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.

West Ham entertain Championship-bound Huddersfield

Can we still maintain a challenge to finish seventh this season?

In the football season, when you arrive at the middle of March you hope that the team that you support has something to play for. It is not as interesting when you are just going through the motions looking ahead to next season, without any real aims, such as a place in Europe, a visit to Wembley for the FA Cup Final, or even in a poor season, a fight against relegation. A place in Europe is still a possibility, albeit a receding one, following our non-show in Wales last week. Although we sit in ninth place, seventh place is still achievable with a good run-in in the final eight games, as we are just five points behind Wolves, and four behind Watford, our two main rivals for the coveted seventh place, also known as “the best of the rest”, or Premier League Division 2 champions, once the “elite six” are disregarded. But how much easier would seventh position and a place in Europe have been if we had picked up three points at Cardiff last week. But once again we showed that we are the most consistently inconsistent team.

Of course if we had taken the FA Cup more seriously, and not lost to a pub team destined for relegation to an even lower division than the lowly one they currently reside in, then the interest of us fans would be still heightened as we looked forward to the latter stages of the competition, and possibly quarter-final ties this weekend. But once again it was not to be. I believe that we have been eliminated from the two domestic cup competitions by teams from a lower division more than any other team in my 60 years of following West Ham.

But despite all this, I have already renewed my season ticket for next season, and look forward to my visit to the London Stadium today. Surely we must overcome relegation-bound Huddersfield, who sit at the foot of the Premier League with a meagre 14 points, which makes them 16 points from safety with eight games to go.

But if you want some reasons why we might not win, then here are 7 to be getting on with.  West Ham fans will understand what I mean.

We have never lost to Huddersfield in a Premier League game.

  1. We haven’t lost a league game to Huddersfield since the weekend of my very first date with my wife, which was over 47 years ago!
  2. We are unbeaten at home in 2019.
  3. If we win it would be the first time that we have won three consecutive league games at the London Stadium.
  4. Huddersfield have lost 7 of their last 8 games.
  5. Huddersfield have only scored 8 goals on their travels – which is less than any other team in the Premier League.
  6. Huddersfield have failed to score in 5 successive away games.

Ironically our overall record against Huddersfield in history is a negative won, but that is mainly due to the fact that they were once a force in the game. This is before most people who are alive today can remember. In their golden period back in the 1920s and 1930s they won the league title in three successive years, and were runners-up on three other occasions, also winning the FA Cup at that time, and were finalists in four other years. But latterly they have been in the doldrums relatively speaking, and after relegation in 1972 they spent the next 45 years in the three tiers outside the top flight until returning in 2017. After just about surviving last season they are now on their way back down.

Despite our inconsistency, even the bookmakers make us very strong odds-on favourites to win the game at odds of about 8/15. Given our visitors inability to score away from home then you would have to believe that a win to nil would be a good bet, and the odds will depend on how many it might be.

For example, 1-0 is favourite at 9/2, 2-0 is 11/2, 3-0 is 10/1, 4-0 is 22/1, 5-0 is 70/1, with 6-0 200/1. But remember this is West Ham we are talking about. Huddersfield might score and might beat us. I’d like to think that won’t happen though. Let’s hope that we can turn up, turn it on, and our attacking players in particular can provide us with some goals to cheer. I’m hoping for 3-0 or 4-0. Let’s see.

Wolves and Watford are still involved in the FA Cup this weekend, and both have away games to play in the league next. We have this game at home to Huddersfield and our next game is at home to Everton. That five point gap can be dramatically closed, or possibly eradicated completely by the end of March. If we can win these two games then we can definitely challenge for seventh place. Three points today is a must to enable this to happen.

West Ham visit Cardiff

West Ham were flying in December, but 2019 has been mixed. Can we take off in the run-in to claim seventh place?

December 2018 was a record month for the Hammers. Five wins in seven games including three at the start of the month against the Magpies, Bluebirds and Eagles. Those are the three flying creatures who we have done well against this season. Our record has not been as impressive however against the Seagulls or Hornets, neither of whom we have beaten. Today’s game gives us the opportunity to extend our run of consecutive wins against the team from the Welsh capital to eight. In fact our overall record against them is outstanding. Since December 1965 we have faced them on 22 occasions, winning 15, drawing 5, and losing just twice. Only one of those defeats came in our last 11 visits to play them in Cardiff.

2019 league results have a symmetrical feel to them with three wins, three draws and three defeats. Excellent performances to beat Arsenal and draw with Liverpool have been counter-balanced by defeats (and poor performances) at Bournemouth and Wolves. When I dusted down my crystal ball before a football had been kicked this season, I looked ahead to what I could see would be another predictable season in the top flight of English football. And as it turns out I haven’t been far wrong. My top six were Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal, and with just nine games remaining those half dozen clubs are 13 points clear of the sides chasing them. Not the hardest prediction to make I know, but nevertheless the group at the top show no signs of giving up their positions in the “elite six” in the Premier League. I may even have those six in the correct order by the season’s end, but if not, it won’t be far off.

I then guessed that the four teams who would be chasing them without any real hope of joining the group would be Wolves, Everton, Leicester and ourselves, and that too has turned out much as I expected as they occupy 7th, 9th, 10th and 11th.

Watford are the team that have surprised me, as they are currently 8th and level on points with Wolves for that coveted seventh place. In my predictions last August I felt that they would be one of the half dozen clubs in biggest danger of falling down into the Championship, the others being Bournemouth, Brighton, Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff. Not quite so accurate there, although the last three on that list are the clubs currently occupying the relegation places.

When the season began I am sure that Neil Warnock, the Cardiff manager, would have been more than delighted to still be in with a chance of avoiding the drop in March. At present they are just two points away from Southampton who are 17th ( realistically 3 points away from the bottom three when their goal difference is taken into account), and will believe that they can still be a Premier League side next season, although it will be a difficult task.

Five of their seven wins this season have come at home to Fulham, Brighton, Wolves, Southampton and Bournemouth, with two victories on their travels at Leicester and Southampton. Their double over Southampton, who are their nearest rivals for the drop as it currently stands, has been vital in keeping them in with a chance. They have drawn four games this season against Newcastle, Palace, and Huddersfield (twice) without a goal being scored in any of them. So based on that statistic alone, if a goal is scored in today’s game, then one of the two sides will come out on top. Cardiff don’t do score draws.

CARWHU1As more of our first team squad return to full fitness, our manager is given a greater choice in who he selects for both the starting eleven and the match day squad of 18. I was very impressed with Balbuena this season (he appeared on the front cover of the home game against Cardiff in December) and felt that his partnership with Diop was the way forward. But, despite not being Ogbonna’s biggest fan, due to what I perceive to be a tendency to occasionally “switch off” at vital times, I have enjoyed his recent stand-out performances, and he will be hard to displace in the starting eleven. Fredericks is beginning to find his feet in the side, and together with Cresswell (if fit) will surely occupy the full back berths. Surely not even the most ardent Adrian fans (and there are many) can argue against the choice of Fabianski as the number one custodian; he has exceeded most expectations with many faultless performances.

Rice and Noble will surely occupy the two “defensive” midfield slots, and of course they were our two goalscorers last week in the victory over Newcastle. That leaves four offensive positions to be filled. Surely Anderson and Lanzini will occupy two of them leaving the remaining places to be taken by Antonio (or perhaps Snodgrass), and then Hernandez (or Arnautavic). My preference would be for Antonio and Arnautavic, although Snodgrass has done little wrong. Hernandez has improved his play outside the box as the season has progressed, but I still remain unconvinced with his “fox in the box” reputation, and don’t believe he converts as many chances as I thought he would when we signed him. Of course Arnautavic remains a bit of an enigma (and always will be I suspect), but at his best he is a formidable striker who adds quite a goalscoring threat to our team.

Unusually for West Ham playing away from home we are favourites with the bookmakers to win the game at around 6/5, with the odds around 16/1 for us to repeat the scoreline in the reverse fixture on that cold early December Tuesday evening when we ran out 3-1 winners with two goals from Perez and one from Antonio. If we are serious in believing that we are a “big team” and that we can be the seventh best team in the Premier League, than these are the games that we must win just as the “big teams” do.

Three of the games that we have lost this season have been to Wolves (twice) and to Watford, our two main challengers for the seventh spot. Had we won those games then we would now be sitting on 48 points, 8 clear of Watford (whose tally would be 40, and 11 clear of Wolves who would be on 37). We have also lost twice to Bournemouth. Six more points and we could have been sitting pretty on 54 points only just outside of the top six. These are the games that we must do better in next season if we are going to push on and get nearer to those clubs at the top. But in addition to the matches against our closest rivals we must beat the teams who are struggling in the bottom half as well. A win in the Welsh capital today would help enormously in our attempt to reach seventh place.

The game after this one is at home to Huddersfield. Wolves have two away fixtures against Chelsea and Burnley coming up, whilst Watford face both Manchester clubs in their next two games. If results go our way we could be in seventh place with seven games of the season to go. That would be quite an achievement considering the lead we gave those two clubs after four games of the season, especially Watford who we trailed by 12 points at that time. But whatever the results elsewhere we must keep on winning, and I’m looking for a repeat of the 3-1 win that we achieved in December.