Can West Ham come out on top in the Battle of the Clarets?

I have to admit that I really enjoyed our performance a fortnight ago when we comfortably beat Norwich 2-0 with goals from our new French striker, Sebastien Haller, and the fit again Andriy Yarmolenko. As Norwich pressed forward when they were behind, we managed to create several chances to add to our tally, and in reality should have scored five or six quite easily. We didn’t because our finishing didn’t match our approach play, we were unlucky at times, and Krul in the Norwich goal made some fine saves. Haller finished off a fine attack with a relatively simple finish, whereas Yarmolenko showed great technique with a left-footed volley barely a minute after an early left-footed volley with similar impressive technique had rebounded from an upright.

Two things in particular pleased me about our performance. The first was that we had players who could break and counter attack at pace. In particular our front four (Haller, Lanzini, Anderson and Yarmolenko) didn’t hang around when given the opportunity to attack, and they really impressed me with the way they looked as though they had been playing together for a long time. Added to that, our two full backs, Fredericks and Masuaku, who never get the best press for their defending abilities, also showed great pace when attacking and supporting the front four, and created chances for the others. Masuaku provided the assist for the first goal, but I was impressed with them both.

The second thing to please me was the way that the front four added to the often missing concept of defending as a team. It looked as though they had been working hard in training, and they harried the Norwich players to a greater extent than I can remember our attacking players doing for a while now. They added to the efforts of Rice and Noble who both had fine games. Mark Noble looked rejuvenated, and we all know he is not the fastest player, but he showed that he can still contribute and dominate the midfield when surrounded by players blessed with more pace. Defensive organisation was first class.

Yarmolenko and Lanzini both surprised me with how well they have come back after long lay-offs, Anderson demonstrated his sublime skills throughout the game, and Haller looks to be the most complete forward since the days of Dean Ashton, a player he reminded me of with his style of play.

Norwich played but some nice tippy-tappy football but rarely threatened our goal, mainly due to the way we defended as a team, and their prolific goalscorer Teemu Pukki had barely a kick. I was impressed with Todd Cantwell in the Norwich midfield. The loss of Zimmerman was a blow to the visitors following a heavy challenge from Haller, but in my opinion it wasn’t as bad as Farke was suggesting. The referee didn’t blow for a foul even (which he should have done), but I’ve seen players booked for similar challenges but it certainly didn’t warrant any more than that.

The referee, Paul Tierney, was a poor advert for his profession in my opinion. He waved away three penalty appeals, one of which was so cast iron it was laughable that he didn’t give it. What was even worse is that VAR is now in existence, but somehow the referee working behind the scenes somehow missed it too. It seems to me that after the early (over) use of VAR which should only be used to correct decisions which are clearly and obviously wrong, it has now gone the other way, and they are perhaps under instruction not to get involved at all!

By the end of the weekend the league table (still early days of course) showed us in seventh place with seven points, which is seven more than we had after the first four games heading into the international break a year ago. If we can just match our performance of the last campaign in the remaining 34 matches, then we would finish on 59 points, which last time around would have been enough for a seventh placed finish. Of course I am hoping we can do even better than that but I am not going to get too carried away, despite the fact that we have only lost one league game since unluckily going down 2-1 at Old Trafford on 13th April, winning five and drawing two of the eight games played in that time, only losing (as almost everyone does) to Manchester City.

The two teams we have beaten this season (Watford and Norwich) now sit in the relegation places, and we face the third member of that club on Monday evening when we travel to Villa Park in front of the TV cameras. Villa had an impressive win against Everton (2-0) but were unlucky when their late “equaliser” at Palace was incorrectly ruled out by a referee blowing his whistle for a dive which was subsequently shown to be a clear foul on Grealish. Quite how it can be suggested that our referees are high on the list in the world in terms of their ability is beyond me I’m afraid. I’ve seen little evidence of that this season despite them supposedly getting help from VAR. Villa’s other defeats came on the opening weekend at Tottenham, and then at home to Bournemouth who haven’t pulled up any trees themselves so far this season.

The betting for this match is very even with West Ham the fractional favourites to win at around 6/4, with Villa around 8/5, and the draw about 5/2. A win would see us moving on to ten points from five games, with an average of two per game. This would relate to 76 points over the course of a whole season! Wouldn’t it be good if we were looking at achieving those kind of figures, which of course we won’t, but it’s good to dream isn’t it?

I would anticipate that the manager would start with the same eleven that began against Norwich, but he often throws in a surprise or two, or somebody picks up a late injury which we don’t know about. But I am confident that he won’t change it this time. A point away from home is always good, but I am hoping for three in a narrow victory, perhaps 2-1? I enjoy Monday Night football on TV when we are away from home. But is there a way of keeping the sound of the crowd but removing the commentary and punditry at the same time? I wish there was.

West Ham are visited by the Canaries this weekend. Who will be singing on Saturday evening?

I’ll start with a couple of quiz questions. Question One – Name the only two teams that didn’t manage to win one of their first three Premier League games this season? Answer – Watford are one, the other team are Wolves. Question Two – Name the four teams in the Premier League that haven’t lost a game this season? Answer – Liverpool and Manchester City (inevitably), Leicester, and Wolves (again). So Wolves haven’t won a game and neither have they lost one. Is it better to win one and lose two games, or to draw three in a row? Of course the goals scored, and goals conceded, makes that question difficult to answer in respect of league position, but psychologically which would you prefer? The reality is that the points attained are the same in both scenarios.

The early league table after just three matches is an interesting one. Of course it doesn’t mean a lot yet, but the team in fifth place is on four points, whereas the team in 19th place is on three points. Close then. After our opening day 0-5 reverse with two away games to follow, most of us would have been happy to be one of the teams sitting on four points at this stage, albeit at the bottom end of those because of our goal difference. Ten teams have the won one, drawn one and lost one tag, and on paper I guess we’d like to believe that we can move up to seven points after this weekend’s fixture, the last before the international break! The season has barely started and we are having an international break already. For those who don’t like to see such disruption to the domestic fixtures I’ll remind you of the breaks to come. After this one (7 September) we have the second break on 12 October, the third on 16 November, this season also sees a winter break in February 2020, and then a final international break on 28 March. I’m not a fan of these continual breaks to the season, but it looks like they are here to stay.

One paper I read described Norwich as a breath of fresh air, and if they meant by that there are a lot of goals in their games (at both ends) then it is a fair description. After an opening 4-1 defeat at Liverpool, they beat Newcastle 3-1 before going down 3-2 to Chelsea last weekend. 14 goals in three games exceeds any other team in the division, and in Mr Pukki they have the leading goalscorer in the Premier League with five goals, an excellent outcome for those who (like me) selected him in their Fantasy Football squads. The goals have been well taken, and we will do well to keep him quiet on Saturday. Our own Mr. Haller opened his account with two well taken strikes at Watford as well, so with 25 goals scored in the six games involving Norwich or West Ham this season, we can look forward to an open, entertaining game. From the West Ham viewpoint, the “naturally gifted midfielders” who merely jogged back leaving our defence exposed when Watford scored their goal last week, must add the need to defend to their repertoire, rather than thinking solely of attack.

Of course it makes for an attractive game when both teams eschew their defensive responsibilities, but if we wish to progress then this is one aspect of our game (which those of us who follow West Ham have known for ages!) that must improve. We were very fortunate when Hughes somehow contrived to miss the target from about a yard out, and if we’d gone 2-1 behind then the outcome might have been very different. But he did miss, and Haller’s well-taken two goals meant a well-deserved first win of the season. I thought that the introduction of Antonio was a key factor in the win, and surely he had done enough to start this weekend? Until the game at Newport of course! The injury jinx is beginning again. Yarmolenko will take time to get up to speed after his long lay-off, and at this stage of the season he needs to be eased in gently. Personally I cannot understand how or why Ogbonna is keeping Balbuena out of the team either, but for some reason that is the case.

The TV people believed that we were an obvious choice for an upset in the League Cup last Tuesday, and that is why we were chosen for the televised game. Sorry TV, but we spoiled your fun as for once we didn’t lose to a “giant-killer” as we have done so many times in the past sixty years I have been following the team. But until Jack Wilshere scored we always looked as though we may concede a goal. It was as interesting as ever to read some West Ham forums after the game to get a diversity of views of our fans. Of course it’s a game of opinions, but some of our fans have some wildly differing views which provide me with some amusement.

“A professional performance.” “We were c**p.” “Never in doubt.” “Lucky to win.” “Sanchez was our man of the match.” “Sanchez is dog****”. “Roberto looked a good keeper.” “Heaven help us if Fab gets injured.” – Just eight excerpts to demonstrate my point.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the Watford game, but in the end it was a highly entertaining open match. I am looking forward to the Norwich game, however, and even have a bit of a soft spot for them. But only when they are playing other teams of course. My prediction – I reckon we’ll come out on top of a highly entertaining, high scoring game, 4-3.

West Ham visit bottom of the table Watford. Can we win our first game of the season or will we be stung by the Hornets?

There’s something about games against Watford that I don’t really like. Perhaps it is my memory of games against them in recent times where our record is not as good as I would like it to be. Perhaps it is the way they play. Perhaps I still haven’t got over 2016-17 when we led 2-0 in our first season at the London Stadium and then gifted the game to them 4-2 with some defensive howlers. I can’t really put my finger on it for certain, but it is never a game that I particularly look forward to.

I recall last season when they visited us at the London Stadium shortly before Christmas. We dominated the game but Balbuena gave away a penalty after half an hour, and injured himself seriously in the process. I remember Deeney slamming the penalty into the net, going to the corner flag and punching it, and taunting our fans, which led to a chorus of boos and expletives aimed in his direction. I don’t think he is the most popular of players! Foster, in the Watford goal, played a blinder, Antonio had two headers against the woodwork, and then Deloufeu wrapped the game up a few minutes before the end. Before the game we were level on 24 points with them (having given them a 12 point start in the first four games of the season), but their victory took them up to 7th in the table, whilst we fell to 12th.

We had to wait until the final game of the season for the return fixture. Before the game, Watford were on 50 points and we had 48. Of course, the match was just six days before the FA Cup Final where they were due to be thrashed by Manchester City, although they didn’t know it at the time! Perhaps they weren’t fully committed to our game, and we duly ran out 4-1 winners.

There were some odd goals in the game, Noble scoring with his left foot from open play, and then Lanzini scoring a header, both very rare occurrences. We led 2-0 at half-time but straight from the re-start Deloufeu pulled a goal back. But two minutes later Holebas was sent off for a fairly innocuous foul on Antonio when he was clean through on goal, a punishment that would have meant him missing the Cup Final, had it not been subsequently rescinded. With around 20 minutes to go Arnautavic scored his last goal for West Ham before Mark Noble wrapped the game up with a late penalty. The result meant that we leapfrogged the Hornets to claim 10th place and a top half finish. Ironically the season before we had finished 13th while they were 14th just a point behind. So our records in the past two seasons have been fairly similar.

Moving on to this weekend’s game, then we go into the fixture just one point apart once again. After the thrashing from Manchester City we collected our first point last week with an uninspiring draw at Brighton, who had surprisingly beaten Watford 3-0 at Vicarage Road on the opening day. Watford themselves left Goodison Park in their second game with a 1-0 defeat, meaning that they prop up the table with nil points. Of course it is early days, and the league table will change in the weeks to come no doubt. Having said that, most of the usual sides are already filling most of the top places after just two games.

I have written about VAR and some of the rule changes in previous articles and will no doubt return to them in later ones. Without returning to those subjects in detail this week, suffice to say we actually benefited from VAR last week when a Brighton goal was ruled out by an offside decision which was only marginally more offside than Sterling was the week before. Still, offside is offside, and based on the current rules, which I don’t agree with by the way (as I described at length last week) then VAR meant that the correct decision was reached, which enabled us to hold on for a point, and not join Watford at the foot of the table.

And what about the new handball rule? Is it right that if a forward accidentally handles it in the opposing penalty area in the lead up to a goal then the goal is disallowed? While on the other hand the boot is on the other foot if a defender accidentally handles the ball in his own penalty area, then it is not a penalty. Crazy I reckon, and I’ll return to this topic in later articles too. What it meant was that Spurs gained an unjust point. And from that match did you see the foul on Rodri which was one of those cast-iron penalties that surely VAR would have spotted? But nothing happened. Amazing!

VAR, the system that was supposed to put an end to controversy is creating more controversy than ever! I read somewhere this week that the officials behind the implementation of VAR reckon it will take ten years before the issues surrounding VAR are sorted out! Ten years! Ten years! Get a move on. I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast saying that I am strongly in favour of the VAR system, but they are really making a hash of the implementation aren’t they, not helped by the other ridiculous changes (mainly handball) to the laws?

Returning to this week’s visit to Watford then I would expect the game between these two out of form teams to feature as the final game on Match of the Day (again! – come on MOTD I want to go to bed earlier!). I’m hoping that we do enough to win, but one thing is for sure. Watford have yet to score a goal this season, and that is just the kind of statistic where teams know it will end because they are facing West Ham in their next game. Providing our manager doesn’t come up with another team selection that baffled so many of us last week, then with the return from injury of our expensive signings, I reckon we can repeat last season’s result at Watford, albeit in a much closer game. The bookmakers have Watford as even money favourites to win the game, with a West Ham win, or the draw, both in the region of 5/2. Let’s hope they have got it wrong.

What can West Ham expect when they visit the AMEX to meet our bogey team, the flying Seagulls of Brighton?

Let’s get Manchester City out of the way first. We held our own for about 25 minutes or so, but once they scored it was all over. We didn’t play particularly well after that opening period, but by their standards neither did they, despite the scoreline. It was disappointing to see the goals go in, but I am afraid we won’t be the last team to be on the end of a spanking from the champions. They are just too good for the Premier League, which is no longer a competition that the majority of teams have any chance of winning. Just take a look at the bookmakers’ odds which reflect the fact that only two teams can win, with four outsiders and 14 no-hopers. Leicester? That was just a fluke of circumstances and will not happen again.

Moving on to VAR, then I am a fan and like to see correct decisions. But they still haven’t got it right have they? It’s there to correct clear and obvious errors in respect of goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity. But they are taking it further which should not happen. And it’s not the fault of VAR that Sterling’s shoulder was offside by 1.57 mm or some other ridiculously small margin. The fault lies with the offside rule itself. If any part of your body that can touch the ball legally is beyond the defender, no matter by how much, then you are offside. But let’s take a step back here. Why was the offside rule introduced all those years ago before any of us were born? To stop the concept of goal hanging, that’s why. So how can somebody be goal hanging if they are in an offside position anywhere in the opponents half of the field? It is a nonsense. Let’s bring some common sense to this. The offside rule should only exist for anyone in the penalty area only. And if any legal part of their body is level with a defender then I don’t believe they should not be ruled offside. Let’s give the advantage to attackers. It would also bring an end to a lot of controversy, and stretch the play on the pitch, which I believe would be a good thing.

And while I am on the subject of rules / laws, then I’ll return to the topic I raised last week. Timekeeping! The time added on by the referee last week was nowhere near sufficient to make up for the time spent or wasted in goals celebrations, injuries, VAR stoppages, and substitutions. OK so last week it didn’t matter and possibly saved us from further punishment. Perhaps Mike Dean was acting like a boxing referee by stopping the contest to save us from further punishment. But in some games, that time could be vital. Just look back at my comments last week. We need an independent timekeeper to control the stadium clock and stop it when the ball is not in play. We are being short-changed and teams will continually cheat by timewasting if they can get away with it.

Another subject I raised last week was goalkeepers moving for penalties. When Fabianski saved the first penalty against City he clearly moved off his line before the ball was kicked. Yet that wasn’t the reason for the re-take. That was because of encroachment by Rice, who then cleared the ball after the first save. I just happened to watch the penalty shoot-out of the Super Cup game this week and was pleased for our old friend Adrian who became an instant hero for Liverpool with his save when the fifth Chelsea penalty was taken. I wasn’t surprised by the love-in on West Ham social media that followed because Adrian was a popular guy, despite his shortcomings as a goalkeeper. But the rules were not followed. Very clearly he moved off his line before the kick was taken. Why are referees unable to see this? Some will and some won’t and that will lead to continued inconsistency.

Now to Brighton. The Seagulls are flying. They really are a bogey team for us in recent times. Have we beaten them since that glorious day in the sunshine when Ricardo Vaz Te ran wild with wonder goals, bullet shots, overhead kicks etc., and we beat them 6-0? Certainly in the last couple of seasons we haven’t done ourselves justice in this fixture, and I’m hoping that we rectify this and show a reaction after the City game last weekend. Brighton surprised most of us last weekend running out comfortable 3-0 winners at Watford. I doubt that they won any game by three goals last season, and there certainly seems to be a change in philosophy from their new manager. Now that they produce league tables after one game (which is a bit nonsensical really but obviously it is there to meet a demand), we are facing a team occupying a Champions League place, after meeting the champions last week. Let’s hope we can put an end to this miserable run against the Seagulls and pick up our first win of the season.

I see today (Thursday) that our new record signing (together with last season’s record signing) are both potential doubts for the game due to injury. We’ve started early this season haven’t we? Nothing we can do but hope that their replacements put in a performance. I just hope Hernandez is not one of them (to me he is one of the most over-rated players I’ve seen in a claret and blue shirt). We’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps Ajeti and Fornals will be given starting opportunities? Or possibly Antonio will be the one out and out striker? Whatever happens in terms of team selection, I just hope that the players and coaches have been working on the concept of defending as a team this week.

The other potential change I guess is Masuaku for Cresswell. Our captain of last week is unfortunately a shadow of the player who was Hammer of the Year not that long ago and selected for England too. Every player rating I saw for the game was unanimous – he was our worst player. I’m not sure that Arthur is the answer (especially in a defensive sense) and perhaps the highly rated youngster Ben Johnson will be given a chance sooner rather than later.

Considering last week’s results you would have thought that Brighton would be strong favourites to beat us, especially in view of their recent record against us. However, that is not the case, although they are marginal favourites to pick up the three points. I’m confident that we will win though, and expect a high scoring game, perhaps a 3-2 or 4-3 victory in our favour to kick-start our season. If we want to progress then fixtures such as these are ones that we should start winning, or at the very least we should be avoiding defeat.

What can West Ham expect in season 2019-20?

We begin our fourth campaign in the London Stadium, and our eighth consecutive season in the top flight with a game against possibly the toughest opponents of all, the champions Manchester City.

The Premier League comprises 20 clubs. Like in so many other major leagues there are very few of the teams that can realistically hope to come out on top at the end of the season. Perhaps six think they have a chance, although there are probably only two at the most who could be champions. The “elite” six teams, the ones with by far the greatest revenues, they were the ones that finished in the top six places last season, and according to most, will do so again this time, and possibly for the foreseeable future with the way that money is distributed within the league.

The aim of the remaining 14 is twofold, firstly not to be involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table ensuring that they remain a Premier League team, and secondly (in some cases) to try to threaten the top six and break their stranglehold. Based on the evidence of last season the chances of doing the second one would seem to be remote. I’d like to think that all teams would be trying to win one of the two domestic cup competitions but sadly, their importance is in decline as far as the clubs themselves are concerned, although perhaps not in the eyes of fans, who love to see our team involved in a cup run.

A quick reminder of the table last season shows City and Liverpool way ahead with 98 and 97 points, with Chelsea 25 points adrift on 72 in third, a point clear of Tottenham (71), and then Arsenal 70. A very poor Manchester United team trailed on 66, but they were still 9 points clear of the best of the rest (Wolves on 57). I would expect the four clubs who finished outside the top six but in the top half of the table (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham) to be the ones with aspirations to get closer to the elite but is it a realistic thought? I’d love to think so but I doubt it.

Of course the start that a club gets to the season often (although not always) sets the tone for what follows. I am aware that the fixtures computer arranges the fixtures randomly (with some input from clubs and police etc.), but what odds would you have got six years ago that West Ham would face an opening day fixture against each one of the elite six in the six seasons that followed? Very long I’ll wager, although when the fifth one came up last season I said at the time that next season I reckon it will be Manchester City (if we survived in the top flight of course!)

The one game of the previous five opening day games that we won (2-0 at Arsenal) coincided with one of our best ever seasons in the top flight, although those with a good memory will recall that we then went on to lose our first two home games that season, 2-1 to eventual champions Leicester, and 4-3 to Bournemouth.

Last season of course we had an abysmal start, losing our first four games and propping up the league at that point. Ironically, Watford had a dream start and had 12 points after their first four fixtures, so it was pleasing that we recovered well to finish in tenth place, just in the top half of the table, and incidentally two points clear of Watford in 11th.

Our opponents today won 32 of their 38 games in the league (as well as winning both domestic cup competitions, including the demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final) so will be formidable opposition. I suppose facing them in the opening game is as good a time as any, but personally I will just be looking for a good performance, and hope that the players begin to gel together.

Unlike many on social media I like to refrain from commenting in advance on players arriving until I’ve seen how they settle and trust that the players in our team and squad are ones that the manager and his team want there. But on the face of it, the two big signings, Haller and Fornals would appear to be excellent acquisitions, and the return to fitness of Lanzini, Wilshere and Yarmolenko is like adding three new players as well. It would appear that we will have the capability of creating lots of chances, and hopefully we will score a lot of goals. Unlike many observers, I don’t believe that we have bad players in defensive positions; on the contrary I am generally happy. What I think we don’t do well is defend as a team, and in this I mean everyone on the pitch. I’d like to see the manager appoint a first class defensive coach, but he will run the team and coaching (quite rightly) as he thinks fit. I did read that one or two of the top teams even have throw-in coaches! You might laugh but if you analyse how often we lose possession of the ball from our throw-ins (one of the few statistics I haven’t yet seen!) you’d agree that it would be a good thing.

Of course there are new things for us to see this season. The introduction of VAR is something I have personally advocated for years. Going back to the book I published in 2016, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I made many references as to how I would like to see it used to ensure that we got the correct decisions more often, especially in relation to offside. I’m not entirely happy with some of the ways it is being used however, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed it in action in the Premier League. I’ve seen some (tongue in cheek?) comments suggesting that we’ll all be home much later, and that the classified results will now be moved to Match of the Day!

There are a number of rule changes being introduced too. Some of them are minor, and some will be more influential on games, for example the change to handball. Once again I’ll wait to see it in action before commenting, although early examples, such as in the Women’s World Cup, showed some potential teething troubles and inconsistency. I was not happy to read that the head of referees is suggesting that the Premier League will have its own interpretation of the new handball law, but once again I’ll wait and see. Surely consistency is what we want, whether or not we agree with the interpretation of the laws?

I welcome the fact that goalkeepers should have at least one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken, but hasn’t that always been the case? The problem has occurred with referees and linesmen having an inability or lack of desire to penalise goalkeepers moving off their lines before the penalty is taken (or encroachment for that matter). I suppose with VAR we can expect a rise in the number of penalties, so let’s see how consistent the officials can be.

A lot of the minor changes are just tinkering, and the one big change I’d love to see implemented is the correct timing of games, and the correct amount of time added on for injuries, goal celebrations, time wasting etc. The referee already has a lot to think about, and this could be taken out of his hands with the introduction of a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock, and stopping the time when these things happen, as happens in Rugby Union for example. Am I the only person who can see how this could totally eliminate the concept of time wasting?

When the opposing team scores and goes off to celebrate with their fans (especially at our stadium!) make a note of when the goal goes in and when play resumes. The amount of time will surprise you. See how much time is added for substitutions from when the decision is made to change a player up to the resumption of play. And don’t get me going on how long goalkeepers take to take a goal kick when their team is winning. And referees never add it on. They just seem to add a token time to reflect stoppages which bears little relation to how much actual time is lost. And one thing I don’t understand. If a referee stops his watch at any time how does he know how long he has stopped it for? The only way is to have another (stopwatch) and start that when he stops the main watch, and then stop the stopwatch when he starts his main watch again! Doesn’t a referee have enough to think about without faffing about with watches? I repeat; a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock would put an end to it all. I’ll return to this hobbyhorse as the season progresses.

Anyway, enjoy the game. I’d love to see an upset, although doubt that it will happen. On paper of course the fixtures for the rest of August are easier, so don’t get too upset if the result is not great, as long as we put in a good performance. We won’t face Manchester City every week!

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.