Trading Places: Smart Leicester Investors Put West Ham’s Barrow Boys To Shame

The season of light meets the season of darkness. Today’s fixture spotlights how two clubs have fared over ten years of new ownership.

Comparisons, they say, are odious, but a fixture between West Ham and Leicester is an ideal opportunity to consider a pertinent footballing one. Two clubs who, in terms of revenues, sit behind the Premier League’s traditional big six – and who should be well positioned to take advantage of any slip ups above them for an occasional top four finish, something that could well happen this season on the evidence of early results.

Ten years ago, both were under recent new ownership. West Ham were a Premier League side, were quickly relegated but then immediately regained top-flight status and are now in their 9th consecutive EPL season. Leicester, on the other hand, had just been promoted from the third tier of English football and it would take them until the 2013/14 season to win promotion from the Championship. This is their 7th season back in the Premier League.

Apart from the notable 2015/16 season in which Leicester were surprise Premier League Champions, while the Hammers started with promise but faded badly, it has been difficult to separate the clubs in terms of league finishes, until last term. Digging a little deeper exposes why the two clubs are on very different trajectories.

While Leicester have invested heavily in infrastructure for a sustainable future, West Ham have never progressed beyond perennial fire fighting – applying patched up solutions to problems with urgency always overruling importance. Loose change spent on ‘upgrading’ the Rush Green training complex compared to Leicester’s £100m new state-of-the-art facility is a perfect example.

While Leicester’s owners have provided stewardship, they leave the running of the club to professionals – a full-time CEO, Director of Football and Head of Recruitment provide a sound foundation on which the football side of the club can flourish. Success is not just about transfer spend – remember Leicester have sold Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Maguire and Chilwell in recent seasons and may well be running a transfer surplus – but how wisely money is invested on and off the pitch. There have been poor managerial appointments in the past but these were quickly rectified and Leicester will be seen as an attractive destination – for both managers and players.

Conversely, while West Ham’s owners have spent money on transfers, it has rarely been well spent – short term expediency and vanity signings in the absence of underlying strategy or direction. A club overseen by Joint Chairman and a part-time Vice Chairman who mistakenly believe they have everything it takes to do it their way. A foolish, overconfident belief that they possess all the expertise required to run a football club, even though their record at Birmingham and West Ham suggests otherwise. Their only demonstrable competence appears to be hubris – a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own expertise, accomplishments, or capabilities.

No doubt, as fans we are going to have a different set of perspectives on the club that we support unconditionally than the owners do. The same would be true at any club, but those expectations should never be so far apart as they are at West Ham. I have no issues if owners make piles of money from their investment but isn’t the route to greater value and increased revenues (prize money and TV exposure) through success and progress on the pitch – not by selling more popcorn or replica shirts on matchdays? After ten years the West Ham footballing strategy is still all words and precious little action – what happened to that ten point pledge?. Even worse the owner’s financial aptitude is akin to the penniless guy who steals all the rent money to pay off the bookie.  Theirs is a dereliction of duty, no matter if it is deliberate or accidental.

With such a backdrop it is no surprise that West Ham is a club in turmoil and have found it difficult to recruit during the transfer window. Would many players with options choose to opt for the London Stadium, other than for financial reasons? Reliance on preferred agents, the absence of a scouting infrastructure and with the potential for David Sullivan’s legendary market trader negotiating skills to scupper most , it has to be a very frustrating time for David Moyes. I have mentioned before that Moyes would not have been my first pick as manager, but I do believe he is a decent guy who deserves better support. That we have reached the tail end of the window with little to show for it is scandalous. The last two days of the window are the worrying territory of desperation, misfits, and drifters.

At least/ at last we are able to welcome one new member to the squad, in the shape of Vladimir Coufal, and hope that he can have a similar positive impact to fellow countryman, Tomas Soucek. Coufal brings a good deal of experience with him that should help shore up a creaking defence, even though left back and centre back might have been (and remain) the areas of greater need.

West Ham put in an excellent performance last weekend against Wolves and we will probably see a very similar starting eleven and formation for today’s encounter. With Ryan Fredericks unavailable competition for the right back berth will be between Ben Johnson and Coufal (if considered ready). In central defence, Issa Diop is available for selection and it is a toss up between him and Fabian Balbuena as to who is best equipped to handle the threat of Jamie Vardy. It is remarkable that despite everyone knowing the danger of the through ball (or over the top) to Vardy, managers have found it impossible to counter.

An additional hazard to look out for will be the slippery penalty areas at the King Power Stadium – judging by how easily the Leicester players appear to go over. West Ham defenders must remember to tread that fine line between ‘not enough contact’ and ‘he was entitled to go down’ which is apparently how contact in the area is now judged by pundits and VAR.

I read various comments online in the week suggesting that by fielding a reserve side for the League Cup defeat at Everton (effectively throwing the game) it will have damaged the Hammer’s morale. I can’t see how that makes any sense and can be disregarded. What the midweek game did show, however, was just how poor our big name backup players actually are. What chance of getting anything more than the deposit returned on the likes of Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and co? Others such as Robert Snodgrass and Mark Noble may show willing, but they are too far off the pace to be seriously considered as Premier League starters.

Leicester are without Pereira and Ndidi but have plenty of strength in depth with plenty of pace and guile in attack. Maddison is back from injury, Barnes is developing into a fine player and Castagne looks to be an excellent signing. If West Ham are to prevent a Leicester return to the top of the table it will require a superhuman effort of determination and concentration to achieve it. That might be too much to ask but what we are entitled to is the same level of commitment and organisation that was on show last weekend. If that is enough to frustrate Leicester than it will be an added bonus.

Can West Ham Outfox the Foxes?

What did you expect? Were we really in the EFL (Carabao) Cup to try and win it? I don’t think so. I know that these are early days, but Everton have made a blistering start to the season and are one of only four clubs on maximum points, together with Leicester, Liverpool, and Villa. They have won their away league games at Tottenham and Palace, and demolished West Brom at home. Their team selection indicated that they meant business. Our team selection, largely a reserve side, showed that we wanted to give a run-out to the fringe players who are currently not in the starting eleven in Premier League games. And while they looked impressive in the earlier rounds against lower league opposition, this time around they were found out. Even with our strongest team this would have been a tough ask to progress to the next round. But as soon as I saw the team selections I feared the worst. Everton (first team) v West Ham (reserves) – not really a contest. And so it proved. So once again one of the “winnable” competitions passes us by. There’s always the FA Cup of course. But will that take precedence over maintaining our Premier League status? Of course not.

Disappointed as I was with our performance at Everton, the opposite is true regarding the way we put Wolves to the sword. Considering the strength of the opposition this was most definitely one of our best performances in a long time, with the whole team shining. Defensively we looked very sound, and not many teams put four goals past Wolves. In the whole of last season only Everton (3) and Chelsea (5) managed to score more than twice in a game against them. Both those games were in the month of September, so perhaps we played them at the right time, in the month when they are at their weakest? The age-old argument – did we thrash them because we were so good or because they were poor? Possibly a bit of both, but I did enjoy the entertainment last Sunday evening.

This weekend we face Leicester who sit proudly at the top of the pile with three wins out of three in the league, scoring 12 goals in the process, and conceding 4. But Arsenal eliminated them from the EFL Cup. Can we take the form from the Wolves game into this fixture? We never know with our team of course.

Historically, just as with Wolves, we have a positive record against the Foxes, beating them in more competitive fixtures than they have beaten us. That record is largely enhanced by our results against them in the 1990s, when in 14 league games spread over the top two divisions, we won 12, drew 1, and lost only once. My memory of games against them is that they were fixtures that always seemed to have a lot of goals. On Boxing Day in 1967, we were 2-0 down in the first few minutes, but fought back to win 4-2 with a hat-trick from Brian Dear. It could have been many more but for a sparkling performance from the Leicester keeper (a 17 year old Peter Shilton who had ousted Gordon Banks from their team). Four days later in the return fixture we won 4-2 again at Filbert Street, and Brian Dear scored twice in this game too. And when we beat Leicester 4-0 the following season I saw the best goal that I have ever seen live when Martin Peters blasted a volley into the roof of the net after a pitch length move started by Bobby Ferguson, our keeper.

When he was in a rich vein of form Brian Dear took some stopping. In a two month period from mid-December to mid-February that season he found the net 11 times. In 1964-65 he didn’t play a single game until the middle of March, but in the final 15 games of that season he scored 14 goals, including 5 in 20 minutes in a game I watched on Good Friday against West Brom. It earned him a place in the team for the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the winning final in the successful European Cup Winners Cup run, where he scored four goals in those five games.

Over a course of several seasons in the 1960s Brian could not get a regular place in the side, but that may have been for reasons other than footballing and goalscoring ability. He only played 82 times for the club but averaged almost a goal in every other game, a better goals per game ratio than noted goalscorers such as Cottee, McAvennie, and Pop Robson. Loan spells away from West Ham in the late sixties were followed by a return to the club, but he never played for the Hammers again after the 4-0 defeat at Blackpool in the third round of the FA Cup, when he was one of the players involved in the notorious late-night drinking incident on the eve of the game. But what a fabulous finisher he was! We could do with a goalscorer with that kind of successful goals per game ratio now.

But enough of the Brian Dear nostalgia, and back to this game. The three teams that we will have played this week, Wolves, Everton and Leicester, are probably the biggest challengers to the elite six teams that have dominated the Premier League for some years now. Of course Leicester themselves were the 5000-1 winners not so long ago, after narrowly escaping relegation the season before with a great escape similar to our own a few years earlier, and are now consistently a top half of the table side. Brendan Rogers seems to have got the best out of Jamie Vardy, and last season he was the top Premier League goalscorer. He also notched a hat-trick against Manchester City last weekend, not the first time he has achieved that against City, and is already on five goals for the season after just three games. But four of those goals have come from penalty kicks! I wonder how many games will elapse this season before West Ham are even awarded four penalties?  

I see that we have a new right back! He’s Tomas Soucek’s Czech mate Vladimir Coufal from Slavia Prague. If he’s anywhere near as good a signing as Soucek then we’ll all be delighted. On the face of it he looks to be an absolute bargain. He looks to have all the right credentials so I’ll look forward to seeing him in the team. Does he have to spend time in quarantine first?

Of course with the start they’ve made, Leicester are odds on favourites to make it four wins out of four and remain at the top of the Premier League table. But I have faith in our team (the one that played Wolves anyway!) and I reckon we’ll spoil their party. 2-2 for me. What are the chances?

When this round of games is over, we will have our first international break of the season. Of course we all need a break after all the games we’ve played this season! Personally I don’t have the same interest in international football these days and hate these interruptions to the domestic campaign that appear so regularly so early on in the season. And in the current climate is it a good idea in this year in particular for players to be flying off all over the world in light of the pandemic? I’m not so sure.

Leicester v West Ham: A Quick-Fire Rematch With The High Flying Foxes

Last Saturday’s game against Everton was one of those where you left the ground thinking that the result was about right. Our first half display was bright enough and when we took the lead my initial thought was it was well deserved; let’s hope we can hold on to it or even improve on it in the few minutes that remain until half time. And then we conceded a corner, always a worrying thing to do given our record at defending them and the interval approaching. Our returning goalkeeper Darren Randolph had already demonstrated in the first half that he didn’t intend leaving his line to deal with crosses; he would leave them for our defenders to deal with. That was a mistake.

I’ve always liked Randolph as a keeper, particularly when it comes to reflexes, shot-stopping and clean handling. But when he was here before I always worried about his ability to deal with high crosses and his reluctance to come out to deal with them. I had hoped that aspect of his game may have improved in the Championship, but alas no. Ironically although I believe Fabianski to be an excellent goalkeeper that part of his game is perhaps his weakest too. That was one aspect of Joe Hart’s keeping that I liked, although his inability to hang on to shots and poor handling meant that many goals were conceded in that fashion in his time here.

Whilst on the subject of goalkeepers, between 1973 and 1988 only four goalkeepers started in matches for West Ham in the whole period of 15 years. Do you remember them? They were Bobby Ferguson, Mervyn Day, Phil Parkes and Tom McAlister. Incredibly, in our last six matches alone an equal number of goalkeepers have started the games for us – Fabianski, Martin, Roberto and now Randolph.

A trip to high-flying Leicester today will not be an easy one. The odds are stacked against us. It was only a few weeks ago when we tamely lost at home to a virtual Leicester Reserves side. In our last ten visits to Leicester we have won only twice, although to be fair we have only lost four of them. If you consider the last ten Premier League games between the sides, both home and away, then our record is even poorer with just one win, when we won 2-0 at the end of the 2017-18 season, a victory which ensured our safety that season. Incidentally David Moyes was the manager that day, and the two goals were scored by Mario, and that wonderful volley from Mark Noble.

Leicester’s recent form has been poor in comparison to their season as a whole, and they have now lost four of their last six games, conceding 12 goals in the process. In their first 17 games this season they only let in 11 goals. Despite that they are still third in the Premier League table well clear of fourth place, and likely to achieve a place in the Champions league next season. After being almost invincible at home all season, their defeat to Southampton was their second home defeat in a row. Generally fans believe that when it comes to scoring goals Leicester rely heavily on Vardy. To some extent that is true in that he is the Premier League’s leading scorer to date this season with 17 goals. But to balance that, Leicester’s last nine goals in the league have all been scored by different players.

Against Everton we extended our lead at the top of the Premier League table for sides dropping points from a winning position – the total is now 17. And returning to the goalkeeper, Darren Randolph has played in 15 away Premier League games and has only kept one clean sheet in all those games. Our manager has an even poorer record in that in 49 games away from home against a top four side he has only won just one of them!

Taking all of the above factors into account and adding the fact that we are the away side in poor form in 16th place in the table before this round of matches, facing a Leicester side intent on resuming winning ways to maintain their challenge for second place in the Premier League, then what realistic chance do we have? The bookmakers have Leicester at shorter than 1/2 to win the game, whilst we are a not very generous 11/2. Surely our odds should be much longer than that? I suppose we can take some heart from Southampton’s surprise win there ten days ago, although they are one of the form sides at the moment and have now taken 10 points from their last 5 games (as opposed to our 4 points, which is only better than Burnley’s 3 and Bournemouth’s 1). Even Norwich have picked up 5 points from their last 5 games! Also, Leicester were beaten at Turf Moor at the weekend by a Burnley side on a losing streak.

Perhaps another hope is the closeness of the Premier League this season. Last Saturday’s results illustrated that to some extent with 5 draws and the other 3 games being won by a solitary goal margin. On Sunday there was only a one goal margin in the Burnley v Leicester game, whilst Liverpool were the only side to win by two with their last minute second goal against Manchester United.

We’ve really got to hope for an unexpected win, because we have a tough run of fixtures coming up. After today in our next four games we have home and away games against Liverpool and a trip to Manchester City. In between we entertain Brighton, and then on 29th February in-form Southampton are our visitors. I may be wrong but I think that the last time we won a game on February 29th was the FA Cup quarter final against Burnley at Upton Park in 1964, the year we went on to win the trophy for the first time. I was in the West Stand standing enclosure at midday when the gates opened that day.

I can remember some entertaining games against Leicester. One of the highlights was a Boxing Day game in 1967 where we recovered from going two goals down to win 4-2. Another came the following season in 1968 when we beat them 4-0 and Martin Peters scored the best goal I have ever seen. Of course Mark Noble’s volley the season before last in our 2-0 win was also one of the goals nominated in the West Ham goals of the decade. Perhaps we can see a special goal today that wins us the game?