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?