2018-19 – Was this a campaign for West Ham to move to the next level, or one to consolidate under a new regime?

A new manager, new backroom staff, many new players, and hope for a better season. But was it enough to move on to the next level? How accurate were the bookmakers in predicting how this season would end?

So many people begin so many sentences with the word “so” these days. I was thinking this when trying to evaluate the season that is coming to an end today, as the phrase that came into my head was “so so”! So what does “so so” actually mean? Neither very good nor very bad, middling, all right, respectable, satisfactory, indifferent, mediocre, ordinary, passable, run of the mill, adequate, acceptable, tolerable, moderate, modest, unexceptional, OK, undistinguished? Have I got it right or am I being too harsh?

At times the football we have played has been very good, especially with victories over some top teams. We managed to beat three of the elite top six teams, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham, and drew with both Chelsea and Liverpool, two games that with better luck and better officials we could easily have won. Only Manchester City of the top teams were just too good.

Of the five teams that have been chasing that seventh spot for much of the season, we have held our own with equal points in games against Everton and Leicester. Wolves, like Manchester City, were just too good for us in both games, and we suffered a home defeat to Watford. That game put an end to a four match winning run in December which gave us high hopes of chasing a European place. It also resulted in an injury to the General when giving away the penalty for Watford’s opening goal. In my opinion that was a key factor in many performances that followed in that his partnership with Diop was broken, and we never quite looked the same at the back. Can we balance the books against the Hornets today? If so, a top half finish is achieved, but if not then we are consigned to the bottom half of the table.

Disappointingly, we only picked up one point in the four games against Bournemouth and Brighton, and suffered away defeats at Burnley and Cardiff where our performances were definitely unacceptable. Once again I don’t believe that we got the points we might have done due to some dubious refereeing decisions and poor line calls that robbed us, whereas very few close calls went in our favour. I very much welcome the use of VAR next season which hopefully will eliminate some of these diabolical errors.

When writing this piece today I had a look back at my first article this season written shortly before the season began. The next part is an extract that shows how predictable the Premier League has become.

But can we reach the “next level”? What exactly is the “next level”? If you study the odds on offer among the vast array of bookmakers throughout the country then there is a certain similarity of where they all believe clubs will finish in the Premier League. Not surprisingly, Manchester City are odds on to retain the title and Liverpool are clear second favourites at 4/1. Then come Manchester United 7/1, Chelsea 12/1, Tottenham 14/1 and Arsenal 25/1. So that’s the top six sorted. Same as last time, the same top six elite, the clubs with the biggest revenues will fill the top six places again. As predictable as ever according to the odds makers.

Following hot on the heels of the top six, well not exactly on the heels but trailing behind at a distance, bookmakers have four clubs all priced in the region of 250/1 to fill places 7-10. Those clubs are (in no particular order, because the order varies from bookmaker to bookmaker) Everton, Wolves, Leicester, and West Ham. So we are well fancied to finish in the top half, and even as high as seventh place, but will not realistically be challenging the elite six. I suppose you could call that the next level?

As a matter of interest the next four clubs are priced generally in the 500/1 to 750/1 bracket – Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Burnley. And finally the bottom six in the betting market at odds of between 750/1 up to 2000/1 are Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Watford, Huddersfield and Cardiff.

Of course the aim of all fourteen clubs that make up the “also-rans” in the Premier League should be to break into the top six, but unfortunately the aim of many is to secure at least seventeenth place for a return visit next season. I’d like to think that our goal is to consolidate a position comfortably in the top half of the table, with a target of finishing in seventh place, and hopefully finishing as close to the top six as possible. If you believe that we can force our way into the elite group then you can get odds of between 9/1 and 12/1 to achieve this. Now that really would be the “next level”!

The bookmakers were spot on with the top six teams, although not exactly in the correct order. The four teams they predicted to chase the top six was a good shout too, as was the four to follow them. And they were very accurate in that their forecast of the bottom six had the bottom four teams in it. The only teams that really outperformed the bookmakers’ odds were Watford (significantly), and to a lesser extent Bournemouth. Manchester United underperformed their odds, but in reality the bookmakers virtually knew the outcome before the season began. Of course there is always the chance of a few unlikely results but I’m afraid the Premier League has become much too predictable.

The Championship on the other hand, whilst not being of quite the same quality, is a much more open competition each season, and in many ways more enjoyable as a result. You would have got long odds on Norwich and Sheffield United gaining automatic promotion. Not many would have predicted that before the season began. The holy grail for all teams is to be in the Premier League because of the money involved, but does that mean entertainment for the fans?

When West Ham have been playing away this season I have often gone along to Ram Meadow, the home ground of my local club, Bury Town. They play in step four of non-league football in the Bostik Isthmian League North and finished the season in sixth place just outside the play-offs. Incidentally Julian Dicks is the boss of the team that finished fifth, Heybridge Swifts. I can honestly say that, although the football was obviously not on the same level as the Premier League, the entertainment on offer matched what I saw at the London Stadium this season. That does not mean that I am about to bring an end to over sixty years of going along to watch West Ham, as I have already renewed my season ticket for next season. I will go along and hope that we can improve and move on to “the next level”.

Southampton are the visitors to the London Stadium as we sing Auld Lang Syne at the last home game of the season

Before we visited White Hart Lane (is it still called that?) last weekend the headline of my blog was “West Ham visit White Hart Lane to collect three points”. I didn’t end the headline with a question mark, I was just going back to the future after a trip in my DeLorean to tell you what was about to happen. As if it wasn’t enough to be the first team to win at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, to complete a double of firsts at Tottenham was a very satisfying experience to say the least.

Our points haul against top six teams this season has been impressive compared to what usually happens, so it is a pity that so many points have been lost against the more mediocre sides in the Premier League, leaving us four points (and an inferior goal difference) away from achieving a finish in the top half of the table.

Seventh place was certainly achievable, but some indifferent performances at times has meant that unless we win both of our remaining games, and one of Everton, Watford or Leicester lose both of theirs then we will be confined to a bottom half finish, certainly below what should be expected for a club with our resources. It will be interesting to see what happens in the summer in an attempt to improve the squad and push on upwards towards a seventh place finish. That doesn’t seem to be much of an ambition, but in reality I can’t see any of the top six elite failing to finish in the top six once again next time.

I was reminiscing with a fellow fan recently and telling him about one of my favourite seasons in the sixty plus years I have been following West Ham, and this was one of the less remembered seasons as there was no trophy at the end (well there usually isn’t is there?), although we finished in a highly satisfactory eighth place in Division One, just a point below our visitors today, Southampton, and the team we beat last week, Tottenham.

WHUSOU2Recently an article in the Daily Telegraph brought to my attention that there have been fewer draws this season in the Premier League than in any other season since it began in 1992, and also that 0-0 draws are also at an all-time low. This reminded me of the 1968-69 season when our record at the end read “Played 42, Won 13, Lost 11, Drew 18! Goals for 66, Against 50, Points 44” (only two points for a win then, of course). By drawing 18 of our 42 games (43%) we missed out on an even higher finish, when we could easily have finished at least sixth. No team managed as many draws as we did, although Tottenham came close with 17. In fact for virtually the whole season we were in the top six, and even topped the division at one stage, before a dismal run at the end (failing to win any of our last nine league games), cost us dearly.

The reason I remember the season so fondly was for the excellent start, especially where we scored 18 goals in a four game winning run, including a 7, 5 and 4. We then went on a nine game winless run, although six of those games were drawn. This sequence included a goalless draw at home to Southampton on October 5. The lack of goals was surprising in view of the attacking talent on show for both sides including Brooking, Hurst, Peters and Sissons on our side, and Paine, Channon and Ron Davies for the visitors.

Ron Davies was a Welsh prolific scoring old-fashioned centre forward, strong in the air, who played for Southampton for the biggest period of his career, although he also played many games for Norwich. He averaged more than a goal every other game in his time for those two clubs, and often edged out Geoff Hurst when polls were taken (as they often were in football publications of the time, such as Football Monthly etc.) of the strongest British team that could be selected.

The return game at the Dell also ended in a draw, with four goals shared by the two aforementioned centre forwards, Hurst and Davies. As is often the case for West Ham, just turning one of those draws into a win would have secured a position two places higher in the final league table. We had a similar outcome in 2011-12 in the Championship, when a defeat and a draw in the two games against Southampton meant that we lost out to them on automatic promotion to the Premier League. Having said that, I wouldn’t have missed the day out at Wembley, when we defeated Blackpool in the Play-Off Final, for anything.

When we drew 0-0 against Southampton on October 5, which was then followed by away defeats at Burnley and Leeds, little did we know that we were about to witness four consecutive home games that were amongst the most memorable I can remember at Upton Park. On October 19 we thrashed Sunderland 8-0, although I can remember the crowd getting restless in the early stages as it took us around half an hour to score the first goal (which Geoff Hurst readily admitted he punched into the net). This was the first of his six goals, the only time in my life I’ve ever witnessed a double hat-trick in professional football.

On November 2 QPR were the visitors and this was a superb match eventually ending 4-3 to us, after the visitors had fought back from being behind. The match featured the goal by Bobby Moore where he ran from the half-way line and unleashed a terrific shot into the top corner from 20 yards (this is one of the goals we see on the big screens in the build-up to games at the London Stadium). This goal was number 8 in my list of all-time favourite West Ham goals but it was bettered in the same game by a superb move finished off with a stunning volley by Harry Redknapp, which was the third best West Ham goal I’ve ever seen.

The next home game was a 4-0 demolition of Leicester City which included the best goal I have ever seen. It included another brilliant move started by Bobby Ferguson in goal which culminated in a wonderful volley by Martin Peters. Then two weeks later on 30 November we were treated to two examples of moving the training ground into a game, with two expertly executed near-post goals, one with Peters crossing for Hurst, and the other with Hurst crossing for Peters, virtual replicas of the England winner versus Argentina in the 1966 World Cup quarter final 1-0 win, only this time from the other wing. This was the last game that we won in 1968 with another inconsistent spell which included the 2-2 draw away at Southampton on Boxing Day. 1968-69 was a memorable season in many ways with some great games and some not-so-great games. I wonder how many seasons that we can apply that theory to inconsistent West Ham?

We have a positive historical record in games against Southampton, and since we both returned to the top flight in 2012, there have been 13 games. We have won six, Southampton four, and three have been drawn. Hernandez, Arnautavic and Anderson have scored two goals each in the last three fixtures against them, but our top goalscorer in those games, who will certainly play in this game, is the captain Mark Noble. He has scored four goals against them, and I fancy him adding another in this one. In those 13 games there have been 10 different scores with draws of 0-0 and 1-1, West Ham wins of 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 3-0, and Southampton wins of 1-0, 3-0, 3-1 and 3-2.

If you fancy Mark Noble to score the first goal of the game, and a score we haven’t seen in recent times, perhaps 4-2, then you can get odds of 600/1 on that unlikely event. That will be my fun bet in this game. The odds are identical for the same score with Mark Noble scoring the last goal of the game. Considering we won our last game away at Tottenham, the odds on us winning this game of 5/4 appear on the generous side, although Southampton themselves have done reasonably well since their new manager took charge. However as we have lost only one of our last eight home Premier League games, and Southampton have won only one of their last six away Premier League games, then statistically, these facts allied to past history point to a West Ham win. Having said that, previous records don’t mean a lot when applied to West Ham!

If you wanted a double on West Ham to beat Southampton, and West Ham Ladies to win their FA Cup final in 90 minutes, you can get odds of 19/1. The Ladies start as massive underdogs against a City side almost as dominating in their own way as their male equivalent. Having said that the odds of 15/2 on West Ham Ladies winning the final in 90 minutes are about the same as those on West Ham winning at Tottenham last week! And we know what happened there.

West Ham visit White Hart Lane to collect three points

If you are a football fan and follow West Ham, and if you are old enough, cast your mind back to May 1981 almost 38 years ago. If you aren’t old enough then you will have missed a significant change in English football. The 1980-81 season was just drawing to a close and ended with Aston Villa as Division One champions on 60 points, and Ipswich Town runners-up with 56 points. The Premier League was still more than a decade away, and in those days the four divisions of English football were called, very logically, Divisions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

60 points I hear you say. How could they have possibly finished as champions with such a low number of points? The answer is that 1980-81 was the final season in English football where, if you won a game you picked up only two points.

West Ham finished that season as champions of Division 2, the season after they were the last team from the second tier of English football to win the FA Cup when they beat high-flying Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley on May 10 1980 with Trevor Brooking’s infamous diving header. We ran away with the Division 2 Championship by 13 points (a massive margin when there were only 2 points for a win). We won 19 and drew 1 of our 21 home games, whilst away from home we won 9 and drew 9. That means we lost just four league games in the season and had a record points haul of 66. We also reached the final of the League Cup, unluckily losing a replay to Liverpool, and reached the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners Cup before losing to Dinamo Tbilisi.

It’s hardly surprising that we ran away with the Division 2 title when you look at the calibre of footballers on our books. We had probably the best team ever playing at that level, either before or since, with “international quality” players including Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds, Alvin Martin, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Paul Goddard and David Cross, all of whom barely missed a game meaning that we could field almost unchanged line-ups every week. In addition to those we had Pat Holland, Jimmy Neighbour, and the only ever-present outfield player Geoff Pike. In many ways, although we were only in the second tier, it was one of the best ever teams I’ve seen in my 60 years of following the club, and I’d love to see a similar quality throughout the team now.

So, following that record breaking season we moved into Division One and began with a home game against Brighton enjoying one of their rare forays into the top flight. The excitement of our return was quickly forgotten though as we struggled to impress in a 1-1 draw with Ray Stewart scoring a penalty as all we had to show from the game. However this all changed just four days later as we crushed our North London neighbours 4-0 at White Hart Lane. The game was a personal triumph for David Cross who had scored 33 goals in all competitions in our promotion season, including 22 in the league. He bagged all four goals in the game which will also be remembered for the very first time we collected three points in a match.

This was just the start of a terrific run where we remained unbeaten until mid-October, and led the first division for much of September. It was December before we lost our second game that season, and another record breaking campaign was on the cards. However in typical West Ham fashion we were unable to retain our consistency throughout a whole season and eventually finished 9th. We only lost two of our 21 home games that season which was fewer than any other team (Liverpool the champions lost 4) but our away form let us down with 10 defeats. However we will never forget that wonderful result at Tottenham and our very first three point haul in a game of football.

So why did the “powers that be” decide to make a change to award three points for a win instead of two? After all two points for a win had been in existence for over 100 years, and it seemed quite logical too. It stemmed from the days of challenge matches where two teams competed for a prize pot with the winner taking all, and if it was a draw the spoils were split equally. This principle went unchallenged for a century but by 1980 football was in serious trouble. Crowds had almost halved from their 1950s heyday and something needed to be done to bring them back. So why had attendances dwindled so much? Many blamed the recession which gave the footballing public a stricter sense of priorities. The increased cost of admission, getting to a match, and the continuing issue of crowd violence all played its part. But the football authorities believed that dull play was considered to be the key problem, and they set up a working party under the chairmanship of Jimmy Hill, an influential football figure in the latter half of the twentieth century, to try to resolve the problem. Their suggestion, which still operates today, was to increase the reward for a win to three points.

Many people accepted that this change would stop teams “settling for a draw” and believed that they would go all out for a win to collect additional points. It was felt that this would reduce the number of drawn games as a result. Some had other views though and Arsenal manager Terry Neill suggested that a team who went one goal up would want to sit on their lead more than they might have before the points for a win increase. Certainly, Arsenal became famous for their 1-0 wins for many years to follow.

But I would question the decision to increase points for a win, and the theory that drawn games are necessarily dull just because no team has won the game. Rugby Union, for example, in an attempt to improve the game as a spectacle, awards additional points for tries scored. Might it have benefitted football if instead they had awarded additional points for goals scored to reward attacking (and hence entertaining) play?

The irony is that in the season that followed the introduction of three points for a win there were more draws than the previous season and fewer goals scored in the top flight! And there is little evidence that three points for a win has changed the mindset of teams or the eventual outcome of titles (although Blackburn Rovers wouldn’t have been champions in the mid-1990s if two points for a win still existed).

Nevertheless all West Ham fans of a certain age will always remember our first three point haul. What chance of a repeat this weekend? A win of any kind would be welcome, but a win of that magnitude has never been repeated, and bookmakers’ will offer you virtually any odds you care to ask for to see another 4-0 victory at Tottenham.

Leicester visit the London Stadium. Does anyone want to finish seventh this season?

Wonders will never cease. We kick off at 3pm on a Saturday. How many times does that happen in a season? I haven’t checked the numbers but it seems to me that it happens fewer times as each season goes by. Perhaps today was always destined to be a 3pm Saturday kick off as in many ways (if you disregard the dubious honour of the chase for seventh place in the Premier League) this was always going to be a game that didn’t involve the top or bottom. Of course seventh place could mean a place in Europe in the Europa League, but as Arsenal and Chelsea have found out this season after progressing to the semi-finals of this competition, it means even fewer Saturday 3pm starts.

It wouldn’t have taken much more for us still to be in contention for a seventh place finish this season, and I suppose mathematically it is still possible. But Leicester, Wolves, Watford, Everton and ourselves have all demonstrated an inconsistency of performance that shows why we are all so far behind the elite six at the top of the table. I thought that Everton looked destined for the honour after their recent run. They looked as good in our last home game as we were woeful. But then last week they went down to Fulham who haven’t won a game for ages.

Leicester currently hold the position, but the four teams realistically likely to finish seventh are only separated by one point, and both Watford and Wolves have a game in hand. But with all the teams faltering to some extent, any team that can put together a winning run could get there, even ourselves, although this doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it would have seemed more likely if VAR had been in operation at Old Trafford last weekend. Once again we witnessed a “bigger” team getting the benefit of close calls. It never seems to happen the other way round, especially at grounds like Old Trafford where officials seem to me to give disproportionate numbers of close decisions to the home team. I haven’t looked at the statistics but I reckon Manchester United have been awarded more spot kicks than most this season. We totally outplayed United in my opinion, and deserved all three points but thanks mainly to the officials it wasn’t to be.

VAR came into its own in midweek when I believe it helped to get the decisions correct in a big game in another part of Manchester. As a long term advocate of the use of video replays I was pleased to see it used to good effect. Of course, many West Ham (and Arsenal) fans would have preferred it not to be the case when Sterling’s “winner” in time added on turned out not to be a legitimate goal because Aguero was offside in the build-up. But leaving loyalties aside, I for one am pleased that VAR is beginning to prove itself, and look forward to it next season. It could be improved if, as in rugby union, the referees were “miked up” to explain what was happening.

So, on to today. It seems that Nasri is once again unavailable due to injury, and Lanzini likewise, making a dent in the creative capability in our midfield. But apparently Wilshere is fit again so perhaps he will come in and start to show why we bought him. Hernandez is also unavailable because he couldn’t train this week with a problem with his ear.

I had given up predicting the team our manager would select but I’ll have another go this week.

Fabianski, Fredericks, Balbuena, Ogbonna, Masuaku, Rice, Noble, Snodgrass, Antonio, Arnautavic, Anderson. How many will I get right this time?

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph I see that there hasn’t been a draw in the Premier League for about a month (34 matches). And 0-0 games are at their lowest level with just one in twenty games ending goalless. It seems that teams aren’t happy to “settle for a point” these days. What will happen in the match today? Our last but one game was a 4-3 thriller, and of course there was a similar scoreline in midweek in Manchester. Perhaps another one today? The odds on that are around 80/1, with a West Ham win at about 2/1, and a West Ham win with both teams to score around 4/1.

West Ham visit Old Trafford. Two of the most out of form teams in the Premier League for our tea-time viewing.

Once again we kick-off at a non-standard time – this one is 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. We get the chance to watch two teams whose recent form leaves a lot to be desired. At this stage of the season you need to have some form of motivation to perform at your best, and I’m afraid we are somewhat lacking at the moment. OK, the performance against Chelsea was better than what we witnessed against Everton a couple of weeks ago, but to be quite frank, after the raised hopes of our winning streak in December, 2019 has turned out to be rather flat.

The difference today is that Manchester United still have a target to aim for, namely a place in the top four and the Champions League qualification that comes with it, whereas we don’t really have much to get us going other than professional pride, and trying to finish in the top half of the table. Our manager wants us to improve with every game and believes that “we still have a mathematical chance for Europe and we must try for that.” Who is he kidding? Mathematical, yes, but realistically no chance whatsoever.

If we win today (and that’s a massive if, around 7/1 with bookmakers but surely the odds should be much greater than that!) it would be the first time that we’ve picked up six points in a season against the Red Devils since 2006-07, when they were champions, and we completed the “Great Escape” on the final day of the season. We won both games that season by 1-0, with Nigel Reo-Coker scoring in the home win a week or so before Christmas, and of course Carlos Tevez netting the winner in the last game. That was a season to remember; Tevez and Mascherano, Eggert Magnusson, Pardew sacked, Curbishley appointed, seven of the last nine games won after just five wins in the preceding 29 games, and of course the subsequent financial repercussions of the escape.

But today we don’t have a lot to play for. Our record against United is actually better than against many of the other big clubs, and the last eight league meetings are split with two wins apiece and four draws. However our last league win there was the aforementioned victory on the last day of the season almost 12 years ago.

Despite their impressive form when their new Norwegian manager was appointed on a caretaker basis, recent results have not been good for United, and they have not kept a clean sheet for eight games, their longest run for seven years. They have also lost four of their last five games.

But just look at our away form since 30 December 2018. There was the abysmal defeat to AFC Wimbledon, and in the league on our travels we lost 2-0 to Burnley, 2-0 at Bournemouth, 3-0 at Wolves, 1-0 at Manchester City, 2-0 at Cardiff, and 2-0 at Chelsea. That is six games lost with 12 goals conceded and none scored. In between we did manage a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace, but had Fabianski to be thankful for that, as Palace had numerous shots on our goal in the second half.

Our record of keeping clean sheets is the second worst in the division with five, and only Fulham have kept fewer. Even Huddersfield have kept more clean sheets than we have. Fabianski is miles clear in the number of saves he has made this season compared to every other Premier League custodian, so this tells us everything we need to know about our defending.

And to top all this we are facing Romelu Lukaku who scores goals against us for fun. I’ll be watching and hoping for a surprise of course, but it is hard to see anything other than a defeat as our season limps towards its conclusion.

West Ham visit Stamford Bridge. Are our players already on the beach?

A couple of weeks ago I renewed my season ticket for next season. 2019-20 will my 62nd season of following West Ham. How many hundreds of games have I seen in that time? Why do I do it? Am I a masochist? I knew a masochist once who liked to take cold showers. So he took hot ones. But seriously why do I spend half a day or more so many times each year travelling to watch 90 minutes of football? What’s more there are 60,000 others who do the same to watch West Ham, as well as countless others throughout the country, and indeed the world, that want to know what happens to the team in every game. And this is replicated to a greater or lesser extent by followers of 19 other teams in the Premier League, as well as millions who follow teams throughout the pyramid of the English game. I guess we love to watch football, but more than that we want to see our team win games and be successful.

Of course, the best I’ve seen from the team in the last 61 years has been a third place finish in the top flight in 1985-86, three FA Cup wins, a major European trophy, and countless great games of football with lots of entertainment and great goals. I’ve also seen a lot of dross. In many ways, one of the most enjoyable seasons was in 1980-81 when, a year after lifting the FA Cup as a second division side, we ran away with the second division league title with a record points haul and a home record to die for, winning 19 of our 21 league games at Upton Park. After losing our first home game that season to Luton, we won every other game apart from a home draw against Oldham. We all came away happy after every game. Other seasons outside of the top flight have given us some great entertainment, with more games won than lost, and probably a much better feel good factor about our team.

Yet all teams want to dine at the top table. They all strive to be part of the Premier League, possibly the most successful domestic football league in the world. Of course money is a big factor, as well as the opportunity to see some of the top players playing for the top teams. Ironically the Premier League is one of the most competitive amongst the major leagues in Europe. I say competitive meaning that probably six teams have a chance of winning it each year. Compare this to Germany, France, Italy and Spain, where only one or two teams have any chance each season. Some might say that is true of the Premier League this time around where the second placed team (Manchester City) are currently 16 points clear of Tottenham who are third. Similarly there is a wide gulf between Manchester United in sixth who are 14 points ahead of the team who are seventh. Where is the fun in the fact that at the start of the season 14 of the 20 participants have zero chance of winning the league, and four of the others have only a very small chance? OK I remember Leicester, but that was a freak season and will not happen again.

I suppose I cannot really criticise the Premier League when the top six elite clubs are so successful in Europe this season. Four of them are in the last eight of the Champions League, and the other two are similarly placed in the Europa League. But this is entirely my point. The top six are too good. Wouldn’t we all like to see a competition that is more competitive which would lead to much greater excitement? Unless your team is still in the FA Cup, the final third of the season becomes very dull with little to play for. Of course there is money for placings in the league but that only seems to interest the club owners, not those actually in the team, who if West Ham’s players are anything to go by are already thinking of their summer holidays, rather than professional pride, and entertaining the thousands who come to watch them.

The performance against Everton last week lacked effort and desire, and was feeble, abysmal, appalling, very bad, awful, dire, ghastly, atrocious, hideous, dismal, terrible, maddening, disgraceful. Add any other description you like. We would have been seventh in the league if we had won the game, yet quite frankly, apart from Fabianski and Rice (perhaps Ogbonna?) none of the others turned up or seemed remotely interested. Even the manager, who I quite like, cannot escape criticism with his team selection, surely? Seventh would mean the best of the rest (outside the elite six). Surely that is something worth playing for? The owners must have been cringing in their expensive seats as they watched the team doing their level best to reduce the interest in season ticket renewals.

And while we were struggling against Everton, and fans were leaving in droves well before the end, Chelsea, our opponents today, were not faring much better against struggling Cardiff. The South Wales club outplayed their more illustrious opponents from West London, yet the result of the game was inevitable somehow as it always seems to be when a top six club plays against a lowly side. Chelsea won the game thanks to some incredible decisions by officials, including an offside as blatant as the one for Liverpool’s goal at the London Stadium a couple of months ago, both of which left you feeling that the top sides somehow always seem to benefit from questionable decisions. It never seems to be the other way around.

The result of the game highlights my point about the wide chasm between the teams at the top and those at the bottom. The record for the elite six teams playing against the bottom three sides this season so far reads, played 31, won 31, goals for 90, against 18. Watford, just a point away from seventh place, have now lost nine consecutive games against the top six sides. What chance will they have in the FA Cup Final? Wolves, however, the team most likely to finish seventh, are doing their best to disprove my theory with four wins and four draws (and just two defeats) against the top six, whilst even our own team performed creditably (at home at least) against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.

What will happen this evening? Another “bad day at the office” like the one we witnessed last week will see us beaten easily, even by a ‘relatively poor’ Chelsea side, who nonetheless are 21 points better off than we are, and still in the hunt for a Champions League place next season, helped by Arsenal’s loss at Goodison Park yesterday. In just over a week we have gone from a team who could have gone seventh in the league, to a team now in the bottom half, four points (and a poorer goal difference) adrift of the tenth placed side.

With nothing other than pride and place money to play for, even the most optimistic among us find it hard to envisage anything other than a defeat tonight. It would be great to see the players turn it on for our fans who make the trek across London, and those watching on TV, but the bookmakers’ odds showing Chelsea at 4/1 on, and West Ham 9/1 against to win the game are a pretty fair reflection of what is likely to happen. Chelsea have only lost one of their 16 home league games to date. At Stamford Bridge they have beaten Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City, and drawn with the other two elite teams, Manchester United and Liverpool this season, so what chance do we have of doubling their home defeats figure? Their only loss at home was against Leicester. I’d love us to do the same as the Foxes, but I won’t be holding my breath.

West Ham entertain Everton in the “Premier League most games lost derby”

Is the race for seventh place still alive?

This week I went to see Only Fools and Horses – the Musical. As a fan of the TV programme I thought that this stage musical, originally the brainchild of the show’s creator sadly deceased, John Sullivan, was superb. There was an interval to the show, but only one. It is not a perfect analogy I know, but I don’t think the audience would have been happy with four breaks. But this is exactly what happens to the domestic football season when the natural rhythm of weekly matches is broken by international football matches.

Some may like this but I am not keen personally. It is certainly better when the matches have some meaning (as in qualification for the 2020 European Championships), and are not friendly matches with limitless substitutions. I guess this is especially so when the England team rattle in five goals in each of their two matches against arguably our strongest opponents in the qualifying group, and have virtually qualified already. I’d still like to see the international break limited to perhaps once in the season, and then have additional matches for the national teams at the end of the domestic season. When I was young England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland used to play the Home International Championship at this time and it worked well. Qualifying matches for major tournaments could be played at the season end without frequently interrupting the domestic leagues.

Today we face Everton, so we have two clubs still aiming for a seventh place finish, but despite their aspirations both will probably fall short. Apart from the opening few games in our case, neither team has been involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table. Both are comfortably placed in mid-table, but both probably believe they should be a bit higher, and want to challenge Wolves and Watford for the honour of finishing as the top team outside the elite six. Three points this afternoon would help the cause of both and keep the winning team in with an outside chance. In fact a West Ham win could even put us in seventh place after this weekend’s games if Watford and Wolves slip up in their away games at Manchester United and Burnley respectively.

WHUEVE1
Three programme covers from around 50 years ago, all costing 1/- (5p), compared to £3.50 for today’s matchday “magazine”

It would be great to see a seven goal thriller for the second consecutive home game but this is highly unlikely. More likely (I hope) is a 3-1 home victory to match our win at Goodison Park earlier in the season, and the score in our win over the Toffeemen in the final home game last season. If I recall correctly our three goals in May were all from outside the box. Lanzini scored two of them in what was to be his last game for us until recently (of course we didn’t know that at the time!) and Arnie thumped one home from 20 yards too. To me it highlighted the limitations of Jordan Pickford as a goalkeeper, and commentators would have said that he would have been disappointed to let them in. Of course since then he has cemented his place in goal for the national team, although I remain unconvinced. Of all the England keepers currently playing who I have seen live my preference is for Jack Butland of Stoke. He is probably overlooked as he is not playing Premier League football though.

Just to emphasise the importance of the results when playing against teams around you in the league I will go back 50 seasons to 1968-69. That was an excellent time for us, and our final finishing position was eighth whilst Everton finished third. We began that season so well only losing one of our opening eleven league games. That defeat was our biggest of the season, a resounding 4-1 loss at “fortress” Upton Park to Everton. We also lost the return fixture at Goodison Park. Had we won both of those games then Everton would have finished fourth and we would have been sixth at the end. In the following season Everton were the champions of England, topping the league by a massive nine points (these were the days of only two points for a win). We finished seventeenth. And yes, they beat us twice that season too.

Our head to head record against Everton is a poor one, where our wins and the drawn games are just about equal to the number of Everton victories. For a long time in the early years of this century, Everton were considered to be a bogey team, and Lukaku seemed unable to fail to score when they played us. In fact, until our 3-1 win on the final day of last season, we had only beaten them twice at home in the league in the 21st century, both 1-0 victories in 2002 and 2007. Although there was, of course, the FA Cup win 9-8 on penalties when Adrian famously threw his gloves to the ground before scoring the winning penalty.

One league where Everton and West Ham are fighting for top spot is that of most games lost in the Premier League. Both have topped the table in recent times, and there is little to choose between the two, although Everton have played considerably more games than we have, as they have been ever present. Everton currently lead by 374 to 371. But to be fair, it is not all bad news as to have this record confirms longevity and appearances in the Premier League, with both clubs also in the top ten for games won too.

The similarity of inconsistency and records this season is reflected in the bookmakers’ odds, where we are slight favourites at 6/4 to win the game. Everton are 7/4 with the draw at 9/4. 1-1 is the favourite score at around 5/1, whereas a West Ham win of 1-0 is 8/1, and a repeat of the 3-1 for our last two wins over Everton in the past year is 18/1. Our home record is improving, whereas Everton have been relatively poor on their travels. But the past counts for nothing. I’ll go for 3-1 again, although any victory would keep us in the hunt for a seventh placed finish.