Yesterday’s round of matches provided the final mathematical proof to what most had realised several few weeks ago, that West Ham would be once again playing Premier League football next season. Complex modelling of different scenarios that would result in Leeds overturning the Hammers goal difference advantage cease to be relevant as the two sides clash at the London Stadium this afternoon.
It was an eventful week for West Ham as they saw off the challenge of AZ Alkmaar to reach the final of the Europa Conference League in Prague. A degree of confusion existed in post-match interviews as to the precise relevance of 43- and 47-year anniversaries in Hammer’s History. To clarify, it is, of course, 47 years since West Ham reached a European final; and it will be an opportunity to lift a first major trophy in 43 years. Hammers of a certain age may also be familiar with the rarely spoken about heart-breaking experience of the 2006 FA Cup Final but prefer to keep that painful memory well and truly buried, like a long forgotten disgraced family member. Although, I was ‘fortunate’ enough to be at the game, I have avoided ever watching the highlights again!
Most pundits took the view that David Moyes got his tactics ‘spot on’ against Alkmaar. By maintaining a compact shape and defending deep it limited the hosts to a handful of half chances. For all their pretty possession they created little threat – and might have played many hours without looking likely to score. The irony is that this was not a cunningly devised tactical masterstroke, it is how his team plays every week. But more on that another time, as it is only right to celebrate the prospect of a big night out in Prague on June 7. It was fantastic to see how much getting to the final meant to the players as they celebrated after the final whistle. And what a story for the immensely likeable Pablo Fornals to come off the bench and score a stunning winner as the clock ticked down. A remarkable moment! I was even touched by seeing a broad smile light up the manager’s face.
It was a disciplined and professional performance from West Ham. Solid right across the back and with Declan Rice and Lucas Paqueta putting in excellent shifts in midfield. More might have been achieved from counter-attacks but both Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma had below par nights. Bowen provided his usual good defensive cover – possibly expected to do too much defensively – but offered little going forward against young Hungarian full-back Milos Kerkez. If I was a scout I would add Kerkez to my watch list for what is a problem position at West Ham, although I hope our scouting network extends beyond players from teams we have beaten in cup competitions – Paul Hilton anyone?
I always think you can tell what sort of game Benrahma will have from his first two or three touches. If these go badly you may as well substitute him there and then. Or get him to change his boots. I see it as the exact opposite of the old Billy’s Boots comic strip which appeared many years ago in the Tiger and Scorcher. Rather than Billy turning into a superstar whenever he pulls on his magic boots, Benny and his boots sadly lose all coordination when attempting to shoot or cross.
A small group of curmudgeonly fans have been writing off the Conference as something of a tin-pot competition. It was clear (and encouraging) that the players see it completely differently. If the group stages can be a case of going through the motions, I doubt any of the participants take it easy once the knock-out starts. True it is Europe’s third tier competition, but there are not many opportunities in modern football for coaches and players to win trophies with the concentration of power in the hands of the monied few. And this is one of those occasions. West Ham could not have done much more than win 13 of their 14 matches played to reach the final. With silverware and potential qualification for next season’s Europa League up for grabs, it promises to be a great occasion.
The Alkmaar match will also be long remembered for the heroics of Knollsy in coming to the rescue of the player’s family and friends who were targeted by a small group of home supporters attempting to storm the stands. Knollsy demonstrated some of the most uncompromising defending seen since the departure of Craig Dawson. AZ Ultra might easily be mistaken for the latest washing powder from Proctor & Gamble and it was heartening to see the ugly stains humiliatingly removed. Well done to Knollsy and also the players who leapt into the fray to protect their loved ones!
With the dust barely settled on Thursday’s semi-final it is back to Premier League action today where West Ham will play an important role on who joins Southampton in the Championship next year. A win for Nottingham Forest yesterday meant that all three of last season’s promoted clubs survive the drop, and narrowed the relegation field of two from Leicester, Leeds, and Everton. Leicester’s fate looks the most precarious even though nothing will be decided until next Sunday’s final games when all three teams have winnable home fixtures.
A win for Leeds today would put them in a strong position for survival with only a Spursy challenge to come. And we all know what Big Sam needing a win means for the way that a match might pan out. It will not be feast of footballing fun and entertainment. On the one hand West Ham will want to sign-off a memorable week on a positive note in the expectation of it being Declan Rice’s last game at the London Stadium as a West Ham player. On the other, Leeds tasked with spoiling the celebrations and sucking the atmosphere out of the party. The visitor’s pragmatic game plan will be to grab a goal and defend it with their lives.
I doubt Moyes will see the need to make wholesale changes from his normal team selection for the final matches. Maybe Kurt Zouma and Michail Antonio will be wrapped away in cotton wool until the final but that’s about it with just two games between now and the ECL Final.
Moyes will want to play fair for the relegation candidates. He must still have a soft spot for Everton and is said to be great friends with Allardyce through a shared football philosophy. In fact, I had an idea of Moyes and Allardyce featuring in a buddy TV series – think Coogan and Brydon or Whitehouse and Mortimer – where they hunt fossils on the Jurassic coast while reminiscing on their favourite scoreless draws. The working title is Sam and Dave’s Clean Sheets with Hold On, I’m Coming as the theme tune. Could be a winner!
A last home game of the season without any pressure other than a few million in positional merit money would typically be a massive party day. But with Big Sam not being the ideal party guest, the action on the pitch might end up being incidental to having a laugh, a joke and an old fashioned sing-song. COYI!