Yet again the important business of transfer speculation is interrupted by having to play a game of football. And to make matters worse, it will be two matches in a week as West Ham kick-off a run of 17 potential ‘must win’ games between now and the middle of May. They probably need to win at least five or six of them.
As things stand West Ham are among the front-runners in this season’s relegation stakes. Things can change, of course, but right now it looks any three from Norwich, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Brighton, Burnley and West Ham for the drop – you couls potentially add in Watford but I don’t see them as relegation material now they have got their act together. Norwich are already well off the pace, but a revival in East Anglia could set up a claret and blue treble. Optimists might point out that the Hammers have a game in hand as well as one of the better goal differences among the threatened clubs – but both of those could be wiped out when we meet Liverpool at the end of the month. Looking at how compressed the lower half of the table is suggests that clubs will need every one of those 40 points this time around.
Any encounter with Everton is a huge test for David Moyes as it is the Toffees that he is still most closely associated. Although ultimately it required the assistance of VAR to confirm defeat at Bramall Lane last week, it was a disappointing West Ham performance that brought the new manager’s honeymoon to an abrupt halt. The bounce turned out to be of the dead cat variety. He will be desperate to launch bounce phase two against his old club. Moyes may have the natural demeanour of Eeyore but needs to embrace his inner Tigger to breath life into his listless team.
One probable change this week will be the returning Darren Randolph in place of the re-injured Lukasz Fabianski. In his previous West Ham incarnation, Randolph showed he could be a more than competent shot-stopper but I will keep fingers crossed that he has toughened up in the air during his time on Teesside. He is good enough to fill the spot as an understudy keeper but he is unlikely to single-handedly save the season. For that we would need Gandalf rather than Randolph.
Who eventually joins him through the West Ham transfer window is anyone’s guess. As usual there are so many mixed messages as to the type of player(s) being pursued. The usual in-the-knows and reliable journalists have been throwing up new names, from the exotic to the mundane, on an almost daily basis. I would be quite happy with a Barkley or a Clyne, much less so with a Fellaini or an Allen. The sense that we have all been in this very same position before – allowed to drift into a relegation battle and potentially recruit a bunch of journeyman has-beens as a reaction – is highly depressing.
The idea that the club will let yet another transfer window pass without finally strengthening the suspect central midfield area and bringing in pace and athleticism is inconceivable, isn’t it?
No doubt the owners will be persuaded to open their wallets (even if it is for loan deals – which are not a problem in principle) as their only deeply held desire is to hold on to their Premier League status. Never mind taking profits or receiving income from director loans, it is the asset value of the club that is important to them – and that would plummet in the Championship.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Gold and Sullivan taking control of the club. In wedding terms that would make it a tin anniversary. If only our own tin men had a heart (or a brain as well come to that). Or is the heart they are searching for the one that many believe has been ripped out of the club? It has been obvious to me for some time that the owners have no strategy that seeks to incrementally improve the club and the way that it is organised. The fighting words they made on taking over the reins at West Ham has never been backed up by a sensible plan of action. Money has been spent but not wisely or with long term team building in mind. The irony is that despite everything, West Ham is one of the top twenty biggest clubs in the world in terms of revenues. Professional football people taking day to day control of operations could easily make a big difference.
Making a quick return to West Ham officiating is Andre Marriner from the West Midlands. He was most recently in charge of the Hammer’s defeat at Crystal Palace. This week’s Dr Evil in the VAR Stockley Park bunker is Simon Hooper from Wiltshire. In the pre-VAR days West Ham looked to be the one club that would benefit from accurate and consistent refereeing decisions. And yet, the exact opposite has been true in practice – or at least that is how it looks through my claret and blue spectacles. Funnily enough, I don’t remember any hoo-hah being made about accidental handballs leading to goals back then. The new interpretation has tried to fix a problem that didn’t exist – it is ridiculous and inconsistent. If the concern is that a player has gained an advantage then the same must also be true of any ball to hand for a defender in the penalty area – yet it goes unpunished. As I have mentioned before, giving the responsibility for implementing VAR to referees was asking for trouble.
Lawro and Charlie Nicholas are again synchronised this week in calling a 2-1 West Ham win. Although it is a winnable game I am not confident unless we start on the front foot and dominate the middle of the park – something we have struggled with for much of the season. Calvert-Lewin will cause problems for our defenders as he did last season (but now he is scoring goals as well), Richarlison will run at our defence and fall over at the slightest change in air pressure (beware Simon Hooper) while Walcott saves all his best performances for the Hammers. On the other hand they are vulnerable at the back but can we put them under sustained enough pressure? I am not certain that Moyes will be bold enough to throw everything at them rather than keeping it tight. Hoping for a win, but feeling it’s a draw.