We have just four league games to go to collect enough points to ensure that we are playing Premier League football next season starting with Sunday evening’s home fixture against Manchester United. Of course, depending on results elsewhere we might have enough already, especially as our goal difference is perhaps worth an additional point in the final reckoning. But we can”t rely on what happens elsewhere; we’ve got to make sure that we do the business ourselves.
One of my favourite West Ham games was back in the 1976-77 season when Geoff and I were at Upton Park for the final game of the season on a Monday night in May when we needed at least a point to maintain top flight status. Our opponents that evening were cup finalists Manchester United who would finish the season in sixth position.
We had narrowly avoided relegation twice in the previous three seasons and we went into the game sitting 19th in the table, having miraculously climbed away from the bottom three due to a six match unbeaten run, in fact in the previous twelve games we had only lost one with two wins and nine draws including a 0-0 draw at Anfield on the Saturday two days before.
Our home record that season was superb and we hadn’t lost a league game at Upton Park since January, but the confidence at kick off was dented when Gordon Hill put the Red Devils ahead after 25 seconds. However Frank Lampard brought the scores level with a 30 yard thunderbolt. Geoff Pike missed a penalty by missing the target but made amends scoring a goal early in the second half. Pop Robson made it 3-1 before Stuart Pearson (later to join us of course) reduced the lead to one. Pop Robson settled nerves by heading home a Trevor Brooking corner and the game ended 4-2. If we had lost we would have been relegated. As it happens we did go down the following season!
It was Pop Robson’s 11th goal in 15 games after rejoining us. He was one of my all time favourites and to me it was a complete mystery why he was never selected for England. He was a prolific goal scorer with over 250 goals in a great career. 94 were for West Ham in not much over 200 appearances. What we’d give for a goal scorer like that now. He played for us in two spells in the 1970s, ironically we went on to win the FA Cup twice each time in the season after he left.
When we played Manchester City on Wednesday evening I was fearing the worst in view of the gulf between the two sides. City have been such a force in English football in the past few years, and are now undoubtedly one of the best club sides in the world. What a difference money can make!
Almost 25 years ago to the day after they beat us on Wednesday there was a massive gulf then between our two sides too. West Ham finished the 1997-98 season in eighth place in the Premier League. Manchester City were relegated from the second tier (then ridiculously known as Division One) into the third tier!
There was an amazing coincidence between ourselves and City that season. We both scored 56 goals in league games and conceded 57. But that was the only similarity. We were streets ahead of them at the time. How times change.
Back to the present day and Manchester City are about to win the league for the fifth time in the last six years; they haven’t finished outside of the top four since 2010 (when they finished 5th!). Our record as we all know is not quite so formidable.
And Manchester United? They are nowhere near as impressive as their local rivals. City was a game we had no realistic chance of winning. Despite our poor recent results United are a different proposition. At our best we can beat them and allay fears of relegation. What chance of 4-2 to match that vital game 46 years ago?