Hammering Out A Toon: As The Pubs Re-open West Ham Head Up For A North-East Knees Up

A midweek win has transformed West Ham from an ugly duckling to a beautiful world-beating swan. Can West Ham justify our implausible new found optimism with a back-to-back win at Newcastle?

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!

Wednesday Wonderland for West Ham, but will it be a Super Sunday at Newcastle?

Was that an enjoyable finish to a game of football or what? On Wednesday night I enjoyed the ending of a game of football more than I have done in ages. When you have supported West Ham for as long as I have (back to the late 1950s) you can probably recall so many occasions when a game of football involving our team has had a dramatic finale. And in the vast majority of those we have been left shaking our heads in disbelief as a late goal has either stopped us from winning a game, or turned a draw into a defeat. And how many times in recent years have teams broken away at pace to score an important late goal against us? Well just for once tonight it was the other way round.

How important was Andriy Yarmolenko’s goal for West Ham? That single goal turned one point into three and gave us a small cushion ahead of our close rivals in the relegation stakes. We are now three points above the drop zone with a superior goal difference over the others involved. But despite only having 29% possession and facing a talented Chelsea team, that goal and the win it produced will (I hope) give everyone at the club massive confidence for the six games to come. You only have to look at the league table and the fixtures remaining to see why bookmakers’ odds, that had us not much better than even money to be relegated before the game, have now changed dramatically. If you still think we will go down you can get odds of 7/1 or bigger, and to stay up we are now quoted at around 1/16.

For me, the whole team, including the substitutes of course, played well. The commitment of the players against a team pushing for a Champions League place was admirable. As the game was drawing to a close I was pleased with the point we were about to get, but the joy of that breakaway winner will stay with me. And fine goal that it was, especially given the importance, it wasn’t even our best goal on the night. That was our second goal. Watch it back if you get a chance. How many West Ham players touched the ball in the build-up? I think I’ve got it right in saying that every outfield player was involved. Goals such as these rarely win goal of the season competitions (that is usually reserved for dramatic overhead kicks or volleys) but for me, this was our best goal of the season. After several viewings I think I’ve got it – Fredericks to Soucek to Diop to Ogbonna to Cresswell to Lanzini to Rice to Lanzini to Rice to Fornals to Rice to Antonio (penalty?) to Fornals to Bowen and finally swept home by the tireless Antonio (my man of the match but so many in contention).

I’m pleased I don’t have to say too much about that ridiculous three and a half minute VAR fiasco where Jonathan Moss, who has been involved in so many controversial decisions against us in the past few years, once again made my blood boil. But we won the game in the end so I’ll forget it for now. Until we come across the same official.

The games come thick and fast now, so how many of our players are fit to play against Newcastle? I was a Newcastle fan the other night when they played at Bournemouth. Actually I quite like Newcastle anyway, more so than many of the other clubs in the Premier League, so even without wanting Bournemouth to lose that game, I was pleased they won so convincingly. My prediction before the resumption was for Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth to go down and I see no reason to change my mind now. The bookmakers now have those three as strong favourites to be relegated with Norwich 1/100, Bournemouth 1/8 and Villa 1/4.

Apparently three of our injured players are back in contention for selection in this game, Noble, Masuaku and Haller. Will there be any changes in the starting eleven? I’ve really no idea, although normally I like to see the same players involved in such a confidence boosting victory retained. But the Chelsea game may have taken more out of the team than we know and there is little chance for a rest prior to the game.

Perhaps Haller will be recalled to play alongside Antonio in attack? If so, whose place would he take? Despite Lanzini’s improved performance the other night, both he, and to some extent Fornals give the ball away too much for my liking. Wilshere has a habit of finding team mates when he has the ball which is a good thing. Of course Yarmalenko made a strong case in his cameo for inclusion, but perhaps a place on the bench with greater trust in bringing him on will be what will happen? In all of this Anderson seems to be the forgotten man. Is there a way back for him? Not at the moment I would suspect.

And I haven’t even mentioned Noble. Before the Chelsea game I thought it would be good for him to sit it out, and as it turned he was injured anyway. I see him playing a part in the games to come, but more often from the bench would be my thinking. Rice did an excellent job as captain, cajoling and encouraging all around him, whilst delivering another imperious performance in midfield. I’m not sure whether or not there is any chance of him still being with us next season, but by giving him the captain’s armband and telling him that the team will be built around him, might be our only remote chance of him staying. I’m afraid that the owners’ eyes might light up if a substantial offer is received for him though.

The thing about being a West Ham fan is that you are never quite sure what you are going to get from one game to another. I hope we don’t see a reaction whereby the players think that the job is done and we are safe. The intensity and commitment from the Chelsea match needs to be maintained for the rest of the campaign, and must continue at least until we are sure of playing Premier League football next season. Perhaps this game will come too soon? Newcastle, despite playing on the same evening, didn’t really have to get out of second gear to beat a poor Bournemouth side, whereas we needed to be in top gear throughout.

So what will happen? I’d like another win of course, but we may need to settle for a draw in this one. With Bournemouth playing at Manchester United, Watford at Chelsea, and Villa at Liverpool in this round of matches, I suspect that a draw might prove to be a good outcome. I’m sure Messrs. Lampard and Klopp will demand better performances from their players after the midweek defeats, and surely Manchester United will thrash Bournemouth?