Groundhog Day Part Deux: The Top Four Beckons If West Ham Can Outsmart The Eagles

The cup dream remains intact, but it is now back to league action with a visit to Crystal Palace. Will the Eagles once again thwart the Hammer’s quest for a spell among the league leaders?

In the end it was a thoroughly professional display that eased West Ham past Doncaster Rovers and into the fifth round of the FA Cup. The pre-match banana-skin phobias came to nothing and the introduction of a sprinkling of fringe players failed to deflect the Hammers from their current purposeful stride.

Since last winning the cup in 1980, West Ham have, more often than not, been eliminated by this stage of the competition. That the cup dream is still alive is a bonus, even if a next round encounter with Manchester United does appear a little daunting from here. This year’s fifth round boasts an unusually strong field and with few unexpected early casualties it belies the not taking it seriously mantra. The draw will almost certainly contain twelve Premier League sides (and eight of the current top ten) assuming Tottenham get the better of Wycombe Wanderers this evening. Plenty to do then before making plans for a long-awaited return to Wembley.

It is back to league action tomorrow with a trip to the suburbs to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Games against Palace have taken on a recurring theme of frustration and disappointment just lately. A Groundhog Day sensation whereby victory would have elevated the Hammers to some lofty league position, only for it all to go horribly wrong at the last moment. It happened to Pellegrini’s team in October 2109 and again, just over a month ago, for David Moyes. Tomorrow, a win would take West Ham (at least on a temporary basis) into the Champion’s League places, and with a realistic prospect of being above Liverpool when we play them next Sunday. Can it happen or will Palace once again pee on our chips?

Whenever I have seen of Palace this season they have failed to impress. They are spoken about as possessing more adventure these days, but it has hardly registered in my eyes, apart from a blitzkrieg of a game against a woeful West Brom. Their performance in the drawn game at the London Stadium was one of their better efforts, but since then they have won just one (against Sheffield United) in seven games – a run that includes shipping 7, 3 and 4 goals to Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City, respectively. Although Eze has the makings of a good player, they remain very much a one-man team – take away Zaha and they would be in the thick of a relegation battle. Sadly, it seems that despite missing the Manchester City defeat, Zaha is back available for the game.

Barring any unknown injuries or Covid self-isolations, the West Ham team pretty much picks itself at the moment. The only uncertainty is Pablo Fornals or Manuel Lanzini. I would opt for Fornals but I have a feeling Moyes may think otherwise – and his opinion carries more weight than mine.

I have been increasingly impressed with Said Benrahma. He has been getting progressively better (and contributing more) as his pitch time has increased. His trickery adds a different dimension to the West Ham midfield, and he works hard at the same time. Would, of course, love to see more end product (is he trying too hard to score?) but his willingness to look for the ball and run with it brings back fond memories of Berkovic and Benayoun.

Striker speculation continues to run amok in the media where stories of £30 m+ bids being tabled sit by side with claims of poverty from the boardroom. I sense the chances of anyone new coming in are getting smaller by the day. That there are those at the club who believe we can somehow muddle through with a combination of Andriy Yarmolenko, Mipo Odubeko and Oladapo Afolayan as cover for Michail Antonio. Loan signings might be a possibility if they can be agreed, but West Ham are already at their maximum for domestic loans.

As much as I don’t rate Palace, this won’t be an easy game. Few games are in the Premier League. Some were unimpressed with the Hammer’s performance against Burnley, but see what they went on to do at Anfield. The majority of teams are well organised and will work hard – that has been Palace’s game plan for all of their seasons under Hodgson. I do think, though, that we currently have the right mix of confidence, skill, variety and power to hurt most opponents.

If this game were being played exactly one week later, it would fall on the actual Groundhog Day. This time, though, I feel confident the curse of Crystal Palace will be lifted. West Ham to win 2-0 – and we might even get that elusive first penalty. COYI!

Season In The Sun: West Ham Craving Joy And Fun Of FA Cup Success

Dust down those claret ribbons as Hammers plan to head all guns blazing towards first silverware for over forty years

I’m not sure I like the idea of knowing the next round’s cup opponents before the previous one has been played. It removes a layer of excitement and spontaneity from the equation. Still, it is was it is, and the Hammers have been given a fourth-round tie against Doncaster, which they are expected to win, followed by a fifth-round visit to either Manchester United or Liverpool, where history provides far less room for optimism.

Not that they should fear anyone in their current mood, particularly in a season characterised by a peculiar levelling-up (or is it a levelling-down) in the Premier League. At the halfway stage, West Ham join with Leicester, Everton and Southampton as would-be usurpers, threatening to break the traditional stranglehold of the rich six – at least for the European places, if not the title itself.

Seasons in the sun are rare at West Ham and, where they have occurred, have come in the form of sunny spells rather than prolonged periods of cloudless blue skies. A cluster of cup wins in the 60’s, the excellent side of 1980-82, the boys of 86. All good times but far too short-lived. The most recent good in parts season was 2015/16, where the emotional departure from the Boleyn was married with the match-winning genius of Dimitri Payet. Even then, it was as good as it promised and how quickly it all fell apart afterwards.

At this season’s midpoint, the Hammers have amassed their best ever return of Premier League – what might have been possible with even half of Leicester’s ten penalties? It does feel like an over-achievement, though – but the players and coaches should all give themselves a huge pat on the back, as is appropriate in these socially distanced times. But where does it go from here?  It would seem impossible to maintain the same momentum through the second half of the season with such a small squad of players. Despite all the noise in the media, I’m not picking up any positive vibes about reinforcements coming in – at least the type who can make a difference. The dark clouds of boardroom incompetence may soon be casting their unwelcome shadows over us.

Back to today and it is the magic of FA Cup action at the London Stadium courtesy of a visit from Doncaster Rovers, currently among the frontrunners in League 1 under the management of Darren Moore – but having recently sold arguably their best player, midfielder Ben Whiteman, to Preston North End.

It is completely unfair on my part, but I always think of Doncaster as one of a group of anonymous teams from the lower leagues (like Rochdale, Scunthorpe, Lincoln or Rotherham) who might occasionally get the odd season in the second tier but are more at home bouncing between leagues one and two. As we know for experience, though, that is no barrier to giving the Hammers a very hard time of it in cup games.

Fans of football trivia might be interested to know of Rovers’ claim to fame as one of the teams involved in the world’s longest ever football match – a Division Three North cup replay in 1946 which lasted a grand total of 203 minutes. Coincidently, their opponents that day were Stockport County, who, of course, West Ham defeated in the previous round of this year’s cup.  The Stockport-Doncaster game had been locked at 2-2 after ninety minutes, and followed by a scoreless extra time period of 30 minutes. No penalty shoot-outs back then and the match then entered a ‘next goal’s the winner’ phase. However, there was no further scoring and when the sun went down the game was called off due it being too dark to continue. Doncaster eventually won the second replay 4-0.

The only player I know of who has served both West Ham and Doncaster is Rufus Brevet. Brevet played over 100 times for Rovers at the start of his career before finding his way to East London, via QPR and Fulham. He made 28 appearances for the Hammers (scoring once) between 2003 and 2005.

David Moyes has committed to playing a strong side in the Cup and has said that he wants to win it for Mark Noble. That sounds like it means another start for Michail Antonio (in the absence of there being any other striker available) although fringe players such as Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Fabian Balbuena, Issa Diop, Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson might be in line for a start.

Lifting the cup at Wembley would be a fitting climax to Noble’s career, but I can only see it working if he comes on as a late substitute in the final. Teams start to take the cup a lot more seriously from the sixth round onwards – moving closer to their strongest elevens.

Maybe having to play Manchester United or Liverpool in the fifth round isn’t as bad as it might sound, their minds are likely to be engaged elsewhere on league titles and European competition.  Strangely, they will be more concerned about not losing to each other than will about West Ham.

To set up a trip to the north-west, though, we must first see off Doncaster. I would be lying if I said I knew anything about the way they play, but if Whoscored can be relied upon, they are a passing team, good at through balls, favour attacking down the right, take their chances, are proficient at holding onto a lead and at coming back from losing positions. Weaknesses are aerial duels and conceding free-kicks in dangerous positions.

I have to believe that West Ham will win this game, but they will be hoping to achieve it without extending themselves unnecessarily – there are just so many important games on the horizon, starting with a trip to Palace on Tuesday. West Ham to score one or two headed goals and clinch that fifth round trip to the north-west. COYI!

The last 16 of the FA Cup beckons for the Hammers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected Item In The Baggies Area: West Ham Must Quickly Resolve Striker Madness

West Ham carry their good form into another eminently winnable Premier League fixture. But they must resolve the striker situation if the second half of the season is to build on the good work of the first.

Once West Ham have seen off their final new opponent of the 2020/21 Premier League season they will have reached the halfway stage in fine fettle. A third league in a row would propel the Hammers on to a grand total of 32 points from those n-n-n-nineteen games. Not bad for a team who had been so heavily tipped for relegation.

Whether the momentum can be carried forward into the second half of the season will depend massively on two things: keeping clear of serious injuries; and reinforcing the most obvious vulnerabilities in the squad. Thumbing its nose at past performance, the squad has fared so much better than usual as far as injuries are concerned. Whether this is simply down to good fortune, or a consequence of improved fitness training only time will tell.

As for the chances of reinforcements, my glass currently stands at less than half full. David Moyes is right to say that he wants to spend wisely, but surely would be bonkers to enter into the second half of the season with just the one recognised striker – and one we know will not be able to play in every game. But decent strikers don’t come cheap, and anyone good enough is likely to be well outside the owner’s current price range, which is geared more towards buying on the never-never. When I heard Moyes say on a press call that bids had already been submitted I swear he had his fingers crossed behind his back.

The Burnley game was an odd affair, but a welcome three points nonetheless. Going ahead so early appeared to confuse the players, but the visitors were easily contained during the remainder of the first half. It was great to see Angelo Ogbonna and Craig Dawson (ably assisted by Tomas Soucek) refusing to be bullied by the Wood and Barnes frontal assault. The start of the second half (possibly the result of a half time pep talk) saw the Hammers looking to put the game to bed, but when the second goal didn’t come, they gradually retreated deeper and deeper – far too much for comfort. When the commentator mentioned Burnley hadn’t manage to score in the last ten minutes all season, and that neither of their replacement strikers (Vydra and Rodriguez) had netted since the last Ice Age, I naturally feared the worst. Fortunately, the game fizzled out and another 1 – 0 win was chalked onto the board. Competent rather than exciting – but an incredible turnaround over last season.

Today’s game sees the return of Fat Sam to the London Stadium. hoping to retrieve some of the gum that he left still stuck under the manager’s seat. It will also a rapid return for Robert Snodgrass to the London Stadium, but not for Grady Diagana, who is absent injured. Despite their win at Wolverhampton at the weekend the Albion job looks to me like an escape too far for Allardyce.

The Baggies certainly worked hard at Molineux but the victory owed as much to Wolves abysmal showing (and two borderline penalty calls) as it did to any excellence of the visitor’s part. Wolves recent decline is a timely reminder as to the folly of relying too much on one striker. Still, the Baggies will have been boosted by the win as they try to put the division’s worst defensive record behind them.

There need be no debate about the Hammer’s preferred line-up for today. It will be the same again unless injuries or positive tests for Covid intervene. That will mean yet another start for Michail Antonio even if it should not be for the full ninety minutes this time. The ideal scenario would be to be safely ahead at the hour mark and allow for the introduction of Mipo Odubeko. None of the other replacement options look remotely attractive.

On Saturday, Antonio became only the fourth Hammer to reach forty Premier League goals and is now just seven behind Paolo Di Canio, who heads the leader board with forty-seven. Amazing and telling that a club competing in its twenty fifth Premier League campaign has been unable to find a more regular and consistent goal-scorer.

Maybe it should ring alarm bells but I feel confident enough to predict a comfortable West Ham win tonight. Allardyce still has plenty of work to do in organising the rabble left behind by Bilic – just as Moyes had to in his first spell at West Ham. His defence is hesitant and unconvincing while there is little threat up front – set pieces being the greatest danger. I can’t see West Ham being anywhere near as accommodating as Wolves and the Hammer will surely create more than enough chances to run out as 3 – 0 winners. At least one more on the scoresheet for Antonio and his sights can be set on overhauling that Di Canio record by the end of the season. COYI!  

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

Big Sam’s Baggies visit the London Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Huff N Puff Is Not Enough: West Ham Need Greater Cunning To Break Down Burnley

With barer bones than Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, West Ham must rely on Antonio’s hamstrings and a rarely seen spark of creativity to overcome dogged Burnley

Having struggled to eventually get past resolute non-league opponents in the FA Cup, West Ham now pit their wits against a more accomplished, equally resolute, and historically uncompromising Premier League in this afternoon’s encounter at the London Stadium.

Any side that relies heavily on counter attacking for its goals has to have a backup plan for those occasions where the opposition will happily dig in and sit deep – the probable Burnley strategy today. An injection of finesse and guile is required to create penetration and variety – either passing their way through the middle or getting in behind and around the defence.

The added commitment, fitness and organisation that characterises West Ham under David Moyes is commendable but effort is rarely enough on its own to win games. When faced with a massed defence the default tactic is to send in a succession of hopeful crosses from harmless areas of the pitch. This is all too easy to defend against and will not work against a well drilled Burnley backline. The footballing equivalent of a stranded wasp repeatedly bashing its head against a firmly closed window.

The West Ham squad is, by general consensus, short both in numbers and depth of talent. Since the win against Everton two weeks ago, the cupboard has become even barer with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Neither would have appeared in most supporter’s dream teams but both were regular matchday squad members who offered alternatives from the bench. David Moyes has been putting on a brave face about the strength of the squad, but he must be increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources and options in a congested fixture schedule.

The situation upfront remains the most critical with Michail Antonio, a converted winger with a history of troublesome hamstrings, the only recognised striker. A rational man would consider it preposterous not to fix this in the transfer window but that ignores the short-sighted nature of the West Ham board. GSB – Going Steadily Bonkers or perhaps Going Slowly Broke?

Hopes have suddenly been raised very high for 18-year-old, Mipo Odubeko, following his two-minute cameo at Stockport. He may well be given his Premier League debut today (or unleashed to use modern footballing terminology), if only from the bench. Hopefully, he will fare better than Ashely Fletcher, the last youngster to make the transition to West Ham from the Manchester United academy. Just as well that the club are able to pick up academy graduates from other sides as our own continues to underperform. What was once imagined to be an endless seam of precious talent (giving us Ferdinand, Lampard, Cole, Carrick and Johnson) has turned out to be an unproductive pit. Another casualty of under investment, maybe.

Radical team changes for today’s match would be surprising. Assuming some variation of 4-2-3-1 is deployed, the only area for debate would be who makes up the three. For me, the best balance has to be Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. Perhaps Moyes might consider Manuel Lanzini (rather than Benrahma) but I feel the Algerian needs to get a decent run in the side to build his confidence and make his mark. He is the one player who looks capable of doing something different on the ball, although admittedly decision making needs to improve.

It is surprising how quickly Craig Dawson has cemented his place in most fan’s preferred central defensive partnership. He and Angelo Ogbonna will be in for a very physical battle against the pairing of Wood and Barnes, so an extra helping of pre-match Weetabix might be needed for Dawson to keep his blood sugar levels topped up.

We may again have to rely on Tomas Soucek as the primary goal threat. His well timed runs from deep are a defender’s nightmare. Looking back at those goals against Brighton and Everton I couldn’t make my mind up whether both were really lucky, or whether he perceives time differently from other beings – allowing greater opportunity to react. I can imagine him able to dodge bullets like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. All the more reason to ping those crosses in low and hard from the byline.

Burnley had a rather poor start to the season, but have picked up markedly in recent weeks. They are still on the fringes of the relegation battle (along with Brighton and Newcastle) but it would be a huge surprise to me if they dropped down into the bottom three. Dyche’s pragmatic approach may not be the most exciting but it is effective at picking up points. A fact of modern football and the money involved ensures that clubs with limited resources must prioritise survival over entertainment, or face the consequences. Maybe their manager will get a shot with a bigger budget one day.

The aforementioned Wood and Barnes have always given the Hammers a hard time and it has been rare for this fixture to pass without a Chris Wood’s goal on the scoresheet. Dwight McNeil has also proved to be a regular thorn in the West Ham side, and has recovered from injury just in time to try it on again. At the back, one-time Hammer’s target James Tarkowski and Ben Mee make a formidable pairing that will not be easily daunted by aerial bombardment.

First instinct is that this is a game without too many goals. At least that would comply with the latest lockdown recommendations – fewer goals means fewer celebrations, and less opportunity to spread the Covid.

My guess is that Burnley will be happy to take care of their point, with an option to nick a goal from a set piece if it arises. They rarely score more than one, but once ahead that could be it for our chances. Previous attempts to breach packed defences does not inspire confidence. If West Ham score, though, the complexion of the game would change completely. Whether that would mean the Hammers pressing home their advantage or sitting back and allowing Burnley to regain the initiative is the great uncertainty. As I have a rather chipper outlook right now I will plump for a bonus 3-1 home win.

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

Who will have the Claret Blues today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stockport State Of Mind: Hammers Attitude Key to Avoiding Hatter’s Horror

A tricky Monday night trip to the frozen north sees West Ham needing to overcome the Hatters to stay in the hat

It’s FA Cup time again and even though finding enthusiasm the competition each year gets a little harder it retains a special place in the hearts and minds of many supporters. I have had the good fortune to attend three FA Cup finals (and one League Cup final) and the experience of a day out of Wembley is difficult to beat – although one of mine was in Cardiff. It would be a great shame if the current generation of Hammer’s supporters never got to enjoy one – even if it means watching it an empty stadium.

Once it was the greatest event on the domestic sporting calendar, that left the streets eerily quiet as 20 million or more settled down to seven hours of coverage with Frank or Des on Grandstand. A time when you crowded around a transistor radio on Monday afternoon just to be among the first to hear the draw for the next round. Much of that excitement is lost forever.

For clubs like West Ham, though, the Cup is surely one of the best chances of bagging some  silverware. With a favourable draw, winning six games in a row is not an impossible dream. Why then do managers not give the competition the same respect that the fans demand? Is it better to have ‘Finished 9th’ on the managerial CV than ‘FA Cup Winners 2020/21’?

The irony is that it was the big clubs with European obligations who started the trend of fielding weakened teams in the Cup. For reasons unknown, everyone else followed suit as if your managerial standing was diminished by fielding your strongest side. That the top sides had far better reserves to call on seems not to have registered, but the records show that five of the big six (not you, Tottenham) have won 25 of the 28 finals since the start of the Premier League.

If there is any romance left in the Cup it is generally to be found in the 3rd round, where non-league clubs, like today’s opponents, Stockport County, get the opportunity to go toe to toe with the big boys. It is their day and they really have nothing to lose. Jim ‘The Giant Killer’ Gannon will have no problems in motivating his players for a game that might be the highlight of their careers. The question is, will the new found spirit and determination in David Moyes side survive the expected onslaught on a cold winter’s night in Greater Manchester?

As far as I know, despite being on the receiving end of many giant-killing shocks, the Hammers have never lost to a non-league side in the FA Cup – although, it has been a close call on several occasions as I discussed in this post from a few years ago.

Although Stockport are now plying their trade in the National League they have a long history within the Football League pyramid. Originally elected to the league in 1900 they experienced their first ever relegation to non-league in 2011, from which they are now striving to return. Off the top of my head I wasn’t aware of their Hatters nickname – a reference to the town’s hat-making industry.

Since West Ham’s victory at Everton, the already thin squad has become even thinner with the departures of Sebastien Haller and Robert Snodgrass. Haller made his debut from the bench for Ajax last night, while Snodgrass has gone off to face certain relegation under Fat Sam at the Hawthorns. Good luck to them both.

The internet is once again awash with transfer speculation, from the fanciful to the farcical. I doubt whether many of those linked so far would actually qualify under the new visa regulations, which will make picking up bargains from minor European leagues far more difficult in the future. If there is any activity it will typically be a last minute cliff-hanger as Sullivan makes a desperate dive through the closing window with a bunch of IOUs. This leaves our slender hopes of progression even more in the hands of Michail Antonio’s hamstrings. West Ham: the original one-horse club – as already extravagant noises are being made about the possibility of deploying Andriy Yarmolenko or Said Benrahma as a false nine.

Moyes has stated it will be a strong side that he puts out tonight although there are reportedly potential Covid absentees. I’m sure he will also prefer to give some bench-time to a few of his over-worked regulars, including Antonio, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna. A similar approach worked well enough in the early League Cup rounds (against Charlton and Hull City) and should be good enough, technically, to ease past Stockport.

As ever, though, these games rely as much on attitude as they do on footballing ability. Respect the opposition and ensure there is no room for complacency and it should be ok. The 3rd round has already had one shock with Crawley defeating Leeds. Hopefully, that is enough to appease the banana-skin deities leaving passage through to the next round assured. I will go for a 2-0 and the satisfaction of the owners banking the £82,000 winner’s cheque – should be enough to pay for a squad player for a couple of weeks.

Fred Perry, Tess Daly, Norman Foster, Joan Bakewell, Ricky Hatton, Tina From Coronation Street, John Mayall, Captain Darling, Mike Yarwood … your boys are gonna take a hell of a beating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Ham and Everton Go First Footying Into 2021

Meet the new year, same as the old year. We won’t get fooled again by false dawns, but a West Ham win at Goodison would mark a bow for the new resolution.

West Ham will complete their third Premier League game of a congested festive schedule when they face Everton at Goodison Park this evening.  Their opponents having the benefit of a yuletide rest following the postponement of their clash with Manchester City as a Covid precaution.

The Hammers go into the game with no win in their last four outings (although they have lost just one of these) while their hosts are looking for a fifth straight win on the bounce.

The omens for today’s game are mixed. When I say mixed, I mean that they almost all point to an Everton win. The exception being the remotest of straws to clutch at, that West Ham have a surprisingly good record on the opening day of new calendar years – six wins, four draws and only two defeats from the last twelve. Apart from that, Everton’s Premier League record against the Hammers is better than it is against any other club. To make matters worse, David Moyes has lost on all four return visits since he left Goodison in 2013.

After the disappointment of a rather fortunate draw at home to Brighton, the point won away at Southampton came as something of a surprise, particularly as the manager attempted to juggle the limited resources available to him. It all conspires to leave us guessing what the starting line-up, and indeed formation, might look like today.

Recalls for the benched Vladimir Coufal and Jarrod Bowen should be guaranteed, but will Craig Dawson’s unexpectedly competent display give him the nod over Fabian Balbuena? Great to see Michail Antonio back in the fold, but will be risked as a starter? Unlikely, given the tone of Motes pre-match press conference. And will it be three (five) or four at the back? What is best way to counter Everton’s traditional strength down the flanks? Even with a fully fit squad, left back continues to be a major cause for concern.

Everton got off to a storming start to the season, faltered somewhat (coincident with Richarlison’s three match suspension) before racing back into top gear, and a top four berth. For today’s game they will again be without Rodriguez (the South American Yarmolenko – one footed and lazy), Digne and Allan. A midfield that includes Iwobi and Davies isn’t the most scary but it is Richarlison that is the danger man – as the main supply line for Calvert-Lewin, he has to be nullified.  Not forgetting, of course, that Sigurdsson has been a frequent thorn in the Hammer’s side.

With the turn of the year we also enter a new transfer window where media fuelled expectations will, no doubt, once again exceed reality. Loan deals would probably be preferred by the owners but West Ham already have the maximum number of domestic loans allowed – so unless Said Benrahma is made permanent or Craig Dawson is sent back (both unlikely) there is no further scope in that direction. International loans are possible but would be subject to new untested post-Brexit visa regulations.

There will be plenty of speculation between now and the window closing but I don’t see funds being made readily available given the relatively comfortable mid-table position at a time that the club pleads poverty. I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to see the back of Pellegrini’s expensive misfits but the best time to offload these will be the summer. Having to sell before you can buy must play havoc with the timing of transfer negotiations.

Josh King continues to be linked with a move to the London Stadium despite having played very little football this season – 30 minutes in total since November 7. Do we need someone who might not be fully match fit until March? January is typically for emergency buys, rather than for long term building. A new left back would be useful though! I’m sure they must have one in Prague or Brentford.

What is there to hope for in 2021? It would be great to have supporters back in the grounds but I doubt this can happen to any significant extent before the end of the season. I would love to see a prolonged run in the FA Cup, can we prioritise that, or will it be sacrificed for the place money that one or two league positions might bring? Can we put an end to, and stop condoning, the outrageous cheating that is diving and taking one for the team? Can we have a common-sense VAR regime that is fit for the game as a spectacle rather than one to suit armchair data analysts? Can commentators stick to telling us what is happening on the pitch rather than trying to show-off their knowledge (it’s not Test Match Special) and can pundits stop describing every ordinary event as brilliant?

Back to today’s game, and we are likely to see a cautious West Ham, at least in the opening exchanges (i.e. the first half). It was positive that Bowen and Coufal were able to get a much needed rest in midweek but the backbone of the team -Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna – have played every league game (maybe every minute?) so far this season (as has Aaron Cresswell). The Hammer’s fortunes will depend greatly on how they can perform again today.  I guess we are stuck with another start for the central defender’s dream, Sebastien Haller, but at least there is the prospect of Antonio from the bench. Full of new year optimism, I am going for a 2-0 win, including that elusive first penalty of the season.