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?