It’s the Final Countdown: There Ain’t No Party Like A West Ham Party

With an exciting trip to Prague on their minds, West Ham have a pivotal role to play in the final relegation placings as they host Leeds United at the London Stadium

Yesterday’s round of matches provided the final mathematical proof to what most had realised several few weeks ago, that West Ham would be once again playing Premier League football next season. Complex modelling of different scenarios that would result in Leeds overturning the Hammers goal difference advantage cease to be relevant as the two sides clash at the London Stadium this afternoon.

It was an eventful week for West Ham as they saw off the challenge of AZ Alkmaar to reach the final of the Europa Conference League in Prague. A degree of confusion existed in post-match interviews as to the precise relevance of 43- and 47-year anniversaries in Hammer’s History. To clarify, it is, of course, 47 years since West Ham reached a European final; and it will be an opportunity to lift a first major trophy in 43 years. Hammers of a certain age may also be familiar with the rarely spoken about heart-breaking experience of the 2006 FA Cup Final but prefer to keep that painful memory well and truly buried, like a long forgotten disgraced family member. Although, I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be at the game, I have avoided ever watching the highlights again!

Most pundits took the view that David Moyes got his tactics ‘spot on’ against Alkmaar. By maintaining a compact shape and defending deep it limited the hosts to a handful of half chances. For all their pretty possession they created little threat – and might have played many hours without looking likely to score. The irony is that this was not a cunningly devised tactical masterstroke, it is how his team plays every week. But more on that another time, as it is only right to celebrate the prospect of a big night out in Prague on June 7. It was fantastic to see how much getting to the final meant to the players as they celebrated after the final whistle. And what a story for the immensely likeable Pablo Fornals to come off the bench and score a stunning winner as the clock ticked down. A remarkable moment! I was even touched by seeing a broad smile light up the manager’s face.

It was a disciplined and professional performance from West Ham. Solid right across the back and with Declan Rice and Lucas Paqueta putting in excellent shifts in midfield. More might have been achieved from counter-attacks but both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma had below par nights. Bowen provided his usual good defensive cover – possibly expected to do too much defensively – but offered little going forward against young Hungarian full-back Milos Kerkez. If I was a scout I would add Kerkez to my watch list for what is a problem position at West Ham, although I hope our scouting network extends beyond players from teams we have beaten in cup competitions – Paul Hilton anyone?

I always think you can tell what sort of game Benrahma will have from his first two or three touches. If these go badly you may as well substitute him there and then. Or get him to change his boots. I see it as the exact opposite of the old Billy’s Boots comic strip which appeared many years ago in the Tiger and Scorcher. Rather than Billy turning into a superstar whenever he pulls on his magic boots, Benny and his boots sadly lose all coordination when attempting to shoot or cross.

A small group of curmudgeonly fans have been writing off the Conference as something of a tin-pot competition. It was clear (and encouraging) that the players see it completely differently. If the group stages can be a case of going through the motions, I doubt any of the participants take it easy once the knock-out starts. True it is Europe’s third tier competition, but there are not many opportunities in modern football for coaches and players to win trophies with the concentration of power in the hands of the monied few. And this is one of those occasions. West Ham could not have done much more than win 13 of their 14 matches played to reach the final. With silverware and potential qualification for next season’s Europa League up for grabs, it promises to be a great occasion.  

The Alkmaar match will also be long remembered for the heroics of Knollsy in coming to the rescue of the player’s family and friends who were targeted by a small group of home supporters attempting to storm the stands. Knollsy demonstrated some of the most uncompromising defending seen since the departure of Craig Dawson. AZ Ultra might easily be mistaken for the latest washing powder from Proctor & Gamble and it was heartening to see the ugly stains humiliatingly removed. Well done to Knollsy and also the players who leapt into the fray to protect their loved ones!

With the dust barely settled on Thursday’s semi-final it is back to Premier League action today where West Ham will play an important role on who joins Southampton in the Championship next year. A win for Nottingham Forest yesterday meant that all three of last season’s promoted clubs survive the drop, and narrowed the relegation field of two from Leicester, Leeds, and Everton. Leicester’s fate looks the most precarious even though nothing will be decided until next Sunday’s final games when all three teams have winnable home fixtures.

A win for Leeds today would put them in a strong position for survival with only a Spursy challenge to come. And we all know what Big Sam needing a win means for the way that a match might pan out. It will not be feast of footballing fun and entertainment. On the one hand West Ham will want to sign-off a memorable week on a positive note in the expectation of it being Declan Rice’s last game at the London Stadium as a West Ham player. On the other, Leeds tasked with spoiling the celebrations and sucking the atmosphere out of the party. The visitor’s pragmatic game plan will be to grab a goal and defend it with their lives.

I doubt Moyes will see the need to make wholesale changes from his normal team selection for the final matches. Maybe Kurt Zouma and Michail Antonio will be wrapped away in cotton wool until the final but that’s about it with just two games between now and the ECL Final.

Moyes will want to play fair for the relegation candidates. He must still have a soft spot for Everton and is said to be great friends with Allardyce through a shared football philosophy. In fact, I had an idea of Moyes and Allardyce featuring in a buddy TV series – think Coogan and Brydon or Whitehouse and Mortimer – where they hunt fossils on the Jurassic coast while reminiscing on their favourite scoreless draws. The working title is Sam and Dave’s Clean Sheets with Hold On, I’m Coming as the theme tune. Could be a winner!

A last home game of the season without any pressure other than a few million in positional merit money would typically be a massive party day. But with Big Sam not being the ideal party guest, the action on the pitch might end up being incidental to having a laugh, a joke and an old fashioned sing-song. COYI!

Can West Ham extend their winning sequence when Leeds visit the London Stadium for the second time in a week?

When I write these articles for Under The Hammers I often refer to current form and relate this to the last five league games played by the sides in the Premier League. The positions in the league table don’t always reflect the latest five games, but at the moment they are a very good guide, although Chelsea’s recent glut of draws (4 in the last 5 games) puts them at the bottom in respect of the current form of the top 7 in the league, despite remaining unbeaten in those matches.

What I’ve done is divided the league table into three sections; the top 7, the middle 7, and the bottom 6, and looked at the points that each team has accrued in the last 5 fixtures. The present position in the league appears in brackets, although this can be a little misleading in view of the disparity in numbers of games played following the postponements for COVID in the last few weeks.

Top 7: Manchester City 15 (1); Arsenal 12 (5); Tottenham 11 (6); Manchester United 10 (7); West Ham 9 (4); Liverpool 8 (3); Chelsea 7 (2)

Middle 7: Brighton 8 (9); Southampton 8 (11); Wolves 7 (8); Leicester 7 (10); Palace 7 (12); Brentford 6 (13); Villa 6 (14)

Bottom 6: Everton 4 (15); Leeds 4 (16); Newcastle 4 (19); Burnley 2 (18); Watford 0 (17); Norwich 0 (20)

The situation can change of course, but at the moment it looks as though the top 7 will fill the top 7 places at the end of the season, the ‘middle’ seven will finish between 8th and 14th, and the bottom 6 will stay there. Current form doesn’t indicate a great deal of change from that.

Leeds are the visitors for the second weekend running after we comfortably beat them 2-0 in the FA Cup third round last Sunday. We followed this up with a fairly straightforward 2-0 win over bottom club Norwich in midweek to make it three league wins in a row, to keep up our challenge at the top. We’ve now won four games in a row in all competitions since the unfortunate 2-3 reverse against Southampton on Boxing Day, and Leeds didn’t show too much last week to suggest that they can stop us making it five if we are anywhere near our best. The interesting thing is that I don’t believe that we have been playing that well in those games, but we have still been winning. That’s the sign of a good team I reckon.

If Zouma has recovered from his injury I would expect him to take his place in the team straight away, replacing Diop, who to me has looked half a yard off the pace in recent games. Assuming Soucek is still out I would expect the starting eleven to be Fabianski; Coufal, Dawson, Zouma, Cresswell; Rice, Lanzini; Bowen, Fornals, Vlasic; Antonio.

If Soucek returns then who would miss out? Vlasic has impressed me in recent games and I would expect him to retain his place. Similarly Lanzini who appears rejuvenated as of late, and of course Bowen is the man of the moment, so perhaps Fornals would be the one to drop out, although he, like Johnson at full back has done little wrong to be out of the starting eleven.

The transfer rumour mill continues apace but nothing concrete yet, and I don’t tend to believe anything until I see the incoming player holding up the claret and blue shirt and crossing his arms. We all know what areas need strengthening if we are to maintain our challenge in the Premier League, the FA Cup and Europe. David Moyes knows and the board do too, and I believe (hope) that they will support him if the right players are identified.

We’ve scored 13 goals (2,4,3,2,2) and conceded 6 (3,1,2,0,0) in our five games played since Christmas, an average of almost four goals scored by the two teams in every game in that period. I see little reason why our recent record cannot be maintained and look forward to our third 2-0 win in a week in this game.

The West Ham games to follow Sunday’s game against Leeds are:

Saturday 22 January – Away v Manchester United

Saturday 5 February – Away v Kidderminster (FA Cup Round 4)

Tuesday 8 February – Home v Watford

Sunday 13 February – Away v Leicester

Saturday 19 February – Home v Newcastle

Saturday 26 February – Home v Wolves  

I wonder how well we will do, and what position we will be in at the end of February with the European fixtures kicking in again in March? The game at Old Trafford is an important one against one of our key rivals at the top, and then three of our next four league games are at home. Those league games are all winnable but who knows how we will do?

The FA Cup game at Kidderminster comes 50 years to the day after that famous giant killing with John Motson’s Match of the Day commentary recorded for posterity when Hereford upset Newcastle 2-1 on Saturday 5th February 1972. Of course we put paid to the giant killers in the next round when we beat them (but only after a replay), but 2 years later Hereford were once again giant killers when they knocked us out of the FA Cup in 1974! I wonder if they will wheel John Motson out of retirement to commentate on our game at Kidderminster?

It’s interesting to note that all English Premier League clubs will have a week off at the end of January (despite the backlog in fixtures) for a new national team break that FIFA has created specially to help clear the backlog of World Cup qualifying games outside Europe. There will be no Premier League games after the weekend of January 22/23 until they resume with midweek games on February 8. This pause in fixtures is being taken despite European national teams not playing. The Premier League have confirmed that they will not allow league games to take place during the break despite the domestic backlog. Surely this will increase the backlog later on in the season? Or am I missing something?

A Very Brief History of West Ham in the FA Cup in the last 62 years, as Leeds visit the London Stadium today

The Third Round of the FA Cup was one of the great footballing days when I was a boy. But that was some time ago (when I was a boy that is). Of course it was (and still is) the day when the minnows who have battled through the qualifying rounds and the two proper rounds join the teams from the top two tiers hoping to perform a giant killing act. As a West Ham fan for many years I have witnessed plenty of those but unfortunately in the majority of cases we have been on the wrong end of them.

My first FA Cup memory was in season 1958-59. The third round in early January 1959 saw me approaching my fifth birthday. We were riding high in the top half of the table in our first season in Division One following promotion (we eventually finished 6th) whilst Tottenham were languishing near the bottom (eventually finishing 18th). They beat us 2-0. The following season we met Huddersfield of Division 2 and drew the away game in Yorkshire 1-1, taking them back to Upton Park where they thrashed us 5-1! In 1961 (again in Round 3) we drew 2-2 at home to 2nd Division Stoke, and then lost 1-0 in the replay. In 1962 (round 3 yet again), despite being a top half Division One team, we crashed out 3-0 at lowly Plymouth. At this time I’d never known us play an FA Cup game beyond 13th January! After 4 seasons I knew what giant killing was all about. We had been humbled on every occasion by inferior opponents.

But in 1963 we reached the quarter final (disposing of Fulham, Swansea and Everton) before losing 1-0 at Anfield. We were really getting the hang of the FA Cup by now and the following season (aged 10) I witnessed the first of what I expected to be many trophies when we beat Second Division Preston 3-2 to lift the cup. I wasn’t there on that day, but the win took us into Europe and I was at Wembley the following May when we won our second trophy, lifting the European Cup Winners Cup beating Munich 1860 in the final. But in that year we reverted to type in the FA Cup losing 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in Round 4.

In 1966 we lost 4-1 in a 4th round replay to Blackburn (who finished bottom that season), and the following year we got no further than the third round losing 3-1 away at 3rd Division Swindon in a replay. In 1968 we got to round 5 where we lost 2-1 at home to Sheffield United who were relegated that season. In 1969 we had progressed to round 5 before we were unceremoniously dumped out 3-0 by lowly Mansfield, and in 1970, once again in the third round we were beaten by a team from a lower level going down 2-1 at Middlesbrough.

It’s not making great reading so far (1964 excepted) so surely it would only get better you would think. Wrong! 1971 was the year of the famous Blackpool night club incident (Google it if you don’t know the detail) when we went out 4-0 in round 3 to the team who were to finish bottom that season. Huddersfield finished bottom in 1972 but that didn’t stop them knocking us out in the third round (4-2), and in 1973 we went out in round 4 to lowly Hull City. 1974 was no better when we lost to third division Hereford in a third round replay.

But, lo and behold come 1975, and we were once again FA Cup winners beating second division Fulham in the final, thanks to a brace from Alan Taylor in the quarters, semis and final itself. But for the remainder of the 1970s, it was back to despair in the FA Cup losing 2-0 at home to Liverpool (round 3 1976), 3-0 at Aston Villa (round 4 1977), 6-1 (!) at QPR (4th round replay 1978), and (how low can you get!) 2-1 at 4th division Newport County – by now we were a second division side ourselves for the first time since I had started watching in 1958.

Incredibly, as a second division team we battled through to the final in 1980 where we won the FA Cup for the third time beating Division One Arsenal 1-0 with Trevor Brooking’s famous header. And for most (but not all of the next decade) our FA Cup performances were generally better than I had experienced before. In 1981 we lost in a third round second replay to lowly Wrexham (1-0), and in 1982 it was round 4 to another team from a lower division Watford (2-0). In 1983 it was 2-0 at Old Trafford in round 3, but the following year we reached the fifth round before losing 3-0 to (eventually relegated) Birmingham.

For the next two seasons we lost in round 6 to Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday, and in 1987 it was Wednesday again in a fifth round replay. In 1988 we lost 3-1 to QPR in round 4 and the following year it was a sixth round replay where we went out 3-1 to Norwich. So, a slight improvement in the 1980s?

In 1990 we lost 1-0 in Round 3 to lowly (I keep using that word!) Torquay but the following year we reached the semi-final at Villa Park where thanks mainly to Keith Hackett we were denied a place at Wembley. The following seasons were not too great losing 3-2 at home to Sunderland (round 5 replay 1992), 4-1 to Barnsley (round 4 1993), 3-2 at Luton (round 6 replay 1994), 1-0 at QPR (round 4 1995), 3-0 at Grimsby (!) (round 4 replay 1996), 1-0 at home to Wrexham (!) (round 3 replay 1997), on penalties at home to Arsenal  (round 6 1998), 1-0 at Swansea (round 3 replay 1999).

We have done better in the 21st century (in not being the victims of giant killing!) going out to Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United (4 times), Manchester City twice), and Arsenal. But there have still been some less than impressive performances losing to Fulham, Sheffield United, Watford, Middlesbrough, Stoke, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, West Brom (twice), Wigan, and AFC Wimbledon. The best performance was, of course, in 2006 when we unluckily lost the final in Cardiff to Liverpool on penalties after drawing 3-3 after extra time and conceding the late equaliser in normal time to Steven Gerrard when the ball should have been planted into the stands in the last minute!

Without carrying out a study of every club I am quite confident that we have probably lost in the FA Cup to “lesser” teams (that is those lower than us in the same division or from a lower division) on more occasions than any other team in the top tier of English football. And our record in the League Cup is equally poor. Nonetheless I am confident we will dispose of Leeds on our way to our 4th FA Cup win in 63 years next May. What are the chances?