A couple of weeks ago I renewed my season ticket for next season. 2019-20 will my 62nd season of following West Ham. How many hundreds of games have I seen in that time? Why do I do it? Am I a masochist? I knew a masochist once who liked to take cold showers. So he took hot ones. But seriously why do I spend half a day or more so many times each year travelling to watch 90 minutes of football? What’s more there are 60,000 others who do the same to watch West Ham, as well as countless others throughout the country, and indeed the world, that want to know what happens to the team in every game. And this is replicated to a greater or lesser extent by followers of 19 other teams in the Premier League, as well as millions who follow teams throughout the pyramid of the English game. I guess we love to watch football, but more than that we want to see our team win games and be successful.
Of course, the best I’ve seen from the team in the last 61 years has been a third place finish in the top flight in 1985-86, three FA Cup wins, a major European trophy, and countless great games of football with lots of entertainment and great goals. I’ve also seen a lot of dross. In many ways, one of the most enjoyable seasons was in 1980-81 when, a year after lifting the FA Cup as a second division side, we ran away with the second division league title with a record points haul and a home record to die for, winning 19 of our 21 league games at Upton Park. After losing our first home game that season to Luton, we won every other game apart from a home draw against Oldham. We all came away happy after every game. Other seasons outside of the top flight have given us some great entertainment, with more games won than lost, and probably a much better feel good factor about our team.
Yet all teams want to dine at the top table. They all strive to be part of the Premier League, possibly the most successful domestic football league in the world. Of course money is a big factor, as well as the opportunity to see some of the top players playing for the top teams. Ironically the Premier League is one of the most competitive amongst the major leagues in Europe. I say competitive meaning that probably six teams have a chance of winning it each year. Compare this to Germany, France, Italy and Spain, where only one or two teams have any chance each season. Some might say that is true of the Premier League this time around where the second placed team (Manchester City) are currently 16 points clear of Tottenham who are third. Similarly there is a wide gulf between Manchester United in sixth who are 14 points ahead of the team who are seventh. Where is the fun in the fact that at the start of the season 14 of the 20 participants have zero chance of winning the league, and four of the others have only a very small chance? OK I remember Leicester, but that was a freak season and will not happen again.
I suppose I cannot really criticise the Premier League when the top six elite clubs are so successful in Europe this season. Four of them are in the last eight of the Champions League, and the other two are similarly placed in the Europa League. But this is entirely my point. The top six are too good. Wouldn’t we all like to see a competition that is more competitive which would lead to much greater excitement? Unless your team is still in the FA Cup, the final third of the season becomes very dull with little to play for. Of course there is money for placings in the league but that only seems to interest the club owners, not those actually in the team, who if West Ham’s players are anything to go by are already thinking of their summer holidays, rather than professional pride, and entertaining the thousands who come to watch them.
The performance against Everton last week lacked effort and desire, and was feeble, abysmal, appalling, very bad, awful, dire, ghastly, atrocious, hideous, dismal, terrible, maddening, disgraceful. Add any other description you like. We would have been seventh in the league if we had won the game, yet quite frankly, apart from Fabianski and Rice (perhaps Ogbonna?) none of the others turned up or seemed remotely interested. Even the manager, who I quite like, cannot escape criticism with his team selection, surely? Seventh would mean the best of the rest (outside the elite six). Surely that is something worth playing for? The owners must have been cringing in their expensive seats as they watched the team doing their level best to reduce the interest in season ticket renewals.
And while we were struggling against Everton, and fans were leaving in droves well before the end, Chelsea, our opponents today, were not faring much better against struggling Cardiff. The South Wales club outplayed their more illustrious opponents from West London, yet the result of the game was inevitable somehow as it always seems to be when a top six club plays against a lowly side. Chelsea won the game thanks to some incredible decisions by officials, including an offside as blatant as the one for Liverpool’s goal at the London Stadium a couple of months ago, both of which left you feeling that the top sides somehow always seem to benefit from questionable decisions. It never seems to be the other way around.
The result of the game highlights my point about the wide chasm between the teams at the top and those at the bottom. The record for the elite six teams playing against the bottom three sides this season so far reads, played 31, won 31, goals for 90, against 18. Watford, just a point away from seventh place, have now lost nine consecutive games against the top six sides. What chance will they have in the FA Cup Final? Wolves, however, the team most likely to finish seventh, are doing their best to disprove my theory with four wins and four draws (and just two defeats) against the top six, whilst even our own team performed creditably (at home at least) against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
What will happen this evening? Another “bad day at the office” like the one we witnessed last week will see us beaten easily, even by a ‘relatively poor’ Chelsea side, who nonetheless are 21 points better off than we are, and still in the hunt for a Champions League place next season, helped by Arsenal’s loss at Goodison Park yesterday. In just over a week we have gone from a team who could have gone seventh in the league, to a team now in the bottom half, four points (and a poorer goal difference) adrift of the tenth placed side.
With nothing other than pride and place money to play for, even the most optimistic among us find it hard to envisage anything other than a defeat tonight. It would be great to see the players turn it on for our fans who make the trek across London, and those watching on TV, but the bookmakers’ odds showing Chelsea at 4/1 on, and West Ham 9/1 against to win the game are a pretty fair reflection of what is likely to happen. Chelsea have only lost one of their 16 home league games to date. At Stamford Bridge they have beaten Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City, and drawn with the other two elite teams, Manchester United and Liverpool this season, so what chance do we have of doubling their home defeats figure? Their only loss at home was against Leicester. I’d love us to do the same as the Foxes, but I won’t be holding my breath.