Can West Ham reverse the poor opening day record against Newcastle?

In my last article earlier this week I referred to two games where we met Newcastle in the opening game. Those games were at home in 1973-74 and 2020-21. And we lost both of them. The last time that our first game of the season was away at St James Park was in 2002-03. And that, too, was perhaps a match (and a season) we’d like to forget.

The game in August 2002 was televised on Sky as the Monday night game, and for an hour it remained scoreless. By the end of 90 minutes we had lost 4-0 to goals from Lua Lua (2), Shearer and Solano. Do you remember Nobby Solano? He played for us subsequently as did another player in the Newcastle side that day, Kieron Dyer. Our team that night boasted players such as David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair and Jermain Defoe, but it was just the beginning of a wretched season that ended with relegation at the end of it.

After that poor start on the opening day we did not win a game until our seventh game of the season when we won 3-2 at Chelsea. We didn’t actually win a home league game that season until January 29th! One thing I do remember from that time was injuries to our strikers Di Canio and Kanoute, and a lack of depth in the squad forcing us to play Ian Pearce (a defender) as a striker. Nowdays that wouldn’t happen I assume with ‘false nines’ but I would like to see us begin the season with more out and out strikers other than just Antonio.

What do you think of West Ham’s three kits for 2021/22? Will we be wearing the middle one in the opening game, or is this too similar to Newcastle’s black and white stripes? I assume it will be the third strip, although our home kit would be my choice

Last season was probably our best ever in the Premier League, albeit not our highest finish, which was 5th in 1998/99. But back then (1998/99) we had only improved from a finish in eighth place the season before, and we were ten points below the fourth placed team. But our sixth place in the season just ended was only one win away from the top four, and an improvement of ten places over the season before.

But when you look at our results against the teams that did finish in the first four places, it wasn’t very good to say the least. In those eight games we drew one and lost seven. Compare that to the games against the other 15 teams that make up the Premier League and you will see a marked contrast. In those thirty games we won 19, drew 7, and lost 4, collecting 64 of our 65 points. Ironically two of those four defeats were against a very average Newcastle team. Better results against them could potentially have resulted in a top four finish.

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict our team for this first game, with few changes in the squad that ended last season. Fabianski will continue in goal (for the time being at least); Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell will be the back four, Rice and Soucek will play in front of them, with Fornals, Benrahma and Bowen supporting Antonio up front. Well that’s how I see it anyway. The only possible changes to that would see places in the starting line up for Ogbonna, Lanzini, or Yarmolenko, although the former two have had minor knocks in pre-season. We really need some reinforcements to the squad in view of the additional fixtures this season.

There’s no reason why our poor opening game record against Newcastle cannot be reversed this time around, especially considering our excellent pre-season form, and availability of almost all the players in the squad. I’ll predict a 2-0 away win. Unusually for us we go into an away game against a team who did the double over us last season as 6/5 favourites to win the game with Newcastle at 23/10, and the draw at almost the same odds at 12/5. A 2-0 win is around 10/1. I always like a slightly unusual bet, and this time I’m going for Antonio to score more goals in the game than Newcastle at 6/1.

I was looking at the odds for winning the Premier League, and they give a good indication of where the bookmakers, and most pundits expect teams to finish this season.

Manchester City 4/6; Chelsea 9/2; Liverpool 5/1; Manchester United 8/1; Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham all 50/1; Villa, Everton, Leeds and West Ham all 100/1; Brighton, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Wolves all 500/1; Brentford and Burnley 750/1; Norwich and Watford 1000/1. Of course some bookmakers have slight variations but generally they seem to think we will finish somewhere between 8th and 11th. That’s probably about right, but I believe that with more investment in quality players we could perhaps achieve a finish similar to last season’s sixth.

It depends on how optimistic you are but if you fancy a bet on West Ham, we are 12/1 to finish in the top 4, 5/1 to finish in the top 6, and 8/11 to finish in the top 10. Anyone other than the top 4 in the betting is not a realistic bet to win the title, and few pundits vary from Manchester City (and possibly Chelsea) as realistic contenders, although Liverpool and Manchester United cannot be completely ruled out. I reckon everyone else can be.

I’d love to see us make a storming start to the season. If you are old enough to remember 1983/4 (as I am) then you might recall that we won our first 5 league games to top the league by the end of September with 15 goals scored and just 3 conceded. That was the season we beat Bury 10-0 in a League Cup tie too. We were still second in the table in December, but faded as the season progressed. With six games to go we were sixth, but just two draws and four defeats in those final six games meant that we finished 9th. In fact we only won one of our last twelve league games. Trevor Brooking retired after the last game which was a 1-0 defeat at home to Everton.

Football was very different then of course. The Premier League would not come into existence until the 1990s, and the top flight was called simply Division One. Liverpool were champions but Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers all finished in the top five. Other teams in the top division included Ipswich, Sunderland, Luton, West Brom, Stoke, Coventry, Birmingham and Notts County. Neither Manchester City or Chelsea were anywhere to be seen!

But Back to the Future, or 2021/22 as it will be known, football will once again be played in front of capacity crowds. Let’s hope that can continue throughout and not be interrupted by another wave of the wretched pandemic that has disrupted our lives for the past (almost) eighteen months. I’d like to see an improvement in the performances of officials to match those that we witnessed in the Euros in the summer. I hope we see better use of VAR, such as less fussiness (just concentrating on key decisions), no more offsides by a toenail or armpit, and better interpretation of handball. I’d also like to see West Ham finish as Premier League champions, or at least in the top four! What are the chances???!!!

Carry On Lingardless: No Change For Dithering Hammers In Season Opener At Newcastle

It will be a Billy No-New-Team-Mates West Ham who face Newcastle United at St James’ Park on the Premier League’s opening weekend. Will the Hammers avoid a trademark sluggish start to the season?

By most measures, last season was West Ham’s best-ever in the Premier League. Sure there was a 5th place finish in 1998/99 but in terms of games won, points earned and goal difference, the 2020/21 campaign was way ahead and the closest the club have ever been to Champion’s League qualification, missing out by just one more win.

But the dawn of a new season consigns the heroics of the last one to history. The manager starts with credit in the bank but it can be so easily lost in football – as witnessed when Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after winning the title at Leicester. It has to be a huge worry for David Moyes, despite his apparent outward public composure, that he starts the season with an even thinner squad of players available than he had in May – and with both domestic and midweek European competition to deal with.

I have tried to be patient but the apparent disarray with player recruitment has been a major test. Surely the signing of at least a couple of new players is a basic human right for modern day football supporters!

While the transfer window remains open for a further two weeks, the potential for panic buying increases the nearer the deadline gets. Last minute shopping is one thing but doing all your Christmas shopping at the motorway service station on Christmas Eve is sure to end in disappointment. As is buying a striker who has fallen off the back of a lorry from a bloke down the pub – probably closer to David Sullivan’s modus operandi with his favourite agents.

Still, we must put that to one side and prepare to get behind the team for their trip to Newcastle on Sunday. With no new faces (apart from Alphonse Areola) the team selection should be relatively straightforward, subject to injury absences. The same eleven that started against Southampton in May but with Said Benrahma replacing the now departed Jesse Lingard.

Once again, the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be crucial for a successful Hammer’s season. I can’t help feeling this will Rice’s farewell season in claret and blue. The period he missed towards the tail end of last season – including the defeat away at Newcastle – was instrumental in the Champion’s League charge eventually hitting the buffers. Hopefully, he suffers no hangover from the Euros or distractions from incessant transfer talk.

Soucek was the deserved 2020/21 Hammer of The Year. Joint top scorer and on the pitch for every minute of league action apart for the one missed following the ludicrous sending-off at Craven Cottage. Soucek was also top of the Premier League standings for number of Aerial Duel’s Won and, surprisingly, second in the rankings for Fouls Committed. Meanwhile, Rice was first in the PL standings for Percentage of Successful Dribbles and was second placed for number of Interceptions. An indication of their joint importance to the cause.

In defensive areas, the squad continues to look light in cover for the Centre and Left Back positions. Aaron Cresswell’s experienced something of a renaissance last season and is a deserved starter on the left, but backup is required. A new first choice centre back should be a priority though. Craig Dawson exceeded all expectations when he came into the side last year but, despite his obvious courage and spirit, he is exposed by pacey forwards running at him – as demonstrated by the defeat and red card at St James’ Park in April. Perhaps the Nikola Milenkovic saga will eventually come to a positive series finale.

Numbers are also look short in attacking midfield areas. Benrahma has looked lively in pre-season and should begin the season as a more regular starter along with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. I’m not convinced though that collectively they offer enough to compensate for the loss of Lingard, who added pace and directness to the Hammer’s counter-attacking options.  I don’t see either Manuel Lanzini or Andriy Yarmolenko in anything other than cameo roles, should they remain at the club.

The ludicrous striker situation is long running and well documented. It would be extreme negligence to enter a busy campaign with complete reliance on Michail Antonio. I am a big fan of Antonio and am look forward to him becoming the Hammer’s All-time Premier League top scorer in the coming weeks. However, everyone knows he is unlikely to go through a whole season injury free. The make-do-and-mend alternative of playing Bowen up top is even less appealing the absence of Lingard.

Newcastle have also failed to register any transfer activity, at time of writing, although there is a chance they will seal a deal for Joe Willock in time for Sunday’s fixture. The threat of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin are well known to West Ham fans and Steve Bruce has yet to drop a point against the Hammers as Newcastle manager – having won all four league fixtures as well as a victory in the EPL Asia Tournament. With a stadium full of passionate home supporter this will be a big game to win. I might even settle for a predicted 2-2 scoring draw!

A repeat of last season’s top six finish will be a huge challenge for a squad that has limited options and a style that will now be more familiar to opponents. Anywhere in the top ten would represent a good result – and, of course, winning the Europa League as a way into the Champion’s League. In the PL it is difficult to see past Manchester City and Chelsea and my final table standings are as follows:  

Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds, West Ham, Everton, Newcastle, Wolves, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Burnley, Watford.

It was interesting to see the statistics on goal-scoring times in our league games last season. West Ham goals scored were fairly equally spread in the first four 15 minute segments of games (between 9 and 11 goals in each) but with a sudden drop to just 4 out of 62 goals netted between the 61st and 75th minutes. This was followed by a spree of 17 goals scored in the final 15 minutes (plus added time). The moral is, if you need to pop out to get a beer or use the toilet, do so just after the hour mark. But be aware, this was the second highest segment of the match for goals conceded.

I’m looking forward to the season and hoping that it’s an entertaining and rewarding one for West Ham fans everywhere. Getting off to a good start with a a top performance at Newcastle would be a welcome change. All we’ll need then is a flood of canny deals before the distinctive slamming shut of the transfer window . COYI!

With the new season approaching fast and expectations high, West Ham must surely need additions to the squad

I’m not really sure how many times we’ve faced the Geordies in our opening game. I do remember one season in particular, and that was back in 1973/74. We had ended the previous season in sixth place, one of our best ever top division finishing positions, and hopes were high for the new campaign. But that first game at Upton Park was a massive disappointment, which was exacerbated by a friend from Newcastle joining me at the game. We went down 2-1 with ex-Newcastle player Pop Robson scoring our goal.

Of course, we met them in the first game of last season too, but that ended in disappointment as well, as we went down 2-0. Having finished 16th the season before and then losing the opener at home to a side who were not particularly expected to do well led to doom and gloom amongst our fans, expecting a long hard campaign ahead. But of course that didn’t turn out to be the case and we made one of our best ever improvements from one season to the next, climbing ten places to finish sixth, narrowly missing out on a top four finish, but still qualifying for the Europa League.

The programme covers for the opening games of the season in 1973/74 and 2020/21(note the difference in the cost – 5p in 1973 and £3.50 in 2020

Just as in 1973-74 we begin a new season having finished sixth in the one just ended, with high hopes for the one that lies ahead. The rise from 16th to 6th must be one of the biggest improvements by any side, in the Premier League era at least. Of course Leicester went from narrowly avoiding relegation to finish as champions a few seasons back, but not many can have managed a jump of ten places, a rise that was most unexpected, but most welcome to those of us who, at the start of the campaign, would have settled for a mid-table finish, and not being involved in a relegation tussle.

So much of this was down to David Moyes and the coaching staff (as well as the players of course) People forget that when Moyes arrived at Everton in 2002 they were a bit like us, often fighting the drop. When he left there eleven years later they had finished in the top eight for seven consecutive seasons. He has achieved a top six finish in his first full season. That should buy him time to try to consolidate the club as one that will hopefully continue with top half finishes in the years to come, but that will only be possible if he is backed by the owners.

I can look back to 1984/85, in the days before the Premier League when, just like the season before last, we finished 16th. We narrowly avoided relegation by two points back then. The following campaign was our best ever in the top flight when we ended third, and only just failed to finish as champions. That should have been the time to invest in the team to push on but we failed to do so. In the two seasons that followed we finished 15th and 16th, and then we were relegated a season later. A lesson to be learned perhaps?    

It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. Last time I predicted a tenth place finish for us, which I thought was optimistic given the season that we had before. Of course we performed much better than I expected.

This time around I’ll be even more optimistic than last time, especially considering the added Europa League fixtures and a relatively small squad: 1. Manchester City, 2. Chelsea, 3. Manchester United, 4. Liverpool, 5. Leicester, 6. West Ham, 7. Arsenal, 8. Leeds, 9. Everton, 10. Tottenham, 11. Aston Villa, 12. Brighton, 13. Wolves, 14. Newcastle, 15. Southampton, 16. Burnley, 17. Norwich, 18. Watford, 19. Crystal Palace, 20. Brentford

But with just a few days to go before the new Premier League season gets underway we don’t appear to be much closer to adding reinforcements to the squad, which surely is absolutely necessary in view of the additional fixtures as well as the fact that the squad was thin last season too.

I was speaking to a Fulham supporter today who told me just how good their keeper was. It was a good piece of business to get him and puts pressure on Fabianski that didn’t exist before. It makes a change for us to be planning for the future, but it is imperative that reinforcements in other positions arrive too, sooner rather than later.

Of course the pandemic has meant that most clubs are in the same boat with the notable exceptions of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, but our transfer policy in the past has been a cause for concern, and I just hope that there are negotiations going on behind the scenes to land additional quality footballers at the club.

Our pre-season has been excellent with many of our players hitting the ground running. And with a largely fully fit squad I expect a good start to the campaign. But this can only last as long as injuries to key players don’t start to mount up. For me the most important area is in attacking positions with an over reliance on the hamstrings of Michail Antonio not giving up, and lack of cover for if he is out. We’ll have to see how things develop in the days ahead. Perhaps there is a lot of activity that we are unaware of? What are the chances?              

And now the end is near as West Ham face the season’s curtain

Just one more point is all we need to be absolutely sure of sixth place – and we may not even need that

In these times of great uncertainty I can now stop trying to work out all the permutations of where we might finish at the end of this magnificent season. Just a few games ago I was speculating on how we could finish as high as fourth or as low as tenth and plumped for sixth. One point against Southampton today, or Tottenham’s failure to win at Leicester, will make my prediction come true and bring us European football in the Europa League next season. Even if the very worst happens today (and I don’t for one moment believe that it will) then we will still be taking part in this new-fangled European Conference competition, which would still be OK although it would bring greater early season fixture congestion.

The win against West Brom was a nervy affair and not really settled until the last few minutes, although anyone looking at the statistics of the game would think that it was a stroll at the Hawthorns. It most certainly wasn’t but somehow this team are superb at battling it out even when not at their best. It was the type of game that some Hammers teams of the past might have lost, but the spirit and togetherness is something I haven’t seen for a while. (And just a thought – I reckon Cresswell would be a good penalty taker. I wonder if this has been considered?)

Massive credit to David Moyes and the coaching team for what they have achieved in turning around a club close to relegation last season into one that has qualified for Europe in this one with minimal new faces, setting all sorts of club records along the way, such as number of Premier League wins, number of Premier League away wins, number of Premier League points, best Premier League finishing position this century, best Premier League defensive record and others. We’ve even won as many points away from home as the great team of 1985/86 in fewer games, and if we win today we will have the second best points total in home games of all Premier League teams this season (after Manchester City). That is some turnaround in such a short time.

Set out below is an extract from my first article this season that was published before the Newcastle game where we went down 2-0 at the London Stadium in the first match this season. Looking at what I wrote then not very much has changed personnel-wise. The brilliant capture of Coufal (my choice for Hammer of the Year very slightly ahead of Rice, Soucek, Ogbonna plus some others perhaps) has had a massive influence defensively, as has the surprising emergence of Dawson as a solid defender, forming a good partnership with Ogbonna. Benrahma was the only addition in an attacking sense in the summer window and I’m sure he will become a valuable addition in the years to come. Haller has gone, and I don’t see a way back for Anderson or Yarmolenko. Lanzini was beginning to come good at the end before his latest injury. It seemed that most of the fans were clamouring for a forward in the winter transfer window and were less than impressed when Lingard turned up. That soon changed when he had a massive impact, especially in his early games for us. I wonder what will happen in this respect in the next few weeks?

Prior to the first game of the season – “How will we line up? I expect Fabianski to be behind a back four of Fredericks (or Johnson?), Diop, Ogbonna and Cresswell. I fear that Saint-Maximin can run our defence ragged as he did at the London Stadium last season and wonder if Masuaku will be included to provide extra cover for Cresswell? It wouldn’t be my choice but it may happen. Rice, Soucek and Noble may start in midfield, with Bowen, Fornals and Antonio providing the main attacking options at the start. But will there perhaps be a place for the in-form Yarmolenko, or a hopefully rejuvenated Haller, Lanzini or Anderson? Will any of the youngsters get a chance? Who knows? What we do know is that there won’t be any new faces to bolster a defence that had one of the worst goals-against records in the Premier League last season. I’m confident that we can score goals, but can we improve defensively? Perhaps David Moyes and his coaches can work wonders on this aspect of our team, but has he got the raw materials to work with?

It’s traditional for me to forecast (before a ball is kicked) how the Premier League will look at the end of the season. So here goes: 1.Manchester City, 2.Liverpool, 3.Manchester United, 4.Chelsea, 5.Arsenal, 6.Wolves, 7.Everton, 8.Tottenham, 9.Leicester, 10.West Ham, 11.Southampton, 12.Newcastle, 13.Leeds, 14.Aston Villa, 15.Sheffield United, 16.Crystal Palace, 17.Brighton, 18.Burnley, 19.West Brom, 20.Fulham.

There’s optimism for you! Enjoy the game.”              

So we did get some defensive reinforcements in the end, and my forecast re league positions wasn’t too bad with Leicester and ourselves performing well above my expectations. But the squad remains light and will need reinforcing, especially to take into account participation in Europe. It remains to be seen how much backing that the manager gets from above. He has worked miracles with what he has despite very limited resources, and proved that he should never have gone in the first place to be replaced by Pellegrini. That was a massive error of judgement by those at the top.

A few additional seats for the game became available on Thursday from some of the 10,000 who were lucky in the ballot but who subsequently are unable to attend. I am one of the fortunate few who have come off the bench to replace them, so I am looking forward to my first visit to the London Stadium since February 29th 2020 when we beat Southampton 3-1 just before the initial lockdown. We have a good recent record against the Saints, winning five and drawing one of the last six encounters, and on quite a few occasions in recent years we have scored three or more goals in the games. I reckon 3-1 again today. What are the chances?

The London Stadium Will Be Rocking To A Top Six Finish And West Ham’s Euro Vision

Should the Hammers avoid nul points in the final game of the season, it will be Congratulations for a top six finish and ensuring the owners are Making Their Mind Up on improving the squad for Europe.

The final game of the season, the fans are back, and West Ham are on course to secure a place in the top six of the Premier League, along with entry into next season’s Europa League. What could be better?

European football in some form is already guaranteed at the London Stadium after the last round of games, with 5th and 6th taking part in the Europa League and 7th entering the new Europa Conference. That allocation could change if Chelsea finish fifth but win the Champion’s League, although would not impact the Hammers. I it that would mean that both 6th and 7th enter the Europa League. But I am no expert on arcane UEFA rules.

The broadcasters will be thankful that there are, at least, some matters to resolve on the final weekend. Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester will be fighting it out for the two remaining in the top four – I’m convinced it could have included us but for Declan’s injury on England duty. Liverpool now look certainties to salvage a place as Chelsea face a difficult trip to Villa Park. If Chelsea slip up and Leicester win, as we hope, against Spurs then the Foxes will sneak back up in the standings.

West Ham will confirm sixth place by securing at least a point against Southampton or by Tottenham failing to win at Leicester. There is one further mathematical scenario that would involve Everton overturning the eight goal deficit in goal difference in the event of a West Ham defeat, but as they visit the Etihad it hugely unlikely.

The midweek game at West Bromwich was a strange affair. It was unanimously accepted that we had not gien a good account of ourselves, while at the same time scoring three goals, missing a penalty, hitting the wordwork (twice if I can double count), and putting in twenty-one shots (nine on target). In the end the score-line made it look more comfortable than it was, but what a welcome victory – particularly in the light of the Villa win in N17. Can’t say I have ever really been convinced by the notion of Declan Rice as our penalty taker.

In an otherwise fraught year, the Hammer’s exploits have been a stand-out highlight. It is difficult to recall ever seeing a better team-spirit at the club. The manager, coaches and players have all exceeded expectations, overcoming squad limitations through hard-work, determination, effort, and collective desire. As well as that team ethic, there have also been outstanding individual contributions, making selection of Hammer of The Year arguably the most difficult decision since 1986. For me, it is impossible to split Rice from the two Czechs, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal.

Key to tomorrow’s game will be how the Hammers handle the occasion. With the fans back in there should be a party atmosphere, but there is still a job to be done. We will want to claim top six through our own endeavours, not the failure of others.

How Southampton approach the game will also play a part. It has been a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Saints as early season optimism gave way to a dreadful run of form. The ship has now been steadied, but they have little to motivate them. Hasenhüttl adopts an unusual narrow formation but they are not without goal threat. Danny Ings is always on the go and will be keen to exploit the type of gaps the Hammers gifted when conceding against Everton and Brighton. And there are few better than Ward-Prowse in taking advantage of the needless free-kicks given away just outside the box.

It will be the usual selection toss-ups for David Moyes but with the addition of the goalkeeper injury situation. If I can see how intimidated Darren Randolph gets by high balls into the box, then so can opposition coaches. He is decent enough as a shot stopper (as we saw at the Hawthorns on Wednesday) but my fingers are well and truly crossed that Lukasz Fabianski can return.

I feel reasonably confident that we will win today. Another 3-1 perhaps! It will round off a tremendous season and we can get on to the serious business of transfer speculation. It should prove a fascinating insight into a more professional direction of the club, the promise of a new approach to recruiting younger players and what investment is forthcoming.

The squad badly needs to be re-balanced. Those not suited to the current work ethic must be shipped out, and better options and/ or cover for key positions brought in. Four or five new players at least. The immediate future of Rice is also of great significance.   

It is fitting that this group of players will likely record West Ham’s best ever season in the Premier League, at least as far as points and wins are concerned. They have done us proud. My thanks to them all. COYI!

Running In Please Pass! More Revs Required To Put The Brakes On Hammers Slide Down The Table

It may be all about perceptions, but a late season slump may take the shine off an admirable Hammer’s season. Can the Irons pull European qualification out of the fire?

Does anyone remember the ‘Running In Please Pass’ signs sometimes seen in the rear window of cars with a new or rebuilt engine installed? The driver was obliged to stick below 4000 revs for the first 1000 miles or get it run-in. He (or she) could only watch in frustration as the other vehicles raced by. The recent West Ham run-in experience has brought those stickers to mind.

Securing a top four spot and breaking the big club dominance of the Premier League was always going to be a tall order, just as it might ultimately be for Leicester on the final day. Yet, there is a feeling that, if it was ever going to happen for the Hammers, this was the year of opportunity. That the dream was kept alive so long is no small credit to the manager and players.

The first season run-in calculators started to appear with around eight games to go. At the time the Hammers had 52 points from 30 games – a creditable average of 1.73 points per game. There were tough games to come against Leicester and Chelsea but apart from that the remaining games looked winnable. It started with great promise and victory at Leicester saw us up to fourth, just a point behind the Foxes. Then momentum suddenly stalled as defeats to Newcastle and Everton, coinciding with critical injuries, took a heavy toll. A return of just seven points from six games (1.1 points per game) had left us in the slow lane and we could only watch as Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham all roared past. Was this a repeat of the disappointing end to the 2015/16 season?

Football has much to do with perceptions. Consider those two rip-roaring 3-3 draws against Tottenham and Arsenal. After the first, joy and elation to celebrate a miraculous comeback; after the second, despondency and anger at throwing away a three goal lead. Similarly, a late end of season charge taking us from tenth to seventh would be viewed very positively, while slipping from fourth to seventh is seen as a huge disappointment – even though the outcome is the same.

Still, all is not lost. Two attractive targets remain available to the Hammers. To secure a claim for some form of European adventure next season, and the chance to finish above a Tottenham side reeling from the intended departure of Citizen Kane (his probable destination). Winning the final two games, starting away at The Hawthorns tonight, must be the catalyst for hitting those targets.

You wait half a season for one Albion and then two of them come along together. A largely forgettable draw against the Brighton and Hove variety at the weekend saw the Hammers salvage a priceless point with a first ever West Ham goal for Said Benrahma. Perhaps he can now feel a little less anxious about the need to get on the scoresheet. As in the Everton game it was a very poor (and similar) goal to concede – an opposition forward allowed to simply run past a static defence. Is that too high a line to play with little pace in the centre of defence?

In attack, the Hammers once again struggled to sparkle in a game where space for forward runners was denied by the opponents. Setting up as a fast counter-attacking side is all well and good (and it has reaped tremendous dividends on plenty of occasions this season) but there are times when a different approach is needed. One that shows greater intensity but also the variety and guile to get behind and break open defences. In the game against Everton and Brighton there was plenty of probing but most of it was so predictable and short on fervour. Energy, passion, intensity and bravery need to be on show tonight.

Recent woes have highlighted the downside of not having a natural goalscorer in the squad. Sharing the goals around is great but sometimes you need to rely on the guy who is almost guaranteed to put away the one chance that falls his way. I believe West Ham are the only top half team where no-one has yet to reach double figures in the scoring charts.

It is impossible to know how West Brom will approach tonight’s game. There are always two schools of thought on already relegated sides. Either they will play with freedom now the pressure is off, or they will already be mentally basking on a green list beach somewhere. They certainly played with a spirited determination against Liverpool at the weekend and I don’t think we should rely on last-minute goal drama such as a Lukasz Fabianski overhead scissors kick for salvation. A half-hearted resistance from the Baggies, like that shown by Norwich at the end of last season, would be perfect. Albion did after all start out in life as the West Bromwich Strollers. Does Big Sam (I’ve Only Ever Been Relagated Once) Allardyce owe us any favours?

Team-wise we are left with only the usual matchday debates between Craig Dawson or Issa Diop and Said Benrahma or Jarrod Bowen. Injuries aside, everything else usually stays the same. If we should be looking for late goal-scoring heroics then wouldn’t Mipo Odubeko be a better hat to throw in the ring than Andriy Yarmolenko? Surely, he couldn’t perform any worse.

Despite the apparent shortcomings in penetrating massed defences, West Ham have a decent record against bottom half sides this season. The thing about a massed defence is that you only have to breach it once and the floodgates are wide open for good. This is my hope for tonight. A headed set-piece goal followed by the rampant Hammers running riot with a 4-1 win. COYI!

Qualification for Europe is within West Ham’s grasp tonight

Astonishingly, as we entered the penultimate round of matches in this season’s Premier League, there were still five teams with a mathematical chance of joining the two Manchester clubs in the top four at the end of the season, and one of those five was West Ham! Whoever would have believed that we would come this close to qualifying for the Champions League? Of course only three teams had a realistic chance, with the bookmakers’ odds reflecting their chances as follows: Liverpool 1/7, Chelsea 4/9, Leicester 8/11, Tottenham and West Ham both at 250/1.

Prior to yesterday Leicester knew that a win at Chelsea would guarantee a top four finish, as would a draw at Chelsea and a win over Tottenham in Sunday’s final game. Chelsea knew that they had to beat Leicester and then Villa on Sunday to be certain of finishing in the top four. Of course they had the backup of knowing that beating Manchester City in this season’s final would also secure entry into the next Champions League competition. Thanks to their 95th minute winner at West Brom last Sunday, Liverpool became the clear favourites, knowing that if Chelsea failed to beat Leicester, victories over both Burnley and Palace (hardly the most in-form sides) would see them into the top four. As it turned out (in this topsy turvy season) Chelsea reversed the FA Cup Final result by beating Leicester at Stamford Bridge last night.

Tottenham needed to win both of their games and then hope that Chelsea didn’t exceed one point in their final two games and Liverpool didn’t get more than two points in their last two. Although we were level on points with Tottenham, an inferior goal difference meant that we needed Chelsea to lose their final two games, Liverpool to not get more than one point in their last two games, Tottenham to fail to pick up six points from their last two, and for us to win both of ours. Based on our recent form and the permutations needed, this was realistically a much longer shot than 250/1! But I wonder what odds you would have got at the beginning of the season for West Ham to still mathematically have a chance of a top four finish after 36 games had been played?

Of course the Chelsea win finally ruined both Tottenham’s and our own remote chances of a top four finish to set up a potential final day scramble between the three teams who could finally capture the remaining two places. If Liverpool do beat Burnley today then it keeps Leicester really honest in their final game against Tottenham which is good for us in our hopes of finishing above our North London neighbours.

Chelsea (67 points, Goal Difference 23, 1 game to go) – Villa (Sun) – maximum points possible 70.

Leicester (66 points, Goal Difference 20, 1 game to go) – Tottenham (Sun) – maximum points possible 69.

Liverpool (63 points, Goal Difference 21, 2 games to go) – Burnley (today), Palace (Sun) – maximum points possible 69.

West Ham (59 points, Goal Difference 10, 2 games to go) –West Brom (today), Southampton (Sun) – maximum points possible 65.

Tottenham (59 points, Goal Difference 22, 2 games to go) – Villa (today), Leicester (Sun) – maximum points possible 65.

So where will we finish once the season is over on Sunday afternoon? Two defeats in our last two matches could mean that we are overtaken by Everton, Arsenal and possibly even Leeds to finish as low as tenth! Two draws in our final two games would still enable Everton and Arsenal to finish above us if they picked up two wins apiece, and we could finish a disappointing ninth. Winning just one of our final two games would guarantee that we retain our current position of seventh, and winning at least one game plus picking up more points than Tottenham would ensure sixth. To finish fifth would only be possible if Liverpool slip up badly now, and we outpoint Tottenham.

Seventh is therefore very realistic, and my understanding is that this would mean a place in the Play-Off round of the newly-formed Europa Conference League, which would mean an additional 17 games next season if we went all the way to the final. I believe that a sixth (or even 5th – very unlikely) place finish would mean entry at the group stage of the Europa League, which would add 15 games next season if we reached the final. Of course this kind of success in Europe is not likely to happen, but even being in the group stage of either competition adds a significant number of games in the first half of the season. We would need a much enhanced squad to do either competition justice.

Surely we can win at least one of our final two games to guarantee to be playing in Europe next season? After the excellent season that we’ve had so far it would be a big disappointment to fail to qualify for one of the European competitions. But West Brom showed against Liverpool last Sunday that they can be difficult to beat, so just because they have been relegated doesn’t mean we can take a victory for granted. In fact once teams reach a stage where they can play without pressure, they are often a much better side as a result.

In over 100 games against West Brom in major competitions each team has won 41 times, but in the 21 meetings in the Premier League, we have won eight, nine have been drawn and the Baggies have won four. Of course we won the reverse fixture in January (2-1) and a win tonight would be the first time in 15 years that we have completed the double over them, but more importantly would guarantee at least a seventh place finish and qualification for Europe.

Interestingly I read that West Brom have only won one of their past sixteen midweek league games, and all six of such games with Allardyce in charge. And Big Sam has lost in all four meetings against West Ham since he left us six years ago. These are the type of statistics that have come to haunt West Ham in the past. How long is it since we’ve kept a clean sheet? We’ve only kept two in the Premier League in this calendar year (Leeds and Sheffield United). I am looking forward to a repeat of the score at the London Stadium four months ago. We are 4/7 to win the game and 13/2 to win by two goals to one.

A win tonight would be great, plus we will all be hoping that Villa can deny a Tottenham victory. What are the chances?

Can The Hammers Stroll Past A Brighton B-Side Beside The Seaside? We’ll Have To See!

Tiddely-om-pom-pom! A depleted Brighton side provide the opposition as West Ham look for a seaside shuffle into European qualification.

There may well be special circumstances this season, but it seems very odd (and wrong) to be playing a league game immediately after the FA Cup Final has finished. For so long, Cup Final day was where everything stopped and the outside world went eerily quiet. Weekend chores were set aside early so we could settle down in front of the Grandstand with some tins of Ind Coope Long Life beer and a party pack of Hula Hoops for company.

West Ham players will barely have time to finish tweeting their Cup Final congratulations before kicking-off at the Amex Stadium in a bid to rescue European hopes . Although the top four dream would appear to have slipped tantalisingly out of reach there is still much to play for – a place in the top six and finishing above Tottenham for starters.

It is always tempting to want to blame someone else for your own shortcomings, but it in the end it was three defeats in the last four games that burst the West Ham bubble. That’s not to say a clandestine conspiracy by the sordid six to ensure top four dominance for themselves is out of the question. We still await news of their punishment for breaching Premier League rules!

The thinness of the Hammers squad was ultimately the undoing. Was it ever likely to be strong enough to mount a sustained challenge with the injuries and suspensions? Even in in a normal season, let alone one as compressed as this one has been. A late rush of injuries to key players just became impossible to manage.

For me, the absence of Rice has been the most crucial, particularly in the defeats to Newcastle and Everton. Others may argue that not bringing in a striker in January was the key factor but I do understand the manager’s stance on that one, unless an overseas loan could have been arranged. A permanent deal from the bargain bucket (think Jordan Hugill) would only have made a sizeable hole in the summer’s budget, and for questionable benefit.

The parlous state of the squad is a direct consequence of woeful oversight at Board level for many years. Paying over the odds for unsuitable vanity signings, with lengthy and inflated contracts, and with little or no re-sale value has proved a disastrous strategy. That when there were inspired signings (Payet and Arnautovic), insult was added to injury by allowing them both to leave for well below market value.  At the same time, the academy has been experiencing years of famine.  Aside from the good fortune of picking up Rice when he was rejected by Chelsea, the last academy graduate of any note was James Tomkins.

The game with Everton proved exceptionally frustrating. The Toffees are a notorious bogey-side for the Hammers and once they had been gifted an early goal it was always going to be a struggle to find a way back. It was a typical Everton away performance and the Hammers, not for the first time, lacked the individual flair to unlock a massed and well marshalled defence. The two clear opportunities that did arise, for Said Benrahma and Vladimir Coufal, were left unconverted.

The Everton goal highlighted the weakness still present in centre of the Hammer’s defence. For all his strength, bravery and aerial prowess, Craig Dawson has clear limitations on the ground that explain why he was plying his trade at Watford. Most certainly a decent squad player but not a mainstay for a team hoping to be regular European contenders. With an ageing Angelo Ogbonna, central defence is one more area requiring reinforcements in the summer – along with keeper, left back, striker and, indeed, others.

End of season games can be wildly unpredictable as more teams start to take their foot off the pedal, peruse the travel green list and stock up on Ambre Solaire. With Brighton having secured Premier League safety in the week it will be interesting to see how they react. More so in light of the rush of blood that saw two red cards in their fixture at Wolves last week, leaving them short of a captain and two leading goal scorers.

Brighton under Graham Potter are something of an enigma. It is quite unusual for a club on such a limited budget to strive for attractive possession football. I have been suitably impressed at how comfortable even their lanky defenders are on the ball. It is a lack of goals that has typically let them down. Bissouma and Trossard are very fine players as was Lamptey in the early part of the season before his injury. In seven matches since returning to the top-flight the Seagulls have yet to lose to the Hammers, and have scored every time.

The major hope for today is that it will mark the return of Rice to the midfield. Not only for his own undoubted talent, drive and contribution but also because it releases Tomas Soucek to get further forward. Seeing Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell on the team sheet would also be an enormous bonus.  Apart from those injury concerns the outstanding call is between Jarrod Bowen and Benrahma for a starting berth. I think it goes to Bowen

As usual the bench will be very light on game changing options. When Andriy Yarmolenko and Ryan Fredericks are your big hopes, it does not auger well.

A big game for the Hammers, less so for the depleted Seagulls. Similar circumstances, perhaps, to when we faced a depleted Swansea at the end of the 2015/6 season and lost 4-1 at home, eventually costing the chance of a top six spot. Hopefully, we are made of sterner tough this time around. If Brighton play their normal possession game it should allow space for the West Ham runners to exploit on the counter attack. In theory, it should make them an ideal opponent. My prediction is that greater desire can break the Brighton duck with a comfortable 3-1 victory.

On Saturday West Ham visit the Seagulls on the South Coast

We thought it was all over ………. It probably is, but not quite yet!

My first visit to Upton Park was in November 1958. Since then I’ve watched West Ham live many hundreds of times. I have been a season ticket holder for many years and for virtually all the last 60 plus years I’ve seen the majority of our home games plus some trips to away grounds too. Of course times have been very strange for the last year or more and the last time I was there to see us play at the London Stadium was on Leap Years Day 2020 when we comfortably beat Southampton 3-1.

Do you remember that cold sunny day? Jarrod Bowen made the starting eleven for the first time and celebrated by opening the scoring. Southampton equalised in the first half, but shortly before half time Haller jumped for Antonio’s up and under with McCarthy (the Southampton keeper) who made an absolute mess of it, and Haller was able to score from a tight angle. Antonio broke away to score the third in the second half and might have had a fourth after a superb rabona from Haller sent him clear. Fornals provided the assists for the first and third goals, and the result moved us out of the bottom three on goal difference.

That is the sum total of my memory of my last experience seeing West Ham live, and little did I think that in the following season I would not be able to see them at all except on TV. But I had a glimmer of hope due to the easing of restrictions which allow 10,000 fans at the London Stadium for the final game of this superb campaign against Southampton on Sunday week. But my hopes were dashed with the following correspondence from the club on Wednesday:

“Unfortunately, you’ve not been successful in the Southampton ticket ballot. However in the event that a supporter can no longer attend, we may be in touch to share an opportunity to attend. We appreciate your continued support and look forward to welcoming you to London Stadium soon.”

Oh well the odds were 5/1 against so all I can do now is look forward to August to take the Central Line to Stratford for the first time in around 18 months. Hopefully all restrictions will have been lifted by then? Of course despite not visiting the ground I have probably seen more West Ham games this season than ever before, all of them in fact thanks to all games being shown live on TV. At least that has been some consolation in a season where we have surpassed all expectations and with three games to go are still very much in with a chance of qualification for Europe next season, even a tiny chance of a top four place.

As the season enters the final eight days, mathematically there are still eight teams involved in the quest for the top four, and the remaining fixtures of those (excluding the two Manchester clubs who are already there) are set out below. Losing three of our last four games means that our chances are now extremely slim, and both Everton and Tottenham’s hopes are even more remote, but I am still hoping for a storming finish and three wins to make it a record breaking season. Manchester United’s congested fixture schedule with ten changes in their team for the game in their midweek defeat to Leicester didn’t help us either!

Both Chelsea and Leicester only have two games to go but face each other in midweek which guarantees either at least one point for each, or alternatively three for the winner. But Arsenal’s surprising win over Chelsea on Wednesday has raised our hopes again. If Chelsea had beaten Arsenal then we might have had the situation where both Leicester and Chelsea would have been happy to settle for a draw next Tuesday but this is unlikely to be the case now. Everton’s draw with Villa yesterday evening was another bonus for us. They can now only reach 65 points at best (like Tottenham) and have the worst goal difference of all the teams involved.

But Liverpool’s win at Manchester United last night was a real body blow though. How different it might have been if Manchester United had anything to play for in their last couple of games played?

Leicester (66 points, Goal Difference 21, 2 games to go) – Chelsea (Tues), Tottenham (Sun) – maximum points possible 72.

Chelsea (64 points, Goal Difference 22, 2 games to go) – Leicester (Tues), Villa (Sun) – maximum points possible 70.

Liverpool (60 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – West Brom (Sun), Burnley (Weds), Palace (Sun) – maximum points possible 69.

West Ham (58 points, Goal Difference 10, 3 games to go) – Brighton (Sat), West Brom (Weds), Southampton (Sun) – maximum points possible 67.

Tottenham (56 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – Wolves (Sun), Villa (Weds), Leicester (Sun) – maximum points possible 65

Everton (56 points, Goal Difference 4, 3 games to go) – Sheffield United (Sun), Wolves (Weds), Manchester City (Sun) – maximum points possible 65.

We are still in a position whereby we need to depend on the (extremely unlikely) results of others whilst attempting to get maximum points in our remaining three games. That would take us to 67 points, and in view of the goal differences, Leicester only need one point to achieve that, and Chelsea need three. Liverpool need seven from their last three games to match our maximum possible points total and you wouldn’t bet against them winning all three to end on 69. But if we can do our bit and beat Brighton and West Brom then we could still go into the final game of the season with an outside chance of finishing in the top four.

At that point we would be on 64 points. If Leicester beat Chelsea then the Foxes would be out of reach but we could still finish above Chelsea if we won the final game and Chelsea failed to beat Villa. If Chelsea draw with Leicester, then they would still need to beat Villa to go above us. And if Chelsea beat Leicester then we could finish ahead of Leicester if Tottenham beat them on the final day. I’m not sure what result I’m hoping for in that game!

But all of these scenarios are irrelevant if we don’t win all three of our final fixtures. It would be quite remarkable if we went into the final day of the season still with a chance of finishing in the top four, but it has still been a fantastic season when you consider that it is still a possibility, however remote, with just eight days of the season remaining. If we win all three games then we are guaranteed to finish at least sixth. But Liverpool, with their relatively easy final three fixtures, should be the team who will be the most likely to sneak into the top four if Leicester and Chelsea slip up.  

Unfortunately the performance against Everton was a little lacklustre, and fine margins like the inside of the post, and a possible penalty when Antonio was bundled over, made the difference. Brighton have been a bogey side in recent times and now that they are mathematically safe (they were already OK in reality) means that they can play with freedom from pressure, so this game won’t be an easy one.  

With three wins a fourth place finish is still a possibility (but extremely remote). But we will need some unlikely results elsewhere for it to happen. Three defeats and we could even finish as low as tenth! I’m hoping for the former and not even contemplating the latter. I guess that in the end it may be somewhere in between? Sixth? What are the chances?

West Ham: Four wins might do it: Beginning with Sticky Toffee Fixture

Do you remember the days when we could go to the stadium to watch football? It seems a long time ago now. The last home game that we saw was the Southampton game on 29th February 2020. 59,962 of us were there on that sunny afternoon and very few of us would have thought that it would be more than a year before we could come again. Apart from the 2000 who were lucky in the ballot to see the Manchester United game on 5 December last year, none of us have been able to watch our team but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The success of the vaccination programme in the UK means that there is a very good chance that when the 2021-22 season begins it will be in front of full capacity crowds. And even before then, it seems that a lucky 10,000 will be able to attend the final home game of the season, which ironically is against Southampton. Fingers crossed in the ballot.

As a season ticket holder in the Billy Bonds stand I have a good view of some of the pre-match warm ups which take place half an hour or so before kick off. The routine that I tend to watch closely is when the ten outfield players who are in the starting line up play five a side (with no goals) just working on retaining possession of the ball. I’ve often been impressed with the swift interchange of passing that takes place, and sometimes wished that this could be translated to the actual game that follows. But on Monday night at Burnley we were able to watch the team demonstrate these skills in a game.

Our performance was superb as we played some great stuff with high tempo against a Burnley side who surprised me with how good they were. They were just unlucky to come up against us at the top of our game. The only downside was our finishing as we should have had the game wrapped up long before the nervous end that they like to put us through. Antonio took his goals superbly as well as adding a candidate for the miss of the season, but we are a much better side when he is playing.

But so many others had superb games too. Fornals, Lanzini and Benrahma showed great flair whilst at the same time doing their bit as the team defended as a whole. In fact just about everyone looked in great form, even Diop, who after a shaky first half recovered well to put in an excellent second half performance alongside Dawson. I was especially pleased with Benrahma who has had his critics (including the manager) but who began to show some of the great promise and potential that I believe he has. I saw a few Brentford games on TV before he came to us and hoped that he could translate his wonderful skills to playing in the top flight after he joined us. He’s not quite there yet but I believe he will be an important player for us in the years to come.

There are so many outstanding candidates for the Hammer of the Year this time around. Normally there are just a couple of players that stand out in a season but this time any one of a number could win it. My vote would go to Coufal. It is probably quite unusual for a full back (or wing back?) to win but for me if there has been a better right back in a claret and blue shirt since Billy Bonds played in that position (Ray Stewart perhaps?) then I haven’t seen him. Coufal has been a wonderful acquisition, just like his fellow countryman Soucek.  

We have already exceeded our 1998/99 fifth placed finish points total of 57 points, and sit in fifth place before this round of matches on 58 with four games to go. We’ll probably need to finish on 68-70 to end up in the top four, and that might not even be enough but I hope it will. 62 points is our Premier League best (in the 2015/16 final season at Upton Park) and surely we will go past that total. Looking at the fixtures to come then if we beat Everton in this game (or at least don’t lose the game) then I believe that should almost ensure a top six finish at the very least. It certainly helped us when Villa beat them last week.

But we want more than that, don’t we? I hold out hopes (if not quite expectations) of top four still, especially after Leicester began their annual implosion on Friday evening when capitulating to our 2020-21 nemesis, an improving Newcastle. I really wasn’t expecting that. Looking at their three remaining games how many points are they likely to finish with?

Leeds were worthy winners against Tottenham which was another result that helped our quest for a top four finish. But I have to say that I was massively disappointed with Manchester City’s casual approach to team selection, penalty taking, and all round effort against Chelsea. Even a draw in that game, which Manchester City should have wrapped up by half time, would have been a decent result for us, but the late winner puts Chelsea in the driving seat to finish third now. Liverpool’s win against Southampton, the poorest side in the Premier League in 2021 was not a surprise, but I was hoping for a shock there. We may need four wins to stay ahead of them. I’d love Manchester United to beat them but they have four fixtures in an eight day period which may mean they will not be at their best against the Merseysiders.

There are still eight teams involved in the quest for a top four place, and the remaining fixtures of those (excluding the two Manchester clubs who are already there [City], or close [United]) are set out below. I’ve left Everton in this analysis despite bookmakers offering 100/1 on them finishing in a top four position. There is still a lot of football to be played and although they are very definite outsiders, those odds are generous, and they would still have an outside chance, albeit very slight, if they beat us. Tottenham will rely on others losing too, even more so after their defeat at Leeds, even if they manage to win their final three games. It could even come down to Tottenham beating Leicester in the final game to assist our cause. If we can keep winning we will put pressure on both Chelsea and Leicester who still have to face each other of course, but Liverpool are a big threat too.

Leicester (63 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham

Chelsea (64 points, Goal Difference 23, 3 games to go) – Arsenal, Leicester, Villa

West Ham (58 points, Goal Difference 11, 4 games to go) – Everton, Brighton, West Brom, Southampton

Liverpool (57 points, Goal Difference 18, 4 games to go) – Manchester United, West Brom, Burnley, Palace

Tottenham (56 points, Goal Difference 20, 3 games to go) – Wolves, Villa, Leicester

Everton (52 points, Goal Difference 3, 5 games to go) – West Ham, Sheffield United, Wolves, Manchester City, Villa (away)

We are still in a position whereby we need to depend on the results of others whilst attempting to get as close as possible to maximum points in our remaining four games.

I’ve been looking at the odds for the Premier League next season. Manchester City are odds on to retain their title, and the “self-named big six” plus Leicester are the only teams with odds of between 5/1 (Liverpool) and 66/1. Everton are eighth favourites at 100/1, and we are joint ninth favourites with Leeds at 150/1, showing that bookmakers don’t believe that our performance this season will be repeated next time around. Excellent seasons in the past have generally not been consolidated by West Ham but this time I am hoping that it will be. At the start of this season we were quoted at 750/1 to win it this time. All of these prices are immaterial really because Manchester City should easily win again, with possibly Liverpool and Chelsea as the only challengers.

Three points today would be great. What are the chances?