Friday night, 8pm kick off. Don’t get me started. As a traditionalist I like to watch my football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. But I have to accept that money talks, so if I want to watch my beloved West Ham live I have no option but to travel to London late in the afternoon and return home around midnight. For so many reasons it is not particularly convenient, but so be it, I cannot change it, and I will take my place in the East Stand as usual.
This is Brighton’s first season ever in the Premier League, although I am old enough to remember them in the top flight between 1979 and 1983, which culminated in a Cup Final appearance for them when they lost to Manchester United after a replay. That season (1982-83) they were relegated and were not to be seen in the top tier of English football again until now.
In the following years after relegation they had significant problems as they fell down the divisions and almost went out of business. In 1996-97 they were very close to losing their place in the Football League, and went into the last game of the season at home to Hereford United needing at least a draw to avoid dropping out. They were 1-0 down for much of the game, but a late equaliser enabled them to survive and sent Hereford out of the league. They also had significant ground problems when the Goldstone Ground closed, which meant that they shared Gillingham’s stadium for a while, and also spent a period at the Withdean Stadium, which effectively was a small athletics track. But they have bounced back from those troubled times and the impressive Falmer (Amex) Stadium which seats over 30,000 has been their home since 2011.
This season has started reasonably for them, and in fact they have an identical record to our own, having won two, drawn two, and lost four of their opening eight fixtures. But their goal difference of minus 4 (as opposed to our minus 6) means that they sit in 14th place in the table, immediately above us. They have a good home record unsurprisingly losing their opener to Manchester City (2-0), before beating West Brom 3-1, Newcastle 1-0, and unluckily drawing 1-1 with Everton when they conceded a penalty in the last minute which was converted by Wayne Rooney. But on their travels they have collected just a solitary point (in a goalless draw at Watford). They lost 2-0 at Leicester, 2-1 at Bournemouth, and 2-0 at Arsenal.
Most of our early games against them were in the old Southern League or FA Cup ties, and we didn’t play a game against them in the Football League until 1978. But in the last (almost) forty years since then we haven’t often been in the same division, and we have met them in just fourteen league games, winning six, drawing three, and losing five. I can remember clearly their only victory on our ground when I watched from the old East Stand at Upton Park in November 2004 with my dad. It was one of the last times he came with me to West Ham before he died. We dominated the whole game yet lost 1-0 to a header from a free kick from Guy Butters. I recall Steve Claridge being in their team at the time.
The last time we met them was a very enjoyable experience. It was in our promotion campaign of 2011-12 when, under Big Sam, we played them at Upton Park in the penultimate home game of the regular season. We were still chasing automatic promotion so a win was important, and we tied it up within the first quarter of an hour racing into a three goal lead. I watched this game from the Bobby Moore stand and was right behind the line of Ricardo Vaz Te’s powerful shot from outside the area at the other end which opened the scoring. Just a few minutes later it was all over as a contest when Vaz Te added the second and Nolan the third (or was it the other way round?). I can recall two of the second half goals, a stunning bicycle kick from Vaz Te to complete his hat-trick, and a mazy dribble followed by a powerful low shot from Carlton Cole. I am afraid that I have no memory of the other goal whatsoever. But it was an excellent game which made number 19 in my list of favourite West Ham matches in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford. Vaz Te’s powerful first goal and then his bicycle kick were numbers 18 and 28 in my list of 60 Favourite West Ham goals in the same book.
If we have any aspirations to make a convincing challenge to finish in the top half of the table, then games such as these are “must-win” ones. We won’t pick up many points against the top six sides, and we need to maximise our opportunities against the “lesser” teams, especially in the home fixtures. The bookmakers have us as 5/6 favourites to win the game, with Brighton at 7/2 and the draw at 12/5. The favourite scoreline is a 1-0 win for us quoted at around 5/1. And if you fancy a repeat of the 6-0 drubbing we gave them the last time they visited, then you can get odds of 425/1.
Can you remember the last time we scored more than three goals in a home game? It hasn’t happened under Slaven Bilic, although we did score four times in the away game at Swansea last season. In our first season back in the Premier League (2012-13) under Big Sam we did it twice. In the final game of the season we put four past Reading thanks to a Nolan hat trick and another goal from Vaz Te. And today, 20th October, is the fifth anniversary of our 4-1 home win over Southampton. Mark Noble scored twice that day, a free kick from very long range (at least 30 yards), and a penalty converted after a handball by Jose Fonte! I remember Andy Carroll giving the Southampton defenders a torrid time that day, something he won’t be repeating in today’s game. The other goals came from Nolan, and a fine solo effort from Maiga (remember that?).
I’m hoping that Brighton continue to find it difficult to score on their travels, and that we can come up with at least a couple of goals to win 2-0. Perhaps we can even go further and repeat the four goals of five years ago today? A 4-1 repeat of the score that day is 35/1. I won’t hold my breath.