If the Christmas bells that ring aren’t exactly what you would call ‘clanging chimes of doom’, the world in general (and football in particular) is still a long, long way away from a return to normality with supporters crammed into packed stadiums. Maybe not until the start of the 2021/22 season under the current wishful thinking trajectory.
Until then, we must continue to make do with current arrangements. Matches staggered over the entirety of the weekend that suits the TV audience demographic e.g. off-peak scheduling unless you are playing one of the big boys. I have always disliked Monday night games even though they have been a part of TV football ever since the early days of Sky. Even more that their Friday night cousin, they never really feel part of the weekend programme.
On the other hand, the top of the Premier League table is starting to take a normal, familiar shape with five of the ‘rich six’ now nestling in the top eight. If the tonight’s game goes the wrong way, then it could be five in the top seven. Only the ongoing turmoil unfolding at Arsenal is preventing a clean sweep.
Having watched too many of this weekend’s games I was left with an overriding sense of how ordinary most of them are when you don’t have ‘any skin in the game.’ Enthralling matches are an exception despite the commentator’s best efforts to make every game to sound like it’s been a thriller.
It occurred to me that maybe we will never return to the days of matches kicking off at the same time. That the staggered kick-offs might well suit the broadcasters and hence the clubs, grateful for the additional revenues that it might bring. It could be something else (like muddy pitches and physical contact) that disappears from the game for good.
In these changing times there is, at least, some consistency with the unexpected return of Fat Sam to football management. The sporting equivalent of Marley’s ghost who has been doomed to a lifetime spent wandering the lower reaches of the English game attempting to rescue lost causes. He looks to have his work cut out this time, though, as he replaces the hapless Slaven Bilic at West Bromwich Albion – a reversal of their sequence at the helm in east London.
Taking the spirit of the ghost of Christmas past, I was reminded of a Boxing Day fixture at Stamford Bridge in 1973. Having lost at home to Stoke the previous Saturday, West Ham were propping up the table when they travelled across the capital to Chelsea four days later. In those days, if you didn’t go to the game, it was quite difficult to find out the scores until they appeared in the newspaper on the following day. Fortunately, I caught a clip on the TV News in the pub and was surprised to discover the Hammers had one 4-2 (Clyde Best (2), Frank Lampard Sr and Bobby Gould) .
The 1973/74 season was maybe the poorest of all under the management of Ron Greenwood, although it did include a win double over Chelsea. In the return game in March 74, West Ham won 3-0 thanks to a Billy Bonds hattrick. We eventually escaped relegation by a single point in a season that was notable for Bonds ending as the club’s top scorer (13); Derby, Ipswich and Stoke qualifying for Europe; and for the relegation of Manchester United – beware Arsenal!
West Ham versus Chelsea has often been a feisty affair. Before their Russian inheritance I saw them as our London equals on the pitch, slightly behind the more successful north London neighbours. Since then, it has become a more one-sided affair and West Ham have won only one of the last fourteen meetings at Stamford Bridge – that being the equivalent fixture last season, in which Chelsea recorded no fouls against.
The presence of Frank Lampard’s backside in the Chelsea hot seat adds a further dash of spice to proceedings. It has been a mediocre start to club management for the ex-Hammer and despite spending massive amounts of money in the summer, his team lacks any true identity – more a collection of individuals than a team. There have been days when it has clicked, but not often enough to call it a success.
If the press reports are to be believed, Lampard remains keen to add Declan Rice to his numbers. Naturally, I am hoping Rice sticks around at West Ham for some little while longer yet, but if/ when he does eventually leave, he could do so much better than Chelsea. Never go back, Declan!
West Ham were disappointing in midweek against Crystal Palace, demonstrating once again that we struggle to adapt our style when coming up against more dogged opponents. Paradoxically, we are better suited to playing against teams like Chelsea, who we can hit on the break, than those such as Palace, where guile and imagination are required to break down stubborn defences. Still the game saw a goal of the season contender from Sebastien Haller as well as fine performances from Vladimir Coufal and the skipper (the real one, not the old guy that sometimes turns up.)
Despite its success at Leeds, I do worry about four at the back given our current resources. The thinness of the squad could be a significant factor tonight as a number of players are reportedly carrying knocks. Michail Antonio may be available (but only from the bench, I would think) while Fabian Balbuena, Jarrod Bowen and Aaron Cresswell are among those who have been receiving treatment.
New recruits to the squad are needed badly in the January window if Moyes team are to build on their fine start and maintain momentum in the cluttered schedule of league and (hopefully) cup games. The board should already be in contact with Good King Wenceslas to pop another couple of Czechs in the post.
I can’t make my mind up whether it is a good or bad thing that Chelsea have lost their last two league games. Does that make them more determined to perform or does it add extra pressure? I’m sure David Moyes will approach the game much as he has others against the top sides. Keeping shape and discipline will be essential, as will not letting the fleet footed Chelsea forwards embarrass us for pace. Keep it tight and they will fall over each other trying to walk the ball in. Too open and our defenders won’t see them for dust.
I am staying on the fence for this one with a predicted 1-1 draw. More importantly, I wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year.