Seven Cup Finals for West Ham to Achieve the Magnificent Dream

In a week when the nation’s high streets emerged from hibernation and Covid restrictions began to ease the Premier League shunned the old normality with the “new normal” of West Ham moving into the top four. And although we were close to that position when he joined us, and so many of our players have stepped up to the plate in this campaign, Jesse Lingard’s contribution has been a major factor in firing us into contention for a potential place in next season’s Champions League.

It is hard to remember a footballer make such a positive impression upon joining West Ham. When Jesse Lingard arrived in the winter transfer window there were many doubters among Hammers fans. Just as there were when Craig Dawson was signed, too. But I guess that is par for the course with many of the East End faithful.

Following last weekend’s win over Leicester I saw a “league table” of Premier League footballers with the most league goals and assists since February 1st and we all know who was at the top. With eight goals and three assists in nine games since joining on loan from Manchester United, Jesse has outshone all others being directly involved in eleven goals. It was also interesting to see Michail Antonio sixth in the table with two goals and four assists, and he hasn’t played that many games!

The Jesse Lingard show was in force against Leicester when a game that was a bit of a stalemate at the time was suddenly brought to life when he bent home a first-time half volley from Coufal’s cutback after half an hour. It was a strange shot (I think he said that he shinned it) and I did a double take when I saw it nestling in Schmeichel’s net. A few minutes later Jarrod Bowen beat the offside trap to race on to a long ball from Diop and then square it to Lingard to put it into an empty net.

2-0 at half-time, and then three shortly after the break when Lingard found Soucek who calmly passed to Bowen who controlled the ball with one touch and calmly finished it with the other. After the previous two games Hammers fans were used to 3-0 leads but we wanted more remembering what happened in those. Diop headed a fourth from a Lingard cross but VAR spotted he was narrowly offside.

Those supporters of a nervy disposition or with high blood pressure could have done without the drama that followed as the game began to resemble the last two matches with three-goal leads, especially the panic stations when the Foxes’ second goal went in at the start of the six minutes Mike Dean decided to add on at the end of the ninety. But just like the Wolves game we held on for a 3-2 victory that put us back into fourth place with just seven games remaining. Perhaps the reopening of pubs will be welcomed by many fans as the final stages of recent games may drive us to drink! How many of us would have believed that after 31 games we would be sitting in the top four with it in our own hands to remain there?

For the 27th time in those 31 games our opponents had more possession than we did, and Leicester completed more than twice as many passes. This just goes to show that the ball retention statistics that regularly appear on our TV screens during games should not be given the importance that so much of the media gives to it. But having said that there is one area where we can improve, and that is not giving the ball away too easily as we sometimes do.

Five of the seven remaining games are against teams in the lower reaches of the table (Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom away) with the toughest games (on paper) in between them at home to Chelsea and Everton, before a final fixture at home to Southampton.

Considering the lack of depth in the squad and the mounting injuries it is amazing that we are still in this position so close to the season’s end. However there is hope that some of our injured players will be back soon, even in time for tomorrow’s game. Mark Noble has described our remaining fixtures as seven cup finals. What a shame that we can’t have 60,000 fans there for those three matches still to be played at the London Stadium.

Looking at those remaining fixtures in terms of degree of difficulty based on average league table positions, Liverpool and ourselves would appear to have easier run-ins than Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton. Brighton gave us a helping hand by drawing 0-0 with Everton on Monday evening. I watched the second half of the game and the Seagulls largely outplayed the Toffeemen without being clinical in front of goal.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that playing lowly teams is an advantage, so we can’t get too excited in anticipation of the games to come, as teams fighting for their lives at the foot of the table are often tougher opponents than those sitting comfortably with not much to play for, or those with other goals in mind such as the FA Cup or European competitions.

Our away games might seem very winnable but could be more difficult than we may think. We’ve only won twice in 16 visits to St James Park in the 21st Century. We have a better record against Burnley but have lost tamely on our last two visits to Turf Moor. Brighton have been a bogey team in recent years, and we’ve won just four of our last dozen visits to the Hawthorns.

Last weekend’s comeback win against Burnley was an important one for Newcastle but they are not yet out of the woods in the fight to avoid the drop. We could well come up against similar fighting opponents in our other three away games against teams in lowly positions but with a lot to play for. It is often better to have fixtures against teams who would already appear to be on the beach. Roy Hodgson was critical of Roy Keane for suggesting Palace did not appear to be fully committed with their players “in their armchairs” when they faced Chelsea last weekend, but to my eyes, Palace were rolled over with ease. Did you see Zaha in that game, remonstrating with just about everybody including his own teammates?

A final finishing position of fourth is in our own hands, nor is third out of the question with the win over Leicester taking us to within one point of their total. But whatever happens it has been a great season, definitely one of the best in recent times.

Three points against Newcastle would edge us closer to a top four finish. We’ll all be keeping an eye on the Everton v Tottenham game taking place this evening. A draw would probably be the best result for us in this one. Of course, Chelsea and Leicester are involved in FA Cup action on Sunday so a win today would elevate us into third place and heap more pressure on those two semi-finalists in their games in hand. Leicester’s next league game is at home to a resurgent West Brom next Thursday, whilst Chelsea face Brighton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before they visit the London Stadium the following Saturday.We don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four. All we can do is try to win the next seven games. Seven cup finals as we aim for seventh heaven. We are sixth favourites to finish in the top four with the bookmakers. They think we’ll end up below Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester as well as the two Manchester clubs. But we are strongly fancied (5/1 on) to finish in the top six. After last season’s relegation struggle that would be a magnificent achievement, surely? I’m hoping for even better though. What are the chances?

Can West Ham and Leicester make Twenty-First Century Premier League History?

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? 

The win against Wolves early on kick-started West Ham’s season. Can it be repeated as European qualification still beckons?

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? 

A message for West Ham – “Don’t show Arsenal too much respect”

Following on from my colleague Geoff’s excellent article, I have to agree with many of his comments regarding David Moyes. I’ll start by saying that, against the expectations of many fans, Moyes has done a superb job in the short time he has been at West Ham. In his first spell he did what was asked of him and kept us up. He was very unlucky to be replaced by the totally unsuitable Manuel Pellegrini, and then he came back only 15 months ago with the task again of keeping us in the Premier League. And once again he achieved it and this time was given another season to show his credentials. And boy has he done that, whatever the outcome between now and the end of the season.

I read that, provided he managed a finish of 13th or above, West Ham would take up an option of a further year on his contract. In many ways that demonstrates the lack of ambition of the owners, but I would have thought that they would by now have offered him something decent, perhaps three years or more to give him the chance to build on what he has started here, and to prevent him being taken by a club with greater ambition. When Neil Lennon left Celtic, it would have been tempting for him to return to a club he was associated with as a player. I am not sure whether or not he was approached, but he stated that he was committed to West Ham as he believes he can build something here. I’d love to see him given the backing of the owners, who have yet to really back up the ambition they promised a few years back.

As I said, he has done a fine job in a relatively short time. Backed up by an excellent coaching staff, our defending has been outstanding (in West Ham terms particularly), the organisation has matched this too, especially with set pieces in both a defensive sense, where we have conceded very few goals from set plays, and from the attacking point of view where we lead the Premier League in goals scored in this way. He has recognised the need for pace and athleticism in top class football and is looking to build a squad of young, hungry, pacy players, to be with us for longer than the short term marquee buys that have been favoured in the past.

His recruits have generally been successful with our Czech imports two of the stand out buys in the Premier League, and both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma young enough to build upon excellent potential. But perhaps the masterstroke that so many fans were critical of was the signing of Craig Dawson. It’s a shame that Ogbonna got injured when he did because they were forming an excellent partnership. To be fair, Diop has come in and done a sound job, but the Dawson / Ogbonna partnership was really beginning to look something special. I saw the England squad announced this week and one of the defenders was Coady of Wolves. Who would you like to see in the heart of your defence, Coady or Dawson? I know who I would choose.

In West Ham terms to be a mid-table side and not involved in the relegation dogfight would have been a success this season, and yet David Moyes and the coaching staff have achieved far more. Our daunting fixtures at the beginning of the season could have seen us struggling from the outset, but after an inauspicious start at home to Newcastle, that didn’t happen, and it was turned around very quickly with a fine performance (albeit unlucky defeat) away at today’s visitors Arsenal, and then followed by excellent victories at home to Wolves and away at Leicester, which set the tone for the season that has followed.

But, and here comes the but, there is one criticism that has been levelled at David Moyes throughout his managerial career. He was appointed as Everton manager 19 years ago this week. He has managed in the top flight for almost all of the time since. And yet, he has failed to win a single away game at Manchester United (where we so meekly surrendered last week), or at Liverpool, or at Arsenal, or at Chelsea. Now they have all been successful sides in the last 19 years and you would think that not many managers have won at those away grounds. But more have done so than you might think. The list of managers that have won games at Old Trafford is quite extensive, and includes those with previous Hammers connections such as Allardyce, Curbishley, Pardew, Steve Clarke, and Pellegrini as well as bosses such as Warnock, Hodgson, Dyche, Chris Wilder, Alex Neil, Darren Moore, Tim Sherwood and many others.

In the past 20 years or so, Chelsea, of the teams mentioned, have had a successful home record, but many managers have won there too, including Eddie Howe, whose Bournemouth team has been victors at Stamford Bridge three times, Allardyce and Pardew twice each (both with different teams), also Harry Redknapp and Glenn Roeder. But not David Moyes.

Is it just coincidence or does David Moyes instil too much respect for our opponents when visiting these grounds? Our defensive set up last week was condemned universally, and yet even with hindsight Moyes believes he did the right thing with his selection. I find this hard to believe. In my opinion we set up like an Italian team of the 1960s to play for a goalless draw and to hope perhaps to snatch a goal with a breakaway. Had we succeeded it would probably be considered the right thing to do. But once we conceded a goal (unusually and disappointingly defending a corner) it took a while to change, but when Lanzini and Benrahma were introduced we gave them a bit of a game, but it was too late.

As manager David Moyes must be allowed to do things his way. It is just a small criticism, but if we are ever going to sustain a challenge to move to the next level, then we need to be just a little more positive than we were at Old Trafford, and at other top teams too. I’m not saying let’s abandon all the organisation that he has introduced and should be commended for. But we need to have more players on the pitch who are capable of attacking our opponent’s goal. Michail Antonio’s body language seemed to sum it up for me. I don’t think he appreciated our approach to this game.

The statistics don’t lie. No wins as a manager at Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal in 19 years sums it up for me. I’m not for one moment advocating that David Moyes should go. I’m a big fan and hope he is given the opportunity to build and stabilise our club as a top ten team for years to come. I’d just like to see a little more positivity when facing the big clubs.

What about today? I’m hoping that Arsenal’s European game this week will have had an impact, plus we have an opportunity to reflect upon and reverse last weekend’s result. And talking of reversal I’ll predict a reversal of the early season score at the Emirates with a 2-1 West Ham win. Astonishingly to me, Arsenal are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game. I’ve got 2/1 on three points for us, and 9/1 on a 2-1 win for a team hopefully inspired by the return of at least a couple of Lingard, Fornals, Benrahma and Lanzini to the starting line-up. What are the chances?   

West Ham visit Old Trafford, but fans will be keeping an eye on results elsewhere too.

When you reach this stage of the season with less than a dozen games to go, then as a West Ham fan you start paying even closer attention to other games that are being played, especially those of the teams that are around us in the league table. On many occasions in past seasons the purpose has been to see if they are picking up points in the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. But this time around it is very different. We are interested from the point of view of finishing as high as possible in the table, perhaps qualifying for a place in Europe next season, and possibly even (whisper it quietly) a place in the Champions League.

Normally that would mean finishing in the top four, and most pundits are writing us off in that respect, believing that our wonderful run so far will come to an end before we reach the season’s finish. They may well be right but I hope not. How good would it be to prove them wrong? With a limited squad we have performed way beyond all expectations of even our most ardent supporters, and there is no reason why we cannot go all the way if all the cards fall in our favour, and results elsewhere help too.

Of course this season finishing in the top four might not even be enough to qualify for the Champions League. If there are two English teams that win either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they finish outside the top four in the Premier League then they would qualify for next season’s elite European competition alongside the teams that finish in the top three. There is a maximum of five places for any one country in the Champions League, and winning the previous season’s European tournaments takes precedence over league positions.

And this scenario could still happen. In the Europa League, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all reached the last 16, and if one of them should go on to win it and finish outside the Premier League top 4 they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. For this reason West Ham fans will be rooting for Olympiakos, Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan in the second legs on Thursday this week. But both Arsenal and Tottenham hold two goal leads from the first leg and are favourites to progress.

Similarly in the Champions League, Liverpool have already reached the last eight, and both Chelsea and Manchester City are well placed to join them, holding leads before their forthcoming home legs this week. I think we can disregard Manchester City in the Premier League as they will win it comfortably but we must hope that they, or one of the other foreign teams such as Bayern, PSG win the Champions League to prevent Liverpool and Chelsea from qualifying by the back door if they finish outside the domestic top four.

Of course none of this will matter if we don’t do the job ourselves in the league so we must continue to aim for as high a finish as possible, hopefully in the top three. Now this may well be beyond us but it is nice to think that it is still a possibility, and even still in our own hands with just eleven games to go. And the league results have been kind to us so far this weekend. Leeds holding Chelsea to a draw was a good result for us, and Burnley’s unexpected win at Everton was an even better one. This means that we go into today’s fixture (probably) still in fifth place just three points adrift of Chelsea with two games in hand, and two points ahead of Everton with a game in hand over them too. We could do with Sheffield United surprising Leicester today, but I can’t realistically see that happening, plus it would be good if Arsenal beat Tottenham, something I always hope for, and Wolves beat Liverpool on Monday night. Draws in those games wouldn’t be the worst results for us either. 

Apparently Manchester United are weakened by injuries for today’s game, and we must also hope that they want to hold themselves back a little for their return leg against AC Milan this week. We will be without Lingard of course, but I expect to see Benrahma in the number 10 role behind Antonio with Fornals and Bowen providing the other two attacking midfield roles. The back four pick themselves at the moment; Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell, as do Rice and Soucek in midfield. The only possible variation to this may mean a slightly more defensive line-up with Johnson replacing Bowen, who hasn’t looked at his best recently, in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Noble could even come into the equation but I’d prefer to see him held back and brought on in the last five minutes to help preserve our 2-0 lead! So my predictions are West Ham to win 2-0, Leicester to draw 2-2 with Sheffield United, Arsenal to beat Tottenham 2-1, and then Wolves to beat Liverpool 1-0 on Monday. I’m not hoping for too much am I? What are the chances?

Can West Ham complete the league double over Leeds for the first time in 67 years?

Arriving back from my three miles Sunday morning walk in the late winter sunshine I sat down to watch some football. West Brom v Newcastle wasn’t the most exciting prospect in advance of the game but I sat through most of it, although I was increasingly distracted by the Sunday newspapers. If there has been a more boring game of football in the Premier League this season I missed it. Here I witnessed two teams play out a game of football that was almost totally bereft of any quality. Two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Championship next season if this was anything to go by. If only we could be facing Newcastle now instead of in the first game of the season.

After lunch, I was about to begin to write this article when I thought I would catch the first few minutes of the Liverpool v Fulham game. I stayed for the whole of the first half to witness an energetic and inventive Fulham side totally outplay a seemingly dispirited Liverpool team and take an interval lead with a late goal. On the evidence of that half I can easily see Fulham escape the drop that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. As we saw when we visited Craven Cottage recently they are a good footballing side that just lacked something in the final third. On the other hand Liverpool, after a 68 game unbeaten run at Anfield had lost five home games on the trot and this was looking as it could have been the sixth. It was hard to recognise them as the team that had played so well at the London Stadium a few weeks ago, and highlighted again to me the unnecessary (too much) respect that we gave to them in that game.

In this season of matches that just keep coming relentlessly, it seems a long time ago now that we put up such an excellent performance against the champions elect Manchester City. City are really streets ahead of all the other teams in the Premier League (and possibly Europe – we shall see), but we became another victim of their long winning run, despite matching them for shots and shots on target. We could have even ended that sequence of wins with the final move of the game which ended with Diop heading wide. City have such a depth of quality players in almost every position it would not surprise me to see them win every competition they are in this season.

While we have had this comparatively inactive period, the other teams around us hoping for a finish in a European qualifying place in the league have played, sometimes more than once, and the results have not been particularly good from our point of view. Wins for Everton, Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham have pushed us down the table without us playing, and now we are the ones with the games in hand over most of them. So many of those wins could easily have been draws, but as often appears to be the case, luck, refereeing decisions and VAR reviews seem to favour top teams in so many games.

Tonight we face Leeds, who must be relatively pleased with their season so far, after their return to the top flight after so many years out of it. They sit comfortably in mid-table with 35 points from their 26 games, unlike the other promoted teams (Fulham and West Brom) who are involved in the relegation scrap at the bottom.

The statistics for their season so far indicate a poor side from a defensive viewpoint, with only West Brom (56), and Sheffield United (45) having conceded more league goals than Leeds (44). They have lost half (13) of their games too, with only Sheffield United (22), West Brom (16), and Newcastle (14) having lost more.

Conversely they have won 11 games, which is more than the teams below them in the league, and they are ranked fifth in goals scored (44), with only City (56), Man United (53), Leicester (48) and Liverpool (47) having found the opposition net more. The above statistics point to their dearth of draws (just 2 in their 26 games), which include no draws at all away from home, a league low unmatched by the rest of the teams. Does this mean that this game will not end in a draw, or perhaps a draw is due for them?

The game at Anfield is now over and Fulham have won the game to ensure that Brighton and Newcastle will be looking anxiously over their shoulders. The usual punditry is underway with analysis of Liverpool’s vertical decline taking precedence over the credit that should be given to Fulham for their excellent victory borne out of splendid organisation. But we get used to that. Who would have thought that with just a dozen games of the season to go we would be two points ahead of Liverpool with two games in hand?  

Looking at our head to head record against Leeds it doesn’t make for very good reading. In the last 38 years we have faced them 29 times, and only beaten them on three occasions, of which only one was at home when we won 3-0 in March 1998 (that’s 23 years ago now) with goals from Hartson, Abou and Ian Pearce. We won at Elland Road a couple of seasons later when Nigel Winterburn scored the only goal of the game. Of course in December we won at Elland Road after conceding an early penalty, when Soucek and Ogbonna scored our goals in a 2-1 win.

The last time we completed a league double over them was on the day after I was born (I am now 67!) when we beat them 5-2 at Upton Park, after winning at Elland Road earlier that season. We were both Division Two sides at the time. The last time we did a double over them in the top division goes back over 90 years. So it would be the first time for many years if we win the game this evening.

But purely based on current form we are strong favourites to win the game. Only Manchester City have collected more league points in this calendar year than we have, and we have won four of our last five home league games. Leeds on the other hand have lost three of their last four league games, and have an abysmal record in London, losing all four games in the capital this season.

But in their 13 away league games they have scored in 11 of them. In fact they have found the net 24 times away from home but conceded 27, winning six times and losing seven. The 87 goals scored in Leeds 26 games this season suggests that a goalless draw is highly unlikely, with five goals or more coming in almost a third of their matches.

Despite current form pointers suggesting a home win we are not as strong favourites with the bookmakers as you might have thought. Odds of around 21/20 for a West Ham victory look inviting, as does a West Ham win with both teams to score at 5/2. As is often the case with the bookies the favourite correct score is 1-1 despite Leeds not having drawn an away game this season, but I quite fancy 2-1 to repeat the Elland Road win (15/2) or even 3-1 (14/1). What are the chances?

 P.S. Writers Curse – of course, after extolling the virtues of Manchester City, their long winning and unbeaten runs came to an unexpected end when their nearest neighbours beat them. Just a blip I reckon that will spur them on for the rest of the season.

Can West Ham end City’s Winning Run?

I’ve been watching West Ham for more than 60 years and throughout that time I have often been able to witness some excellent attacking football. Not always of course, but at times we have had some great teams going forward, some brilliant goalscorers, and many skilful midfielders. During that time defending has never been our forte despite boasting some super defenders, with perhaps Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds being the pick. This season has been a revelation in that respect, and David Moyes plus his coaching staff must take great credit in producing a group of players that are highly organised and know their jobs when it comes to defending as a whole team.

The bargain recruits, Coufal and Dawson, have fitted in magnificently with Ogbonna and Cresswell, who are both having arguably their best season at the club. Diop and Balbuena have both come into the centre back positions when called upon, and Johnson is beginning to show what a fine player he may become. Fredericks doesn’t get a good press with many of our supporters, and whilst I can understand that in some ways, I believe he has plenty to offer as a squad player, with many underestimating how important he was when used as an auxiliary full back to help Coufal in taming Grealish. If he could add better touch to his undoubted pace he could yet offer a lot.

Moyes is building a team with power and pace, and it is unusual for us to be able to boast the best record in the top flight for goals scored from set pieces. It is even more unusual to see us at the top of the charts when it comes to defending set pieces, and great credit must go to the coaching staff for this too. That is why it was particularly surprising to concede a goal headed in directly from a corner scored by Moura of Tottenham last weekend, a player not noted for his aerial ability.

Nonetheless we defended well against the second half Tottenham onslaught, rode our luck a couple of times, and moved into fourth position, and a Champions League place, following our 2-1 win. I still have to pinch myself when I look at the league table, especially after we lost the first couple of games of the season. But with just 13 games to go we are in a strong position to finish higher in the table than any of us would have dreamt of just six months ago.

The next few games will probably hold the key to our eventual finishing position with a tough run of fixtures in March and April being followed by an easier (on paper) May. And it doesn’t come any tougher than this game against Manchester City, who are by far the best team in England at the moment, and likely to go a long way in the Champions League – they are currently 9/4 favourites to come out on top in that competition, with perhaps the only real threats coming from Bayern and PSG.

There seems little doubt that they will win the Premier League as they are now ten points clear in that, as well as being able to boast nineteen straight wins in all competitions. Can we stop them from making it twenty? Quite probably not as they play at a level beyond all other teams in the league at the present time. But it is probably as good a time to play them as any.  I’ll be looking for us to put up a strong performance. Our final finishing position will not depend on this result, but it will be a good test to see how far we have come as this season has progressed. Hopefully our defensive unit will show how difficult we are to beat, and perhaps we could come out of the game with a draw. Unlikely I know, but let’s hope we can snatch a point.

If you think we can you can get odds of about 5/1. An unlikely victory is priced at around 12/1. City are 1/4 which is not as short as they often are to win home games. I’ve done pretty well in recent times with my score predictions in West Ham games, with the 2-1 win last weekend another to add to my collection. For this game I’m going for a goalless draw. The odds on that happening are around 16/1. A win would be great but I can’t see that outcome.

City had won ten consecutive games against us before we held them 1-1 in the reverse fixture early in the season. So we do have form when it comes to disrupting their winning runs. Like Tottenham last week they had a European fixture in midweek before facing us, although with the depth and strength of their squad I can’t see this inconveniencing them too much. There have been a few 0-0 draws in league games between the two teams in history but all happened at Upton Park. It has never happened before in a league game where Manchester City are at home to us. But there’s always a first time isn’t there? What are the chances?  

Can West Ham Maintain Hopes of European Qualification?

I was interested to see Jose Mourinho’s thoughts ahead of our derby game at home to our North London neighbours today. In one observation he suggested that the relative positions of West Ham and Tottenham will not be the same at the end of the season as they are now. Of course everyone takes this to mean that he believes they will improve their league position whereas we will falter. But perhaps he thinks we will move up further in the table while they will plunge lower? No, I don’t think he meant that but it’s always interesting to read how his remarks are interpreted as it is not always clear exactly what he means.

He was certainly getting his excuses in early in the event of West Ham winning the game by suggesting that we have a distinct advantage by not being involved in Europe. We’ve had a week to prepare the team, to work on tactics for our next game, for injuries to heal, for players to rest, for the fatigue induced by a congested fixture list to diminish. His team however had to play on Thursday evening giving them little time to prepare and recover. He did concede that we’ve done well so far, but he certainly seemed to suggest that we won’t keep it up for another 14 games. Time will tell. He may be right.

But if you study recent form everything points to an optimistic outcome for the Hammers this lunchtime. Tottenham may have the edge when you look back over history of fixtures between the clubs that goes back to the nineteenth century, but based on the last few weeks we would certainly hope to come out on top.

In the season to date we already have 42 points which is our best tally in the top flight after 24 games for 35 years, which takes us back to that great campaign of 1985-86 (we had 48 at the same stage) when we finished third, and came as close as we ever have to being champions. Already we have surpassed our total points for the whole of last season by three points and there are still 14 games to go.

Recent form is even more impressive. Looking at the last five games only, we have 10 points to Tottenham’s 3. In fact in our last 10 Premier league games we have won six, drawn three, and lost just once (to Liverpool).

Bookmakers are not sure which way this game will go. Both teams are favourites with differing firms and are on offer at around 13/8 to win the game with the draw at 9/4. Of course the first meeting this season ended up 3-3 with our amazing comeback in the final nine minutes. The odds are 55/1 for a repeat of that scoreline, or if you fancy that score with Lanzini scoring the last goal of the game again then you can get 350/1. Or how about our new penalty taker (Rice) scoring a last minute penalty to force a 3-3 draw at 500/1?

I wonder what formation we will start with in this game? I just hope we remember that we need to counter the pace of Son who I believe is their most dangerous player. I wonder if the manager will consider using Fredericks in the same way that he used him to help Coufal to nullify Grealish in the Aston Villa game? Or perhaps Johnson who has looked good in recent games? If Antonio is fit then he will undoubtedly play but who will be the other attacking players? Lingard will almost certainly be one of them but he’ll also be considering Bowen, Benrahma, Lanzini, Noble and Fornals for probably one or possibly two starting places.

I am hoping that David Moyes can be successful against Mourinho for the first time in about fifteen attempts. It will be close. A draw is on the cards but I’ll go for a 2-1 Hammers win with Rice scoring the last goal of the game. That is on offer at around 85/1. Following Liverpool’s defeat to Everton and Chelsea’s draw with Southampton yesterday we can move into fourth place in the table two points clear of Chelsea if we can win today. What are the chances?  

West Ham, Sheffield United, Tevezgate, the Icelandic Consortium, and the Great Escape – Memories of 2006-2007

Do you remember season 2006-2007? Of course you do – all Hammers fans can recall the season of the “Great Escape” and one that will go down in history as one of the most bizarre, and there have been a few of those. The final game of the previous campaign had been in Cardiff where we were massively unlucky to lose one of the great FA Cup finals on penalties. We had also finished ninth in the Premier League in our first season back in the top flight after promotion from the Championship.

We were confident that the club could build on that, and also shocked to learn that we had signed two top class Argentinian footballers in Mascherano and Tevez, potentially one of the biggest coups in our transfer history. Little did we know at the time that the signings, particularly that of Tevez, would lead to controversy and repercussions that would haunt us for many years to come.

The season had begun well enough with a win and a draw which put us top of the league on the evening of Tuesday 22 August. A defeat at Liverpool followed by a home draw against Villa gave us five points from four games, and Bobby Zamora had scored five of our six goals. Then came the introduction of the Argentinians into the team, and a disastrous run of games where we lost eight times in a row, scoring just once in those fixtures, a 2-1 defeat at Chesterfield in the League Cup. In that time we were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Palermo of Italy, and tumbled to 19th in the table, to begin a relegation fight that would last until the end of the season.

The terrible run continued until the end of the year. After we had scored six goals in our first four games, we then only scored six more league goals in the rest of 2006. Zamora didn’t score any of them despite playing in most of the games. We did manage four wins in that time, three with the only goal of the game. In the middle of that run of games was a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United in November, which was the last time that we managed to beat them before the 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane this season, almost 14 years to the day later. Hayden Mullins scored the goal, one of just a handful he scored in his time here.

Off the field plenty was happening too. In November the board accepted an £85 million takeover by an Icelandic Bank headed by Eggert Magnusson, then shortly afterwards, following three successive defeats with no goals scored and eight conceded, culminating in a 4-0 loss at Bolton, manager Alan Pardew was sacked and former player Alan Curbishley was appointed. His first game in charge was a 1-0 victory over Manchester United (the eventual champions) at Upton Park, but we only scored once more before the end of the year and only collected one point from a 0-0 draw at Craven Cottage.

2007 began therefore with the team in the bottom three and only six league goals from the last 17 matches; relegation form for sure. Surely we could only improve from here! On 1st January we travelled to Reading and were humbled 6-0. By the time we faced Tottenham at Upton Park on March 4th Curbishley had still only had the one league win (in his first game). The 4-3 defeat to our North London neighbours dropped us to the bottom of the league and only a miraculous turnaround would save us now. Tevez actually scored his first goal for us in the Spurs game (from a free kick) – it was his 20th appearance!

At this point there were just nine games of the season left. We had only won 5 out of 29 at this point; surely relegation was just a formality. Our survival hopes were boosted with wins over Blackburn and Middlesbrough (with goals in each game for Tevez and Zamora), before a magnificent 1-0 win at Arsenal with Zamora scoring for the fourth game in a row (just as he had at the beginning of the season). We then went to Bramall Lane and a poor performance saw us lose 3-0 to one of our relegation rivals. We followed this with a 4-1 loss at Upton Park to Chelsea, and with just four games left we looked to be down.

But a nervous 1-0 win over Everton, followed by victories over Wigan (3-0) and Bolton (3-1), meant that we travelled to Old Trafford to face the champions Manchester United, probably needing an unlikely win to retain top flight status. Of course we did so thanks to a Tevez goal and the great escape had been achieved. Sheffield United went down but they later claimed that third party rules had been broken by our signing of Tevez. They claimed that he had been instrumental in us avoiding relegation while they were relegated, despite the fact that it took him 20 games to score a goal. He scored just seven goals in his 26 league appearances for us, but in the end we had to pay Sheffield United over £30 million in compensation in instalments.

After an excellent first season back last year when they were the surprise team of the Premier League, Sheffield United appear to have been found out this time around, and will need to better our Great Escape of all those years ago to avoid dropping into the Championship. They go into this game at the very bottom, with just three wins and eleven points from 23 games, 14 points adrift of safety. It seems inconceivable that any of the bottom three can possibly escape, but that does not mean that games against them are gimmes as we found when facing Fulham recently.

Our lack of alternative striking options to Antonio is now a cause for concern, although I never thought that Yarmolenko could possibly play in the lone striker role anyway. His performance at Old Trafford seemed to prove that and his injury now means that he is likely to be unavailable for some time. If Antonio is not available for any games from now then we will go into those matches without a recognised striker, and perhaps we will start a trend with Bowen, Benrahma and Lingard playing as three false nines at the same time interchanging at the top of the pitch. It seems a shame that our push for a top seven finish (or higher) is likely to be halted by a lack of foresight in investment of strikers.

For my lockdown treat today I have been having a look at the league table and noting how unusual the season is in that the majority of teams have better away records than home ones. Of the top 11 teams, only Manchester City and Liverpool have won more games at home than on their travels. Our record is interesting and for lovers of symmetry wouldn’t it be good if we could beat Sheffield United by two goals to nil? That would mean that our home and away records to date would be exactly the same; played 12, won 6, drawn 3, lost 3, goals scored 18, goals conceded 14, points 21. Bookmakers will only give me around a measly 7/1 for that scoreline, despite our dearth of striking options.

I’d be happy with a win of any kind, which presuming Chelsea beat Newcastle later, will leave us in fifth place, relegating champions Liverpool to sixth, and just four points behind second. Who would have believed that we could possibly be in this position when the season started? So don’t let us down West Ham. A win please, preferably by 2-0. What are the chances?

Soucek Available as Hammers Bid to Reach FA Cup Quarter Final

If you read newspapers or social media to see what happened when we played at Craven Cottage at the weekend then you wouldn’t have found out very much about the actual football played. The conditions were awful, the rain was bucketing down and the pitch was slowly deteriorating as the game went on. It reminded me of our FA Cup tie at Stockport in many respects. We were playing a side that on form we should be dominating but in many aspects we were second best. Fulham actually play some neat football, but unfortunately they are likely to go down this season because of a lack of a cutting edge in the final third. Either team could have won the game with each of our Czech imports missing headed chances whilst at the other end all the Fulham players seemed to lose composure when a half chance appeared.

The major talking point came as a result of a West Ham free kick with seconds to go, when Lee Mason (on VAR duty at Stockley Park) drew Mike Dean’s attention to the fact that Mitrovic was on the floor, looking like he’d been felled by Mike Tyson, and suggested that he should go and view the incident on the screen at the side of the pitch. After reviewing the footage 23 times (that says enough in itself that it wasn’t clear to him!) he then produced a red card. Cue astonishment all round – it was obvious to anyone who understands the game that it was accidental. There has been about 99% agreement everywhere you view or read that the decision was a wrong one, and fortunately the red card was rescinded on Monday. The only real doubt that this would be the outcome was would the panel want to overturn a second decision by (supposedly) one of the top referees in one week? But common sense won the day (sometimes it doesn’t in football) and Soucek is available to play in tonight’s game. The sad thing is that a (top!?) referee should see an incident in a different way to virtually all other observers.

We face a Manchester United side that are having a good season, lying second in the league with a very good chance of retaining a position in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Of course we are sixth ourselves, only one point behind Liverpool (in fourth) and should be harbouring ambitions to achieve a top four place too. But with limited attacking options and little investment from the top of the club to remedy this we are very much outsiders in this respect and that’s why I believe tonight’s game takes on added importance. To achieve a top four league finish would require consistency of performance that may be beyond us with our current squad. Excellent though we have been in so many ways this season, our best chance of glory must realistically be to emulate what we achieved in 1964, 1975 and 1980, and that is of course to win the FA Cup.

Yes, a tough fixture tonight, but if we can come out on top then that would put us into the last eight, just one game away from the semi-final, and two wins away from a final appearance at Wembley. Sitting close to the top of the Premier League, with absolutely no chance of going down with 15 games of the season to go is a position we don’t often find ourselves in, but that is where we are. That is why we should be focussing 100% on putting out our best team and trying to win the FA Cup.

As a fan I know that I’d prefer an appearance in the FA Cup final to a sixth or seventh place finish in the Premier League, which is realistically the best we are likely to achieve. Of course our owners may feel differently and prefer the idea of finishing as high as possible in the league, with an extra £2m in prize money for each incremental position achieved. If players need to be rested at any time then I’d prefer this to be for league games whilst we still have an interest in the cup. Of course I’d like to think we could achieve a top 4 finish and a visit to Wembley for the Cup Final, but that may be too much of an optimistic dream. We definitely have a better chance of winning tonight with Soucek available now, and that one piece of news might help to drive us on to achieve a shock result. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world for the team lying sixth to overcome the team in second place, but the bookmakers have decided that it would be. The Red Devils are 8/13 to win the game, whereas we are 21/5, with the draw around 16/5.

The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

MUNWHU1The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

I’m also old enough to remember an even more famous win against them in the semi-final of the cup in 1964, on our way to winning the trophy. We faced them the week before the semi-final in a league game at Upton Park. They beat us 2-0 despite resting most of their first team, including the trio of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst we had our first choice team playing. The following Saturday at Hillsborough we lined up with the same XI whereas they brought back their top guns expecting an easy victory.

That season Manchester United finished second in the league whereas we were a lowly 14th. But that didn’t stop us progressing to Wembley comfortably in that one-off game with two goals from Ronnie Boyce (seen being chased by fellow team members after scoring one of the goals in the semi-final) and another from Geoff Hurst. Boyce only scored 29 goals in 341 appearances for us but he knew about scoring important ones, as he also headed the winning goal in the final minute of the Final when we defeated Preston 3-2.

My prediction for tonight (optimistic hat on as usual) is for the game to end 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time, and then for us to win 4-3 on penalties (despite our lack of penalty practice this season!). What are the chances?