A reflective view on our trip to Manchester United last Sunday

A look back at West Ham’s defeat at Old Trafford now that the dust has settled.

Having let the dust settle for a few days I thought I would review what happened on Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford after a little reflection, rather than all the knee-jerk reactions that I read immediately after the game. It is always amusing (in a perverse way) to read the views of West Ham fans on social media at the end of a match, especially one where we have been heavily beaten.

The two widely diverse reactions mainly consisted on one hand of those who resorted to numerous expletives about the performance of the team and various individuals, and as an alternative view, those who suggested that such opinions are way over the top, and everyone should calm down. Of course we are all entitled to our views, but it does seem to me that many of our supporters only believe that their own view is valid, and anyone who disagrees with it is wrong, or even worse, they are just f****** c***s! But to some extent, that is the way social media operates.

Some are critical of the performance and various individual players, but try to be constructive, and suggest what we need to do to improve. But they are often lambasted with comments such as “the Bilic haters are out in force” (for Bilic you can read the names of some individual players), or “you should get behind the team”, or “West Ham till I die”, or other such comments.

I was on holiday last week in one of my favourite resorts, Camp de Mar on the island of Majorca, and a couple of days before the game I watched a comedian from Liverpool. He began his act by trying to ascertain where most of the audience came from. He asked if there were any Manchester United supporters and there was quite a cheer from parts of the crowd. His next question was to ask what part of London they came from! As I sat down to watch the game in the hotel bar I picked up on quite a few London accents around me, as well as a number of individuals from other parts of the country. When the first goal went in what we already knew was confirmed, and the comedian was proved right. Manchester United do have many fans in the south.

My opinion of the game as a whole is that we were completely over-run by a team that will undoubtedly be challenging for the title this season. They are full of skilful players with power and pace, and many teams are likely to be well beaten by them this season, especially at Old Trafford. The gulf in class between the top six teams in the country (perhaps Everton hope to make it seven) and the rest is vast. Some will point to the Chelsea game and the way they were beaten by Burnley, but Chelsea were in self-destruct mode (a bit like they were the season after Mourinho last won the title), so perhaps they will not be the same force as last season. Nevertheless they still fought back against Burnley despite being outnumbered.

The chances were we were always likely to lose the game, but to stand a chance, we had to be at our best, and preferably have our best team fit and raring to go. Our opponents were able to select their team from a fully fit squad, but we went into the game (as is so often the case) with injuries to key players. Lanzini, Antonio and Kouyate (and perhaps Carroll) are all first choice players, but were all unavailable. I despair at the number of key players that always seem to be missing through injury. Perhaps if they had been without Lukaku, Pogba, Rashford and Matic the result would have been different? But with the depth of their squad perhaps not?

But from my viewpoint the sad fact is that we appeared to go into the game lacking belief that we could win, and were just there to try to hold on for a draw. But I would have hoped for more resistance. Once again though, I’m not sure I understood what our game plan was, and I’m not sure that the players were aware of it either.

When you watch sport on TV these days you are bombarded with a plethora of statistics. This has always been a feature of American sport but it has now translated to these isles. If you watch tennis they show the number of unforced errors made by each player. This statistic is not yet a feature in football, but if it was then our figures would have been alarmingly high in this game. Time and again we gave the ball away to our opponents when not really under pressure.

According to our manager the players spent three days in training in how to deal with our opponent’s set pieces. Whose idea then was it that Masuaku should be the one to mark Lukaku? And talking of free kicks, how do we manage so often to waste them in the opposition half by taking them quickly and backwards, with the ball ending up back with our keeper? And why did it take so long to realise that Hernandez is not effective a lone striker? That’s just not his game, is it? We have four experienced international central defenders at the club. Am I alone in thinking that we need more pace in this area? And do Reid and Ogbonna make an ideal combination?

The Hart knockers (Adrian fan club?) were out in force on social media after the game. I thought Hart did OK. Yes, perhaps he might have saved one of the goals, but not at least three of them as some Adrian fans were suggesting. I like Adrian; he is a decent keeper; but I cannot go overboard about his passion purely in the light of throwing his gloves on the ground to take a penalty against Everton. I thought Zabaleta did OK too. I read some criticism of his pace, but most Premier League defenders would have struggled against Rashford and (later) Martial on the day.

Both of our left backs are perhaps better going forward than defending, as is the case with many full backs these days. I do have a slight preference for Cresswell defensively though, but it’s all a matter of opinion. I am a big fan of Obiang, and the potential of Fernandes, but both seemed well off the pace on Sunday. But the cameo from Rice was excellent with statistics to back it up. The pleasing thing from my point of view was his desire for the ball, and how he looked confident and assured when he had it. I believe a run in the team would be well deserved.

Our attacking play was slow and predictable, as it was for much of last season, and many believe that part of the reason for this is our captain. He has been a great servant for the club, and hopefully will continue to be. He has never been blessed with great pace, but increasingly these days he seems to be running on sand (or in treacle!).

But as many have said; let’s not be too hasty. It was one game against a top class side. Hopefully our injury list will disappear soon and we will have a full squad to pick from. Perhaps there is more to come from this transfer window? The Carvalho saga drags on, and some reports suggest we are after other Sporting Lisbon and Benfica players. I don’t know how effective they would be in the Premier League if any of them arrive? Personally I’d love to see us spend the kind of money that is being talked about (for Carvalho) on Oxlade-Chamberlain, but doubt if it will happen (or that he would necessarily want to come!). I’d take a chance on Wilshere too if he was available at a decent price, despite his injury record. We need more creativity than relying on Lanzini.

It will be important to put in better performances against the other 12 teams who are fighting for an eighth place finish in the Premier League. The gulf between the top seven and the rest is unfortunately too wide (I believe) for us to believe we can finish any higher. I’d love to be proved wrong though.

Five Takeaways from West Ham’s thrashing by Manchester United

After all the build up a depressingly disappointing start to the new league season. What went wrong?

Overawed by Potential Champions

There is no doubt that Manchester United are one of the favourites for this season’s Premier League title.  Mourinho has assembled a side that has a pragmatism alongside power and pace that will enable them to grind out results whenever opponents go to Old Trafford to frustrate.  They won’t have many easier days than yesterday’s canter against a feeble and unadventurous West Ham side.  The gulf in class was so great it could have been Premier League versus League 1 in an early round FA Cup tie, although in those circumstances you would have expected the opposition to put up more resistance.  Slaven Bilic may well have selected the best eleven players available to him, as a result of injuries to key players, but it felt that he sent them out with no discernible game plan or belief that they could get anything out of the game.  As has so often been the case in recent seasons it is not the fact that we have lost to a much better side that exasperates and causes concern but the manner in which we have apparently accepted defeat as inevitable .

Repeating Last Season’s Mistakes

It is only one game into the season and so rash judgements should be avoided at least until the transfer window has closed and we have welcomed the respective returns of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio.  However, the underlying worry is that we have simply picked up where we left off last season.  Persistent concerns from last term surrounding levels of fitness, tactics, selection, organisation and motivation continued to surface in pre-season and were apparent once again yesterday.  Better players may have been signed but that is only one part of the equation in creating a team that will perform week in, week out.  The impression given is of a disjointed side with players who are strangers to each other and any sign of cohesion and collective desire is difficult to spot.  Bilic claimed after the match that they had spent three days on the training ground working on defending set pieces and yet the best that they came up with was to have Arthur Masuaku marking Lukaku at a free kick.  Repeating last season’s mistakes gives no cause for optimism that it will be anything other than another disappointing campaign.  The only way to turn things around is by doing things differently; not doing the same things over and over again.

The Problem of Ball Retention and Unforced Errors

A recurring theme in West Ham’s play for some time is how cheaply the ball is given away.  If you game plan is to sit and back and soak up pressure then one assumes there should be some ambition once you get the ball.  If the only tactic is give it back to the opposition straight away and invite them to try again, then sooner or later something will give.  Accepting that Manchester United have better players does not mean that our players should be unable to execute the most basic of football skills; control, pass, move.  In the opening exchanges yesterday the ball was given away repeatedly even when under little pressure and it was one such unforced error by Pedro Obiang that led directly to the first of Lukaku’s goals.  Equally there is not enough movement off the ball to create space or provide options for the player in possession.  Do West Ham have a patent on the 180 degree turn?  It used to be said that West Ham played ‘on their toes’ in anticipation of pass and to occupy opposition defenders; now it is mostly a case of players remaining flat footed until the ball arrives at their feet losing momentum and allowing opponents to re-group.  Our players seem to want to play in little triangles as if it is a training ground practice drill with the result that the opposition is not stretched and attacks are slow and predictable.

Selections and Substitutions

I had expected West Ham to go into the game with three at the back and so was somewhat surprised when the team was announced.  Our full backs are generally better at going forward (and relatively suspect defensively) while the wide midfield players are not known for paying attention to defensive duties.  Having said that, I am not sure that a back three would have led to a different outcome as we are equally vulnerable to attacks at pace through the middle as we are down the flanks. I would not be too critical of Bilic about the substitutions although arguably it resulted in a heavier defeat than might have been the case.  At 2-0 down it was a gamble to bring on an additional forward but at least Diafra Sakho looked lively and the change was an attempt to give some support to Javier Hernandez, who toiled manfully but was largely isolated.

Declan Rice The Only Positive

The only real positive from the game was the thirty minute contribution by Declan Rice.  I had questioned using him in midfield previously but was very impressed with both his maturity and how comfortable he looked on the ball and in the Premier League.  If you are good enough you are old enough.  Of the new signings, Pablo Zabaleta did OK and at least showed commitment, Hernandez ran willingly and demonstrated good touch, Marko Arnautovic blew hot and cold and Joe Hart should maybe have done better for the last goal.  I wonder if they are starting to wonder what they have let themselves in for at West Ham.  Of the others Edmilson Fernandes and Masuaku were particularly disappointing, Obiang had a bad day, Mark Noble tried hard but is well off the pace and I am still left scratching me head at what Andre Ayew is meant to contribute.  I will leave the summing up of our performance to whoscored.com:

Strengths                  Team has no significant strengths

Styles                         Team showed no specific style of play

Matchday 1: West Ham’s Typically Tricky Trip to Old Trafford

West Ham face what is usually a tricky task at the Theatre of Shattered Dreams.

Football is back and at last the weekend routine can return to normal subject to international breaks permitting.  In the last of the weekend’s Matchweek 1 fixtures the Hammers travel north to face Manchester United at Old Trafford.  After last season’s frustrations the slate is wiped clean as Slaven Bilic resumes his place in the hot seat with what looks to be a much improved and better balanced squad.  Time to get behind the manager and team for the highs and lows of what we can only hope will be an exciting, enjoyable and entertaining season.

West Ham do not hold many Premier League records but the highest number of opening day defeats (with ten) is one of them, while today’s opponents are joint leaders in the collection of opening day victories, with sixteen.  Throw in the fact that Jose Mourinho has never, as a manager, lost a season opener or lost a home league match on a Sunday then the omens do not look very promosing.  Still there are always a handful of surprises on the opening weekend and hopefully these were not all used up yesterday.

Head to Head

Of the last twelve meetings between West Ham and Manchester United that wonderful and memorable last game at the Boleyn is the only win that the Hammers have recorded.  The remainder have seen six defeats and five draws.

Old Trafford has never been the happiest hunting ground and despite some notable successes West Ham have only won fourteen times out of seventy visits (nine draws and forty seven defeats).  The most recent victory was on the final day of the Great Escape season (May 2007) and in the twelve encounters since that day the record is lost nine and drawn three.  Both the last two league meetings at Old Trafford have ended in draws including a scoreless one in December 2015 where the Hammers were clearly the better side.

“It’s not ideal playing against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first game of the season, but on the other hand, it is brilliant and one of the greatest away games in the league.”

Slaven Bilic on the opening day fixture

You have to go back to the early days of the 1986/87 season for the last time that West Ham scored more than one goal at Old Trafford when two goals from Frank McAvennie and another from Alan Devonshire earned a 3-2 win to put West Ham top of the table.  If Javier Hernandez is unsure whether or not to celebrate any goals that he scores then history suggests that he will only need to agonise about it one time.

Team News

Once again West Ham are pace setters on the Physio Room injuries table with several key players not available for selection.  The probable absence of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio are the biggest blows particularly with respect to any attacking aspirations that the Hammers may have.  Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll are all missing and Aaron Creswell is a doubt.

My expectation is that Bilic will start with the back three of Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and Jose Fonte supported by Pablo Zabaleta and one of Arthur Masuaku or Cresswell as full/ wing backs.  A probable midfield will see Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble at its heart with Marko Arnautovic and Andre Ayew wide and Herndandez a lonely figure up top.

“Everyone is available except the injuries that everybody knows, so the injuries that come from the previous season with surgeries.  Every one of the 22, plus the goalkeepers, that started the pre-season is ready for Premier League match one.”

Jose Mourinho on his fully fit squad

Manchester United have no new injury concerns and will parade a host of expensive new signings including bogey man Romelu Lukaku.

Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire.  We enjoyed Atkinson’s company four times last season: the home defeat to Watford; away wins to Crystal Palace (where he sent off Cresswell for two alleged yellow card offences) and Middlesbrough; and the away defeat to Arsenal (where he denied the Gunners a penalty or two to prevent an even more comprehensive scoreline).

Prediction

Both Lawro and Paul Merson see the game as a stonewall 2-0 home win for the hosts.  Mourinho’s teams are never flamboyant or packed with flair but rely on strength and relentless pressure to break teams down.  West Ham will likely take several buses to park on the edge of the area and the danger will be giving away too many free-kicks close to goal.  How well Zabaleta deals with the threat of Rashford could be a decisive individual contest.  The shortest odds this afternoon must be for a Lukaku goal and I fear that if one goes in it could lead to several more.  Difficult to see the Hammers fashioning too many quick breakaways but maybe Arnie and the Little Pea can conjure something up.

I would like to think that we can snatch a draw but deep down feel that we could lose by two or three.  It would be nice to get off to a flying start to the season but with three away games on the bounce it will be tough to get many points on the board before the international break.

 

 

Burnley 1 West Ham 2

A win in the North-West to finish the season.

So we have ended a so-so season with a victory. And for a change, instead of relinquishing a lead and giving up the points we did it the other way round. When we fell behind midway through the first half I feared the worst, but a spirited comeback against a side with an enviable home record, and other results going our way, meant that we finished the season in eleventh place, just one point behind eighth, albeit with an inferior goal difference. Many have commented that with just one more victory we would have been clear in eighth, and it is easy to look back and see where that additional win might have come from, as we lost 22 points from a winning position.

The difficulties in settling in to a new home have been written about extensively, and whilst there is perhaps some merit in the change of stadium being the reason for our indifferent home form, I do not subscribe to it being such a key factor. Quite frankly we played poorly in so many home games, and we cannot blame the stadium for that. We just didn’t turn up at times, and failed to put in the level of commitment that we showed in our better performances. If the stadium was such a key factor, then where did we play the home game against Chelsea in the EFL Cup? And where did we play against Tottenham in the penultimate home game of the season?

The inability to score goals at the London Stadium is something that we will need to rectify next season, as in this one we only managed to score two goals or more on four occasions. On the other hand we scored at least two goals in nine of our away games. Compare this to the previous (successful) season when we scored at least twice in 23 of our games (12 at home, and 11 away).

The season was a balanced one in that we picked up 22 points in the first 19 games, and 23 in the last 19. Some of our 1-0 wins were fortunate, but all sides have those. The aforementioned 22 dropped points would, had we won the games where we were in front, have seen us finish in sixth place in the table. But it was not to be.

Injuries to key players was perhaps another factor in some of our poor results, but again many sides have those. Quite what is the reason for so many injuries is a debatable point, but we either have to improve our training facilities (the reason given by some), or consider our training methods and performance of the people behind the scenes who are responsible for ensuring the fitness of players. Or is it just bad luck? I’m not so sure.

Transfer target speculation is already well under way, and I hope we can secure some quality signings this time. But most of all I’d like to see us adopt a method of playing where we have a definite plan (and back up plans) where we find a successful formula and stick to it. To me, we appear to pick what the manager considers are his best eleven players available for each game, and because of injuries we bring in alternatives who don’t necessarily fit the same style of play. It is no coincidence that the two best teams in the country, Chelsea and Tottenham, have a style of playing where, in the event of injuries, they bring in players who fit into their pattern. They don’t just pick their best eleven players available and change the style to fit them.

We also need to consider what is one of the most important facets of the game at the top level, and that is pace. Teams can afford to have the odd player here or there who may be lacking in this if they bring other additional qualities to the team. But to me we seem to be lacking in this aspect in too many areas of the pitch. Some of our build up play is predictable and laborious with not enough movement off the ball. Sometimes when I watch our pre-match routine where the players play five against five retaining possession of the ball in a confined area I marvel at their ability to find space with quick movement, but we often cannot seem to replicate this in the game itself.

And one other thing I’d like to see. How many times have we had a free kick (or even a throw in) in the opponents half of the pitch, and several (mainly sideways and backwards) passes later it ends up with our goalkeeper, who then kicks the ball long and possession is lost? So many times we take a quick free kick (and there is nothing wrong with that in itself), but we don’t appear to give it much thought. Sometimes we need to consider what we are going to do. A quickly taken free kick can be a good attacking option, but only when the players are ready for it. It has the most effect when played in a forward direction.

Having said all that, despite some indifferent displays we finished eleventh, and could have even been higher. But I think that our mid table position was just about right. Some people writing on social media suggest that it was the worst season ever. No it wasn’t. Remember Glenn Roeder and Avram Grant? Our average finishing position in the Premier League era is around 12th / 13th. So it was just about right. Typical West Ham you might say.

Looking ahead I cannot foresee any changes to the top seven places in the table, and reckon that at our best we would be challenging with so many others in the mid-table cluster for eighth place. I hope I am wrong. I hope that we see some quality recruits, a definite style of play, and better luck with injuries. Only time will tell, but the new season is less than three months away, and a lot of work needs to be done behind the scenes to give us a chance of improvement. I hope it happens.

5 Anti-Climactic Thoughts from the Last Day of the Season

The season is over. The next one will be along in 12 weeks time. What will happen in the interim?

5 Things WHUIt’s All Over Now

So there you have it.  It’s all over for another year and we can switch modes from can’t wait until this season’s over to can’t wait until the new season starts!   When all done and dusted the league table shows West Ham slap bang in the middle.  Whichever way you look at it: mean, mode or median it was an average one.  Looking back in five or ten years’ time it will have the appearance of a table from many other seasons.  The poor performances, the flirt with relegation, the scrappy and lucky wins against Bournemouth, Hull and Burnley will be consigned to history.  The highlight of heroic victory over Tottenham, putting yet another spoke in their title aspirations, will survive as the season’s only legacy; apart from £120 million in TV and merit payments.

A Table of Two Halves

Normal service was resumed in the Premier League after the interruption of Leicester City last time around.  The order rather than make up of the top six positions is the extent of the uncertainty.  The gap between Everton in seventh and Southampton in eighth was a whopping fifteen points while a meagre six points separated eighth from seventeenth.  One more win and on paper one could be mistaken for believing that this season was only slightly behind the previous one; yet performances, points and goal difference tell a vastly different story.  We wait expectantly to learn the close season plans for the club.  Will Slaven Bilic be given more time?  Will there be a more reasoned and less public approach to transfer dealings (and that elusive free scoring twenty goals a season striker)?  Are any of our players on the radar of bigger clubs?  Will we finally give a worthwhile and extended opportunity to younger players?  Will the club ever adopt a top to toe level of professionalism that a multi-million pound football business requires?

A Final Day Victory For Once

It was an unexpected win at Turf Moor and possibly slightly more entertaining than one might have hoped for in the circumstances.  With even more injuries added to the disinterested squad who succumbed so weakly the previous week, victory at a ground which had been a fortress for Burnley all season looked remote.  When the hosts took the lead after 23 minutes it looked a good bet that the form book would rule the day.  However, within four minutes a delightful equalising goal fashioned by the unlikely duo of Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli caught everyone unawares.  Had it not been for the referee treating the game like a pre-season friendly he might well have given Burnley midfielder Westwood his marching orders on at least two occasions for a series of rash challenges.  Still the Hammers looked generally comfortable and the game was settled when a neat passing move resulted in the strangest of winning goals for the visitors.  A smart shot by Edmilson Fernandes was well stopped by keeper Heaton but his save sent the ball into an unusual orbit where, on re-entry, it bounced off the bar, onto Ayew’s head and into the net.  Ayew notching his sixth league goal to put him behind Antonio (9), Lanzini (8) and Carroll (7) in the scoring charts.

Back in 12 Weeks

There are just eighty two shopping days (or just over 12 weeks) to the start of the 2017/18 Premier League season on 12 August.  It is not clear how many of the players who have recently gone under the knife will be back, fit and ready by the big kick-off.  Recuperation times of up to eleven or twelve weeks have been mentioned for some of the ailments.  Added to that it is probably time to give up on Carroll and Sakho for good although the abuse they receive from some supporters for being injured is bizarre.  It was good to see Angelo Ogbonna back in action even if it deprived us of an opportunity to have a look at Declan Rice, apart from his added time walk-on part.  The academy seems to be specialising in centre backs these days and we now have Rice, Oxford and Burke ready to knock on the first team door, even if there are deaf ears the other side of it.  Both Ayew and Feghouli had good games yesterday to the extent that maybe they do have some part to play in the future of the squad.  Fernandes too did well and the question with him is how he fits into the team (with Lanzini) without weakening the defensive responsibilities of the midfield.  Perhaps we will know more when the manager creates a preferred formation and distinct style of play.

Not So Super Sunday

The TV crew did their best to instil some degree of excitement in the race for fourth place and the uncertainty did last until just before half time when Liverpool scored their first against Middlesbrough.  Had the referee awarded Boro a penalty for the foul by Lovren on Bamford (before that opener) then the nerves could well have got to the Scousemen.  As it was the tackle was deemed to be just the wrong side of that no-mans-land between ‘he went down too easily’ and ‘he was entitled to go down’ that is only visible to football pundits.  The final forty-five minutes of the season, therefore, was only interesting in guessing how many goals the top teams would eventually score.

Matchday: Going Through the Motions at Turf Moor

It’s dead rubber day in the Premier League as the Hammers go limp in Lancashire.

Burnley West HamI used to think that a dead rubber was a used condom until I started to read about the finale to this season’s Premier League programme.  Paradoxically at the time when condoms were actually made from rubber (rather than latex) they were considered reusable and so, technically, not dead once they had performed their duty.  Of course, the UK’s most famous condoms were produced just a short ride around the North Circular by the London Rubber Company using a brand that took its name from the phrase Durability, Reliability and Excellence.  If only our team could have demonstrated such admirable qualities this season and been as effective in both scoring and preventing leaks.  In truth the term dead rubber should only really apply in a ‘best of’ series between two competing sides where the contest is decided before the series has been completed; today’s games are merely mostly meaningless.

If Burnley round off the season by maintaining their impressive home form with an expected win against West Ham today they will also leapfrog the Hammers in the table at the same time.  With Palace likely to pick up at least a point against Manchester United reserves this will see us dropping to 14th or possibly lower unless Stoke come back from Southampton empty handed.  Overall it is difficult to put a spin on the season that is anything other than a complete disaster, even if there are some mitigating factors related to injuries and the stadium move.   It looks to me that the club has taken several steps backwards this year and is now barely in a better position than a newly promoted side.  Looking for a bright straw clutching side one could point to Machester City’s first campaign after leaving Maine Road where they finished 16th with only 41 points.  The chances of history repeating itself now rest solely on the emergence of rich foreign owners with very deep pockets.

We don’t need squad players.  Take our last game against Liverpool. We were without eight players but still had a decent team so that shows that squad-wise, with the quantity of the players, we are okay.

– Slaven Bilic on his squad’s okayness

After 9 months of competition and hype the Premier League season ends in somewhat muted fashion with the majority of teams playing only for pride; an amusing concept in itself.  The desperation in the media to talk up the battle for fourth place illustrates perfectly how much the game has become a slave to money, for which Champion’s League qualification is the perfect embodiment.  We are meant to rely on relegated Middlesbrough and manager-less Watford to generate the day’s excitement.  I’m sure I would feel differently if it were the Hammers fighting it out for that final spot but then we all know what would happen once drawn against the Romanian or Latvian champions in the qualifying round don’t we?

Head to Head

The inaugural meeting between West Ham and Burnley took place at Turf Moor in 1923 following the Hammers promotion to the top flight for the first time.  West Ham keeper Ted Hufton was beaten five times as the Clarets ran out 5-1 winners.  Huddersfield Town pipped Cardiff City to win the league that season with a goal average difference of 0.024; now that is what I call a close finish.

Since then West Ham have shaded matters and recent results are heavily skewed heavily in our favour, having won eight and lost only two of the last twelve meetings.   West Ham have only lost at Turf Moor once in the last 39 years.

Team News

Winston Reid has joined the long list of players revealed to have been playing (or battling on) with a chronic long term injury that required immediate surgery.   Let;s hope for a speedy recovery as Winston is one of our better players.  I wonder who gets to wear the captain’s armband this afternoon?  Probably Jose Fonte!

There has been some speculation that Bilic will give a debut to young Declan Rice but it would be truer to form if he recalled a fit again Angelo Ogbonna to the side.  The bench is likely to have a few youngsters sat on it but whether any will get more than a token five minutes as the clock ticks down is anyone’s guess.

We’ve added to the squad but we still need to look at the market again – we want to keep upgrading not just for for the quality, but as an in-house challenge to the players.

– Sean Dyche plans an upgrade

Burnley may have Michael Keane back for what will most likely be his last game before a big money move to one of the big boys.  Final tests don’t come much sterner than having to keep Argentine hotshot Jonathan Calleri quiet for the afternoon!

The Man in the Middle

The Premier League website has some timely insights into the matchday routine of today’s referee Robert ‘Bobby’ Madley from West Yorkshire.  You will be enthralled to know that he will have enjoyed an early hearty breakfast of porridge and a couple of poached eggs before getting mentally prepared for the game by listening to Ocean Colour Scene in the dressing room.

Madley has been in the middle for three West Ham games this season; home wins against Sunderland and Burnley and an away defeat to Bournemouth.  In 34 games he has issued 142 yellow and 4 red cards.

 

 

 

 

West Ham visit Burnley

A trip to Lancashire to finish the season

When the Football League was formed in 1888 it consisted of 12 clubs. Five were from the Midlands and seven from the North-West in the county of Lancashire. Burnley were one of the original teams, and are one of only four of them who are currently in the top flight of English football, the others being Everton, Stoke and West Brom. Without counting I suspect that Lancashire houses more football league clubs than any other county, at least it did when I was growing up. Now, many teams that were considered to be in that county have a Greater Manchester address. Burnley was also one of the answers in a pub quiz I participated in where the question was asked, “Name the five football clubs who have finished as champions in all four divisions of English football.” The answer is at the end of this preview.

As I began taking an interest in football in the late 1950s, Burnley were a major force in England and were champions of Division One (that is equivalent to the modern day Premier League) in 1959-60, and reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup the following season. In 1961-62, they were runners-up in the league (to Ipswich), and lost in the FA Cup final to Tottenham. It just goes to show how the balance of power has shifted at the top in football when you consider that the top eight clubs in order that season were Ipswich, Burnley, Tottenham, Everton, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, and then West Ham. Arsenal were mid-table, the two Manchester clubs were in the bottom half, and Chelsea finished bottom and were relegated. Liverpool won the Division 2 title that season.

I’ve never been to Burnley, although I have a mental image of what the town might look like. I can remember many games against the Clarets over the years and two have so far been included in my favourite games series, the 1964 FA Cup quarter final victory over them, and the 5-0 demolition early on in the 1968-69 season. One game I can remember clearly took place at Upton Park on 6 October 1973. It was not a favourite game by any means; my recollection is based solely on the fact that I got engaged to be married that weekend.

We went into that game next to bottom in the table, not having won any of our first nine league games. Burnley were third from top, having only lost one of their opening nine games. They beat us 1-0 that day and went on to finish sixth. Our non-winning run continued for another fortnight until we won our first game of the season at the 12th attempt, 1-0 at Coventry. We continued with our miserable run in the league for a further six games without winning, before our second victory in the 19th game (2-1 v Manchester City), which was our first home win of the season.

Support was falling at the time, and only just over 16,000 were at Upton Park when we lost at home to Stoke on the Saturday before Christmas when we fell to the bottom of the table. But we completed a remarkable escape with a ten game unbeaten run, mainly inspired by our new captain, Billy Bonds, playing in midfield at the time. The return fixture at Turf Moor was one of the games in that unbeaten run, and a Graham Paddon goal helped us to a 1-1 draw. Improved performances and results led to bigger crowds in the second half of that season with several over 30,000, and a season high of over 38,000 when we defeated Leeds, the eventual champions, 3-1 in March.

After then Burnley went into a slow decline culminating in the final game of the 1986-87 season (just 30 years ago) when they needed to win the last game of the season to remain in the Football League and not be relegated to the Conference (now the Vanarama). They duly beat Leyton Orient and were also saved by Lincoln City, who were then automatically relegated when losing their final game. In the season just ended of course, Leyton Orient have been relegated from the Football League and Lincoln City have won promotion as Vanarama champions.

Burnley began to ascend again from that time, and in the last few years have yo-yoed between the Championship and the Premier League. This is their third time since 2009 in the top flight, with 2009-10 and 2014-15 being stays of one season only. But they have been more successful this time, and have avoided relegation despite being one of the favourites to go down at the beginning of the season. They currently sit in 15th place on 40 points with just the one game left. We are 12th on 42, so defeat would mean that they overtake us.

As 11th are playing 10th (Leicester v Bournemouth), the highest we can possibly finish is 11th, and we are guaranteed at least 12th if we win. Looking at the fixtures of the teams below us, I would predict that as long as we don’t lose to Burnley we will remain in 12th place. But this won’t be an easy game for us. Burnley have a magnificent home record where they have attained 33 of their 40 points this season with 10 wins and 3 draws, and they have lost just 5 times. Their defeats came at the hands of Swansea on the opening day of the season, and then to 4 of the sides currently in the top six, the two North London clubs and the two Manchester teams. Away from home they have only won once (at Palace), but at home they are a different proposition, and we will do well to get something out of the game there, especially considering the performance last Sunday, and our increasingly lengthy injury list.

Considering their illustrious past, our head to head record against Burnley is a surprisingly positive one, and we’ve won slightly more games than we’ve lost. That is mainly as a result of more recent history, and since that 1973 defeat that I referred to earlier, we have played them 24 times in league and cup matches, winning 16, drawing 4, and losing just 4. They haven’t beaten us since December 2011 when Sam Vokes scored the winner to complete a 2-1 comeback win for them. Sam Vokes is still there and is their leading goalscorer this season.

Predicting the outcome of final day games of the season with nothing (except prize money and final league position) to play for is tricky. You are never quite sure how many players are already on the beach. With many factors going against us it is hard to see a win, but I reckon a score draw is the likely outcome of the claret and blue derby that finishes our season.

(Pub quiz answer – Portsmouth, Wolves, Sheffield United, Preston.)