It has been quite an amazing couple of years for West Ham. Just two years ago as coronavirus (we didn’t call it COVID 19 then I don’t think) was beginning to attract more attention and we were all washing our hands more regularly (no lockdown or social distancing at that early stage) there we were battling relegation. We had already been dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship side West Brom, as well as on the end of a 4-0 thrashing in the EFL Cup by lowly Oxford United.
Our last home game before the (2019-20) season was suspended on 13th March was on 29th February 2020 was against Southampton, almost two years to the day before we meet them again in the fifth round of the FA Cup this evening. We beat them 3-1 that day, climbing out of the bottom three in the process, and rising to 16th in the league. We only played once more (a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal) before the season resumed on the 19th June (we lost to Wolves on that day too).
On that Leap Year’s Day two years ago, Jarrod Bowen put us in front, scoring his first Premier League goal on his full debut when he lifted the ball over McCarthy in the Saints goal from Pablo Fornals’ fine through ball. Southampton equalised with a goal from Obafemi but we restored our lead before half-time when Sebastien Haller beat McCarthy to Antonio’s cross that hung in the air and scored from close range. Antonio then increased our lead to 3-1 early in the second half, gathering Fornals’ pass and sliding the ball past McCarthy. It was our first win in eight matches. As we sat in the cold February sunshine little did we realise how long it would be before we could return to the London Stadium to see our team again. In front of empty stadiums we picked up 12 points from our final seven games to avoid relegation.
Football continued to be played in front of empty stadiums in 2020-21 and after losing our opening two games, we began to see a new West Ham. By 27 February 2021 (just one year ago) we had only lost a handful of games and sat proudly in 4th place in the Premier League table. I was one of the lucky ones in the ballot to be among the crowd of 10,000 to witness our final home game of the season when we comfortably beat Southampton 3-0, Pablo Fornals once again having a big influence on the game, scoring twice in the first half before Declan Rice wrapped up the scoring late in the game. That meant we finished 6th at the season’s end, narrowly missing out on the top four but qualifying for a place in the Europa League.
Fast forward another year and we sit in fifth place in the Premier League with just eleven games of the league season to go. We are also in the Europa League knockout stages, where we have been paired with La Liga side Sevilla, as well as the Fifth Round of the FA Cup tonight. What a transformation in just two years! None of us can honestly say we saw this coming when we went into lockdown two years ago.
It will not be easy for us tonight. Southampton have been in excellent form lately, and their 11 points from their last 5 league games is bettered by only two teams (Liverpool with 15, and Newcastle with 13). In fact they have only lost once in their last ten league games (3-1 at Wolves), a run (5 wins and 4 draws) which has seen them climb from 16th (just above the relegation places) to 9th, sitting vary comfortably in mid-table.
They needed extra time to knock out both Swansea and Coventry in the last two rounds, but now we’ve reached the stage where the winners of this tie will progress into the last eight, I would expect both teams to field close to first choice sides. They certainly should because at this stage we are only three wins away from a place in the FA Cup final and the chance to lift a trophy. Of course we remember the last round very well, only just surviving to get past Kidderminster thanks in the main to Declan Rice.
Southampton’s fine recent form sees them installed as favourites to win the tie by the bookmakers at around 13/10. The odds on a West Ham win are around 2/1 with 12/5 on a draw in 90 minutes. Betting on cup games is always a precarious business as you can never be sure how strong the teams will be. You’d like to think that being this close to a Wembley final would mean that teams are at full strength but that is not always the case.
In the next 19 days, starting with tonight’s last 16 game at Southampton we will play 6 matches, including home and away ties against Sevilla in the Europa League last 16, as well as three league games with visits to Anfield and White Hart Lane plus a home game against Aston Villa.
I wonder where we’ll be in three weeks’ time? We could be in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup and the Europa League and still challenging towards the top of the Premier League. Or perhaps we might only have eight league games left of our season having gone out of both cups? Or perhaps even somewhere in between?
With the relatively thin squad available to choose from it is remarkable that we are where we are considering where we were looking back to just two years ago. But whatever happens in the next two weeks and then in the final weeks of the season it is interesting to hear David Moyes’ thoughts. At the Press Conference prior to tonight’s game these are some of his quotes:
“Every manager wants to win a trophy.” “We’re on a good track but the next couple of years will be an important time. We’re trying to build a team that’s getting stronger.” “I look more at how we’re going to continue to try to build the club and keep getting closer to winning trophies.” “We’ve made a swift move towards the top end of the Premier League. We’re involved in Europe, had a decent run in the Carabao Cup and we’re trying to get a good run in the FA Cup if we can as well”
Well done David Moyes and his coaching team. What a fantastic turnaround in our fortunes in just two years.