As the final game of the Premier League season approaches, how will we look back on West Ham’s 2022-23 season?

We visit Leicester this weekend for the final league game of (domestically at least) a disappointing season. Until a couple of games ago we weren’t mathematically safe from relegation, although personally I have been confident for some time now, despite some inconsistent performances that have meant that we didn’t pull away from potential trouble as quickly as we might have done. From dropping into the bottom 3 (18th) with 15 games to go, the season since then has seen us in varying positions, never higher than 13th or lower than 17th. We are 14th as we head into the final game, and realistically (ignoring ridiculous goal difference swings) we can only finish between 13th and 15th. Disappointing after two seasons finishing 6th and 7th.

The final league table splits very neatly into a top half and bottom half with Fulham in 10th well clear of the teams in the bottom half. I had a look back at the predictions I made before the season began. To a certain extent the Premier League is predictable these days with money being an important factor. I still managed to put three teams in the top half (Chelsea, West Ham and Wolves) who will finish in the lower half, and conversely I forecast Villa, Brentford and Fulham to be in the bottom half, and they have all had good seasons and are comfortably in the top 10. At that time I predicted Southampton, Forest and Bournemouth to be relegated so I only got one right. I’m also in a score prediction competition where I predict the scores of all West Ham games. Although I’ve correctly predicted some of the results I haven’t got the score correct once all season! The closest I got was to forecast a 0-0 draw in the away lag in Alkmaar. That was close.

But my predictions weren’t all that bad. When there were still a dozen or so games to go I did say that 37 or 38 points would be enough to escape the drop and even 34 or 35 might be. And at the time I suggested 3 from 5 to go down, namely Southampton, Leicester, Forest, Everton and Leeds, so pretty accurate there too. One comment from a reader on my predictions suggested I didn’t have a clue and that West Ham, Forest and Bournemouth were the ones for the drop. Their predictions didn’t turn out to be too accurate! It just shows how difficult it can be to make predictions in football. I did also predict that Manchester City would win the Premier League. That one wasn’t too difficult to forecast though!

It is a fascinating end of the season in terms of who will be relegated, and Sky will obviously be delighted that as many as three teams are still fighting to stay up. Everton will survive if they beat Bournemouth. If they only draw or lose then Leicester can survive by beating West Ham. Leeds, who had survival in their own hands after 25 minutes of last week’s game at the London Stadium, need to beat a poor Tottenham team to have any chance of staying up, and hope that neither Leicester win nor Everton win or draw, unless they can beat Spurs by three goals if Everton do draw. Here’s my prediction – all three teams might win their final games meaning Leicester and Leeds will be relegated. But then again they might not! I hope that we beat Leicester, as I always hope we win games, but I’m not feeling too confident. Of the three teams in trouble I’d like to see Leicester survive in some ways as I dislike the other two more, but I don’t think they will. I just have a feeling that whatever Leeds and Leicester do it won’t matter as Everton will beat Bournemouth.

There has been much conjecture as to the team David Moyes will select for this last league game. With an important European final to come ten days later does he pick a team to continue the recent momentum, or does he rest the majority of the team he wants for the final to avoid any unnecessary injuries? Or somewhere in between? How important is the £2.2 million for each incremental position in the final table when compared to the prospect of a second European trophy for the club and automatic entry into next season’s Europa League? If we do manage to beat Leicester this weekend it would only be the second time this season when we have won two league matches in a row (the first was at the beginning of October beating Wolves and Fulham at home).

Our performances in Europe have been in stark contrast to our domestic form, partly perhaps due to the strength (or lack of it) of opposition, but nevertheless still impressive. How will we reflect on the season if we win the Europa Conference whilst finishing 13th-15th in the league? It will certainly be some consolation, and a gateway to a third successive European campaign, but would we have taken that before the season began?

For me, it has not been so much about the league results, although they have mostly been poor or inconsistent, but the performances themselves. For the most part the football played has not been pleasing on the eye. The lack of ambition, the lone striker, the fear of the opposition (particularly top sides), the reliance on set pieces, the inability to hold on to the ball, the lack of players with pace, and an unnecessarily over-cautious approach to games all contribute to the disappointment.

After we went a goal down in a lethargic 25 minutes at the start of the Leeds game, the shackles came off and for more than an hour we played some delightful stuff against a tiring opposition. But why couldn’t we start the game on the front foot? It’s almost as if the players are told to be cautious, don’t concede, and only have a go if we do fall behind. Perhaps they are? And what an excellent game from Paqueta! He really has begun to look the part in recent games.

It seems certain that Declan Rice will be on his way to new pastures. What a superb player he has been for us; it would be great to round it off lifting the Europa Conference trophy on June 7th. He really is irreplaceable and it will be interesting to see who we can manage to attract to the club this summer. James Ward-Prowse, Kalvin Phillips and Harvey Barnes are three of the names already being touted, all England internationals, and two of them play in central midfield, but I’m sure there will be many more suggested once the transfer window opens. I read these names but after so many years now of reading about players we are allegedly linked with I wait until I see the photo of a new recruit in a claret and blue shirt with their arms crossed before I believe it. If (when) Rice goes, wouldn’t it be good to do the necessary transfer business and have replacements in place well before the new season begins? We never seem to achieve that though, do we?

What will happen in the game at Leicester? I’m sure David Moyes would like to beat them for his own professional pride to ensure West Ham finish as high as possible in the final table. It wouldn’t do his old club on Merseyside any harm if that were the case either. My final prediction of the league season – a 2-2 draw. What are the chances?

It’s the Final Countdown: There Ain’t No Party Like A West Ham Party

With an exciting trip to Prague on their minds, West Ham have a pivotal role to play in the final relegation placings as they host Leeds United at the London Stadium

Yesterday’s round of matches provided the final mathematical proof to what most had realised several few weeks ago, that West Ham would be once again playing Premier League football next season. Complex modelling of different scenarios that would result in Leeds overturning the Hammers goal difference advantage cease to be relevant as the two sides clash at the London Stadium this afternoon.

It was an eventful week for West Ham as they saw off the challenge of AZ Alkmaar to reach the final of the Europa Conference League in Prague. A degree of confusion existed in post-match interviews as to the precise relevance of 43- and 47-year anniversaries in Hammer’s History. To clarify, it is, of course, 47 years since West Ham reached a European final; and it will be an opportunity to lift a first major trophy in 43 years. Hammers of a certain age may also be familiar with the rarely spoken about heart-breaking experience of the 2006 FA Cup Final but prefer to keep that painful memory well and truly buried, like a long forgotten disgraced family member. Although, I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be at the game, I have avoided ever watching the highlights again!

Most pundits took the view that David Moyes got his tactics ‘spot on’ against Alkmaar. By maintaining a compact shape and defending deep it limited the hosts to a handful of half chances. For all their pretty possession they created little threat – and might have played many hours without looking likely to score. The irony is that this was not a cunningly devised tactical masterstroke, it is how his team plays every week. But more on that another time, as it is only right to celebrate the prospect of a big night out in Prague on June 7. It was fantastic to see how much getting to the final meant to the players as they celebrated after the final whistle. And what a story for the immensely likeable Pablo Fornals to come off the bench and score a stunning winner as the clock ticked down. A remarkable moment! I was even touched by seeing a broad smile light up the manager’s face.

It was a disciplined and professional performance from West Ham. Solid right across the back and with Declan Rice and Lucas Paqueta putting in excellent shifts in midfield. More might have been achieved from counter-attacks but both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma had below par nights. Bowen provided his usual good defensive cover – possibly expected to do too much defensively – but offered little going forward against young Hungarian full-back Milos Kerkez. If I was a scout I would add Kerkez to my watch list for what is a problem position at West Ham, although I hope our scouting network extends beyond players from teams we have beaten in cup competitions – Paul Hilton anyone?

I always think you can tell what sort of game Benrahma will have from his first two or three touches. If these go badly you may as well substitute him there and then. Or get him to change his boots. I see it as the exact opposite of the old Billy’s Boots comic strip which appeared many years ago in the Tiger and Scorcher. Rather than Billy turning into a superstar whenever he pulls on his magic boots, Benny and his boots sadly lose all coordination when attempting to shoot or cross.

A small group of curmudgeonly fans have been writing off the Conference as something of a tin-pot competition. It was clear (and encouraging) that the players see it completely differently. If the group stages can be a case of going through the motions, I doubt any of the participants take it easy once the knock-out starts. True it is Europe’s third tier competition, but there are not many opportunities in modern football for coaches and players to win trophies with the concentration of power in the hands of the monied few. And this is one of those occasions. West Ham could not have done much more than win 13 of their 14 matches played to reach the final. With silverware and potential qualification for next season’s Europa League up for grabs, it promises to be a great occasion.  

The Alkmaar match will also be long remembered for the heroics of Knollsy in coming to the rescue of the player’s family and friends who were targeted by a small group of home supporters attempting to storm the stands. Knollsy demonstrated some of the most uncompromising defending seen since the departure of Craig Dawson. AZ Ultra might easily be mistaken for the latest washing powder from Proctor & Gamble and it was heartening to see the ugly stains humiliatingly removed. Well done to Knollsy and also the players who leapt into the fray to protect their loved ones!

With the dust barely settled on Thursday’s semi-final it is back to Premier League action today where West Ham will play an important role on who joins Southampton in the Championship next year. A win for Nottingham Forest yesterday meant that all three of last season’s promoted clubs survive the drop, and narrowed the relegation field of two from Leicester, Leeds, and Everton. Leicester’s fate looks the most precarious even though nothing will be decided until next Sunday’s final games when all three teams have winnable home fixtures.

A win for Leeds today would put them in a strong position for survival with only a Spursy challenge to come. And we all know what Big Sam needing a win means for the way that a match might pan out. It will not be feast of footballing fun and entertainment. On the one hand West Ham will want to sign-off a memorable week on a positive note in the expectation of it being Declan Rice’s last game at the London Stadium as a West Ham player. On the other, Leeds tasked with spoiling the celebrations and sucking the atmosphere out of the party. The visitor’s pragmatic game plan will be to grab a goal and defend it with their lives.

I doubt Moyes will see the need to make wholesale changes from his normal team selection for the final matches. Maybe Kurt Zouma and Michail Antonio will be wrapped away in cotton wool until the final but that’s about it with just two games between now and the ECL Final.

Moyes will want to play fair for the relegation candidates. He must still have a soft spot for Everton and is said to be great friends with Allardyce through a shared football philosophy. In fact, I had an idea of Moyes and Allardyce featuring in a buddy TV series – think Coogan and Brydon or Whitehouse and Mortimer – where they hunt fossils on the Jurassic coast while reminiscing on their favourite scoreless draws. The working title is Sam and Dave’s Clean Sheets with Hold On, I’m Coming as the theme tune. Could be a winner!

A last home game of the season without any pressure other than a few million in positional merit money would typically be a massive party day. But with Big Sam not being the ideal party guest, the action on the pitch might end up being incidental to having a laugh, a joke and an old fashioned sing-song. COYI!

Going Dutch: West Ham Require Courage To Complete Double Over AZ Alkmaar

Can West Ham go one better than last season to reach a Euro semi-final. It would provide a silver lining to a dismal season but are David Moyes and his team brave enough to pull it off?

West Ham face a Dutch reckoning this evening when they travel to the North Holland city of Alkmaar for the second leg of their Europa Conference League semi-final. Holding a slender 2-1 advantage from last Thursday’s opener, the Hammers must silence a passionate home support if they are to reach a first European final since 1976 and remain on course for their first senior trophy in 43 years.

A more adventurous approach at the London Stadium would surely have put the Hammers in pole position against what, on the day, was an underwhelming AZ Alkmaar outfit. The visitors enjoyed plenty of possession but had few ideas going forward. Even so, they had earned themselves a half-time lead courtesy of shoddy defensive covering and poor goalkeeping by the Hammer’s rear-guard. But West Ham were able to turn the tie around with a far more aggressive second half performance which clearly unsettled a shaky Alkmaar defence.

Chances are it will be a very different AZ side that we see today on home turf. Their record in front of their own supporters, both in Europe and domestically, is impressive and they have won all eight of the home fixtures played so far in this season’s Conference League. The return from suspension of Milos Kerkez, a fleet-footed 19-year-old full-back, will add an extra dimension to their attacking play which was badly missing in the first leg. They will be highly motivated to add a Premier League scalp to the list of conquests.

The big worry for West Ham fans is how will David Moyes approach the game. In his pre-match interviews, he was keen to point out that European football had been a new experience for the team last season and that they would have learned from the experience of the semi-final exit against Eintracht Frankfurt. A more pertinent question, however, might be what lessons did he take on board from the two legged defeat? Will he oversee yet another typically slow and timid start from his charges – one that again pays his opponent far too much respect – or does he demonstrate belief in his players having the talent and ability to cause major problems for the Alkmaar defence, and put the tie beyond doubt on their own terms?

It would be out of character for Moyes to allow players greater freedom, but maybe the players will take it on themselves not to let caution deny them a shot at glory in Prague next month. It is puzzling to see the Hammers still being described as a fast counter attacking team. That may have had some justification two seasons ago, but this term the statistics show only one goal (in the Premier League) being the result of a counterattack. Away from home especially, West Ham have become almost exclusively a set-piece team.  We really do need to see more than that tonight.

Defeat for the Hammers second string at Brentford on Sunday told us little that we didn’t already know. The key takeaways being: despite last summer’s recruitment the squad depth and balance remains below standard, in the absence of Michail Antonio there isn’t even the semblance of an attacking plan, and the handball rule gets more ridiculous each week. The only player starting on Sunday to start again today is likely to be Nayef Aguerd, ironic in some ways because he had a hand in both of the goals conceded. He does, however, look more composed alongside Kurt Zouma. My predicted line-up is: Areola, Kehrer (or Coufal), Zouma, Aguerd, Cresswell, Rice, Soucek, Paqueta, Bowen, Antonio, Benrahma.

West Ham’s Dutch connection is not a strong one. The only previous competitive encounter with Dutch opponents was the stirring quarter final come-back against Den Haag – now floundering in the second tier of the Dutch league – in March 1976. And while the Premier League has seen a breath-taking array of Dutch talent pass through, including Bergkamp, van Persie, van Dijk, van Nistelrooy, Stam, Hasselbaink, Overmars, and Gullit, none of these have made it across to the east-end. The best the Hammers have been able to offer is Atteveld, Boere, and Boogers. Quite surprising that players from the Netherlands and Belgium are rarely on the West Ham radar.

Experience tells us that tonight will not be plain sailing. It’s just not the West Ham way. I have been growing my finger nails all week to ensure there is something to chew in the final 15 to 20 minutes as the Hammers retreat further and further back towards goal – and also allowing for extra time and penalties. I do believe with the right attitude we should be able to control the game and come away victorious on the night as well as on aggregate. I only see the manager getting in the way of that expectation. Or can he changes his ways? As Newcastle manager Joe Harvey might have said back in 1969 “Faint heart never won Fairs Cup.” Go for it, Dave. COYI!

West Ham visit Brentford, still not mathematically safe in the Premier League, but with one eye on an important game in the Netherlands next Thursday.

How many games have we played in the Europa Conference League this season? 13. Unlucky for some as the saying goes but not for West Ham. We’ve won 12 of them and drawn one. If we can maintain the unbeaten record next Thursday when we visit the city of Alkmaar in the Netherlands then we can get ready for our first European final since 1976. I think we can do it. It could go either way though.

I thought that we were OK on Thursday night. The players seemed nervous to me (or was it Moyes-induced caution?) in the early stages but once AZ had taken the lead with that long range shot it got better. I think if Areola were to face that identical shot again then on almost every occasion he would save it. Everyone is quick to get on his back and I’ve seen many calls for Fabianski to be recalled for the return leg. Not for me. In my opinion Areola is a better keeper and should retain his place and get a consistent run in the league games too. But I know many will disagree with my opinion. It’s strange isn’t it how keepers are rotated by most managers in league and cups to give the perceived number 2 game time? When a team reaches a final or perhaps a semi-final the manager will often revert to choosing his favoured number 1 keeper. I wonder if our manager will do the same for the second leg in view of Areola’s error? It would be harsh and wrong in my view. When he was England manager Ron Greenwood used to rotate Shilton and Clemence as he couldn’t decide who was the better keeper. It’s a shame that Phil Parkes was around at the same time as those two. I reckon he was just as good.

I’m also a big fan of Said Benrahma too. Not everybody’s cup of tea but he would always be in my starting eleven. That’s not to say I don’t find him frustrating at times though. I believe he has the potential to be a better player than we have seen in West Ham colours. I’m not sure the manager likes him particularly; I’m sure he would love to play Fornals in that position more – he’s more of a Moyes-type player. Again, not for me. He gives the ball away too much for my liking without posing much of a threat in an attacking sense. True Benrahma does lose the ball at times but he is always looking to create chances for himself and others. He was my man of the match on Thursday. I had no doubts when he stepped up to take the pressure penalty either. The successful conversion of that spot kick meant his penalty taking record for the clubs he has played for is now 12 out of 12. He doesn’t miss. I liked the way he combined with (the improving) Paqueta. Perhaps they can begin to reproduce the link that was formed between Payet and Lanzini in 2015-16? 

Today is a different matter when we visit the GTech Community Stadium. What is it with teams beginning with Br? We can’t seem to play well against Brighton or Brentford. Perhaps we are fortunate that we haven’t had to play Brondby, Braga, or Bruges in Europe this season? When Brentford visited the London Stadium in the final game of 2022 we had not won a league game since 24 October when we beat Bournemouth 2-0, though of course the season was interrupted by the World Cup. We had played very winnable games at home against Palace and Leicester but had lost both of them. The 2-0 loss to Brentford made it three home league defeats in a row. Following the win over Bournemouth in October we were actually in the top half of the table (well just that is in 10th). By the time Brentford had beaten us we had fallen to 17th, just outside the bottom three, and with just one point from the next two games we were actually in the relegation zone. We’ve hovered around there ever since, usually just above, and visited there again following defeat at Tottenham.

We’ve done enough since (without being totally convincing for much of the time) to ensure that we are safe. Ok not mathematically yet, but it would take an extraordinary set of results to see us go down. At the start of the season who would have believed that we would not be mathematically safe from relegation in the middle of May with just three games of the league season to go? Of course Southampton are now down and it would take a massive goal difference swing for Leeds to go past us now, but the others in contention could all in theory still overtake us. But looking at their fixtures it is highly unlikely.

Geoff made a good point in his article published yesterday about how we only took two points from our remaining eight league games in the 1975-76 season when we reached the European Cup Winners Cup Final. I’ll expand on that and say that in that season we made possibly the most dramatic fall in league position in the top flight that has ever been seen. We beat Ararat Erevan of the USSR in the second leg of the second round on November 5th and then we drew 1-1 with Coventry the following Saturday to go to the top of the league. By Christmas we had fallen to sixth place, and after then we only won one more league game in the whole of the rest of the season (a 1-0 win over QPR on 24 January). Incredibly just one win in 21 league games plus an early exit in the FA Cup in the third round, eventually finishing 18th! (22 teams in the top division at that time). Despite that we had excellent comeback performances in the quarter final and semi-final rounds in Europe to reach the final where we lost 4-2 to Anderlecht.

Can we blame our indifferent league performance on our involvement in European competition this season? I don’t think so but in the Premier League we have won 10 of our 35 games for a win rate of 29%, whereas in Europe we have won 12 out of 13 and drawn the other one for a win rate of 92%. Very different quality of competition of course.

There is now a lot of merit money on offer based on final league positions. We are currently 15th which would earn a payout of £13.2 million if that was our final position in the Premier League. But that would increase or decrease by £2.2 million for each step either up or down. Prize money is important in the Premier League and also the European Conference. We have already won over £10 million for our performances in Europe so far and another £5 million will be added if we get to and win the final (runners-up get £3 million). But there is also the added bonus that winning would give entry into the Europa League next season and the financial rewards on offer in that. Whilst the money is important, as a fan I’d just love to see us win a trophy. It has been a long time! Too long!

I expect to see quite a few changes to our starting line up for the game today even though we are not yet mathematically safe with perhaps Fabianski, Johnson, Emerson, Downes, Fornals and Ings and possibly one or two others starting the game. Brentford still have a very remote outside chance of qualifying for Europe next season despite only winning two of their last nine games which means that they are very unlikely to do so. They will be fully up for the game though. But will we?

Will It Be Yet Another “Nil Points” Against Brentford For Euro Bound Hammers?

The seduction of the Europa Conference Final will overshadow this weekend’s contractual obligation derby in west London. Moyes will be keen to rest key players.

In the end the AZ Almaar team that turned up at the London Stadium were not quite ‘as advertised’. In the pre-match build-up their reputation had escalated from being ‘no mugs’ to becoming an amazing fast raiding side who would weave intricate patterns around the pitch. In practice, they were rather pedestrian. If there was an element of Brighton about them, it was early Potter vintage and not the free-scoring De Zerbi incarnation.

Nevertheless, David Moyes had predictably treated the threat with the utmost caution. If AZ were a side who liked to break the press by tempting an opponent to commit, Moyes would counter that by refusing to press at all, and reverting to the favoured default low block. There’s nothing that takes him higher than an overdose of caution.

Ultimately, it took the gift of a poorly conceded goal to stir West Ham from their stupor. Several players were hoping for a foul, Tomas Soucek was slow to close down, and Alphonse Areola was embarrassed by a tame shot that he should easily have dealt with. It was to the Hammers credit that they eventually turned the match around, but the feeling at the final whistle was of an opportunity missed.  The visitors looked uncomfortable in the face of any physical challenge, and even a modicum of adventure would surely have allowed West Ham to establish an unassailable first-leg advantage.

Instead, we are left with a tie that could go either way in the second leg. A game where Moyes is banking on his team’s resilience to reach the final. Now, I’m all in favour of resilience, but isn’t an attribute that would be called for against heavyweights such as Manchester City or Real Madrid – not against relative Dutch unknowns. A big spending Premier League side should be looking to overcome teams like AZ through the excellence of their football rather than resilience.  

Sandwiched between the two European Conference semi-final encounters is a bothersome end-of-season affair at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium. Mathematically, West Ham could still end the season in the bottom three but the alignment of fortunes required for that to happen are as improbable as the United Kingdom winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Brentford are already assured a top ten finish which is a remarkable achievement by manager Thomas Frank and his players. In certain aspects of style, there are uncanny similarities between the way Brentford and West Ham approach games. Neither is too bothered about the chore of ball possession and both favour launching it long as the cornerstone of attacking ambitions. In terms of attitude, however, the teams are streets apart. Brentford approach games without fear of any opposition, press higher up the pitch, and routinely setup with two dedicated strikers. Indeed, Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo are pivotal to Brentford’s success. If and when Toney receives the threatened lengthy ban for betting rule breaches – why has this taken so long – it will be a major blow.

The trade-off for this reckless sense of adventure is being more open at the back. No-one has made more saves in the Premier League this season than the Brentford keeper, and only Bournemouth and Everton have faced more opposition shots. Despite this, they have conceded five goals fewer than West Ham – and scored 14 more.

There’s plenty of speculation that Moyes will rest a number of players for tomorrow’s game. It would be foolish to play Michail Antonio given that he is the only player in the squad capable of playing the Moyes striker role. He may also choose to omit Kurt Zouma, Declan Rice, and Jarrod Bowen. Very likely we will see a 5-3-2 starting eleven along the following lines: Fabianski, Johnson, Kehrer, Aguerd, Cresswell, Emerson, Downes, Soucek, Paqueta, Ings, Cornet  

When West Ham made it to the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976 they took just two points from the final eight league games. It feels like similar territory that we are now in. Survival may well be mathematically confirmed this weekend and after that there will be just the one prize.

The Hammers have yet to take a point off Brentford since their promotion to the Premier League. The chances on ending that run tomorrow seem remote. But maybe there’s the chance of a scrappy end-of-season draw. COYI!

Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again? Or Can West Ham Navigate The A to Z Of Alkmaar To Reach Euro Final

We have all been here before. The Europa Conference is a chance to add a silver lining to West Ham’s otherwise dismal season. Can the Hammers go one step further than last year as they prepare to face a dangerously underrated AZ Alkmaar side?

It was just over twelve months ago that West Ham faced Eintracht Frankfurt in a first leg tie of the Europa League semi-final at the London Stadium. Excitement and expectations were high but on the night the Hammers were distinctly second best and were fortunate to come out of the match with just a single goal deficit. Aaron Cresswell’s foolish red card in the opening 20 minutes of the return leg effectively ended any hope of a stirring comeback. The disappointment of missing out on the final haunting the club well into this season.

The second UEFA semi-final in a row is, of course, a rung lower on the Euro ladder – a competition that receives little media attention. West Ham’s progress to the semi-final has been largely plain sailing-the only exception being a sub-par performance in the drawn quarter-final away leg at Gent – the one game out of 12 in the competition that the Hammers failed to win. The semi-final tie against a youthful and energetic AZ Alkmaar side, however, promises to be a much tougher proposition.

Interestingly, West Ham’s form going into tonight’s game is slightly ahead of what it it was in the same period last year, where the Hammers had saved their best performances for Europa League clashes with Sevilla and Lyon, while domestic form nosedived after the new year. Hopefully, the energy shown in the deserved win against Manchester United can be the boost needed to ensure history does not repeat itself.

For AZ, tonight’s game will be their 17th match in this season’s Europa Conference, having entered at the Second Qualifying stage. They have won 13 of the previous 16 games and finishing top of Group E before beating Lazio (in both legs) in the Round of 16 and Anderlecht (on penalties) in the Quarter Final.

They are no stranger to European competition having participated in 21 different seasons, including one entry each into the European Cup and Champions League. Their best achievement to date was as runners-up to Ipswich, over two legs, in the 1981 UEFA Cup Final.

Alkmaar currently sit fourth in the Eredivisie with three games to play, two points behind Ajax in third, with whom they played out a scoreless draw at the weekend. I’ve no direct experience of watching AZ but reports speak of a young side that aims to control a high percentage of tactical possession in order to draw out opponents. They play with fluidity and movement with pacey, attacking full-backs and penetrating midfield runs from deep. It all sounds rather Brighton-esque to me – and we know how that usually turns out.

There are a several familiar Premier League names in the squad with Matty Ryan (ex-Brighton) in goal, Bruno Martins Indi (ex-Stoke) in defence, and Jordy Clasie (ex-Southampton) in midfield. Heading a group of talented youngsters are full-backs Yukinari Sugawara and Milos Kerkez (suspended today) and midfielders Sven Mijnans and Jesper Karlsson (doubtful). The main goal threat comes from Greek international striker, Vangelis Pavlidis.

AZ are managed by London born, Pascal Jansen – his British mother was a one-time pop-star in the band Spooky and Sue. Jansen has managed the side since December 2020 when Arend Slot left to manage Feyenoord. Previous incumbents of the AZ hot-seat include Louis Van Gaal, Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Marco Van Basten.

In his post-match press conference, David Moyes claimed that getting to the European Conference Final would be the highlight of his managerial career. It would be a fine achievement and I hope he achieves it – but it is possibly not the greatest return from a 25-year career.

If West Ham are to progress, they will need to be alert and focused from the first to last whistle. This will be a stern test against an opponent with the kind of attributes that have routinely bewildered the Hammers in previous encounters. The sluggish opening 20 to 25 minutes which has been a far too frequent feature of West Ham performances needs to be left in the changing rooms. It was even evident in Sunday’s otherwise excellent win against Manchester United. I would take the rampant, swaggering West Ham that we saw in the second half against the Red Devils to win today’s tie comfortably, but it is an all too rare occurrence these days.

The psychological disadvantage of playing the first leg at home is always a concern even though the scrapping of the away goals rule has diminished much of the logical difference. Will Moyes and the team have learned from last years’ experience when they paid the price for a slow start and failure to plan for and adapt to the opponent’s positive approach? They will underestimate Alkmaar at their peril.

A potential point of unpredictability tonight is the appointment of young Turkish referee, Halil Umut Meler as the man in the middle. In 23 games officiated this season he has brandished a prolific 101 yellow and eight red cards. Perhaps some comfort that the majority of these have been in the Turkish Super Lig which I imagine might be prone to volatility. In six UEFA games, his record is 19 yellows and one red – the red a very clear and obvious professional foul (Aaron, please take note!) 

Moyes will no doubt field his strongest possible starting eleven tonight – last Sunday’s side except for Alphonse Areola replacing Lukasz Fabianski. It should be enough to get a result but any side that can beat Lazio home and away cannot be taken lightly. In a disappointing, depressing season for West Ham, success in this competition would produce an unexpected silver lining. There is a lot riding on this game. COYI!

Sticking Point: West Ham’s Desperate Scramble for Safety Meets Manchester United’s Stuttering Champions League Ambitions

With three league defeats on the bounce, West Ham badly need a boost to survival and European hopes when they meet inconsistent Manchester United at the London Stadium

Tonight sees part two of the Manchester duology when West Ham entertain Manchester United in an inconvenient early evening kick-off at the London Stadium.

Part one of the showdown went pretty much according to script with a routine win for perennial champions, Manchester City. Compared to the dire pre-match predictions of many Hammers fans – including myself – it could have been a far worse outcome. West Ham never looked capable of scoring more than NIL, but the potentially crucial goal difference advantage didn’t take too big a hammering.

It was inevitable that Haaland would break the Premier League most goals in a season record in this game and Danny ings will forever be able to describe his pivotal assist in the build-up. City took yet another stride towards the title yesterday with a 2-1 win over Fat Sam’s Leeds United – a much closer contest score-wise than our own encounter, although mostly due to the hosts easing up in the second half with a Champions League semi-final on the horizon. No doubt, Guardiola will have something to say to his players about the unprofessional penalty taking debacle that precipitated their late wobble. Anyone remember Paul Kitson against Everton in April 1997?

A surprising element for me was that our boys managed a staggering 31% possession in the game – more than double than anticipated. But possession is a strange thing. Out of curiosity, I looked up the stats for when Brentford became the only team to win at The Etihad so far this season (in November) and compared these to the Hammer’s recent effort:

Brentford: Possession (25%)  Passes (216)  Pass Accuracy (56%)  Corners (2)

West Ham: Possession (31%) Passes (327) Pass Accuracy (77%)   Corners (3)

Brentford also faced more opposition goal attempts than West Ham – 29 to 16. But they did create more attempts themselves – a total of 10 to West Ham’s 6. As ever, the most telling of all statistics is goals scored, and the Bees netted twice from 8 shots on target – testament to their setup and the double spearhead of Toney and Mbeumo. West Ham on the other hand never seriously threatened the City goal. Still, shows how misleading the stats can be!

While City are now several streets ahead of their one-time imperious neighbours, the Manchester Reds remain in contention for Champions League qualification. Now on their sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his changing room hairdryer, they have never looked anywhere close to reproducing their previous dominance. The promising signs of Erik ten Hag’s early reign have slowly been swamped by a wave of inconsistency. The impression is a collection of talented individuals rather than a convincing, cohesive team on the cusp of a return to greatness. Today they may well be either galvanised or traumatised by the prospect of Liverpool coming up on the top four rails.

Any belief that Manchester United are a far less formidable opponent than in days gone by has yet to be translated into positive results for West Ham. The most recent Hammers victory in the league was a 2-0 win (Yarmolenko, Cresswell) for Pellegrini’s Hammers in September 2019. This was followed by a draw and then five straight defeats. Even in our two fantastic seasons (© D Moyes) the home fixture was lost 1-3 and 1-2 respectively. So, what cunning plan might the Moyesiah have up his sleeve for today? Could it be the revolutionary tactics of defend in depth and hope to score from a set piece or breakaway? Intriguingly, this is also Manchester United’s masterplan.

I sometimes have sympathy with football manager’s having to come out to face the cameras each week while the heat of battle and the frustrations of another incompetent performance are still fresh in the memory. While the victorious manager can afford to be magnanimous – see Pep praising West Ham’s resilience – the loser has to spin out the latest in the long line of tame excuses, especially when there is no contentious VAR decision lifeline to rant about. Unfortunately, when Moyes has his back to the wall, he is prone to petulance and unwise criticism of individual players not ideal for team morale.

However, there is no excuse for spouting the same level of unbelievable nonsense in the calm of the pre-match preparations. This week’s corker was Moyes attempt to explain why Maxwell Cornet had played so few minutes since his recovery from injury in late March. The reason, apparently, is that the established players (Michail Antonio and Ings) are already doing a really good job in that position. Thanks for clearing that up, David! It must be a particular problem for a manager who doesn’t realise he is allowed to make tactical adjustments with his substitutions as well as like for like changes.

Defeat today and West Ham will go in to the first leg of the European Conference semi-final with the spectre of relegation continuing to hang over them. A win would almost guarantee survival while a share of the points would leave work to be done.

It will be business as usual on team selection as Moyes welcomes back food poisoning victims Declan Rice, Nayef Aguerd and Tomas Soucek. It is rumoured that Soucek experienced his most explosive runs of the season during the absence. Either Ben Johnson or Thilo Kehrer will replace the injured Vladmir Coufal and there will be a toss-up between Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals to fill the problematic wide left berth. Other than that, same shoot, different weekend.

With games rapidly running out, we are left again to hope for the best and fear the worst. I wonder if it possible to borrow that Stone of Destiny for the afternoon? COYI!

Manchester memories as West Ham face Manchester United in a vital game

We have just four league games to go to collect enough points to ensure that we are playing Premier League football next season starting with Sunday evening’s home fixture against Manchester United. Of course, depending on results elsewhere we might have enough already, especially as our goal difference is perhaps worth an additional point in the final reckoning. But we can”t rely on what happens elsewhere; we’ve got to make sure that we do the business ourselves.

One of my favourite West Ham games was back in the 1976-77 season when Geoff and I were at Upton Park for the final game of the season on a Monday night in May when we needed at least a point to maintain top flight status. Our opponents that evening were cup finalists Manchester United who would finish the season in sixth position.

We had narrowly avoided relegation twice in the previous three seasons and we went into the game sitting 19th in the table, having miraculously climbed away from the bottom three due to a six match unbeaten run, in fact in the previous twelve games we had only lost one with two wins and nine draws including a 0-0 draw at Anfield on the Saturday two days before.

Our home record that season was superb and we hadn’t lost a league game at Upton Park since January, but the confidence at kick off was dented when Gordon Hill put the Red Devils ahead after 25 seconds. However Frank Lampard brought the scores level with a 30 yard thunderbolt. Geoff Pike missed a penalty by missing the target but made amends scoring a goal early in the second half. Pop Robson made it 3-1 before Stuart Pearson (later to join us of course) reduced the lead to one. Pop Robson settled nerves by heading home a Trevor Brooking corner and the game ended 4-2. If we had lost we would have been relegated. As it happens we did go down the following season!

It was Pop Robson’s 11th goal in 15 games after rejoining us. He was one of my all time favourites and to me it was a complete mystery why he was never selected for England. He was a prolific goal scorer with over 250 goals in a great career. 94 were for West Ham in not much over 200 appearances. What we’d give for a goal scorer like that now. He played for us in two spells in the 1970s, ironically we went on to win the FA Cup twice each time in the season after he left. 


When we played Manchester City on Wednesday evening I was fearing the worst in view of the gulf between the two sides. City have been such a force in English football in the past few years, and are now undoubtedly one of the best club sides in the world. What a difference money can make!

Almost 25 years ago to the day after they beat us on Wednesday there was a massive gulf then between our two sides too. West Ham finished the 1997-98 season in eighth place in the Premier League. Manchester City were relegated from the second tier (then ridiculously known as Division One) into the third tier!

There was an amazing coincidence between ourselves and City that season. We both scored 56 goals in league games and conceded 57. But that was the only similarity. We were streets ahead of them at the time. How times change.

Back to the present day and Manchester City are about to win the league for the fifth time in the last six years; they haven’t finished outside of the top four since 2010 (when they finished 5th!). Our record as we all know is not quite so formidable.

And Manchester United? They are nowhere near as impressive as their local rivals. City was a game we had no realistic chance of winning. Despite our poor recent results United are a different proposition. At our best we can beat them and allay fears of relegation. What chance of 4-2 to match that vital game 46 years ago? 

Exclusive: West Ham Unlikely To Win At The Etihad Stadium Tonight

A weary, relegation threatened West Ham team and a manager with no plan for winning travel to meet the unstoppable champions-elect in Manchester this evening. What could possibly go wrong?

David Moyes dreadful managerial record in away games to top sides – no wins in 70-odd attempts – comes under the spotlight again as West Ham visit Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium this evening. In a fixture that would feature as the least winnable match of the season, even in the best of circumstances, is effectively a ‘gimme’ for the home side based on current trajectories and historic performance.

The Citizens are unbeaten in the Premier League since losing to Tottenham (yes, really) on 5 February. Since then, they have won ten and drawn one in their customary storming end to the season. At home they have dropped just five points in 16 games.

By contrast, West Ham go into the game off the back of two consecutive defeats. The short-lived feel-good factor following the win at Bournemouth now a distant memory. If a few positives could be taken from the unfortunate home defeat to Liverpool, the performance at Crystal Palace has to be one of the most abysmal of the season. With a final scoreline that seriously flattered the Hammers, and failed to represent the gulf between the two teams, this was Moyesball at its most depressing. Having witnessed this cautious, uninspiring fare for the best part of eighteen months has become so painful that the Sisyphean task of rolling a huge rock uphill for eternity is starting to look attractive. Please pray to your favourite deity that this is Moyes propreantepenultimate match in charge as West Ham manager.

If there was any mitigation for the Palace display it was the unhelpful Saturday lunchtime kick-off in the middle of West Ham’s intense fixture schedule. A situation exacerbated by an over-reliance on a handful of core players – particularly Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio – who looked exhausted and frustrated. It has become a carbon copy of last season’s run-in where fatigue saw the team stumbling across the finishing line having fallen away in both domestic and European competition.

Palace only needed a basic competence to dominate the game on Saturday. In Zaha, Eze, and Olise they have players with pace, close control, and an ability to run with the ball that is missing from the Hammers midfield. All the visitors could offer was a threat from set pieces. Strange that the goal finally separating the two sides was a penalty awarded for a blatant dive – one that VAR deemed to be acceptable. It was the second poor penalty related decision that went against West Ham in four days -decisions that could still turn out to be significant and costly. Equally strange, were the strange substitutions and the Hammers reluctance to go all out for an equaliser once the score had been brought back to 4-3 with 20 minutes to play.

I’m not as confident as some Hammers fans that survival is all but guaranteed this season. We are certainly better placed than the five teams below us, but the probability of failing to pick up any more points is not as remote as might be believed. Tonight is the game in hand with a danger that the goal difference advantage will not be quite as healthy once it is over. Although, in practice West Ham have saved their heftier drubbings by City for home games.  

Manchester City are now firm favourites to claim their third Premier League title in a row, making it five in ten years – unless they are relegated for the 100 or more breaches of FA rules and regulations under investigation. City have become even more formidable under the leadership of Pep Guardiola during a period where the other would-be title pretenders have all struggled for consistency. Guardiola is widely recognised as a tactical genius but needs a Champions League win or two to cement that title. Genius or not, he operates with a spectacular financial advantage compared to others with a bottomless transfer kitty. Scouting the goal scoring machine that is Erling Haaland was hardly a difficult, insightful or risky decision to take. Even under the guidance of Moyes at West Ham, Haaland would be leading scorer with seven or eight goals by now!

With a trip to Real Madrid to prepare for next week, Guardiola may rest key players for tonight’s game. Not that it will affect the result, but it might keep the score down a little. Moyes may be equally tempted into a spot of squad rotation with games against Manchester United and AZ Alkmaar to come in the next eight days. But we should remember that a slightly weakened Manchester City team is a very different beast to a slightly weakened West Ham one.

Both Rice and Bowen deserve a break and Antonio needs careful management. Rice has played every Premier League minute so far this season, and Bowen has missed just 22 minutes. Although Antonio has only played the equivalent of 18 games this season, he has featured heavily in all recent matches since the penny dropped that in buying Danny Ings, West Ham have yet again recruited a player wholly unsuited to the role required by the manager.

The reason that Moyes has such a terrible record away to top sides is that he approaches these games with the sole intention of trying not to lose. That this strategy has largely failed has never deterred him from giving it one more try. I’m sure he will play with five at the back again today with a game plan of all behind the ball and hoof it away as far as possible, hoping to win an occasional corner for an attempt on goal. My best guess is for West Ham to enjoy around 12% possession. Our best hope? That City get a couple of goals in front and then declare, conserving energy for the more challenging tasks in the weeks ahead. What a waste. COYI!

Can West Ham register three away wins in a row without conceding a goal when they visit Selhurst Park?

Two of the most controversial aspects of modern-day football had a big influence on our defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday evening. I’ve written about them many times in the past but once again I’ll return to the difficult (to get right) topics of offside and handball.

Let’s start with offside. It is virtually impossible when it’s a close call for a linesman (or assistant referee as they call themselves now, although they don’t assist much really) to be able to be 100 percent certain that a player is offside at the exact moment a ball is played. Bearing in mind that a professional footballer can run at approaching 8-9 yards in a second, then just one-tenth of a second could mean a difference of a couple of feet in distance. So now we have a man in a VAR cabin somewhere who draws lines across the pitch to decide if a player is offside. And on this occasion Jarrod Bowen’s toes were definitely in an offside position. But how can we be sure that the lines were drawn at the exact moment that the ball was played? A fraction of a second less than one-tenth (0.1) and possibly up to one-hundredth (0.01) could make all the difference as to deciding if the lines are drawn at exactly the right moment.

But why do we have to go through all this? The offside rule was devised over a hundred years ago to prevent goal-hanging. The position of Bowen on the pitch could not remotely be described as goal-hanging. We were denied a wonderfully taken goal because Bowen’s toes were offside forty or so yards from goal, and that’s only if the lines were drawn at an exact moment that nobody could confirm was spot on. I’ve campaigned for years (but to no avail because I have no influence) that offside should be confined to the final 18 yards of the pitch, that is in the penalty area (with the line extended to the touch line) only. Play wouldn’t be as condensed as it is now; there would be more room on the pitch if defenders didn’t push up so far to try to catch people offside. That’s not the point of the game is it? Anyway the ‘goal’ was ruled out but nobody could possibly be sure that it was the correct decision. Why do football authorities make the laws / rules of the game more complex than they need to be?

If it was changed so that only the final 18 yards would count for offside there would be less controversy, but it could still exist. So let’s go further. Instead of looking for any part of the body that can legally play the ball being a fraction offside let’s go back to the theory of giving the advantage to the attacker. If any part of the attacker’s body is in line with any part of the defender’s body then it is not offside. We would still have some controversial decisions but the numbers of them would be reduced.

My second bugbear, and once again I have written about this before is handball. Thanks to TV we all saw a Liverpool defender handle the ball in his own penalty area, not once but possibly twice in the same movement. The current rule suggests that it is not handball if a player puts his hand down as he falls and then touches the ball with it. But was this the case here? I’m not so sure. Surely the referee couldn’t be sure at full speed. A definite case for VAR to refer him to take another look with the camera angles available. We are all biased as fans and want decisions to go the way of our team. On TV, Peter Crouch, whilst admitting he had a foot in the Liverpool camp, said that he would have been disappointed to not get the award of the penalty if this had been a West Ham player handling the ball. The referee may not have changed his mind if he had looked at the screen but surely he should have been advised to look?

Controversies such as these happen every week and we will never eliminate them entirely. But surely we must look at ways to try to minimise the numbers. The argument goes that they even themselves out over the course of a season. I wonder if any studies have been done to compare controversial decisions and which way they go according to the size of club involved? Perhaps it is just my imagination but it seems to me that bigger clubs seem to benefit more than smaller ones? Earlier this season Brighton lost a game 2-1 to Tottenham with at least four decisions that all went against Brighton, for which the refereeing authorities have apologised. But there is no question in my mind that Brighton should have at least three more points and Tottenham three fewer. That could make all the difference in respect of qualifying for Europe next season.

If Bowen’s goal was incorrectly ruled out and we had been awarded a penalty late in the game then we might have one or perhaps three more points than we have now. We are still not mathematically safe from relegation. We could in theory go down as a result of bad decisions in the Liverpool game (we won’t, trust me – but we could!).      

Who will go down this season? It’s still a tough question to answer, but it’s getting clearer as the weeks go by. A few weeks ago, today’s opponents Palace were in the mix and they decided to dispense with Patrick Vieira and replace him with the oldest manager around who had decided to give up managing last season. But Roy Hodgson taking over once again at Selhurst Park has taken the Eagles out of the equation and they are now safe.

I quoted the Opta Supercomputer prior to last weekend’s matches; their figures for percentage chances of relegation at that time were:

Southampton 93.6%, Everton 74.0%, Leeds 46.7%, Forest 46.3%, Leicester 34.3%, West Ham 2.1%, Bournemouth 1.6%, Wolves 0.5%

One week and two games later the figures have changed to:

Southampton 97.6%, Forest 74.4%, Everton 57.8%, Leicester 46.4%, Leeds 23.5%, Bournemouth 0.5%, West Ham 0.4%

Wolves have now disappeared from the figures and both Bournemouth and West Ham are as good as safe. In my article prior to the Bournemouth game I wrote “It’s any three from five now – Southampton, Leicester, Forest, Everton and Leeds. It can still change of course, but I’ll stick with that.”

There seems little reason to change my view now. Bournemouth have won four of their last six matches and we have won three, with twelve and ten points respectively. The bottom five have all won just once (Leeds, Forest and Leicester all with 4 points from those six games), or not at all (Everton, 3 draws and Southampton, 2 draws). If they didn’t improve their points tally per game (they all have 5 to play) then none of the five would overhaul West Ham even if we didn’t collect another point. One or two might raise their game and do better but I doubt that three of them will. We have six games to play and I suspect we need perhaps another win to be sure, but I’m hoping for better than that.

I reckon our manager will once again start with the same eleven, although personally I’d like to see a change of goalkeeper. I was disappointed with the goals we conceded in the week with a lack of closing down for the first and, despite it being a good shot, disappointment that Fabianski was beaten from that distance. And it’s always disappointing to concede a headed goal direct from a corner. What happened to the marking? Paqueta’s goal must be a contender for our goal of the season for the team move and superb powerful shot.

Palace are one of the teams that we can overtake to improve our final league position this season; in fact we would go above them if we win this game. They have ten points like ourselves from their last six games – there are only six teams in the Premier League who can better that haul from their last half a dozen games.

We have a good recent record visiting Selhurst Park, only losing once in the past eight visits there and winning five times. We haven’t lost two games in a row in this calendar year (yet), and David Moyes has won as manager in five out of five visits to Palace. This is Palace’s sixth home London derby of the season and so far they have only picked up one point. If we can keep a clean sheet it would be the first time we have done so in three consecutive away Premier League matches for more than nine years apparently. Despite their resurgence under Hodgson, Palace have only won one of their past nine home league games. With all these statistics you’d think we’d be well placed for another three points today. But it doesn’t necessarily work out like that, does it?

I have good memories of my first visit to see West Ham at Palace. I visited Selhurst Park to see West Ham play there in October 1971 and we won the game 3-0 with goals from Clyde Best, Billy Bonds and Ade Coker. It came after an improved run of form that season where we didn’t manage to score a goal in our first four games and were bottom of the league, and then only lost once in the next 16 games (in all competitions) to climb into a mid-table position.

After winning 4-0 in our last away game at Bournemouth, and 1-0 at Fulham in the away game before that, can we win and keep a clean sheet for the third match in a row? Of course we can!