical, originally the brainchild of the show’s creator sadly deceased, John Sullivan, was superb. There was an interval to the show, but only one. It is not a perfect analogy I know, but I don’t think the audience would have been happy with four breaks. But this is exactly what happens to the domestic football season when the natural rhythm of weekly matches is broken by international football matches.
Some may like this but I am not keen personally. It is certainly better when the matches have some meaning (as in qualification for the 2020 European Championships), and are not friendly matches with limitless substitutions. I guess this is especially so when the England team rattle in five goals in each of their two matches against arguably our strongest opponents in the qualifying group, and have virtually qualified already. I’d still like to see the international break limited to perhaps once in the season, and then have additional matches for the national teams at the end of the domestic season. When I was young England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland used to play the Home International Championship at this time and it worked well. Qualifying matches for major tournaments could be played at the season end without frequently interrupting the domestic leagues.
Today we face Everton, so we have two clubs still aiming for a seventh place finish, but despite their aspirations both will probably fall short. Apart from the opening few games in our case, neither team has been involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table. Both are comfortably placed in mid-table, but both probably believe they should be a bit higher, and want to challenge Wolves and Watford for the honour of finishing as the top team outside the elite six. Three points this afternoon would help the cause of both and keep the winning team in with an outside chance. In fact a West Ham win could even put us in seventh place after this weekend’s games if Watford and Wolves slip up in their away games at Manchester United and Burnley respectively.
It would be great to see a seven goal thriller for the second consecutive home game but this is highly unlikely. More likely (I hope) is a 3-1 home victory to match our win at Goodison Park earlier in the season, and the score in our win over the Toffeemen in the final home game last season. If I recall correctly our three goals in May were all from outside the box. Lanzini scored two of them in what was to be his last game for us until recently (of course we didn’t know that at the time!) and Arnie thumped one home from 20 yards too. To me it highlighted the limitations of Jordan Pickford as a goalkeeper, and commentators would have said that he would have been disappointed to let them in. Of course since then he has cemented his place in goal for the national team, although I remain unconvinced. Of all the England keepers currently playing who I have seen live my preference is for Jack Butland of Stoke. He is probably overlooked as he is not playing Premier League football though.
Just to emphasise the importance of the results when playing against teams around you in the league I will go back 50 seasons to 1968-69. That was an excellent time for us, and our final finishing position was eighth whilst Everton finished third. We began that season so well only losing one of our opening eleven league games. That defeat was our biggest of the season, a resounding 4-1 loss at “fortress” Upton Park to Everton. We also lost the return fixture at Goodison Park. Had we won both of those games then Everton would have finished fourth and we would have been sixth at the end. In the following season Everton were the champions of England, topping the league by a massive nine points (these were the days of only two points for a win). We finished seventeenth. And yes, they beat us twice that season too.
Our head to head record against Everton is a poor one, where our wins and the drawn games are just about equal to the number of Everton victories. For a long time in the early years of this century, Everton were considered to be a bogey team, and Lukaku seemed unable to fail to score when they played us. In fact, until our 3-1 win on the final day of last season, we had only beaten them twice at home in the league in the 21st century, both 1-0 victories in 2002 and 2007. Although there was, of course, the FA Cup win 9-8 on penalties when Adrian famously threw his gloves to the ground before scoring the winning penalty.
One league where Everton and West Ham are fighting for top spot is that of most games lost in the Premier League. Both have topped the table in recent times, and there is little to choose between the two, although Everton have played considerably more games than we have, as they have been ever present. Everton currently lead by 374 to 371. But to be fair, it is not all bad news as to have this record confirms longevity and appearances in the Premier League, with both clubs also in the top ten for games won too.
The similarity of inconsistency and records this season is reflected in the bookmakers’ odds, where we are slight favourites at 6/4 to win the game. Everton are 7/4 with the draw at 9/4. 1-1 is the favourite score at around 5/1, whereas a West Ham win of 1-0 is 8/1, and a repeat of the 3-1 for our last two wins over Everton in the past year is 18/1. Our home record is improving, whereas Everton have been relatively poor on their travels. But the past counts for nothing. I’ll go for 3-1 again, although any victory would keep us in the hunt for a seventh placed finish.