I’m not really sure how many times we’ve faced the Geordies in our opening game. 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.
Of course, we met them in the first game of last season too, but that ended in disappointment as well, as we went down 2-0. Having finished 16th the season before and then losing the opener at home to a side who were not particularly expected to do well led to doom and gloom amongst our fans, expecting a long hard campaign ahead. But of course that didn’t turn out to be the case and we made one of our best ever improvements from one season to the next, climbing ten places to finish sixth, narrowly missing out on a top four finish, but still qualifying for the Europa League.
Just as in 1973-74 we begin a new season having finished sixth in the one just ended, with high hopes for the one that lies ahead. The rise from 16th to 6th must be one of the biggest improvements by any side, in the Premier League era at least. Of course Leicester went from narrowly avoiding relegation to finish as champions a few seasons back, but not many can have managed a jump of ten places, a rise that was most unexpected, but most welcome to those of us who, at the start of the campaign, would have settled for a mid-table finish, and not being involved in a relegation tussle.
So much of this was down to David Moyes and the coaching staff (as well as the players of course) People forget that when Moyes 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. He has achieved a top six finish in his first full season. That should buy him time to try to consolidate the club as one that will hopefully continue with top half finishes in the years to come, but that will only be possible if he is backed by the owners.
I can look back to 1984/85, in the days before the Premier League when, just like the season before last, we finished 16th. We narrowly avoided relegation by two points back then. The following campaign was our best ever in the top flight when we ended third, and only just failed to finish as champions. That should have been the time to invest in the team to push on but we failed to do so. In the two seasons that followed we finished 15th and 16th, and then we were relegated a season later. A lesson to be learned perhaps?
It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. Last time I predicted a tenth place finish for us, which I thought was optimistic given the season that we had before. Of course we performed much better than I expected.
This time around I’ll be even more optimistic than last time, especially considering the added Europa League fixtures and a relatively small squad: 1. Manchester City, 2. Chelsea, 3. Manchester United, 4. Liverpool, 5. Leicester, 6. West Ham, 7. Arsenal, 8. Leeds, 9. Everton, 10. Tottenham, 11. Aston Villa, 12. Brighton, 13. Wolves, 14. Newcastle, 15. Southampton, 16. Burnley, 17. Norwich, 18. Watford, 19. Crystal Palace, 20. Brentford
But with just a few days to go before the new Premier League season gets underway we don’t appear to be much closer to adding reinforcements to the squad, which surely is absolutely necessary in view of the additional fixtures as well as the fact that the squad was thin last season too.
I was speaking to a Fulham supporter today who told me just how good their keeper was. It was a good piece of business to get him and puts pressure on Fabianski that didn’t exist before. It makes a change for us to be planning for the future, but it is imperative that reinforcements in other positions arrive too, sooner rather than later.
Of course the pandemic has meant that most clubs are in the same boat with the notable exceptions of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, but our transfer policy in the past has been a cause for concern, and I just hope that there are negotiations going on behind the scenes to land additional quality footballers at the club.
Our pre-season has been excellent with many of our players hitting the ground running. And with a largely fully fit squad I expect a good start to the campaign. But this can only last as long as injuries to key players don’t start to mount up. For me the most important area is in attacking positions with an over reliance on the hamstrings of Michail Antonio not giving up, and lack of cover for if he is out. We’ll have to see how things develop in the days ahead. Perhaps there is a lot of activity that we are unaware of? What are the chances?