In my last article earlier this week I referred to two games where we met Newcastle in the opening game. Those games were at home in 1973-74 and 2020-21. And we lost both of them. The last time that our first game of the season was away at St James Park was in 2002-03. And that, too, was perhaps a match (and a season) we’d like to forget.
The game in August 2002 was televised on Sky as the Monday night game, and for an hour it remained scoreless. By the end of 90 minutes we had lost 4-0 to goals from Lua Lua (2), Shearer and Solano. Do you remember Nobby Solano? He played for us subsequently as did another player in the Newcastle side that day, Kieron Dyer. Our team that night boasted players such as David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair and Jermain Defoe, but it was just the beginning of a wretched season that ended with relegation at the end of it.
After that poor start on the opening day we did not win a game until our seventh game of the season when we won 3-2 at Chelsea. We didn’t actually win a home league game that season until January 29th! One thing I do remember from that time was injuries to our strikers Di Canio and Kanoute, and a lack of depth in the squad forcing us to play Ian Pearce (a defender) as a striker. Nowdays that wouldn’t happen I assume with ‘false nines’ but I would like to see us begin the season with more out and out strikers other than just Antonio.
Last season was probably our best ever in the Premier League, albeit not our highest finish, which was 5th in 1998/99. But back then (1998/99) we had only improved from a finish in eighth place the season before, and we were ten points below the fourth placed team. But our sixth place in the season just ended was only one win away from the top four, and an improvement of ten places over the season before.
But when you look at our results against the teams that did finish in the first four places, it wasn’t very good to say the least. In those eight games we drew one and lost seven. Compare that to the games against the other 15 teams that make up the Premier League and you will see a marked contrast. In those thirty games we won 19, drew 7, and lost 4, collecting 64 of our 65 points. Ironically two of those four defeats were against a very average Newcastle team. Better results against them could potentially have resulted in a top four finish.
It shouldn’t be too hard to predict our team for this first game, with few changes in the squad that ended last season. Fabianski will continue in goal (for the time being at least); Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell will be the back four, Rice and Soucek will play in front of them, with Fornals, Benrahma and Bowen supporting Antonio up front. Well that’s how I see it anyway. The only possible changes to that would see places in the starting line up for Ogbonna, Lanzini, or Yarmolenko, although the former two have had minor knocks in pre-season. We really need some reinforcements to the squad in view of the additional fixtures this season.
There’s no reason why our poor opening game record against Newcastle cannot be reversed this time around, especially considering our excellent pre-season form, and availability of almost all the players in the squad. I’ll predict a 2-0 away win. Unusually for us we go into an away game against a team who did the double over us last season as 6/5 favourites to win the game with Newcastle at 23/10, and the draw at almost the same odds at 12/5. A 2-0 win is around 10/1. I always like a slightly unusual bet, and this time I’m going for Antonio to score more goals in the game than Newcastle at 6/1.
I was looking at the odds for winning the Premier League, and they give a good indication of where the bookmakers, and most pundits expect teams to finish this season.
Manchester City 4/6; Chelsea 9/2; Liverpool 5/1; Manchester United 8/1; Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham all 50/1; Villa, Everton, Leeds and West Ham all 100/1; Brighton, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Wolves all 500/1; Brentford and Burnley 750/1; Norwich and Watford 1000/1. Of course some bookmakers have slight variations but generally they seem to think we will finish somewhere between 8th and 11th. That’s probably about right, but I believe that with more investment in quality players we could perhaps achieve a finish similar to last season’s sixth.
It depends on how optimistic you are but if you fancy a bet on West Ham, we are 12/1 to finish in the top 4, 5/1 to finish in the top 6, and 8/11 to finish in the top 10. Anyone other than the top 4 in the betting is not a realistic bet to win the title, and few pundits vary from Manchester City (and possibly Chelsea) as realistic contenders, although Liverpool and Manchester United cannot be completely ruled out. I reckon everyone else can be.
I’d love to see us make a storming start to the season. If you are old enough to remember 1983/4 (as I am) then you might recall that we won our first 5 league games to top the league by the end of September with 15 goals scored and just 3 conceded. That was the season we beat Bury 10-0 in a League Cup tie too. We were still second in the table in December, but faded as the season progressed. With six games to go we were sixth, but just two draws and four defeats in those final six games meant that we finished 9th. In fact we only won one of our last twelve league games. Trevor Brooking retired after the last game which was a 1-0 defeat at home to Everton.
Football was very different then of course. The Premier League would not come into existence until the 1990s, and the top flight was called simply Division One. Liverpool were champions but Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers all finished in the top five. Other teams in the top division included Ipswich, Sunderland, Luton, West Brom, Stoke, Coventry, Birmingham and Notts County. Neither Manchester City or Chelsea were anywhere to be seen!
But Back to the Future, or 2021/22 as it will be known, football will once again be played in front of capacity crowds. Let’s hope that can continue throughout and not be interrupted by another wave of the wretched pandemic that has disrupted our lives for the past (almost) eighteen months. I’d like to see an improvement in the performances of officials to match those that we witnessed in the Euros in the summer. I hope we see better use of VAR, such as less fussiness (just concentrating on key decisions), no more offsides by a toenail or armpit, and better interpretation of handball. I’d also like to see West Ham finish as Premier League champions, or at least in the top four! What are the chances???!!!