When a new football season is about to begin then I am normally full of excitement, looking forward to going along to the London Stadium for the first game. If the opening game is away from home it is still exciting to watch the progress of the matches being played on Sports Saturday on Sky. But this time around I can’t really get as interested as I normally do, which considering I’ve been following West Ham since season 1958-59 may be surprising, and perhaps disappointing. Am I losing my enthusiasm for football? Of course last season was probably the strangest one of all time for reasons that we are all aware of, and this one may well be the same. Following the lockdown we began slowly, but then ended the season on a high, securing our place in the top division for another season with some excellent performances. Perhaps once the games get underway again I’ll regain my enthusiasm, but at the moment it’s not there yet.
The interval before the new season would start was obviously much shorter than usual, but I guess we were looking forward to seeing some departures and new arrivals in readiness for the new campaign. The friendly games against lower league opposition went well enough, although by all accounts the Betway Cup performance against Bournemouth (also lower league!) highlighted our defensive deficiencies. Of course some of our players were away on international duty, but the return of Fabianski, Rice, Yarmolenko, and Soucek will undoubtedly strengthen the team. But apart from confirming the permanent transfer of Soucek there is a distinct lack of new faces. All other Premier League clubs seem to have been active in the transfer market, but the eighteenth richest club in the world has been pleading poverty, much to the annoyance of the fans, who were looking forward to some new faces, in particular to strengthen the defensive positions, especially at full back.
The departure of Diangana to West Brom, where he spent last season on loan has caused much consternation on social media, but once Mark Noble and others had joined in with their disappointment at seeing him leave it became an issue for the national broadcast and newspaper media. Although the furore has died down a little, there still seems to be a lot of anger around still, and this will increase if we fail to get off to a good start in this game.
I’m not really sure how many times we’ve faced the Geordies in our opening game of the season. It makes a change in recent times to not be facing top-six opposition, although games against top sides come thick and fast after the opener. I do remember one season in particular, and that was back in 1973-74. We had ended the previous season in sixth place, one of our best ever top division finishing positions, and hopes were high for the new campaign. But that first game at Upton Park was a massive disappointment, which was exacerbated by a friend from Newcastle joining me at the game. We went down 2-1 with ex-Newcastle player Pop Robson scoring our goal.
From that point it didn’t get any better and a succession of draws and defeats in the first eleven matches left us at the bottom of the table. Eventually we won a game (1-0 at Coventry thanks to a John McDowell goal), but we remained at the foot of the table until we won our second game of the season beating Manchester City 2-1 on December 8th. Two 4-2 victories at Chelsea on Boxing Day and then at home to Norwich on New Years Day still left us in the relegation zone (21st), before a run of wins and draws from the beginning of January through to the middle of March eased the pressure slightly and we eventually stayed up by one point in 18th. Manchester United were one of the teams relegated. I’m hoping that we don’t replicate that season, which also included an ignominious defeat at the hands of Hereford in the FA Cup.
The point I’m trying to make here is that everything can look rosy before a season begins and then it all goes wrong. I can also remember pre-seasons where we have looked good in the friendly games and then performed badly once the league games have begun. The reverse has also happened at times with a disastrous pre-season leading to doom and gloom amongst the fans followed by some excellent performances. It just highlights the Forrest Gump box of chocolates story – with West Ham you never know what you are going to get. That applies from one season to another, one game to another, and frequently to the first half and second half of a game.
I’m not especially confident with everything about the club at the moment, but hopeful that David Moyes can continue where he left off at the end of the last campaign, despite the difficulties that he faces. He knows that the model of recent seasons has to change and he wants to build for the future. He doesn’t want players coming here for a good pay day in London, and if he can unearth more gems like Bowen and Soucek we will have a chance. People forget that when he arrived at Everton in 2002 they were a bit like us, often fighting the drop. When he left there eleven years later they had finished in the top eight for seven consecutive seasons. Whether he will be given the time, and even some of the resources that should be available to the eighteenth richest club in the world only time will tell.
The game kicks off at 8pm and is available to view on TV. That’s some consolation for not being able to be at the stadium. How will we line up? I expect Fabianski to be behind a back four of Fredericks (or Johnson?), Diop, Ogbonna and Cresswell. I fear that Saint-Maximin can run our defence ragged as he did at the London Stadium last season and wonder if Masuaku will be included to provide extra cover for Cresswell? It wouldn’t be my choice but it may happen. Rice, Soucek and Noble may start in midfield, with Bowen, Fornals and Antonio providing the main attacking options at the start. But will there perhaps be a place for the in-form Yarmolenko, or a hopefully rejuvenated Haller, Lanzini or Anderson? Will any of the youngsters get a chance? Who knows? What we do know is that there won’t be any new faces to bolster a defence that had one of the worst goals-against records in the Premier League last season. I’m confident that we can score goals, but can we improve defensively? Perhaps David Moyes and his coaches can work wonders on this aspect of our team, but has he got the raw materials to work with?
The bookmakers have us at around 23/20 to win the game, with Newcastle and the draw both at around 5/2. If you fancy us to win then West Ham to win and both teams to score is on offer at around 7/2. My fun bet for this game is for West Ham to win 2-1 with Tomas Soucek scoring the last goal in the game – this is priced at 60/1. Without any great degree of confidence I’m just hoping for a decent performance and three points. What are the chances?
It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. So here goes: 1.Manchester City, 2.Liverpool, 3.Manchester United, 4.Chelsea, 5.Arsenal, 6.Wolves, 7.Everton, 8.Tottenham, 9.Leicester, 10.West Ham, 11.Southampton, 12.Newcastle, 13.Leeds, 14.Aston Villa, 15.Sheffield United, 16.Crystal Palace, 17.Brighton, 18.Burnley, 19.West Brom, 20.Fulham. There’s optimism for you! Enjoy the game