Play Fair 3: Increasing Playing Time

Part three of the IFAB rule change proposals considers how to increase Playing Time.

This is the third of my articles looking at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and looks at their ideas for increasing playing time in a game of football. My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.”

The concept of increasing playing time is one of my hobby horses that I wrote about in my introduction to the Play Fair document, having first written about it in 2015. The document begins this section with the comment that many people are very frustrated that a typical 90 minute game of football has fewer than 60 minutes of effective or actual playing time, i.e. when the ball is in play. Their key strategy which could be implemented without any law changes is a stricter calculation of additional time. They state that referees should be required to be much stricter in calculating additional time, by stopping their watch as follows:

  • From the time a penalty kick is awarded until the kick has been taken
  • From when a goal is scored until the kick- off is taken
  • From the time play stops for an injury until play restarts
  • From the time a card is shown until play restarts
  • From a substitution signal until the game restarts
  • From the award of a free kick until the kick is taken – this is especially important when pacing out is carried out.

You would be amazed how much time this would add on compared to what happens now. If you don’t believe me then use the stopwatch on your watch / smartphone every time one of these situations arises in a game. At the moment we typically find that referees add on 1-2 minutes at the end of the first half, and usually somewhere between 3-5 minutes in the second half. This bears little relation to the actual time when no football is being played.

We all remember when Tony Pulis used to bring his Stoke City side to play at Upton Park, and apart from a number of other dubious time wasting tactics, they would try to force throw-ins in our half. Rory Delap had an excellent long throw, but he would take an interminable amount of time drying the ball, waving players into position etc. It could take up to a minute for each throw-in to be taken and incensed the crowd.

I would go further than the initial suggestions in the Play Fair document for adding on time and propose stopping time whenever the ball goes out of play, especially when kicked into the stands, or when the ball goes behind the goal. I believe that the clock should only be restarted at the point a corner, or goal kick, or throw-in is actually taken.

In their points for discussion the document brings up the subject of stadium clocks, and they want to link this to the referees watch. Again, I would suggest going further and take timekeeping totally out of the hands of the referee when there is a clock in the stadium. The officials have enough to think about without worrying about timekeeping. How simple would it be for a clock controller in the stand to stop and start the clock as necessary and only have the clock running when the ball is in actual play? To me this is so easy that I cannot comprehend why it doesn’t get introduced at once. It would totally eliminate the concept of timewasting. It would be necessary to consider how long each half should last, and suggest 30 minutes in each half of actual playing time. You could even have 4 periods of 15 minutes actual playing time, with a 15 minute interval at the end of the second period. This would lead to more playing time than we see at the moment, and time wasting would become a redundant exercise with no benefit.

They do make some other suggestions for increasing playing time, but to me they would have minimal impact, especially if the actual playing time guided by the stadium clock is introduced. These suggestions include, referees to apply the 6 seconds rule for goalkeepers strictly, self-passing at a free kick, corner kick or goal kick, allowing a moving ball at a goal kick, insisting a goal kick is taken at the side where the ball goes out, and substitutions taking place, or players leaving the field when injured at the nearest touchline. All of these would speed up the game to some extent, but the key one regarding the stadium clock is the most important to my mind.

The reasoning behind the “self-passing” proposal is a sound one in the case of free kicks, as it would allow the fouled player to effectively play the ball to himself. The game already allows quick free kicks, but would it be even better, and perhaps encourage speedier attacking play, if the player who has been fouled could (if he wanted to) stop the ball and then immediately continue their dribble or attacking move, thus speeding up the game? Perhaps this could be trialled?

I’m uncertain as to how West Ham would benefit from this change unless we took a different approach to free kicks. On many occasions we already take them very quickly, but without a great deal of thought. How many times last season did we have a free kick in the opponent’s half, only for us to take it straight away, frequently sideways and backwards, with the ball ending up with our keeper? The advantage of having a free kick is lost when we do this.

Play Fair Part 2: Player Behaviour and Respect

In Part 2 of the series the IFAB Play Fair Document proposals to ‘Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.’

In my previous article I introduced the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Today I will look at the first of the three crucial areas where they believe potential changes could be made to improve the game, that of improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Over the years there have been many attempts to try to get players to improve their behaviour. Of course the main sanction is the issue of yellow and red cards, but how much effect does this have? In many instances the correct issue of both types of card is a subjective one and provokes much controversy.

Some of the ways in which IFAB believe that behaviour of players and team officials can be improved make some sense, whilst I don’t believe that others will have any real impact at all. The changes that could be implemented immediately without a change in the Law are fairly obvious ones but have no real clout:

  1. The captain must become the main point of communication with the referee.
  2. The captain must be the only player allowed to approach the referee when there is controversy.
  3. The captain must help the referee to calm flashpoint situations.

These are all sensible enough, but can you see it realistically happening unless there are meaningful sanctions in place when they don’t?  Some captains in recent years, and we all know who they are, would be less equipped to help the referee to calm down their players in flashpoint situations.

We all know what happens in reality. Players don’t like a decision, either because the officials have got it wrong, or because they feel that if they make a significant protest when they are in the wrong the referee will be sufficiently intimidated not to give decisions against the team in the future. Some teams in recent years have turned mobbing the referee into an art form, and unfortunately with weak referees it works. Is it a coincidence that teams noted for this type of protest appear to have more than their fair share of contentious decisions go in their favour?

The mobbing or surrounding of match officials is a problem that has existed for as long as I can remember but has, perhaps, escalated in recent times. For me the reason is clear. The officials do nothing about it. How many times do you see players around the referee or one of his assistants, and the referee keeps trying to wave them away? Do they go away? No. And what are the sanctions? None.

IFAB believe that the following sanctions could be tested out to solve the problem.

  1. “Referees should deal more strongly with players who mob the referee or linesman by the use of yellow cards.” Personally, I thought that they already had this power but are too weak to use it in the majority of cases. And an increase in yellow cards would lead to an increase in red cards, which then leads to more games without the full complement of players on the pitch. I hate to see this. I don’t understand the cheering when a player gets sent off. It leads to a changed, and usually, duller game, where the team with fewer players brings everyone back behind the ball, thus ruining the entertainment.
  2. “Only the captain can approach the referee to discuss a controversial decision.” They call this a sanction! It is not and will be totally ignored without anything meaningful happening.
  3. “Fines or points deduction for a team guilty of mobbing.” Now they are beginning to get somewhere, although fines are a total waste of time with the money around at the top level of the game. The only meaningful sanction that I can see working is that of points deduction. We now have panels that review all kinds of incidents retrospectively, and if a team surrounds the referee in a game then, in my opinion, something like two points (perhaps even three) should be deducted from their total if found guilty of this offence. This may seem harsh, but if they seriously want to put an end to it then this is what they must do. Managers will soon drum it into their players that the consequences of this kind of action would be harmful to the team and I’m sure it would soon cease.

I have an alternative suggestion, too. In addition to the potential retrospective action of points deductions, a penalty would be awarded against the team who are mobbing. And if they continue with their protests then the penalty is taken without a goalkeeper allowed in the goal. And if the protests continue a second penalty is awarded and so on until the protests stop. Clubs will soon understand the consequences of surrounding a referee and this type of protest will be consigned to history. Unless there are meaningful sanctions then nothing will change.

IFABs other suggestions for improving player behaviour and increasing respect will, I believe have little impact. They want to test red and yellow cards for coaches and team officials, and discuss a pre-match handshake between the referee and two coaches in the technical area, and a plan to reduce the number of substitutes a team can use if a substitute is sent off. The last one baffles me. What is the point of that? There are so many things they could look at I think this is just tinkering at the edges. Perhaps the game can learn something from rugby where officials are respected, and players tend to refer to the referee as “sir”? Can you see this happening in football? Unless the sanctions for mobbing that I refer to are strong enough then I feel that all of their proposals in part 1 of the Play Fair document will have little impact upon improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Play Fair: Taking A Hammer To The Rules of The Game

An introduction to the document produced by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) looking to make changes to game of football.

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to attempting to improve the game of football. One side of the argument suggests that the game is fine as it is. Many believe that it is already the best and most popular game in the world and should be left alone. An alternative view is that you cannot stand still and it is prudent to make changes from time to time when there is an opportunity to make improvements for players and spectators alike.

I come down on the side of the latter view, and believe it is necessary to make alterations to the Laws to move with changes in the way that the game is played. If you look back to the late 1950s at video footage of games played at that time, you will realise that it has changed since then, and some amendments are necessary to keep the game up to date. As a regular columnist on the best West Ham fanzine ever, Over Land and Sea, as a co-author of this blog, and in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I have frequently suggested changes that I believed would improve the game.

Within the book I made regular calls for the introduction of video technology, and devoted more than one chapter to this as it is something I am very much in favour of, as long as it is introduced in the right way and doesn’t alter the flow of the game. I am pleased to say that this is something that is now well on the way to becoming part and parcel of the professional game at the top level. In my prelude to our game against Stoke City in April 2015 I explained how I believed it should work, and future chapters on the topic reinforced my reasoning, especially resulting from some of the poor refereeing decisions that went against us in the 2015-16 season.

We had a batch of games in the second half of the season; away at Manchester United in the cup, away at Chelsea and Leicester in the league, and at home to Palace and Arsenal, all five of which resulted in draws. With a video assistant referee, all five would probably have resulted in victories, which would have seen progression into the semi-final of the cup, and eight more points in the league, which would have given us a Champions League place. Some will argue that these incorrect decisions balance themselves out over a season, but in reality they do not. I cannot recall a single instance where we benefitted from a contentious decision that later proved to be wrong in that season.

In my book I also unleashed another big bugbear of mine, the question of timekeeping, and timewasting. In a later article for Over Land and Sea, and also within the book after the home game had been played against West Brom on 29 November 2015, I went to town on this topic, and also re-watched the whole game on Sky with a stopwatch, and bemoaned the fact that less than 25 minutes of football was actually played in the second half of the game.

On 23 January 2016, after the game against Manchester City on that date, I wrote a chapter entitled Crime and Punishment. In this I pushed for changes in respect of the awarding of penalty kicks, questioned the need for having a penalty area, introduced my reservations about the offside law, questioned the concept of deliberate handball, and even made suggestions about increasing pitch sizes and goals by around 10% to allow for increases in sizes and performance of the human body since the original sizes were brought in 150 years ago.

The Laws of the game haven’t changed drastically in my lifetime (I’ve been following since 1958) but there have been some developments and amendments to the laws, and changes to rules of competitions. Some will say they have been beneficial, others will say that tinkering sometimes confuses the issue. So, for example, one of the most controversial laws in the game is the offside rule. This provokes a lot of debate, and was introduced initially to prevent “goal-hanging”. But quite how a player could be accused of “goal-hanging” when just inside his opponent’s half is beyond me. One change I would like to see is that a player can only be offside in the final eighteen yards of the pitch, but I reckon that change is a long way off. But it shouldn’t be.

The offside rule used to include “interfering with play” and there are a number of famous quotes surrounding this along the lines of “if he’s not interfering with play, or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?” I haven’t quoted it exactly I’m sure, as there are contradicting views as to who first said it, but many attribute it to Bill Shankly. Nowadays they talk about first phase, second phase, active play etc. Anybody with any doubt as to the complexity of this rule should look up Law 11 in the Laws of the Game. It is a minefield, and almost impossible to explain.

Other changes in the last fifty years or so include the introduction of substitutes (many younger people will not remember a time when substitutes were not part of the game), the back pass rule, goalkeepers now being allowed to run with the ball without bouncing it (look up some old footage of the game to see this), the six second rule for keepers (but how often is this broken without being penalised?), three points for a win (it used to be two), and penalty shoot-outs. I am old enough to remember European ties ending all square and progression to the next round of the competition being decided by the toss of a coin. Many will believe that these changes have benefitted the game, although of course there are always detractors.

Recent innovations which are gaining momentum but still give rise to controversy in their initial trial stages include experimentation with video assistant referees, and changes to the sanctions for denial of obvious goalscoring opportunities. Now the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the independent guardians of the rules of the game, have issued a discussion document entitled “Play Fair”. I was looking forward to reading their proposals. The main aims are to develop the Laws to promote integrity and fairness, improve accessibility, and use technology to benefit the game. The three-pronged strategy within the document is a kind of five-year-plan to improve player behaviour and increase respect, increase playing time, and increase fairness and attractiveness. For each of these three areas they have three sub-divisions: “no law change needed – could be implemented immediately”, “ready for testing / experiments”, and “for discussion”

I will look at each part of the strategy in turn and consider its merits, and spread my writing over five articles on consecutive days, starting with this one. Many are sound ideas, (and even include areas that I have previously touched upon) that would improve the game in my opinion, but are they tackling all of the real issues that give rise to controversy? They don’t have any proposals for changes to the offside rule, the awarding of penalty kicks when the goal is not really being threatened, and they don’t really tackle the handball situation. Nevertheless some of their ideas are sound ones and I will describe them in some detail in following articles.

West Ham Transfer Sensation

Club remained tight-lipped on impending summer transfer revelation.

At the beginning of this month I wrote about the transfer speculation in various media outlets regarding potential West Ham signings in the summer transfer window which officially opened this week. Unlike last year when there were bullish reports coming out of the club in respect of marquee signings, breaking transfer records to land players, especially a top striker, the sensational news is that this year we appear to have learned our lesson, and are keeping quiet about our potential targets! This would seem to go completely against what has happened in the past, perhaps because the season ticket sales went better than many dared to hope, and we should comfortably sell out the 52,000 seats available.

The players that we were being linked with via the media at the end of May were the following names, and some of these have continued to appear during the past few days, especially Joe Hart, the current England keeper, who let in two free kicks from outside the box against Scotland at the weekend, which won’t have increased his value in the market:

Goalkeepers: Hart, Pickford, Ruddy, Szczesny, Krul.

Defenders: Clichy, Semedo, Gibson, Maguire, Keane, Raggett.

Midfielders: Asamoah, Tadic, Barkley, Wilshere, Sigurdsson, Mertens.

Strikers: Batshuayi, Gray, Iheanacho, Braithwaite, Long, Sturridge, Mitrovic, Mboula, Selke, Ibrahimovic, Bacca, Slimani, Perez.

In the last couple of days some new names have emerged which we can add to the list of supposed targets, although pleasingly West Ham appear to be remaining coy about all speculation, and are refusing to confirm any of them. That is good news!

The strongest rumour appears to be a 19 year old Nigerian, Onyekuru, who was joint top scorer in the Belgian League last season with 24 goals. More than one report (although it is impossible to say if it was just one report copied by many others) suggests that he is due to have a medical with us on Tuesday.

Other reports suggest we are interested in Kruse of Werder Bremen, a 14 cap German international, who scored 15 goals in just 23 games in the Bundesliga last season, and has a supposed £10.4m release clause.

Apparently, Giroud of Arsenal also interests us, and would be available for £20 million. He is allegedly unhappy about his lack of game time with the Gunners, with Arsenal seemingly preferring pace up front, something I would like to see in any strikers that we buy, too.

Another German on the radar is Modeste of Cologne who bagged 25 goals in the Bundesliga last season which helped them to qualify for the Europa League. The suggested fee would be around 30 million euros, although quite why he would want a switch to the London Stadium is unclear to me.

Two other attacking players are quoted by some media outlets as being of interest to us, firstly Traore of Chelsea, who has been on loan at Ajax, and secondly Munir of Barcelona who spent the season on loan at Valencia.

And finally there are two England internationals that we would want to bring to West Ham according to some reports; Delph of Manchester City, who is unlikely to get too many opportunities of playing in the first team at his current club, and the best one of all, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, who some outlets claim would be available for £17 million. I don’t believe any of the rumours that I’ve mentioned above, but this one at the price is the most ridiculous of them all, and would be a fantastic buy for us. Sadly, I think that this rumour is way off the mark.

So there you have it. Another eight names to add to the 30 quoted a week ago, making 38 potential signings. The rumour industry is in full swing, but I am pleased to report that the club seem to be keeping very quiet this time around. That is how it should be. Let us hope they keep it that way and then surprise us by announcing that one or two top players that would improve the team significantly have signed for us. I won’t hold my breath.

Will West Ham ever play in the Champions League?

Will we ever hear the “We Are Champion’s League” chant echo around the London Stadium?

Did you watch the Champions League final at the weekend between Real Madrid and Juventus? I thought it was an excellent game that was light years away from any of the domestic football we’ve seen this season. My first experience of seeing a European Cup Final was as a six year-old watching on black and white TV with my dad. I was enthralled seeing Real Madrid thrash Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 final. In those days the European Cup (which became the UEFA Champions League in the 1990s) was only for the champions of countries. Nowadays of course it is a mega highly branded competition where up to four teams can qualify from leading countries.

So all we need to do is finish in the top four of the Premier League and we are in. Sounds easy? Of course not. I am afraid that the Premier League is now so predictable and driven by money that I can easily forecast which clubs will be in contention for a top four finish next season. It will be simply a case of perm any four from this season’s top six teams. The two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and the London trio of Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea are so far ahead of the rest in terms of revenue, I can see them dominating our domestic league for years to come.

What about Leicester in the season before last you may ask? Yes, they were the exception to the rule, an absolute freakish surprise, but I honestly can’t see anything like that happening again. If you look at the Deloitte table of the richest clubs, then there are ten Premier League clubs that have appeared in the Top 20 in Europe in the last couple of years. In addition to our big six then the nearest challengers in revenue terms are Newcastle, Everton, Leicester and ourselves. But when you consider that Tottenham (the sixth richest club in England) are so far behind Liverpool in fifth, and then see how far behind Tottenham we are, then we are just not in a position to compete financially. Of course the move to the London Stadium will help us in financial terms, but all it will do is slow down the rate at which the top clubs are pulling away, which grows bigger every year.

Apart from Leicester you have to go back to season 2004-05 to find anyone outside of the big six who managed to break into the top four, when Everton crept into fourth place. Newcastle themselves did so a couple of times prior to that season, and Leeds also did around the turn of the century, but although money was a factor in those days, the differential between the top clubs and those below them wasn’t so great then. Now the differences are so huge, and the gap is getting wider, that I cannot see it happening again in the foreseeable future.

Our bullish owners are hopeful that we can compete to join this elite club, and indeed we gave it a good go in our final season at Upton Park when we finished seventh, and could perhaps have finished even higher. Almost twenty years ago we achieved our highest ever placing in the Premier League when we finished fifth in 1997-98, and a little over ten years before that in the days when the top flight was called Division One, the boys of 1986 came so close when we finished third. But it was a different world then as teams such as Southampton, Forest, Watford, Ipswich, and Norwich all managed top four finishes in the 1980s.

In many ways the Premier League is more competitive than most with six teams regularly contesting to finish at the top. In the other top leagues such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy, there are perhaps two or three teams at the most who are likely to finish as champions. This is not too surprising as our top six clubs make up half of the top dozen richest clubs in the world. But this only means that we will find it harder to earn a place in the Champions League.

To break into the elite we would need to sign some top players. But the very best players only want to play in clubs competing in the Champions League, so even if we were prepared to pay top dollar for the best, I am afraid that they wouldn’t join us anyway. I cannot see a day when we will ever play in the Champions League. Next season the best we can possibly hope for is to be among a group of middle ranking clubs who will fight to finish in seventh place (as we did a year ago) in the Premier League. I’d love to be wrong and see us emulating Leicester of a year ago. But it won’t happen.

48 Hours in the Life of West Ham Transfer Speculation

With several squad’s worth of targets linked in the past 48 hours which ones are we supposed to believe?

Has it always been like this? There is now a whole industry surrounding transfer rumours, fuelled largely by social media, the newspapers, Sky Sports and Talk Sport. I guess that as a West Ham fan I only really notice our involvement in these, but we always seem to be at the forefront when it comes to speculation regarding potential targets.

How much truth is there in what we read and hear? I find it quite amusing how some on social media appear to believe everything put before them, and start making judgements on how good or bad the players are, how they would fit into the team, and our possible best line-up to start the new season. How much of what we see exists to tempt readers to read further, whilst being bombarded with advertising?

In the past some of the West Ham hierarchy and their families have been allegedly quoted in confirming our interest in this player or that. But I think that the penny has finally dropped, and there is a realisation that this is not the way to do business. Some say it is a ploy to sell season tickets, but surely if there is any truth in the 46,280 renewal rate (90%, which incidentally is way above the Premier League average, and significantly more than many forecast), and a waiting list of 50,000 plus, then that would be totally unnecessary?

Last summer there was, of course, the talk of the marquee striker that we wanted to sign, and despite the fact that we were in Europe, albeit we qualified for the lesser competition, all the talk came to nothing, and Ayew became our record signing at the last minute. This time around I would love to see us do all our business early in the window, which doesn’t actually open for another month, and get our squad finalised in time for a full pre-season, to enable us to work on a strategy for how we are going to play, with any new recruits fully settled into the squad.

Out of interest I have compiled a list from a variety of sources of all the players that we are supposedly interested in bringing to the London Stadium. The list is confined to a 48 hour period on 30 – 31 May, and of course, it is not definitive, as I may have missed some!

Goalkeepers: Hart, Pickford, Ruddy, Szczesny, Krul.

Defenders: Clichy, Semedo, Gibson, Maguire, Keane, Raggett.

Midfielders: Asamoah, Tadic, Barkley, Wilshere, Sigurdsson, Mertens.

Strikers: Batshuayi, Gray, Iheanacho, Braithwaite, Long, Sturridge, Mitrovic, Mboula, Selke, Kruse, Ibrahimovic, Bacca, Slimani, Perez.

How many of these supposed potential targets can we expect to don the claret and blue shirt next season? I’d love it if one day I could read about a really good signing after it has been finalised, with no knowledge or speculation about it beforehand. But I won’t hold my breath.

Great Wembley Memories as a West Ham Fan

Never to be forgotten West Ham magic moments from that most iconic stadium of them all.

I watched the FA Cup Final on Saturday with my six-year old grandson, a mad keen Arsenal fan like his dad, my son-in-law. The joy on his face when Arsenal took an early lead, the look of despair when Chelsea equalised, and then the sheer jubilation when Ramsey headed the winner shortly afterwards, and the excitement at full time, brought back memories of my own childhood, when the FA Cup Final was a really special event. It still is to some extent, but doesn’t have quite the glamour of yesteryear.

The first FA Cup final that I remember clearly was when I was six (Wolves v Blackburn in 1960), but I had to wait until I was ten to see West Ham there. I watched the game with my dad on our black and white TV. We played Preston, who were then a second division side, and were expected to beat them easily, at least I thought so. But we had to come from behind twice, first when John Sissons at 18 became the youngest player to score in a final, then a Geoff Hurst header which hit the underside of the bar and barely crossed the line (shades of things to come!) made it 2-2, and finally Ronnie Boyce popped up to head home the winner right at the end.

For my next Wembley memory I only had to wait a further year. I was in the crowd of 100,000 high up behind the goal where Alan Sealey scored twice in the second half to enable us to win the European Cup Winners Cup. What a fantastic never to be forgotten night for an 11 year old. It was my first experience of actually being at Wembley, and the noise was unbelievable.

In September of 1965 I was back at Wembley for the second time to see the World Speedway final. Bjorn Knuttsson was captain of West Ham speedway team, another of my passions as a boy, and duly won the title, winning four of his five rides.

Then just a year later it was back to the TV to watch England win the World Cup. Many will say that wasn’t strictly West Ham, but to us fans, we know better. The legendary Bobby Moore was captain, and provided the assists for two of the goals, Martin Peters scored one goal (Geoff Hurst provided the assist), and everybody of course knows that Sir Geoff bagged a hat-trick. Yes of course there were 8 other players doing their bit, but West Ham players scored all four goals and provided three of the assists in the final.

Move on one year and in 1967 the League Cup Final was to be played at Wembley for the first time; previously it was a two-legged affair. I was hopeful for West Ham involvement yet again, but we were knocked out in the semi-final by West Brom.

I had to wait until 1975 for my next West Ham visit to the national football stadium, although by then I had seen several England international games. It was first v second division again; this time we faced Fulham, with the added bonus of seeing Bobby Moore, our old hero nearing the end of his career, lining up against us. The game was an unremarkable one for the neutral, but we won 2-0 with Alan Taylor scoring twice, as he did in the quarter-final and semi-final.

In 1980 we were back again, and this time I had a seat, although I don’t think I used it to sit on. It was first v second division for the third time, but this time we were the lower ranked team, and not expected to beat Arsenal, who were in the final for the third year running. But Trevor Brooking’s famous diving header won the game, and once again my return journey up Wembley Way was a happy one.

In March 1981 we were back yet again, this time to contest the League Cup final. We were still in the second division, but had probably the best second tier side of all time that season, and were runaway winners of the division to get back to the top flight. We faced the mighty Liverpool, and looked like we were going to lose the game when Liverpool scored a very late (blatantly offside) goal. But within a minute we were awarded a penalty and Ray Stewart stepped up to calmly equalise to take the game to a replay (no penalty shoot-outs in those days). We lost the replay 2-1 at Villa Park.

We were involved in two further Play-Off finals and another FA Cup final in the early years of the 21st century, but these were all in Cardiff whilst Wembley Stadium was being redeveloped. We only won one of the three (against Preston in 2005), but should have beaten Liverpool in the classic 2006 FA Cup Final, only to be denied by that late Gerrard strike.

My first visit to the redeveloped Wembley was to see the Play-Off final against Blackpool. It was a tense affair, after Tom Ince had equalised Carlton Cole’s early goal. But Ricardo Vaz Te became an instant hero when he netted the late winner, sparking great scenes behind that goal.

I have great memories of West Ham playing at Wembley. We may not have been there as much as some of the top sides, but as fans we have the enviable record of never seeing our team beaten there in six games. Unless of course you were there in 1923 when we lost the very first Wembley FA Cup final to Bolton! No defeats and some great memories.