The past week has witnessed a massive TV make-over show style transformation at West Ham. From a ragged, unloved, down at heel, ugly duckling of a side to a beautiful swan, as the Hammers gracefully swept past an astonished Chelsea at the London Stadium.
Talk Sport presenter and Chelsea supporter, Andy Jacobs (the unfunny Sid Little half of the Hawksbee and Jacobs double act) received a lot of stick for his on-air rant on the Hammer’s performance and his desire to see them relegated – but he had a valid point. How can a team that has performed so badly and carelessly for most of the season, suddenly pull out a committed performance such as that?
As a brief reality check for seasoned Hammers, the last time that West Ham completed a league double over Chelsea, in the 2002/03 season, it all ended in tears and relegation. In an eerie coincidence, the scorelines were also the same (although in the reverse fixtures) and achieved under the guidance of different managers (Roeder and Sir Trev on that occasion.) Just worth bearing in mind!
Today at Newcastle, we will get a chance to observe the make-over show epilogue, that bit when they return a week or so later to see whether the ‘made-over’ has managed to maintain their new and improved glamorous persona, or has slumped back into their customary shabby ways. What do we think might happen?
In his article yesterday, my blogging partner, Richard Bennett, admitted to having a soft spot for today’s opponents. What I would add to that, is a sense that our fortunes are somehow inexplicably entwined, as if by some mysterious external force. Both are massively under-performing clubs, with fantastically loyal support, that should never get relegated, but regularly do. Clubs hamstrung by dodgy, arrogant owners with little feel for football or what it takes to run a professional football club and who lack even the merest hint of imagination when appointing managers. Football clubs don’t do twinnings, but if they did West Ham would be twinned with Newcastle – partners in adversity, in much the same way that Coventry is twinned with Dresden, in recognition of their shared devastation during WW2. Success has been a stranger in both East London and Tyneside for far too long, aside from both sides belonging to a select group of proud Intertoto Cup winners!
Consequently, this fixture is often an unpredictable one. The last ten encounters have produced four wins and six defeats for the Hammers. You need to go back to St James’ Park in August 20113 for the last drawn game – a goalless grim stalemate, according to the Sporting Life, as Alan Pardew faced off with Sam Allardyce. This time around it is Steve Bruce versus David Moyes, each with over 900 games under their respective managerial belts (as you would expect, Bruce’s belt is the larger of the two) but with little to show for it, apart from Moyes 2013 Community Shield win.
Takeover fever also surrounds both clubs, although, as far as West Ham are concerned, it might simply be wishful thinking. A Saudi takeover at Newcastle has been bubbling under for some months while in London there are renewed murmurings of a Tripp Smith consortium. Whenever, I see consortium mentioned Tony Cottee immediately springs to mind and the ones that he has supposedly been trying to put together for the last twenty years. Give me a filthy rich, single minded, megalomaniac over a consortium any day. How conflicted we are as football supporters. Principles, morals and money laundering are easily trumped by success!
I see no reason to make any changes today from the team that started on Wednesday (unless there are enforced changes) as Moyes is likely to adopt the same defend in numbers, forgo possession and break quickly approach to the game. The potential return of Mark Noble, Sebastien (the cheques in the post) Haller and Arthur Masuaku should make it no further than the bench. I would again look to use Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere as substitutes, as they continue their respective roads to recovery. There are decent options on the bench.
For Newcastle, Shelvey and Ritchie have historically caused problems in games against West Ham but it is the mercurial Saint Maximin who worries me the most. Pace down the flanks is one of the Hammer’s principle Achilles body parts. Ryan Fredericks needs to be on his toes and Jarrod Bowen will have plenty of tracking back responsibility. Apart from that, there is also the scores-against-his-old-club threat posed by Big Andy.
VAR has had an horrific week even by its own low standards. The disallowed Michail Antonio goal was bad enough but the Lucas Moura handball was possibly the most laughable yet. It’s not often I agree with Mourinho but his assertion that the principal refereeing decisions are now made by a guy hidden way in a Stockley Park bunker is difficult to argue with. You would have thought that only a government could take a good idea and implement it so badly – but never underestimate the incompetence of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited. Today’s deliberating duo are Craig Pawson (whistle) and Simon Hooper (mouse).
Returning to the Chelsea game it also looked as if their players were not sufficiently socially distanced (according to this season’s new guidelines) from our wall for the Willian equaliser. Did that get reviewed?
So, what might happen today? According to the pundits: closet Hammer’s fan Charlie Nicholas is predicting a 2-1 away win; while Lawro had adopted his default 1-1 fence sitting position. Prior to the re-start I had expected Newcastle to be one of those teams whose minds were more on an air-bridge to Mediterranean sunshine than empty football stadiums. From their efforts to date it seems I was wrong – although perhaps it was thoughts of FA Cup glory (now thwarted) that had spurred them on. Results yesterday were again favourable meaning that any additional points would be most welcome. Maybe the boys can sneak away with all three, but I think that just the one is more likely: 2-2!