If it is not exactly a “must-win” game for the Hammers then it certainly is for the Potters if they are to have any prospect of playing Premier League football next season
Being of a certain age I can fondly recall the days when the prospect of a visit from Stoke City was one of the highlights of the season. For those of us who remember watching top flight football in the 1960s and early 1970s there were some epic fixtures against the Potters, who at the time were an attractive team that played entertaining football.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early October 1967 with a crowd of 24,000, we took our places on the “big step” on the North Bank at Upton Park about half way back slightly to the left of the goal. The Bee Gees were about to take over from Englebert Humperdinck at the top of the charts with Massachusetts. We were looking forward to the game and the first half didn’t disappoint us. Our first goal arrived when Geoff Hurst volleyed home a cross from the left from Peter Brabrook wearing the unfamiliar number 9 shirt. We had gone into the game with three out and out wingers in Brabrook, Sissons and Redknapp. The second goal was a spectacular overhead kick from Martin Peters following a cross from Redknapp. Shortly afterwards Bobby Moore sent Redknapp hurtling down the right wing, and he crossed from the bye-line to Hurst who headed home from six yards. Game over. Or so we thought!
Stoke had nothing to lose and came out attacking in the second half. When they pulled one back we weren’t unduly worried, but when a second went in we could see how the game was turning. Then our keeper Bobby Ferguson badly fumbled a weak shot and the rebound was turned in to bring the scores level. Stoke were now rampant and scored again to win the game 4-3. It is over 50 years ago now, but I remember the game very clearly. I’m not sure of the exact timing of the Stoke goals but my recollection is of them going in one after another in a very short period of time, a complete defensive collapse.
A couple of seasons later, almost to the day, a record which was banned by the BBC for its overly sexual content, Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus (Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg), was about to hot number one in the charts. If anything could be guaranteed to enhance the success of a song, being banned by the BBC was it. On a cold October Monday evening in front of a crowd of 27,000 we met Stoke again and raced into a three goal half time lead with strikes from Best, Brooking and Sissons. I can’t remember why, but Moore, Peters and Hurst who played in virtually every game at the time, were all missing for this fixture. From our customary North Bank vantage point we joked that we would probably lose 4-3 just as we had two seasons earlier. And we very nearly did! Once again Stoke came storming back to equalise the game at 3-3, and with almost the last kick of the game they struck the post.
Two seasons later we met Stoke in a League Cup semi-final that went to four games. In those days there were replays rather than penalty shoot-outs. On a Wednesday evening in December the first leg was away in the Potteries and we won the game 2-1 with goals from Best and a Geoff Hurst penalty. We were getting ready for a trip to Wembley! Almost 39,000 crammed into Upton Park for the second leg a week later. Stoke scored to bring the tie level at 2-2 before very late in the game we were awarded a penalty right in front of us in the North Bank. Geoff Hurst powered the spot-kick to the keeper’s right (as he always did), but the legendary Gordon Banks pulled off a magnificent save, and we went to a replay at Hillsborough in early January. That game ended goalless, so the tie went to a second replay, this time at Old Trafford three weeks later. For the whole of January the New Seekers were topping the charts singing (in Perfect Harmony!) that they’d like to teach the world to sing, a song made even more famous when it was used as a TV advertisement for Coca-Cola.
This second replay was incident packed, and one of the all-time great cup ties. It is remembered for Bobby Moore going in goal to replace the injured Bobby Ferguson who was concussed from a kick in the head early in the game. Incredibly Moore saved a penalty, although the rebound was turned in to put us 1-0 down. Incredibly we fought back and scored twice with goals from Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking. Ferguson returned to the game to resume in goal seemingly still concussed (it couldn’t happen today!), but we conceded two further goals, and Stoke won the game 3-2 to reach the Wembley final, where they beat the strong favourites Chelsea to win their first ever major trophy. They haven’t won another since.
Those heady football (and charts) memories are distant now, and neither Stoke (nor ourselves for that matter) are renowned these days for the entertaining style of our play. In recent years beginning with the Tony Pulis era, Stoke have become a team that I particularly dislike to watch. Their time wasting, blocking off the ball (American football style), and long throw game made them one of the most unattractive fixtures of the season. They regularly played the game to achieve throw-ins in the opposition half, and then Rory Delap would spend an age wiping the ball with a towel before launching the ball towards the penalty area to meet the head of one of their giants. One game I remember in particular was in the 2008/9 season when Stoke had returned to the top flight. Abdoulaye Faye (who later played for us in our promotion season three years later) scored for them in the first five minutes and then they killed the game stone dead with their tactics. We attacked them relentlessly and Carlton Cole scored an equaliser in the second half. The recriminations amongst the Stoke players led to Ricardo Fuller hitting one of his own players and getting sent off. With ten men, their time wasting went up a notch (if that was possible) whilst we continued to press for a winner. In the very last minute a Cole shot hit Diego Tristan (remember him?) and it fortuitously went into the goal. Stoke got exactly what they deserved.
So now we meet them again on a Monday night with a lot at stake. Our point at Chelsea last week took us closer to safety, and I hope that we can put another nail in the Stoke relegation coffin with a victory that would almost certainly mean we will retain our position in the top flight. With most bookmakers we are around even money to win the game which I believe to be very generous odds. Hopefully we can unlock the Stoke defence, which has conceded more goals than any other Premier League team this season (and they have the worst goal difference). In their position, with games fast running out, they surely will not sit back and play for a point as they really need to win most of their final games to stay up. After the game here they face Burnley, Liverpool, Palace and Swansea.
We have some tough fixtures ourselves after this game, so let’s hope we can put further daylight between us and the bottom three with three more points. A three goal lead by half time would be good! When we raced into a three goal advantage at half time in our last home game against Southampton it got me thinking as to how many times we had been three goals ahead just half way through a game in the sixty years I have been following West Ham. I couldn’t think of many, and with Stoke being our next home fixture, it reminded me of those two classic fixtures from the late 1960s. Of course this game will be nothing like those; it will be a tight, tense affair. Or will it?