West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.

Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?

West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.

At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.

After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.

Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.

Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.

David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.

A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.

It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

Seven Cup Finals for West Ham to Achieve the Magnificent Dream

In a week when the nation’s high streets emerged from hibernation and Covid restrictions began to ease the Premier League shunned the old normality with the “new normal” of West Ham moving into the top four. And although we were close to that position when he joined us, and so many of our players have stepped up to the plate in this campaign, Jesse Lingard’s contribution has been a major factor in firing us into contention for a potential place in next season’s Champions League.

It is hard to remember a footballer make such a positive impression upon joining West Ham. When Jesse Lingard arrived in the winter transfer window there were many doubters among Hammers fans. Just as there were when Craig Dawson was signed, too. But I guess that is par for the course with many of the East End faithful.

Following last weekend’s win over Leicester I saw a “league table” of Premier League footballers with the most league goals and assists since February 1st and we all know who was at the top. With eight goals and three assists in nine games since joining on loan from Manchester United, Jesse has outshone all others being directly involved in eleven goals. It was also interesting to see Michail Antonio sixth in the table with two goals and four assists, and he hasn’t played that many games!

The Jesse Lingard show was in force against Leicester when a game that was a bit of a stalemate at the time was suddenly brought to life when he bent home a first-time half volley from Coufal’s cutback after half an hour. It was a strange shot (I think he said that he shinned it) and I did a double take when I saw it nestling in Schmeichel’s net. A few minutes later Jarrod Bowen beat the offside trap to race on to a long ball from Diop and then square it to Lingard to put it into an empty net.

2-0 at half-time, and then three shortly after the break when Lingard found Soucek who calmly passed to Bowen who controlled the ball with one touch and calmly finished it with the other. After the previous two games Hammers fans were used to 3-0 leads but we wanted more remembering what happened in those. Diop headed a fourth from a Lingard cross but VAR spotted he was narrowly offside.

Those supporters of a nervy disposition or with high blood pressure could have done without the drama that followed as the game began to resemble the last two matches with three-goal leads, especially the panic stations when the Foxes’ second goal went in at the start of the six minutes Mike Dean decided to add on at the end of the ninety. But just like the Wolves game we held on for a 3-2 victory that put us back into fourth place with just seven games remaining. Perhaps the reopening of pubs will be welcomed by many fans as the final stages of recent games may drive us to drink! How many of us would have believed that after 31 games we would be sitting in the top four with it in our own hands to remain there?

For the 27th time in those 31 games our opponents had more possession than we did, and Leicester completed more than twice as many passes. This just goes to show that the ball retention statistics that regularly appear on our TV screens during games should not be given the importance that so much of the media gives to it. But having said that there is one area where we can improve, and that is not giving the ball away too easily as we sometimes do.

Five of the seven remaining games are against teams in the lower reaches of the table (Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom away) with the toughest games (on paper) in between them at home to Chelsea and Everton, before a final fixture at home to Southampton.

Considering the lack of depth in the squad and the mounting injuries it is amazing that we are still in this position so close to the season’s end. However there is hope that some of our injured players will be back soon, even in time for tomorrow’s game. Mark Noble has described our remaining fixtures as seven cup finals. What a shame that we can’t have 60,000 fans there for those three matches still to be played at the London Stadium.

Looking at those remaining fixtures in terms of degree of difficulty based on average league table positions, Liverpool and ourselves would appear to have easier run-ins than Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton. Brighton gave us a helping hand by drawing 0-0 with Everton on Monday evening. I watched the second half of the game and the Seagulls largely outplayed the Toffeemen without being clinical in front of goal.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that playing lowly teams is an advantage, so we can’t get too excited in anticipation of the games to come, as teams fighting for their lives at the foot of the table are often tougher opponents than those sitting comfortably with not much to play for, or those with other goals in mind such as the FA Cup or European competitions.

Our away games might seem very winnable but could be more difficult than we may think. We’ve only won twice in 16 visits to St James Park in the 21st Century. We have a better record against Burnley but have lost tamely on our last two visits to Turf Moor. Brighton have been a bogey team in recent years, and we’ve won just four of our last dozen visits to the Hawthorns.

Last weekend’s comeback win against Burnley was an important one for Newcastle but they are not yet out of the woods in the fight to avoid the drop. We could well come up against similar fighting opponents in our other three away games against teams in lowly positions but with a lot to play for. It is often better to have fixtures against teams who would already appear to be on the beach. Roy Hodgson was critical of Roy Keane for suggesting Palace did not appear to be fully committed with their players “in their armchairs” when they faced Chelsea last weekend, but to my eyes, Palace were rolled over with ease. Did you see Zaha in that game, remonstrating with just about everybody including his own teammates?

A final finishing position of fourth is in our own hands, nor is third out of the question with the win over Leicester taking us to within one point of their total. But whatever happens it has been a great season, definitely one of the best in recent times.

Three points against Newcastle would edge us closer to a top four finish. We’ll all be keeping an eye on the Everton v Tottenham game taking place this evening. A draw would probably be the best result for us in this one. Of course, Chelsea and Leicester are involved in FA Cup action on Sunday so a win today would elevate us into third place and heap more pressure on those two semi-finalists in their games in hand. Leicester’s next league game is at home to a resurgent West Brom next Thursday, whilst Chelsea face Brighton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before they visit the London Stadium the following Saturday.We don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four. All we can do is try to win the next seven games. Seven cup finals as we aim for seventh heaven. We are sixth favourites to finish in the top four with the bookmakers. They think we’ll end up below Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester as well as the two Manchester clubs. But we are strongly fancied (5/1 on) to finish in the top six. After last season’s relegation struggle that would be a magnificent achievement, surely? I’m hoping for even better though. What are the chances?

Can West Ham and Leicester make Twenty-First Century Premier League History?

In the past twenty years, six football clubs have dominated English football. The “elite six”, certainly in terms of revenue generated, have almost always been at the top of the Premier League by the end of each season. The notable exception was Leicester City, today’s opponents, who surprised us all five years ago when they finished as champions. But Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham have continued to outshine others at the summit.

In fact at this stage of the season with eight games remaining (the position we have reached now) it is almost 20 years since there have been two non “elite six” clubs occupying places in the top four at the same time. Those two teams were Newcastle and Everton who were third and fourth respectively as the 2002-03 season approached the end. But come the end of the season, there has never been more than one team outside of these six in the top four. In the season in question Newcastle held on to third but Everton faded to seventh by the finish.

So we are already making some history with both Leicester and ourselves in the top four and fighting to finish there hoping to claim a Champions League place by the end of May. But can we both be there at the end? Leicester are certainly favourites as they are in third place, four points ahead of ourselves in fourth. But Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are all waiting in the wings for either of us to slip up. It certainly makes the run-in more interesting, and even more so than usual because we are not accustomed to be in this position at this time.

I have been looking at some other statistics and noticed that we have had the majority of possession of the ball in just four of the thirty games we’ve played. Our success has been based upon being solid defensively (despite conceding five in our last two games), and excellent when counter attacking, superbly demonstrated in the Wolves game.

In view of our recent bad luck in respect of injuries through the spine of the team, Mark Noble will almost certainly play today. He is no Declan Rice, but the manager trusts him (at lot more than many on social media do too), and it will be quite an achievement as he plays his 400th game in the Premier League, quite a feat in the modern era. He will become only the eighth player to reach this milestone for the same club. Can you name the other seven? They all played international football and for teams that won either the Premier League or Champions League, whilst Mark Noble has played throughout in a team more used to being at the other end of the table, and although often touted, never quite made the England team at senior level, although he won many caps at younger ages. I’ll reveal the names of the seven at the end of this article.

There have been some great games against Leicester throughout my time following West Ham, and in fact two of them made it into the top 20 games I’ve seen when I wrote my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford. The first one I’ll recall was on Boxing Day in 1967. I watched the game from my seat in B Block in the old West Stand at Upton Park. It kicked off at 11am (yes, there were morning games in those days), and by 11.15 we were 2-0 down. But the very first goal that I can remember a very young Trevor Brooking scoring, plus a superb hat trick from one of my favourite West Ham goalscorers, Brian Dear, ensured a great win in a very entertaining game. But the undoubted man of the match was a very young (17 year old?) teenager playing in the Leicester goal who had an unbelievable game and was destined to become a star in the future – Peter Shilton.

Now that game was 53 years ago and yet 17 of the 22 teams in Division One at that time are in the Premier League this season showing that, in many ways, not much changes in football. So there are only three teams that are currently in the Premier League who weren’t in the top flight in 1967-68, and there are five teams who were in Division One at the time, but who are now in lower divisions. I’ll challenge you to name them and I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the article. Ironically the two teams that were relegated that season were Sheffield United and Fulham.

When we met Leicester on that Boxing Day we were 20th in the league and in a relegation tussle (although only two were relegated in those days). By the end of the season we had rallied somewhat and finally finished 12th; Leicester were 13th. Incidentally we visited Filbert Street four days later and won the game again, with the identical score, 4-2, with goals from Dear 2, Brooking and Sissons.

Another great game against Leicester came in the following season. On 16th November 1968 we were 7th in the table, having won our two previous home games 8-0 v Sunderland and 4-3 v Queens Park Rangers. It was amazing that we were that high in the table considering we had a run of 9 winless games from early September to mid October. There were a few memorable games in that 1968/69 season and this one came a fortnight after the QPR game. I watched from the North Bank and, apart from being an exciting game it also included my all time favourite goal scored by Martin Peters. When I met Martin almost 40 years later at a book signing I asked him to sign the programme for that game, as well as his autobiography. And what a lovely man he was, although he had no recollection of the game. The goal was a fantastic move started by Ferguson in goal, the ball rolled out to Peters, then to Charles, then to Sissons, and finally a fantastic unstoppable volley by Peters who had run the length of the pitch virtually to get on the end of it. You can see the last part of the goal on YouTube from where Sissons crosses it, but unfortunately not the whole move. From our position on the North Bank we had a super view of the finish.

So what will happen in today’s unlikely potential Champions League six-pointer? Two managers, having great seasons, both having been previously sacked by “elite six” clubs, and both looking to add to their case for becoming the manager of the season and taking their respective clubs into the Champions League. Unfortunately our relatively injury-free season (especially by West Ham standards) is now beginning to show the limitations of our squad with both Rice and Antonio being added to Ogbonna on the treatment table.

But we are still in with a very good chance of our highest ever Premier League placing and I’d like to see both clubs playing today ending in the top four, at the expense of “elite six” clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. It was massively disappointing to see Liverpool come from behind to snatch a late winner against Villa yesterday. And then Chelsea rolled over Palace with ease too. Let’s hope that Manchester United can win at Tottenham later today. But yesterday’s results make today’s game even more important and three points would be invaluable in our quest for a top four finish.

Our run-in is not the toughest, and home games against Leicester, Chelsea and Everton (perhaps the three hardest games on paper) could be crucial. We have the second best home record in the Premier League (after Manchester City who surprisingly went down yesterday) so why not claim a place in the top four. We can still do it.

The answers to the questions posed earlier: The seven players who have played 400 games in the Premier League for one club: Giggs, Scholes, Gary Neville, Carragher, Gerrard, Lampard and Terry.

The three teams currently in the Premier League who were not in the top flight in 1967-68 are Brighton, Palace and Aston Villa. The five teams who were in Division One in 1967-68 but are not in the premier league now are: Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry.

Let us hope for a win today to complete another double this season. What are the chances? 

West Ham Jockey For Top Four Place With Leicester Pivot

A crunch encounter in the race for the top four. But will the handicap of missing players impede the Hammers as they approach the final turn?

Following the entertaining win at Wolverhampton on Monday evening, David Moyes briefly referred to entering the final furlong of the Premier League race, then quickly corrected himself. With 20% of the season still to play, he was right to do so. If the league was a three-mile chase, then there would still be five furlongs to run – complete with a couple of tricky to overcome, including this weekend’s crunch encounter with Leicester City.

In a historical context, six pointers between these two clubs, this late in the season, would be taking place at the other end of the table. Not looking to gate-crash the elite’s Champion’s League qualification party.  A Hammers win and it drags the Foxes back into the field of five clubs chasing two places. Whereas a Leicester success puts them firmly in the driving seat for third place.

As things stand, the visitors are four points better off. Both have experienced eight defeats but Leicester have recorded two more wins (while the Hammers were drawing). The game sees the league’s second-best home record come up against the league’s second-best away record. Something’s gotta give!

Moyes was also correct in saying that West Ham sitting fourth in the table is not a fluke. They are there on merit and thanks largely to an amazing resilience that has been injected into the team. There have been many exceptional individual performances, but the major strength in the side is collective discipline, organisation, and teamwork. It is a rare occurrence for the West Ham whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Football hipsters may drone on about false nines, double pivots, half spaces, inverted wingbacks, expected goals, transitions, and so on ………….. but it is hard work, effort and energy that have provided the foundation for exponential improvement.

The other unusual feature of West Ham’s season (or at least it was to about a week ago) has been a better than expected experience with injuries. There have been isolated setbacks, but were negotiated successfully despite the thinness of the squad. But suddenly there is an epidemic. No-one can accuse this team of being spineless but we do now look like a team without a spine, the result of the simultaneous absence of Declan Rice, Angelo Ogbonna, and Michail Antonio.

I’m sure I am not alone in fearing that these injuries will be our undoing. Perhaps the manager has a cunning plan but with no radical options available, Moyes is unlikely to stray far from what (and who) he knows and trusts.

I can’t see any change from the defence line-up that started against Wolves despite the vulnerability that has crept in and seen five goals conceded in the last two games. That will mean Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku featuring again as wing backs and providing width going forward. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the ageing legs of Mark Noble alongside Tomas Soucek in the midfield ‘double pivot’. Several creative suggestions have been mooted online including moving Issa Diop, Said Benrahma or Coufal into that role, but even if I coul dbe convinced they might work, Moyes certainly wouldn’t go for any of them. My particular concern with Noble in this game is picking up yellow cards for poorly timed tackles on James Madison, another player who likes to go to ground rather too easily.

That leaves a front three of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. They provide enough threat to cause problems to an uncertain Leicester defence, but only if the rest of the team realise that none of them is Antonio. A very different level of service will be required.

The Foxes went through their own mini-injury crisis recently, but have come through it relatively unscathed and without the predicted fall off in performances. Of the key players only Harvey Barnes remains side-lined. They famously faltered in the home straight last season and will be eager not to do so yet again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans present a formidable partnership in defensive midfield while Kelechi Iheanacho has been the surprise pick lately as Jamie Vardy’s partner in attack. Linked with the Hammers before his move to Leicester in 2017 he has yet to deliver on his early promise and price tag.

Leicester have developed into much more of a possession-based side than the one that won the title in 2015/16. Back then they averaged just over 42% possession compared to 53% so far this season. By comparison, West Ham are averaging 41% this term. This provides a good indicator of how tomorrow’s match will pan out – containment and strike on the break.

The Foxes have yet to taste defeat at the London Stadium. At full strength I would give the Hammers every chance of changing that. The worries for me are not being able to adapt to the absence of Antonio and the lack of pace in defensive midfield. These tip the scales in Leicester’s favour but I think we’ll still manage to get a draw out of it. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

The win against Wolves early on kick-started West Ham’s season. Can it be repeated as European qualification still beckons?

March 2020. A world bracing itself for a potential pandemic as talk of coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China gets louder and louder. Pictures in Britain emerge of hospitals struggling in Italy and Spain, and cases begin to emerge closer to home. As a nation not much changes at first. We are urged to wash our hands religiously but not much else to combat the spread of the disease. Sport continues as normal.

On March 7th West Ham play their 29th game of the season against Arsenal. We lose 1-0. It has been a difficult campaign. It started brightly enough despite a 5-0 loss at home to Manchester City on the opening day. With half a dozen games gone we sat in fifth place in the table. Expectations were high for a good season ahead.

Before 2019 is out it has all gone wrong. Following a home defeat to Leicester City after Christmas, with exactly half of the season completed, Pellegrini is sacked and David Moyes is appointed in time for the home game on New Years Day against Bournemouth. We are in a relegation tussle. Three wins and two draws in the opening six games of the season have been followed by just two wins and two draws in the next 13 games. We are now 17th in the league occupying the position immediately above the bottom three.

Move forward to March 7th 2020. Following the defeat to Arsenal our record now reads: Played 29, Won 7, Drawn 6, Lost 16. With a goal difference of minus 15 we are 16th in the table. David Moyes has had 10 games in charge so far. We’ve won 2, drawn 2, and lost 6. Our situation has barely improved. We are still in a relegation tussle.

Life continues as normal in Britain. As fears of the spread of the pandemic continue to grow and calls for action are made, the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival goes ahead and Liverpool entertain Atletico Madrid with thousands of supporters travelling from Spain to support their team. Personally I went horse racing to a relatively small meeting at Huntingdon on Wednesday 11th March. There was no talk of social distancing at the time, merely bigger queues in the toilets with extended hand washing times!

The season was suspended following a decision on 13 March 2020 by the Premier League to suspend the league after a number of players and other club staff became ill due to the pandemic. I had already decided against attending the Wolves fixture. National lockdown in Britain came in the following week. The initial suspension was until 4 April, which was then extended. The FA then agreed to extend the season indefinitely, past the scheduled end date of 1 June. During the lockdown West Ham were awaiting decisions on their fate in case football did not resume. Although we were 16th in the league there were differing ways of calculating which clubs would be relegated using varying complicated formulae.  

The season eventually resumed on 19 June, with West Ham playing their first match since suspension the following day, losing 2-0 at home to Wolves. More than three months had elapsed between games 29 and 30. All matches from this date were played behind closed doors with no paying supporters. Following this defeat we now dropped to 17th with just eight games to go. A defeat at Tottenham in game 31 didn’t help, but wins against Chelsea, Norwich and Watford and draws against Newcastle, Manchester United and Villa were enough to ensure a place in the Premier League for season 2020-21.

Fast forward to this season, and nobody expected us to be where we are now. Our 29th game was once again against Arsenal. We can all remember what happened a fortnight ago when we relinquished a three goal lead to draw the game. But, following Chelsea’s unlikely defeat at home to West Brom on Saturday, qualification for the Champions League via a top four finish is still in our own hands, although Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton are all still well in the mix. Manchester United and Leicester are well placed to finish second and third but aren’t there yet.

Our record after the Arsenal game is a big contrast to that after the same game last season. This time – Played 29, Won 14, Drawn 7, Lost 8, Goal Difference +10. Twice as many games won, and half the number of defeats. Plus a goal difference turnaround of 25. That is some improvement and great credit to the manager, coaching staff, and of course the players.

Wolves are in the bottom half of the table this time around, but the game will still be a difficult one, as will the following match against Leicester. Perhaps these two matches will define our fate, but there will still be a lot of football to be played. In the seven matches that follow on from there we face two of our rivals at the top, Chelsea and Everton, but also have some winnable games (on paper of course) against bottom-half teams Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, West Brom and Southampton.

It’s quite a coincidence that the 29th and 30th games of the season are against Arsenal and Wolves for two years running. There is even a gap between the fixtures, although the two week international break this time doesn’t compare to the three months interval last time around.

I don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four but we’re still in with a shout and that’s great. Even if we fade a little from here and finish as low as eighth it would still be a good season and a massive improvement on the last few years, albeit a slightly disappointing end. The wins against Wolves and Leicester early on really kick-started this season for us and were followed by the dramatic comeback against Tottenham, and then holding champions-elect Manchester City to a draw.

Six points from these two difficult fixtures to achieve the double over both teams would be quite an achievement. What are the chances?