I may have mentioned this before but my very first visit to Upton Park was to watch a game against Fulham. It was in March 1961 and in the immediate aftermath of Ted Fenton being mysteriously sent home on sick leave – just before his eventual sacking and replacement by Ron Greenwood. A disappointing 2-1 defeat set the tone nicely for the ensuing sixty years or so.
A dark secret from back then was that I inexplicably believed that Bubbles included the line ‘Fortune’s always hiding, lilacs everywhere’. Perhaps not the most amusing of misheard lyrics but it was refreshing to hear that the current multi-lingual squad had managed a better grasp of the words – as they serenaded Manuel Lanzini’s at his 26th birthday bash during the annual ‘knocked out the cup early’ warm weather holiday in Marbella. With a perception that the team usually returns from such breaks with a lethargic holiday hangover all eyes will be on what is served up for us tonight.
Of all the spectator unfriendly, moved for the TV schedules, kick-off times, it is the Friday night one that I dislike the most. Friday night is for unwinding at the end of the working week with a meal and a drink – it is not meant for football and has the added disadvantage of leaving the rest of the weekend free to be roped into other duties such as shopping or garden related activities. The weekend doesn’t start here but ends before it has even started!
The season has a serious danger of fizzling out to nothing unless an inspired run for seventh place can be somehow pulled out of the hat. A straw poll of fellow supporters suggests a 10th to 12th finish is closer to expectations – which, for me, would represent a failure (by the club as a whole) based on where it sits in the money league.
Tonight’s opponents would, no doubt, bite your arm off at the prospect of mid-table obscurity but, regardless of the outcome tonight, it is difficult to see them lasting long enough to have a shot at second season syndrome. Maybe attempting such a major squad renovation in the summer was a flawed strategy and perhaps they were too quick to jettison the manager who had earned them promotion. Bringing in Ranieri was an odd choice given that he is hardly the type of inspiring character needed in a relegation dogfight. He will dine out on his ‘serendipitous’ title winning season at Leicester forever but will most likely soon have a matching relegation honour to balance it out.
Reports have it that several of the Hammer’s long term injured (Lanzini, Fabian Balbuena and Samir Nasri) could be in the frame to play a part in today’s game. It is unlikely that any will be making a start but may well feature from the bench. If there are any changes to the eleven that started at Selhurst Park then it would be Pablo Zabaleta returning in place of Ryan Fredericks and Marko Arnautovic replacing Javier Hernandez.
Although I can understand why supporters might be a little miffed following Arnautovic’s antics during the transfer window, he is the only player in the squad capable of playing effectively as a lone striker. Manuel Pellegrini may, of course, opt to play with two strikers but that would leave the team woefully short in midfield numbers and energy – even against a side with Fulham’s limitations. The reservation with Arnautovic, though, is that, based on the evidence of the footage from Spain, he looked to be carrying a little extra weight than ideal.
The Friday night referee is Lee Mason from Lancashire who was last seen at the London Stadium in December for the defeat against Watford.
The usual pundits are unanimous in their prediction of a West Ham win; with Merson going for 3-1 against Lawro’s 2-0. The Hammer’s consistent inconsistency over the years might have prepared us for any eventuality and many a team looking to end a miserable run of away results has frequently found West Ham to be charitable hosts. However, even if the visitors press and harry in midfield to upset the Hammer’s rhythm their defence is so shocking that it would seem impossible not to score. One of the most memorable West Ham victories over Fulham that I have seen was a 7-2 win in February 1968 – a game that featured a rare compendium of goals from Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Martin Peters (plus one from Brian Dear). It would be most agreeable to witness something similar this evening to make up for a spoiled weekend.