Whistling A Happy Toon: Five Takeaways From West Ham’s Opening Day Rout At St James’ Park

West Ham swept to victory in a thrilling game away at Newcastle. The lessons learned and player ratings.

That’s Entertainment

It was great to get a Premier League season off to a winning start for a change. Hopefully, not an omen for what transpired after last season’s opener, where with the result reversed the Hammers went on to great things while Newcastle faded into indifference. A fantastic win at a stadium where West Ham rarely bring anything home, but more than anything it was good old-fashioned entertainment. Credit to both teams and the officials for that. A recognition that football is a contact sport where tackling is part of the game. It’s not a foul every time a player goes to ground at the merest suggestion of contact. Six goals and thirty-five goals attempts in an end-to-end thriller was superb value for money. The icing on the cake was that VAR did its job quietly in the background – unobtrusive in correcting obvious errors just as it is supposed to be.  

The Defence Rests

The clean sheet obsession is a relatively new phenomenon in the stat dominated world of football. Give me a competitive 4-2 victory over a cagey 1-0 win any time. Any team showing a sense of adventure will always present occasional chances at the back. Having said defensive competence is expected and the careless play that contributed to both Newcastle play should be avoided. Both times possession was surrendered cheaply close to our own penalty area with poor marking compounding the errors. The first began with poor control from Aaron Cresswell, was assisted by Declan Rice failing to prevent the tricky feet Saint-Maximin from getting to the bye-line, and was completed by Craig Dawson and Vladimir Coufal losing Wilson in the penalty box. The sloppy second started when a combination of Jarrod Bowen and Coufal failed to clear their lines and ended with an unmarked Murphy presented with a free header from a cross that landed on his head.   Both very poor goals to concede!

A Game of Two Halves

In his post-match comments, David Moyes suggested the Hammers had played well throughout ninety minutes. I don’t agree with that. A spark was missing in the first 45 minutes but was thankfully reignited in the second period. At half-time Newcastle were good value for their lead and it looked like they wanted it more in front of a passionate and vocal (but what a great effort from the visiting West Ham supporters) . Rice and Coufal in particular looked completely different players after the break as the Hammers took firm control on the game. Moyes claims he didn’t change things at half-time but there was a discernible change in attitude. Whether it was renewed belief as a result of Said Benrahma’s fine headed equaliser, or the consequence of superior fitness, but the Hammers increasingly looked to be the likelier victors. Even the Oracle Cloud Win Probability Predictor thought so. Once West Ham were ahead it would always be difficult for Newcastle’s counter-attacking tactics to get them back in the game. And talking of counter attacking what a sweet breakaway goal the Hammer’s fourth from Michail Antonio was. In my match preview I pointed out how few goals the Hammers scored last season between the 61st and 75th minutes. How wrong that was this time. West Ham saw out the closing period comfortably and by the 87th minute I was completely relaxed that we wouldn’t be losing this game.  

Spot Kick Conundrum

Penalties are always a matter of opinion. Some are more obvious than others, and while the one given for the foul on Pablo Fornals may have been close to 50/50, it was not a clear and obvious error to award it. The defender (Murphy) stuck out a desperate leg which caused Fornals to go over. You could see Murphy acknowledge his mistake and Fornals attempted to get up again in pursuit of the ball. A reasonable call in my book. Not sure what process led to the decision to nominate Michail Antonio as designated penalty taker, but he looked no more confident with the responsibility than Rice did in the past. I like to see penalties old-school with a decent run-up (at least to the edge of the penalty area) and striking the ball as hard as you can. I’m sure Tomas Soucek would be a better pick, but Cresswell would also be a good call.   

Strong Team, Weak Squad

On the second half showing it is apparent that this is a very decent starting eleven, with tremendous spirit, who are good enough to compete for a place in the top six of the Premier League. But a look at the bench (with I think only had Arthur Masuaku missing) reveals how shallow the squad depth is. It can never be good for a team to effectively pick itself with no competition for places. And that ignores the injuries and suspensions that will inevitably turn up during the course of the season. Additional numbers are badly required in several key positions. A new central defender is needed but not surprisingly the striker situation gets the most attention, and is naturally the most difficult to fill. The 50 or so misfiring strikers that Gold and Sullivan have signed during their tenure at West Ham demonstrates the dilemma facing the club right now. And time is running out fast to solve it.

Ratings: Fabianski (6), Coufal (7), Ogbonna (7), Dawson (6), Creswell (7), Rice (8), Soucek (7), Bowen (8), Benrahma (8), Fornals (7), Antonio (8)

Can West Ham reverse the poor opening day record against Newcastle?

In my last article earlier this week I referred to two games where we met Newcastle in the opening game. Those games were at home in 1973-74 and 2020-21. And we lost both of them. The last time that our first game of the season was away at St James Park was in 2002-03. And that, too, was perhaps a match (and a season) we’d like to forget.

The game in August 2002 was televised on Sky as the Monday night game, and for an hour it remained scoreless. By the end of 90 minutes we had lost 4-0 to goals from Lua Lua (2), Shearer and Solano. Do you remember Nobby Solano? He played for us subsequently as did another player in the Newcastle side that day, Kieron Dyer. Our team that night boasted players such as David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair and Jermain Defoe, but it was just the beginning of a wretched season that ended with relegation at the end of it.

After that poor start on the opening day we did not win a game until our seventh game of the season when we won 3-2 at Chelsea. We didn’t actually win a home league game that season until January 29th! One thing I do remember from that time was injuries to our strikers Di Canio and Kanoute, and a lack of depth in the squad forcing us to play Ian Pearce (a defender) as a striker. Nowdays that wouldn’t happen I assume with ‘false nines’ but I would like to see us begin the season with more out and out strikers other than just Antonio.

What do you think of West Ham’s three kits for 2021/22? Will we be wearing the middle one in the opening game, or is this too similar to Newcastle’s black and white stripes? I assume it will be the third strip, although our home kit would be my choice

Last season was probably our best ever in the Premier League, albeit not our highest finish, which was 5th in 1998/99. But back then (1998/99) we had only improved from a finish in eighth place the season before, and we were ten points below the fourth placed team. But our sixth place in the season just ended was only one win away from the top four, and an improvement of ten places over the season before.

But when you look at our results against the teams that did finish in the first four places, it wasn’t very good to say the least. In those eight games we drew one and lost seven. Compare that to the games against the other 15 teams that make up the Premier League and you will see a marked contrast. In those thirty games we won 19, drew 7, and lost 4, collecting 64 of our 65 points. Ironically two of those four defeats were against a very average Newcastle team. Better results against them could potentially have resulted in a top four finish.

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict our team for this first game, with few changes in the squad that ended last season. Fabianski will continue in goal (for the time being at least); Coufal, Diop, Dawson and Cresswell will be the back four, Rice and Soucek will play in front of them, with Fornals, Benrahma and Bowen supporting Antonio up front. Well that’s how I see it anyway. The only possible changes to that would see places in the starting line up for Ogbonna, Lanzini, or Yarmolenko, although the former two have had minor knocks in pre-season. We really need some reinforcements to the squad in view of the additional fixtures this season.

There’s no reason why our poor opening game record against Newcastle cannot be reversed this time around, especially considering our excellent pre-season form, and availability of almost all the players in the squad. I’ll predict a 2-0 away win. Unusually for us we go into an away game against a team who did the double over us last season as 6/5 favourites to win the game with Newcastle at 23/10, and the draw at almost the same odds at 12/5. A 2-0 win is around 10/1. I always like a slightly unusual bet, and this time I’m going for Antonio to score more goals in the game than Newcastle at 6/1.

I was looking at the odds for winning the Premier League, and they give a good indication of where the bookmakers, and most pundits expect teams to finish this season.

Manchester City 4/6; Chelsea 9/2; Liverpool 5/1; Manchester United 8/1; Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham all 50/1; Villa, Everton, Leeds and West Ham all 100/1; Brighton, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Wolves all 500/1; Brentford and Burnley 750/1; Norwich and Watford 1000/1. Of course some bookmakers have slight variations but generally they seem to think we will finish somewhere between 8th and 11th. That’s probably about right, but I believe that with more investment in quality players we could perhaps achieve a finish similar to last season’s sixth.

It depends on how optimistic you are but if you fancy a bet on West Ham, we are 12/1 to finish in the top 4, 5/1 to finish in the top 6, and 8/11 to finish in the top 10. Anyone other than the top 4 in the betting is not a realistic bet to win the title, and few pundits vary from Manchester City (and possibly Chelsea) as realistic contenders, although Liverpool and Manchester United cannot be completely ruled out. I reckon everyone else can be.

I’d love to see us make a storming start to the season. If you are old enough to remember 1983/4 (as I am) then you might recall that we won our first 5 league games to top the league by the end of September with 15 goals scored and just 3 conceded. That was the season we beat Bury 10-0 in a League Cup tie too. We were still second in the table in December, but faded as the season progressed. With six games to go we were sixth, but just two draws and four defeats in those final six games meant that we finished 9th. In fact we only won one of our last twelve league games. Trevor Brooking retired after the last game which was a 1-0 defeat at home to Everton.

Football was very different then of course. The Premier League would not come into existence until the 1990s, and the top flight was called simply Division One. Liverpool were champions but Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers all finished in the top five. Other teams in the top division included Ipswich, Sunderland, Luton, West Brom, Stoke, Coventry, Birmingham and Notts County. Neither Manchester City or Chelsea were anywhere to be seen!

But Back to the Future, or 2021/22 as it will be known, football will once again be played in front of capacity crowds. Let’s hope that can continue throughout and not be interrupted by another wave of the wretched pandemic that has disrupted our lives for the past (almost) eighteen months. I’d like to see an improvement in the performances of officials to match those that we witnessed in the Euros in the summer. I hope we see better use of VAR, such as less fussiness (just concentrating on key decisions), no more offsides by a toenail or armpit, and better interpretation of handball. I’d also like to see West Ham finish as Premier League champions, or at least in the top four! What are the chances???!!!

Carry On Lingardless: No Change For Dithering Hammers In Season Opener At Newcastle

It will be a Billy No-New-Team-Mates West Ham who face Newcastle United at St James’ Park on the Premier League’s opening weekend. Will the Hammers avoid a trademark sluggish start to the season?

By most measures, last season was West Ham’s best-ever in the Premier League. Sure there was a 5th place finish in 1998/99 but in terms of games won, points earned and goal difference, the 2020/21 campaign was way ahead and the closest the club have ever been to Champion’s League qualification, missing out by just one more win.

But the dawn of a new season consigns the heroics of the last one to history. The manager starts with credit in the bank but it can be so easily lost in football – as witnessed when Claudio Ranieri was sacked less than a year after winning the title at Leicester. It has to be a huge worry for David Moyes, despite his apparent outward public composure, that he starts the season with an even thinner squad of players available than he had in May – and with both domestic and midweek European competition to deal with.

I have tried to be patient but the apparent disarray with player recruitment has been a major test. Surely the signing of at least a couple of new players is a basic human right for modern day football supporters!

While the transfer window remains open for a further two weeks, the potential for panic buying increases the nearer the deadline gets. Last minute shopping is one thing but doing all your Christmas shopping at the motorway service station on Christmas Eve is sure to end in disappointment. As is buying a striker who has fallen off the back of a lorry from a bloke down the pub – probably closer to David Sullivan’s modus operandi with his favourite agents.

Still, we must put that to one side and prepare to get behind the team for their trip to Newcastle on Sunday. With no new faces (apart from Alphonse Areola) the team selection should be relatively straightforward, subject to injury absences. The same eleven that started against Southampton in May but with Said Benrahma replacing the now departed Jesse Lingard.

Once again, the partnership of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be crucial for a successful Hammer’s season. I can’t help feeling this will Rice’s farewell season in claret and blue. The period he missed towards the tail end of last season – including the defeat away at Newcastle – was instrumental in the Champion’s League charge eventually hitting the buffers. Hopefully, he suffers no hangover from the Euros or distractions from incessant transfer talk.

Soucek was the deserved 2020/21 Hammer of The Year. Joint top scorer and on the pitch for every minute of league action apart for the one missed following the ludicrous sending-off at Craven Cottage. Soucek was also top of the Premier League standings for number of Aerial Duel’s Won and, surprisingly, second in the rankings for Fouls Committed. Meanwhile, Rice was first in the PL standings for Percentage of Successful Dribbles and was second placed for number of Interceptions. An indication of their joint importance to the cause.

In defensive areas, the squad continues to look light in cover for the Centre and Left Back positions. Aaron Cresswell’s experienced something of a renaissance last season and is a deserved starter on the left, but backup is required. A new first choice centre back should be a priority though. Craig Dawson exceeded all expectations when he came into the side last year but, despite his obvious courage and spirit, he is exposed by pacey forwards running at him – as demonstrated by the defeat and red card at St James’ Park in April. Perhaps the Nikola Milenkovic saga will eventually come to a positive series finale.

Numbers are also look short in attacking midfield areas. Benrahma has looked lively in pre-season and should begin the season as a more regular starter along with Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals. I’m not convinced though that collectively they offer enough to compensate for the loss of Lingard, who added pace and directness to the Hammer’s counter-attacking options.  I don’t see either Manuel Lanzini or Andriy Yarmolenko in anything other than cameo roles, should they remain at the club.

The ludicrous striker situation is long running and well documented. It would be extreme negligence to enter a busy campaign with complete reliance on Michail Antonio. I am a big fan of Antonio and am look forward to him becoming the Hammer’s All-time Premier League top scorer in the coming weeks. However, everyone knows he is unlikely to go through a whole season injury free. The make-do-and-mend alternative of playing Bowen up top is even less appealing the absence of Lingard.

Newcastle have also failed to register any transfer activity, at time of writing, although there is a chance they will seal a deal for Joe Willock in time for Sunday’s fixture. The threat of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin are well known to West Ham fans and Steve Bruce has yet to drop a point against the Hammers as Newcastle manager – having won all four league fixtures as well as a victory in the EPL Asia Tournament. With a stadium full of passionate home supporter this will be a big game to win. I might even settle for a predicted 2-2 scoring draw!

A repeat of last season’s top six finish will be a huge challenge for a squad that has limited options and a style that will now be more familiar to opponents. Anywhere in the top ten would represent a good result – and, of course, winning the Europa League as a way into the Champion’s League. In the PL it is difficult to see past Manchester City and Chelsea and my final table standings are as follows:  

Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Leeds, West Ham, Everton, Newcastle, Wolves, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Burnley, Watford.

It was interesting to see the statistics on goal-scoring times in our league games last season. West Ham goals scored were fairly equally spread in the first four 15 minute segments of games (between 9 and 11 goals in each) but with a sudden drop to just 4 out of 62 goals netted between the 61st and 75th minutes. This was followed by a spree of 17 goals scored in the final 15 minutes (plus added time). The moral is, if you need to pop out to get a beer or use the toilet, do so just after the hour mark. But be aware, this was the second highest segment of the match for goals conceded.

I’m looking forward to the season and hoping that it’s an entertaining and rewarding one for West Ham fans everywhere. Getting off to a good start with a a top performance at Newcastle would be a welcome change. All we’ll need then is a flood of canny deals before the distinctive slamming shut of the transfer window . COYI!

West Ham Season Opener Revisited: You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next

This week’s preview is brought to you by HammerCalm, the official stress relief medicine of West Ham United. Take one tablet after the third Hammer’s goal and the proven slow-release formulation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation until the seventh minute of added time.

Do you remember, the 12th night of September? West Ham had just crumbled to defeat in the opening game of the 2020/21 season to Newcastle United. The omens were grim. A dispirited Hammers, lacking pace and positional sense, reeling from the controversial sale of Grady Diagana, had been easily beaten 2-0 by a visiting side considered to have recruited wisely during the transfer window. The obvious flaws in the West Ham defence had not been addressed and a season of relegation struggle and disharmony was widely predicted.

Who but a fool would have guessed, back then, that when we reached the final seven matches of the season, West Ham would be challenging for a Champion’s League place with Newcastle on the periphery of the relegation scramble?

West Ham’s transformation has been astonishing, regardless of what happens in the remaining games. The defence was eventually patched by the addition of the inspirational Vladimir Coufal and the resolute Craig Dawson, but it was done at very little expense. Where biggish money was pledged, for the creative probings of Said Benrahma, this has yet to pay the expected dividends. Otherwise the team is largely unchanged – in personnel, if not in performances. There have been many notable contributions to the team’s success (Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek, Angelo Ogbonna to name but a few) but it has been the arrival of Jesse Lingard that has sparked the final assault on the top four.

At the end of January when victory at Crystal Palace first saw West Ham break into the top four, the pundits warned that a difficult run-in would bring them back down to earth. Most of those tough fixtures (at least on paper) are now behind us and still we sit with an opportunity to end the weekend not only in the top four, but in third place. No doubt there is still time for the wheels to fall off, but what delight to be in with a shout.

After last night’s draw between Everton and Tottenham, the race for the remaining two Champion’s League’s places is realistically down to Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool. The assorted bookmakers, sporting indices and pundits continue (not unsurprisingly) to see the Hammers as firm outsiders. I’m sure many West Ham fans feel the same wrestling between their privately held hopes and their publicly voiced expectations. At least the top four race provides an element of intrigue to a season that is in danger of fizzling out long before the end.

Next up in the West Ham run of weekly cup finals is a visit to St James’ Park for the return fixture with Newcastle. The Hammers achieved a league double over the Geordies in the 2018/19 season but, so far, have yet to taste victory over a Steve Bruce Toon, including a Premier League Asia Trophy third place play-off in Shanghai. The most recent visit ended in a 2-2 stalemate in July 2020 with West Ham twice surrendering the lead.

Newcastle supporters will be disappointed by their season season and, although they are not mathematically clear of relegation, they opened up a useful gap over the bottom three with a comeback win at Burnley last weekend. The game itself was a largely mediocre affair but the return from injury of Wilson and Saint-Maximin has provided a major and timely boost. The introduction of Saint-Maximin effectively changed the game and with Wilson always enjoying his games against the Hammers, the home side will be cautiously optimistic.

David Moyes has played his injury cards close to his chest making it impossible to predict the available permutations in the away side’s starting eleven. We know that Rice and Michail Antonio will again be missing but reliable news on Ogbonna’s fitness, and the extent of Aaron Cresswell’s and Mark Noble’s injuries are difficult to ascertain. My instinct is that Moyes will only be making enforced changes from the team that started last week. The most difficult gap to fill would be the absence of Noble. At least there are options elsewhere but unless the manager suddenly decides to put faith in Conor Coventry there is no backup as a partner to Soucek in the defensive midfield anchor.

A further unexpected feature of the West Ham season has been an unusually low profile from the boardroom. Not like them to be bashful in the light of unforeseen success on the pitch. Should the exceptional run continue to the end of the season then you can be sure they will be milking it for all it is worth – as the planned commemorative issue of the Sunday Sport recently leaked by a club insider reveals. No doubt they would see a place in the Champion’s League as reward for their efforts, not something achieved despite them.

It is going to be another tough match at St James Park today. Newcastle have lost just one of their last six and will have momentum from last week’s success. Hopefully, the West Ham mentality really is to take each game one at a time but it would be understandable if the pressure of expectation starts to creep in. A win and third place would be amazing and set things up nicely for the clash with Chelsea next weekend. If we do get ahead I’m looking for a better stab at game management than we have seen in recent weeks. The nerves can’t take much more of trying to throw away three goal leads – and there are no fingernails left to chew. West Ham to win 2-1. COYI!

Seven Cup Finals for West Ham to Achieve the Magnificent Dream

In a week when the nation’s high streets emerged from hibernation and Covid restrictions began to ease the Premier League shunned the old normality with the “new normal” of West Ham moving into the top four. And although we were close to that position when he joined us, and so many of our players have stepped up to the plate in this campaign, Jesse Lingard’s contribution has been a major factor in firing us into contention for a potential place in next season’s Champions League.

It is hard to remember a footballer make such a positive impression upon joining West Ham. When Jesse Lingard arrived in the winter transfer window there were many doubters among Hammers fans. Just as there were when Craig Dawson was signed, too. But I guess that is par for the course with many of the East End faithful.

Following last weekend’s win over Leicester I saw a “league table” of Premier League footballers with the most league goals and assists since February 1st and we all know who was at the top. With eight goals and three assists in nine games since joining on loan from Manchester United, Jesse has outshone all others being directly involved in eleven goals. It was also interesting to see Michail Antonio sixth in the table with two goals and four assists, and he hasn’t played that many games!

The Jesse Lingard show was in force against Leicester when a game that was a bit of a stalemate at the time was suddenly brought to life when he bent home a first-time half volley from Coufal’s cutback after half an hour. It was a strange shot (I think he said that he shinned it) and I did a double take when I saw it nestling in Schmeichel’s net. A few minutes later Jarrod Bowen beat the offside trap to race on to a long ball from Diop and then square it to Lingard to put it into an empty net.

2-0 at half-time, and then three shortly after the break when Lingard found Soucek who calmly passed to Bowen who controlled the ball with one touch and calmly finished it with the other. After the previous two games Hammers fans were used to 3-0 leads but we wanted more remembering what happened in those. Diop headed a fourth from a Lingard cross but VAR spotted he was narrowly offside.

Those supporters of a nervy disposition or with high blood pressure could have done without the drama that followed as the game began to resemble the last two matches with three-goal leads, especially the panic stations when the Foxes’ second goal went in at the start of the six minutes Mike Dean decided to add on at the end of the ninety. But just like the Wolves game we held on for a 3-2 victory that put us back into fourth place with just seven games remaining. Perhaps the reopening of pubs will be welcomed by many fans as the final stages of recent games may drive us to drink! How many of us would have believed that after 31 games we would be sitting in the top four with it in our own hands to remain there?

For the 27th time in those 31 games our opponents had more possession than we did, and Leicester completed more than twice as many passes. This just goes to show that the ball retention statistics that regularly appear on our TV screens during games should not be given the importance that so much of the media gives to it. But having said that there is one area where we can improve, and that is not giving the ball away too easily as we sometimes do.

Five of the seven remaining games are against teams in the lower reaches of the table (Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom away) with the toughest games (on paper) in between them at home to Chelsea and Everton, before a final fixture at home to Southampton.

Considering the lack of depth in the squad and the mounting injuries it is amazing that we are still in this position so close to the season’s end. However there is hope that some of our injured players will be back soon, even in time for tomorrow’s game. Mark Noble has described our remaining fixtures as seven cup finals. What a shame that we can’t have 60,000 fans there for those three matches still to be played at the London Stadium.

Looking at those remaining fixtures in terms of degree of difficulty based on average league table positions, Liverpool and ourselves would appear to have easier run-ins than Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton. Brighton gave us a helping hand by drawing 0-0 with Everton on Monday evening. I watched the second half of the game and the Seagulls largely outplayed the Toffeemen without being clinical in front of goal.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that playing lowly teams is an advantage, so we can’t get too excited in anticipation of the games to come, as teams fighting for their lives at the foot of the table are often tougher opponents than those sitting comfortably with not much to play for, or those with other goals in mind such as the FA Cup or European competitions.

Our away games might seem very winnable but could be more difficult than we may think. We’ve only won twice in 16 visits to St James Park in the 21st Century. We have a better record against Burnley but have lost tamely on our last two visits to Turf Moor. Brighton have been a bogey team in recent years, and we’ve won just four of our last dozen visits to the Hawthorns.

Last weekend’s comeback win against Burnley was an important one for Newcastle but they are not yet out of the woods in the fight to avoid the drop. We could well come up against similar fighting opponents in our other three away games against teams in lowly positions but with a lot to play for. It is often better to have fixtures against teams who would already appear to be on the beach. Roy Hodgson was critical of Roy Keane for suggesting Palace did not appear to be fully committed with their players “in their armchairs” when they faced Chelsea last weekend, but to my eyes, Palace were rolled over with ease. Did you see Zaha in that game, remonstrating with just about everybody including his own teammates?

A final finishing position of fourth is in our own hands, nor is third out of the question with the win over Leicester taking us to within one point of their total. But whatever happens it has been a great season, definitely one of the best in recent times.

Three points against Newcastle would edge us closer to a top four finish. We’ll all be keeping an eye on the Everton v Tottenham game taking place this evening. A draw would probably be the best result for us in this one. Of course, Chelsea and Leicester are involved in FA Cup action on Sunday so a win today would elevate us into third place and heap more pressure on those two semi-finalists in their games in hand. Leicester’s next league game is at home to a resurgent West Brom next Thursday, whilst Chelsea face Brighton at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before they visit the London Stadium the following Saturday.We don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four. All we can do is try to win the next seven games. Seven cup finals as we aim for seventh heaven. We are sixth favourites to finish in the top four with the bookmakers. They think we’ll end up below Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester as well as the two Manchester clubs. But we are strongly fancied (5/1 on) to finish in the top six. After last season’s relegation struggle that would be a magnificent achievement, surely? I’m hoping for even better though. What are the chances?

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?