West Ham, Sheffield United, Tevezgate, the Icelandic Consortium, and the Great Escape – Memories of 2006-2007

Do you remember season 2006-2007? Of course you do – all Hammers fans can recall the season of the “Great Escape” and one that will go down in history as one of the most bizarre, and there have been a few of those. The final game of the previous campaign had been in Cardiff where we were massively unlucky to lose one of the great FA Cup finals on penalties. We had also finished ninth in the Premier League in our first season back in the top flight after promotion from the Championship.

We were confident that the club could build on that, and also shocked to learn that we had signed two top class Argentinian footballers in Mascherano and Tevez, potentially one of the biggest coups in our transfer history. Little did we know at the time that the signings, particularly that of Tevez, would lead to controversy and repercussions that would haunt us for many years to come.

The season had begun well enough with a win and a draw which put us top of the league on the evening of Tuesday 22 August. A defeat at Liverpool followed by a home draw against Villa gave us five points from four games, and Bobby Zamora had scored five of our six goals. Then came the introduction of the Argentinians into the team, and a disastrous run of games where we lost eight times in a row, scoring just once in those fixtures, a 2-1 defeat at Chesterfield in the League Cup. In that time we were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Palermo of Italy, and tumbled to 19th in the table, to begin a relegation fight that would last until the end of the season.

The terrible run continued until the end of the year. After we had scored six goals in our first four games, we then only scored six more league goals in the rest of 2006. Zamora didn’t score any of them despite playing in most of the games. We did manage four wins in that time, three with the only goal of the game. In the middle of that run of games was a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United in November, which was the last time that we managed to beat them before the 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane this season, almost 14 years to the day later. Hayden Mullins scored the goal, one of just a handful he scored in his time here.

Off the field plenty was happening too. In November the board accepted an £85 million takeover by an Icelandic Bank headed by Eggert Magnusson, then shortly afterwards, following three successive defeats with no goals scored and eight conceded, culminating in a 4-0 loss at Bolton, manager Alan Pardew was sacked and former player Alan Curbishley was appointed. His first game in charge was a 1-0 victory over Manchester United (the eventual champions) at Upton Park, but we only scored once more before the end of the year and only collected one point from a 0-0 draw at Craven Cottage.

2007 began therefore with the team in the bottom three and only six league goals from the last 17 matches; relegation form for sure. Surely we could only improve from here! On 1st January we travelled to Reading and were humbled 6-0. By the time we faced Tottenham at Upton Park on March 4th Curbishley had still only had the one league win (in his first game). The 4-3 defeat to our North London neighbours dropped us to the bottom of the league and only a miraculous turnaround would save us now. Tevez actually scored his first goal for us in the Spurs game (from a free kick) – it was his 20th appearance!

At this point there were just nine games of the season left. We had only won 5 out of 29 at this point; surely relegation was just a formality. Our survival hopes were boosted with wins over Blackburn and Middlesbrough (with goals in each game for Tevez and Zamora), before a magnificent 1-0 win at Arsenal with Zamora scoring for the fourth game in a row (just as he had at the beginning of the season). We then went to Bramall Lane and a poor performance saw us lose 3-0 to one of our relegation rivals. We followed this with a 4-1 loss at Upton Park to Chelsea, and with just four games left we looked to be down.

But a nervous 1-0 win over Everton, followed by victories over Wigan (3-0) and Bolton (3-1), meant that we travelled to Old Trafford to face the champions Manchester United, probably needing an unlikely win to retain top flight status. Of course we did so thanks to a Tevez goal and the great escape had been achieved. Sheffield United went down but they later claimed that third party rules had been broken by our signing of Tevez. They claimed that he had been instrumental in us avoiding relegation while they were relegated, despite the fact that it took him 20 games to score a goal. He scored just seven goals in his 26 league appearances for us, but in the end we had to pay Sheffield United over £30 million in compensation in instalments.

After an excellent first season back last year when they were the surprise team of the Premier League, Sheffield United appear to have been found out this time around, and will need to better our Great Escape of all those years ago to avoid dropping into the Championship. They go into this game at the very bottom, with just three wins and eleven points from 23 games, 14 points adrift of safety. It seems inconceivable that any of the bottom three can possibly escape, but that does not mean that games against them are gimmes as we found when facing Fulham recently.

Our lack of alternative striking options to Antonio is now a cause for concern, although I never thought that Yarmolenko could possibly play in the lone striker role anyway. His performance at Old Trafford seemed to prove that and his injury now means that he is likely to be unavailable for some time. If Antonio is not available for any games from now then we will go into those matches without a recognised striker, and perhaps we will start a trend with Bowen, Benrahma and Lingard playing as three false nines at the same time interchanging at the top of the pitch. It seems a shame that our push for a top seven finish (or higher) is likely to be halted by a lack of foresight in investment of strikers.

For my lockdown treat today I have been having a look at the league table and noting how unusual the season is in that the majority of teams have better away records than home ones. Of the top 11 teams, only Manchester City and Liverpool have won more games at home than on their travels. Our record is interesting and for lovers of symmetry wouldn’t it be good if we could beat Sheffield United by two goals to nil? That would mean that our home and away records to date would be exactly the same; played 12, won 6, drawn 3, lost 3, goals scored 18, goals conceded 14, points 21. Bookmakers will only give me around a measly 7/1 for that scoreline, despite our dearth of striking options.

I’d be happy with a win of any kind, which presuming Chelsea beat Newcastle later, will leave us in fifth place, relegating champions Liverpool to sixth, and just four points behind second. Who would have believed that we could possibly be in this position when the season started? So don’t let us down West Ham. A win please, preferably by 2-0. What are the chances?

Soucek Available as Hammers Bid to Reach FA Cup Quarter Final

If you read newspapers or social media to see what happened when we played at Craven Cottage at the weekend then you wouldn’t have found out very much about the actual football played. The conditions were awful, the rain was bucketing down and the pitch was slowly deteriorating as the game went on. It reminded me of our FA Cup tie at Stockport in many respects. We were playing a side that on form we should be dominating but in many aspects we were second best. Fulham actually play some neat football, but unfortunately they are likely to go down this season because of a lack of a cutting edge in the final third. Either team could have won the game with each of our Czech imports missing headed chances whilst at the other end all the Fulham players seemed to lose composure when a half chance appeared.

The major talking point came as a result of a West Ham free kick with seconds to go, when Lee Mason (on VAR duty at Stockley Park) drew Mike Dean’s attention to the fact that Mitrovic was on the floor, looking like he’d been felled by Mike Tyson, and suggested that he should go and view the incident on the screen at the side of the pitch. After reviewing the footage 23 times (that says enough in itself that it wasn’t clear to him!) he then produced a red card. Cue astonishment all round – it was obvious to anyone who understands the game that it was accidental. There has been about 99% agreement everywhere you view or read that the decision was a wrong one, and fortunately the red card was rescinded on Monday. The only real doubt that this would be the outcome was would the panel want to overturn a second decision by (supposedly) one of the top referees in one week? But common sense won the day (sometimes it doesn’t in football) and Soucek is available to play in tonight’s game. The sad thing is that a (top!?) referee should see an incident in a different way to virtually all other observers.

We face a Manchester United side that are having a good season, lying second in the league with a very good chance of retaining a position in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Of course we are sixth ourselves, only one point behind Liverpool (in fourth) and should be harbouring ambitions to achieve a top four place too. But with limited attacking options and little investment from the top of the club to remedy this we are very much outsiders in this respect and that’s why I believe tonight’s game takes on added importance. To achieve a top four league finish would require consistency of performance that may be beyond us with our current squad. Excellent though we have been in so many ways this season, our best chance of glory must realistically be to emulate what we achieved in 1964, 1975 and 1980, and that is of course to win the FA Cup.

Yes, a tough fixture tonight, but if we can come out on top then that would put us into the last eight, just one game away from the semi-final, and two wins away from a final appearance at Wembley. Sitting close to the top of the Premier League, with absolutely no chance of going down with 15 games of the season to go is a position we don’t often find ourselves in, but that is where we are. That is why we should be focussing 100% on putting out our best team and trying to win the FA Cup.

As a fan I know that I’d prefer an appearance in the FA Cup final to a sixth or seventh place finish in the Premier League, which is realistically the best we are likely to achieve. Of course our owners may feel differently and prefer the idea of finishing as high as possible in the league, with an extra £2m in prize money for each incremental position achieved. If players need to be rested at any time then I’d prefer this to be for league games whilst we still have an interest in the cup. Of course I’d like to think we could achieve a top 4 finish and a visit to Wembley for the Cup Final, but that may be too much of an optimistic dream. We definitely have a better chance of winning tonight with Soucek available now, and that one piece of news might help to drive us on to achieve a shock result. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world for the team lying sixth to overcome the team in second place, but the bookmakers have decided that it would be. The Red Devils are 8/13 to win the game, whereas we are 21/5, with the draw around 16/5.

The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

MUNWHU1The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

I’m also old enough to remember an even more famous win against them in the semi-final of the cup in 1964, on our way to winning the trophy. We faced them the week before the semi-final in a league game at Upton Park. They beat us 2-0 despite resting most of their first team, including the trio of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst we had our first choice team playing. The following Saturday at Hillsborough we lined up with the same XI whereas they brought back their top guns expecting an easy victory.

That season Manchester United finished second in the league whereas we were a lowly 14th. But that didn’t stop us progressing to Wembley comfortably in that one-off game with two goals from Ronnie Boyce (seen being chased by fellow team members after scoring one of the goals in the semi-final) and another from Geoff Hurst. Boyce only scored 29 goals in 341 appearances for us but he knew about scoring important ones, as he also headed the winning goal in the final minute of the Final when we defeated Preston 3-2.

My prediction for tonight (optimistic hat on as usual) is for the game to end 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time, and then for us to win 4-3 on penalties (despite our lack of penalty practice this season!). What are the chances?

The Hammers visit Villa Park hoping to start another winning run

Our run of consecutive winning games (which had reached six in number) had to come to an end at some stage, and I guess it was inevitable that the Premier League champions, who had found some form when visiting our North London neighbours just a few days ago, would be the team to end the sequence. We went into the game full of confidence, but right from the outset appeared to me to show the Merseysiders too much respect. We didn’t play as well as we might, and our lone striker (Antonio), despite having an excellent season so far, seemed a bit below par for the second game running. Perhaps he needs a rest, although the lack of alternatives to fit into the lone striker role is a definite worry for the remainder of the campaign.

Liverpool’s first goal came as a result of allowing Salah to come inside and curl a shot into goal with his left foot. He should have been forced to go on the outside; a defensive error. The second goal resulted from an excellent counter attack from our corner as we chased the game from a losing position, but despite the brilliant execution of the goal I was disappointed that we let it happen. It reminded me of other counter attacks where we have conceded in recent seasons (goals from Arsenal and Manchester City come to mind).

The game and the result provided a reality check to those fans talking us up into a potential top four finish and showed the gulf between the very best (Liverpool and Manchester City in my opinion) and those chasing them. Liverpool showed that not only their best eleven are a very good side, but that they have strength in depth that we do not possess.

Nevertheless we need to put the game behind us, learn from our mistakes, and move on to the Villa match, and try to recapture the form that has enabled us to climb the table. The Midland claret and blues, like ourselves, have performed beyond expectations in the season to date. But when you look at the form table for the last five games, they have lost three of them, whereas we have twelve points, second only to Manchester City in the Premier League.

It will be interesting to see if the manager makes any changes for this game to try to freshen up the team, although I’ll be surprised if he does. He tends to stick with largely the same players who have taken us to fifth place, and it is hard to argue against the success of the season to date. I’m always surprised by the substitutions he makes (or doesn’t make), but he stands or falls by those decisions.

As far as the bookmakers are concerned Aston Villa are favourites at 6/5 to take the spoils, with both a West Ham win and the draw available at around 23/10. The favourite “correct score” is a 1-1 draw, and this is a likely outcome, although wearing my optimistic hat, I’ll take us to sneak a 2-1 win. I just hope that the referee is not fooled by diving antics which were a feature of the game when the sides met at the London Stadium, with one player in particular (and we all know who he is) guilty of falling to the ground very easily.

So 2-1 is my prediction plus we are overdue being awarded a penalty kick. What are the chances?

The rollercoaster ride of following West Ham

A brief summary of more than sixty years of being a West Ham fan

I read an article recently that was written by a West Ham fan who likened following the team to a rollercoaster ride. I could see where he was coming from with the ups and downs from season to season, and even from game to game. I suppose a lot of football supporters feel this way about their team, but at West Ham I’m sure we experience it more than most.

As a fan I came in when we were fairly high on the ride. The first season I remember (as a five- year-old) was 1958-59. We had been promoted the previous year from Division Two into the top flight (Division One in those days) and in our first season finished in sixth position, and were holding third place before losing our final game. The following season we began a slow descent. A magnificent run through September to November where we won 11 out of 13 games in all competitions (losing just one) meant that we topped the league on 21 November. The following Saturday (I remember it so well because I was in hospital) we travelled to Hillsborough and were soundly beaten 7-0 by Sheffield Wednesday. We began to go down at that point, were bundled out of the FA Cup in the third round 1-5 at home by second division Huddersfield, and finished the season in 14th.

The 1960s were good in that we remained in the top division throughout, hovering between lower top half and bottom half, with the highs of the FA Cup trophy in 1964, followed by the European Cup Winners Cup a year later. The rest of the sixties and early seventies saw more of the same with another peak in the middle of the latter decade with our second FA Cup followed by an excellent run to another European final, playing some great football on the way through the competition.

Following that we began to hover just above the relegation places and eventually went down in 1978. A win in the final game at home to Liverpool would have kept us up but the Merseysiders cruised to a 2-0 win and our 20 year stay in the top flight was over. But all our best players remained and we began to go upwards again. It took us three years to get promoted, but we had a wonderful run in that time, winning the FA Cup for the third time in 1980, and then breaking all records the following season winning promotion as champions with a record points haul, and reaching the League Cup final where we unluckily lost to Liverpool after a replay.

Top half finishes throughout most of the early 1980s culminated in our best league season ever (1985-86), finishing third after being in contention to be champions for most of the season, despite a poor start where we only won one of our first seven matches. Liverpool finished top that year and we were pipped for the runners-up spot after losing at Everton on the final day.

A sharper decline followed that great year however, and three seasons later we were once again relegated. We came back at the second attempt, only to be relegated the following season and then promoted once again in the next campaign. This was a real yo-yo period but we stayed in Division One throughout the nineties and managed a fifth place finish in 1999. We partied with Prince after the final game of the season (a 4-0 win over Middlesbrough) as we qualified for the Inter Toto cup which meant a July start to the following campaign. Success in that early season tournament gave us entry into the UEFA Cup where we were eliminated in the second round, but still finished in the top half in the last year of the twentieth century.

The roller coaster was back in the early noughties with a lower half followed by a seventh place followed by relegation under Glenn Roeder. But we were back in the Premier League once again a couple of years later and reached the FA Cup Final in our first season. The final against Liverpool at the Millenium Stadium was one of the great finals, but Gerrard’s 30 yard shot in injury time denied us victory, and of course we lost the penalty shoot-out.

Top half finishes throughout most of the rest of the decade came to an end with a 17th place finish under Zola in 2010 followed by another relegation a season later under Avram Grant. This time we bounced back at the first attempt under Big Sam and have remained there since, with an excellent final season at the Boleyn in 2015-16, followed by a leaner period since.

So we have come full circle with the high of six wins in a row to begin 2021 followed by a reality check from Liverpool on Sunday. Looking back it is interesting how often Liverpool have featured in this brief summary of more than 60 years of following the ups and downs of West Ham.

Has it been a rollercoaster ride? In one respect the analogy is a false one because the greatest thrill that you get when riding the rollercoaster is not when you are ascending, but more in the rapid plunge to the low point after reaching the top. As a football fan, the best times are the ride to reach the peak, not the fall that has inevitably followed. Nevertheless it has been a great ride that, despite some of the many frustrations in being a West Ham fan, I wouldn’t have swapped for growing up following any other team.

What are the chances of six in a row for the Hammers?

Crystal Palace stand in the way of West Ham extending their winning run in 2021

It has been well reported that for the first time in our 125 year history West Ham have won the first five games in a calendar year. Three of them have been in the Premier League and two against lower league opposition in the FA Cup, where we have so frequently slipped up in the past. Our win over Doncaster Rovers on Saturday was a professional performance, and gave an opportunity to several fringe players to impress the manager.

For me, Benrahma and Fornals ran the game. I have been very impressed with both, although they have their critics among our fans. My colleague and co-blogger Geoff made a very valid point in his article yesterday regarding Benrahma, suggesting that perhaps he is trying just that that little bit too hard to score. I’m sure it will come and that he will be an impressive addition to our team in the years to come. Against Palace he will come across Eze, another player plucked from the Championship who I believe will make quite an impact in the top flight.

It seems that Palace’s main threat in games, Zaha, will return to the team for this game, as will our old friend Kouyate, although Tompkins will not be facing us this evening. Zaha is an important player for our opponents, contributing to almost half of their goals this season, either as scorer or with assists, and I believe they would struggle without him. Nevertheless he is one of those players, who, despite his unquestionable skills, flatters to deceive too often to make him a really top class player. But along with Eze, they are the two players we need to keep quiet. But our defending as a team is the main reason for our success of late, and hopefully we will frustrate them both.

Despite the success on Saturday, David Moyes will undoubtedly revert to the players that have been the mainstay of our league team in recent games. I would be surprised if our starting line-up is not Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Bowen, Benrahma, Fornals; Antonio. It’s surprising how we’ve gone half way through a season with as few injuries as we have had compared to recent times when it has seemed that we’ve always had a number of players unavailable. Perhaps it is down to the increased levels of fitness that has also been very noticeable this term?

CRYWHU2Both Palace and ourselves have a relatively poor record in London derbies lately, although Palace have had the upper hand in head to head fixtures against us in recent times. I thought that they looked quite a good side when the teams met a week before Christmas. Benteke opened the scoring in the first half before Haller’s sensational overhead kick brought the scores level.

Palace haven’t had the best of times since that game, whereas we have gone from strength to strength, and that is probably the reason why the bookmakers make us favourites at around 11/8 to come out on top this evening. Both Palace and the draw are on offer at around 11/5, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a repeat of the same scoreline as the game at the London Stadium a little over a month ago. However, I am hoping that we can collect our eighth clean sheet of the campaign and perhaps score a goal for another win.

One statistic that always bothers me is when I read about the poor recent form of our opposition prior to a game. In fact since that game against us in December, Palace have scored just three goals and conceded fifteen. They haven’t scored since beating Sheffield United 2-0 on 2nd January, and in the season to date they have conceded 33 goals, a total only exceeded by West Brom and Leeds. But I’m going for three more points in a 1-0 win, to make it six victories in a row. What are the chances?

The last 16 of the FA Cup beckons for the Hammers

Doncaster Rovers stand in the way of a fifth round tie at Anfield or Old Trafford

It was a bit like the London bus story. I waited a long time to get a score prediction correct in a West Ham game this season, and then two came along together. I didn’t think the West Brom game would be as straightforward as some were predicting, but without reaching the heights we were good enough to win. It’s the sign of a decent side to win games when not at our best and there have been a few like that recently. But Moyes and the coaching staff seem to have improved the fitness levels of the players, and made us a very hard team to beat, by not easily conceding goals. The Pereira shot was the one defensive blemish in five games, which is so unlike the West Ham we are used to watching.

The final whistle in Tuesday’s game meant that the halfway point in the season was reached with 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. The equivalent 19 matches in the last campaign yielded 20 points, so we are 12 up at this point. The 19 league games to come brought 19 points last season, so I wonder if we can improve on that by another 12 points, which would take us up to 63 by the end. That’s exactly what it would take to set a new points record for the club in the Premier League. 63 points last season would have resulted in a fifth placed finish. It’s a big ask, but I’m sure our performances can improve further.

With DON3relegation now a virtual impossibility, will the club just want to push on and attain as high a league position as possible, or will we be making more of an attempt to land a trophy, namely the FA Cup? Looked at from a purely financial viewpoint, each incremental finishing position in the Premier League is worth around £2 million more than the position below it in prize money. The team that wins the FA Cup receives prize money of £1.8 million. It is easy to see why the owners of clubs are more interested in league positions than winning cups.

But it need not be like that. We should be aiming for the double. That is not to say that we are going to win the Premier League, but we should be aiming for as high a finish as possible, whilst at the same time trying our utmost to win the FA Cup. Ask the fans what they would prefer, a visit to Wembley or finishing sixth in the league? OK, so the current pandemic will probably mean that fans will not be at the final, but we’d surely like to win the cup, something we haven’t done for 41 years, wouldn’t we? I know I would.

DON2A place in the fifth round is certainly within our grasp, and that would be followed by a difficult (but not impossible to win) tie at Anfield or Old Trafford. Winning that would put us in the last eight and anything could happen from there. Just two more wins to reach the final and three to win the trophy. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but that should surely be our ambition? An excerpt from today’s match programme shows that Declan Rice agrees with me.

DON1Our opponents today are flying high in League One (4th), just three points from the top and will themselves be aiming for promotion to the Championship. They have won four of their last five league games, so they are in good form. But so are we. We are unbeaten in our last five league games and have collected eleven points in those. Let’s hope that we don’t underestimate lower league opposition as we have done so frequently in the past.

Historically Doncaster have beaten us on more occasions than we have won the encounters. I was at Upton Park the last time we met them in a Championship game in 2012. The game ended 1-1 with Kevin Nolan scoring our goal. Nolan also scored the goal that earned us a 1-0 win earlier that season. The campaign ended well as we were promoted via the play-offs, whilst Doncaster finished bottom and were relegated to League One.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair, as has been the case in our recent games? Can we keep another clean sheet? I’m going for a hat-trick of correct score predictions and looking for a 2-0 win, and a place in Round Five. What are the chances?

Can the Hammers make it five clean sheets in a row?

Big Sam’s Baggies visit the London Stadium

We welcome Big Sam to the London Stadium, once again doing his impersonation of Red Adair, this time trying to save the Baggies from relegation. You have to hand it to him, he hasn’t taken a team from the Premier League down yet, but this could be his toughest challenge yet. Having said that their performance to win 3-2 at Wolves last weekend after coming from behind was a notable achievement, and they will be full of confidence from that as they head into this game.

The final whistle in today’s game will signify the halfway point in the season for us, meaning that a victory would put us on 32 points from 19 games, which must be some sort of record in modern times, certainly as far as in the 25 seasons we have been in the Premier League. And talking of records, our last four competitive games have ended 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. How many of you can remember four clean sheets in a row from a West Ham team? I doubt that it has happened in the top flight for many years, but it did happen in our record breaking season of 1985-86, when we finished third and narrowly missed out on being champions. In that season we had a run of five games (four wins and a draw) without conceding a goal before going down 1-0 to Tottenham on Boxing Day. After that game we had a further two 1-0 wins meaning that we only conceded one goal in eight matches.

Going back even further and looking at our record-breaking season in the second tier (1980-81) when we finished as champions by a country mile, we did have a run of six matches where we didn’t concede, as well as two runs of five games, and one of four, all in that same season. But we were exceptional at that time, and only conceded 29 goals in our 42 league games, only losing four times in that campaign.

But I couldn’t find any more examples (perhaps someone will find one or two?) and I think that those highlight the very good performance of the team from a defensive viewpoint. It has of course coincided with the four game central defensive partnership of Ogbonna and Dawson, both of whom have been a revelation, but the team should be congratulated for defending as a whole, and credit must of course go to the management and coaching staff for the work that they have put in to make this happen.

WHUWBA1In history, there was a period in the 1960’s when there were many goals in home matches against West Brom, and I can remember looking forward to the games because we always seemed to beat them and score a hatful. The first time I remember us playing them was in our cup winning season (1963-64) when I saw the game with my dad. It was in November 1963, around the time that President Kennedy was assassinated, and we beat them 4-2. Geoff Hurst scored a couple. It was the first time I can remember seeing Geoff Hurst take a penalty (Johnny Byrne was our regular penalty taker at the time) and he smashed it as hard as he could to the keeper’s right. He always took penalties that way and even though the keepers knew that they couldn’t often get near them (although Gordon Banks famously did in the League Cup semi-final a few years later!). And then there was a “Good Friday” for me at Easter 1965 as for the first time I was allowed to go to Upton Park with friends rather than any adults being with us. I was eleven at the time. Do eleven year-olds go to West Ham on their own these days? It was an even better Friday for Brian Dear as this was the day he scored five goals in a twenty minute spell either side of half time in our 6-1 trouncing of West Brom. I can recall a newspaper headline of the match report that said “Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear!” Brian Dear was a member of our victorious European Cup Winners Cup side just a month later, a game I watched with my dad high up on the Wembley terracing behind the goal where Alan Sealey scored our two goals.

The following January I was there again when we beat West Brom 4-0 with Geoff Hurst again scoring twice, and also in December 1966 when we “only” beat them 3-0. I missed the game in December 1967 when we lost the game by the odd goal in five, but was back again at the beginning of the next season when we put another four past them with a Martin Peters hat trick. This game was sandwiched between putting five past Burnley the previous week and seven past Bolton four days afterwards.

So in six consecutive seasons of home games against West Brom we won five and lost one, scoring 23 goals and conceding 6. Martin Peters scored six times, as did Brian Dear, with five from Geoff Hurst. No wonder I always looked forward to games against them when I was young.

Conversely there was an awful game in February 1973. It was a shocking game to watch. This was summed up neatly by David Miller writing in the Sunday Telegraph who wrote “This wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” The referee had a poor game too with Sam Bartram of the Sunday People writing “Referee Kerkhof’s rumbling of the Albion time wasting tactics was one of the few things that he did right all afternoon.”

Effectively the referee added on an additional eight minutes to the second half purely to allow for time wasting, although it felt like he just wanted West Ham to get the winner that they deserved. And we did too with Pop Robson’s late goal clinching a 2-1 victory. Billy Bonds had given us a first half lead that had been cancelled out by Tony Brown’s equaliser in the second half. West Brom were relegated finishing bottom that season. Just deserts from the game I saw!

I have to say that I enjoyed the Amazon Prime coverage of the Burnley game at the weekend. With Gabby Logan holding the programme together, and an excellent commentary team with Ally McCoist surprising me with his insights as co-commentator, and a very good pair of pundits in Matt Upson and Clinton Morrison I thought they provided a refreshing change from the usual fare served up by Sky or BT Sport. I hope that they get more games.

What will happen today? Can we expect another tight affair? Can we keep another clean sheet? Will Robert Snodgrass spoil our run? The Burnley game was the first time in 18 attempts that I’ve correctly predicted the West Ham score this season so what do I know? I’ll go for a 2-1 win with Snodgrass scoring the visitor’s goal. What are the chances?

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

Who will have the Claret Blues today?

With a season that began a little over four months ago, we have now played 17 games. After the relegation battles in the last campaign and minimal transfer activity in the summer window, how many of us would have expected that at this stage we would be in the top half of the table, with 26 points, just half a dozen points off third place, and only conceded just 21 goals, the same as Liverpool, Leicester, Everton and Chelsea, and fewer than league leaders Manchester United? And of course into the fourth round of the FA Cup where a relatively straightforward (on paper!) home tie against Doncaster awaits.

WHUBUR1Following the games against Burnley, and then Big Sam’s West Brom on Tuesday we will have reached the halfway point of the season. In the equivalent 19 games last season (substituting the relegated teams with promoted teams) we collected 20 points. We are already six points ahead with two games to come. Two wins would take us to 32 points; a win and a draw to 30, and if we lost these games then of course we would still be on 26. Not bad for the midpoint of the season. An equal points tally in the second half would mean between 52 and 64 points for the whole campaign. This is our 25th season in the Premier League, and the most we’ve managed is 62 when we were seventh in the final season at the Boleyn (2015/16). Next best is 57 when we attained our highest ever Premier League finish of 5th in 1998/9. We average a little over 47 points a season in the Premier League so we are definitely on course for better than average, and potentially for the best ever. Quite a turnaround after last season.

Against Burnley we kick off for the first time this season in a league game at 3pm on a Saturday. Of course the circumstances are very different from normal. As a small boy the first football season that I remember is 1958/9. Today’s opponents were a force in the English game around that time finishing 7th in the top flight (Division 1) that year, and in the following years 1st (yes champions – something we’ve never achieved), 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 12th, 3rd. But by the late 1960s they were in decline compared to the previous few years and regularly in the bottom half, until they were finally relegated in 1970-71. They returned briefly in the 1970s but were once again relegated in 1975-76, beginning a long period of significant decline and very nearly oblivion.

1n 1986/87 they were in the fourth tier and only escaped relegation from the Football League on the last day of the season. Since then they have slowly climbed back up the leagues. After 33 years out of the top flight they returned in 2009/10. They’ve been down again a couple of times since but have returned swiftly under Sean Dyche’s management. This is now their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League but it hasn’t started well. A terrible start saw them with just two points in their first seven games with goalless draws away at West Brom and Brighton. But they have rallied well with 14 points from their last 9 games, beating Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Wolves and Sheffield United to bring them up to 16 points from 16 games to put them 16th in the table. They have scored fewer goals than any other team in the division with just 9. And in 10 of their 16 games there has only been one goal or less scored by both teams added together, including three goalless draws. On that basis we are not looking forward to a high scoring game, although hopefully we can do enough to collect the three points.

Our record against Burnley in history shows that we are very slightly ahead in wins but we have lost the last three conceding six goals in total without scoring ourselves. We’ve also only won once in the last five when we beat them 4-2 in November 2018 with goals from Arnautavic, Anderson 2, and Hernandez. There will be no spectators around this time to stick the corner flag into the centre of the pitch as happened in our 3-0 defeat in March 2018!

In my lifetime I have some good memories of past games against the Clarets. On a warm Monday evening in August 1968 we beat them 5-0, with four goals shared by the two knights, Sir Trev and Sir Geoff, and another from Martin Peters.

There was an exciting 5-3 win in November 2009 when we had five different goalscorers (Collison, Stanislas, Carlton Cole pen, Franco, and Jimenez pen – some interesting names from the past there) and scored two penalties. At one stage midway through the second half we led 5-0. Isn’t it about time we were awarded a penalty this season?

In the FA Cup in 2011 we beat them 5-1 in the fifth round with goals from Hitzlsperger, Carlton Cole 2, Reid, and Sears. However we then went out in the quarter final losing 2-1 at Stoke, having already beaten them twice earlier in the season. This was the Avram Grant year when we were relegated after finishing bottom.

But my favourite of all was, as a ten year old when I turned up with my dad at Upton Park at 11am to queue to get in at midday for the 1964 FA Cup quarter final that kicked off at 3pm (as all games did in those days) on Leap Years Day. We stood very close to the halfway line beneath the West Stand at the very front crushed against the wall and saw a famous 3-2 victory with two goals from Budgie Byrne and another from John Sissons. That was the year of our first FA Cup triumph, after beating Manchester United 3-1 in the semi-final, and then Preston 3-2 in the final.

But talk of all those goals is unlikely to be followed up today when I expect a tight affair. Perhaps 1-0, the same as last season, but this time with us as the victors? What are the chances?

Can West Ham win at Edgeley Park for the first time at the eighth attempt?

Or will this be another game to add to the long list of ignominious FA Cup exits for the Hammers?

How many of you reading this can remember the last time West Ham beat Stockport County? No, me neither. It came in an FA Cup 4th round tie at Upton Park in January 1958. We won the game 3-2 with two goals from Eddie Lewis and another from Vic Keeble. We were in the second tier of English football at the time and finished that season as Champions and were promoted to Division One. Stockport were in the third division. We went out in the next round losing at home to Fulham.

We had actually played them in the FA Cup before way back in 1935. We were in the second tier then, too, and we drew 1-1 at home in a third round tie, and then lost the replay 1-0. Stockport were also then in the third division.

Our record against them in the League Cup is equally poor. In 1972-73 we faced them in the third round. That was one of our better seasons in the top tier, as we finished sixth in Division One. Stockport were a Division Four team at the time but still beat us 2-1 with Clyde Best scoring our goal. Don’t be fooled and think we fielded a weakened side. On that Wednesday evening we had Bonds, Moore, Brooking, Pop Robson and all of our other first team regulars, only making one change from the side that had played (and won) a league game the previous Saturday.

Then in 1996-97 we met them in the fourth round and that was the only time I’ve seen Stockport play. It was at Upton Park and we could only draw 1-1 with Florin Raducioiu scoring our goal. Once again we fielded our “first team” as we did in the replay three weeks later. I can remember watching that game on TV, obviously chosen as the broadcasters could see a potential upset and they weren’t wrong. It was a night to forget for Iain Dowie, as not only did he head a goal (into his own net!) but he also broke his ankle. Julian Dicks scored our goal but we went out of the competition losing the tie 2-1.

An ignominious record in cup ties against Stockport is matched by some poor results in the few league games in which we’ve met them, as we have not very often been in the same division. Our record in away games in the north west at Edgeley Park is played 4, lost 3, and drawn 1, 0-0 back in 1937. So in 7 away visits in the league and cup ties we have lost 6 times and drawn once.

These days Stockport have sunk even lower in the football pyramid and are now in the National League. They are having a decent season and currently sit in fourth place, but some distance behind the runaway leaders, Torquay. In a very tight division they are hoping to get back into the Football League, although it would almost certainly only be via the play-offs.

In modern times teams in the Premier League (and sometimes lower leagues too) don’t treat cup games with the same respect as was once the case. League positions and the money that accompanies them are considered more important than chasing trophies, even though to win a cup only requires a successful run in a handful of games. Stockport on the other hand will almost certainly field a full strength side in a bid to claim a Premier League scalp. The broadcasters see the game as a potential upset too, and the TV cameras will be at Edgeley Park on Monday evening hoping to see one.

In my 60 plus years of following West Ham we have appeared in four FA Cup finals, winning three, and losing (unluckily) once to Liverpool in our last appearance in a penalty shoot out in 2006. Some of the teams who have knocked us out of the competition in those 60 years include Huddersfield (twice), Stoke (twice), Plymouth, Blackburn, Swindon, Sheffield United (twice), Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Hull City, Hereford, QPR (3 times), Newport County, Wrexham (twice), Watford (twice), Birmingham, Torquay, Sunderland, Barnsley, Luton, Grimsby, Swansea, Tranmere, Wigan. Last season we lost at home to West Brom (then in the Championship). It makes grim reading, doesn’t it? I could produce a similar list for teams that have beaten us in League Cup ties in the same period too.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a successful cup run and go back to Wembley? The last time I was there to watch us in an FA Cup Final was in 1980 (when I was 26, 40 years ago) when we famously beat Arsenal 1-0 with Sir Trevor’s header. That was the third time that we had won the trophy. I wasn’t expecting that more than 40 years later we would have not won it again.

Those three triumphs were days to remember and easily recalled all these years later. Our league position is comfortable with (almost certainly) no relegation fears this season. I’d love it if we gave it a good go this time. I’m not holding my breath though. But I reckon we can get through this tie. Let’s hope that we don’t add it to the long list of embarrassing FA Cup exits.

Festival Fixtures Alert – West Ham face the Seagulls, the Saints and the Toffeemen in 125 hours! It’s not fair!

How many times have you read or heard the manager of one of the leading clubs in the Premier League complain about fixture congestion? Or how difficult it is for their big squads of top players having to manage with only three substitutes permitted in each game? Well I haven’t yet heard David Moyes complain about this year’s Christmas schedule, but he damn well should!

I have been having a look at the festive fixtures and don’t believe that any club faces as many games in as short a space of time as West Ham do. With our thin squad it’s going to be a tough ask. All of the 20 teams play their first game of this demanding time over a period of two days on 26th / 27th December. They then play the next round of matches over the following three days, 28th / 29th / 30th. There are no games at all on New Years Eve, and then all the teams play their third festive match over four days 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th January. So three games are crammed into a ten day period for all teams.

But they are not equally spread out for all! A couple of examples – Liverpool play their first game of the three on 27th December, and the last on 4th January – 3 matches in 9 games. Southampton (one of our three opponents in the period) play their first game on 26th December and their last on 4th January – 3 games in 10 days! Conversely West Ham are asked to play on 27th and 29th December and then on 1st January. Our three games are all squeezed into six days! From the kick-off in the first to the end of the third game it will be around 125 hours – that is a little over 5 days.

So we face the teams 17th, 7th and 4th in the table in a period of time that I believe is shorter than any of the other 19 teams in the Premier League. And it’s not as if we don’t have to travel either. The first game is at home in London, then we travel to away games on the South Coast and then finally Merseyside. It’s hardly fair is it? Not a level playing field to quote a popular phrase banded about. And what of our opponents in the second and third fixtures? Well Southampton are second up and they will have an extra day’s rest before facing us after their first game in the period. And Everton will similarly have an additional day without playing after their second match of the three.

I’d like to think that the club will complain about the unfair way we have been treated, but even if we did I doubt that it would get us anywhere. The fixtures are all lined up to satisfy the TV companies, not for the good of the clubs or the players.

14 games have been played so far this season and we have 21 points. When you look at the equivalent 14 fixtures in the last campaign we picked up 13 points from them so we are currently +8. In the three games coming up over the Christmas period, the equivalent fixtures last time yielded 4 points (a draw at home to Brighton, a win at Southampton, and a defeat at Everton). How many will we pick up this time? Three wins would give us nine points, to take us up to 30 for the season, or three defeats would leave us on 21, and into the bottom half of the table. I reckon that given the closeness of the fixtures and the calibre of our opponents, three wins is not likely to be achieved. We would be doing well to match or exceed last season’s equivalent of four points from these games. I’d love it to be more but I just don’t think that we have the squad or the rest time to enable us to achieve more. One win and a draw or two would be quite an achievement given the difficulties we face.

Once the festive fixtures have been completed we have a break from league games to face a game at Stockport County in the FA Cup on 11th January before completing the first half of the season (all 19 teams will have been played) with winnable (on paper) home games against Burnley on 16th January and West Brom three days later on the 19th. So how many points will we have at the halfway stage of the season? It would be good to reach 30 points by then, but that will require at least three wins in the next five games. And we are not always entirely convincing when facing teams that we should perhaps be beating. In the equivalent 19 fixtures last season we accrued 20 points, so we have already exceeded that with another five games to go, but how many points will we collect in these five matches?

I worry about the depth of our squad at times like these when fixtures are congested into a short period. But that is an issue that we knew about during the last close season and little was done to rectify matters at the top level within the club. I wonder if this will be remedied during this mid-season transfer window? I won’t hold my breath as there are difficulties in recruiting quality players at this time of year. Perhaps we can have a look in Prague?