West Ham, Sheffield United, Tevezgate, the Icelandic Consortium, and the Great Escape – Memories of 2006-2007

Do you remember season 2006-2007? Of course you do – all Hammers fans can recall the season of the “Great Escape” and one that will go down in history as one of the most bizarre, and there have been a few of those. The final game of the previous campaign had been in Cardiff where we were massively unlucky to lose one of the great FA Cup finals on penalties. We had also finished ninth in the Premier League in our first season back in the top flight after promotion from the Championship.

We were confident that the club could build on that, and also shocked to learn that we had signed two top class Argentinian footballers in Mascherano and Tevez, potentially one of the biggest coups in our transfer history. Little did we know at the time that the signings, particularly that of Tevez, would lead to controversy and repercussions that would haunt us for many years to come.

The season had begun well enough with a win and a draw which put us top of the league on the evening of Tuesday 22 August. A defeat at Liverpool followed by a home draw against Villa gave us five points from four games, and Bobby Zamora had scored five of our six goals. Then came the introduction of the Argentinians into the team, and a disastrous run of games where we lost eight times in a row, scoring just once in those fixtures, a 2-1 defeat at Chesterfield in the League Cup. In that time we were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Palermo of Italy, and tumbled to 19th in the table, to begin a relegation fight that would last until the end of the season.

The terrible run continued until the end of the year. After we had scored six goals in our first four games, we then only scored six more league goals in the rest of 2006. Zamora didn’t score any of them despite playing in most of the games. We did manage four wins in that time, three with the only goal of the game. In the middle of that run of games was a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United in November, which was the last time that we managed to beat them before the 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane this season, almost 14 years to the day later. Hayden Mullins scored the goal, one of just a handful he scored in his time here.

Off the field plenty was happening too. In November the board accepted an £85 million takeover by an Icelandic Bank headed by Eggert Magnusson, then shortly afterwards, following three successive defeats with no goals scored and eight conceded, culminating in a 4-0 loss at Bolton, manager Alan Pardew was sacked and former player Alan Curbishley was appointed. His first game in charge was a 1-0 victory over Manchester United (the eventual champions) at Upton Park, but we only scored once more before the end of the year and only collected one point from a 0-0 draw at Craven Cottage.

2007 began therefore with the team in the bottom three and only six league goals from the last 17 matches; relegation form for sure. Surely we could only improve from here! On 1st January we travelled to Reading and were humbled 6-0. By the time we faced Tottenham at Upton Park on March 4th Curbishley had still only had the one league win (in his first game). The 4-3 defeat to our North London neighbours dropped us to the bottom of the league and only a miraculous turnaround would save us now. Tevez actually scored his first goal for us in the Spurs game (from a free kick) – it was his 20th appearance!

At this point there were just nine games of the season left. We had only won 5 out of 29 at this point; surely relegation was just a formality. Our survival hopes were boosted with wins over Blackburn and Middlesbrough (with goals in each game for Tevez and Zamora), before a magnificent 1-0 win at Arsenal with Zamora scoring for the fourth game in a row (just as he had at the beginning of the season). We then went to Bramall Lane and a poor performance saw us lose 3-0 to one of our relegation rivals. We followed this with a 4-1 loss at Upton Park to Chelsea, and with just four games left we looked to be down.

But a nervous 1-0 win over Everton, followed by victories over Wigan (3-0) and Bolton (3-1), meant that we travelled to Old Trafford to face the champions Manchester United, probably needing an unlikely win to retain top flight status. Of course we did so thanks to a Tevez goal and the great escape had been achieved. Sheffield United went down but they later claimed that third party rules had been broken by our signing of Tevez. They claimed that he had been instrumental in us avoiding relegation while they were relegated, despite the fact that it took him 20 games to score a goal. He scored just seven goals in his 26 league appearances for us, but in the end we had to pay Sheffield United over £30 million in compensation in instalments.

After an excellent first season back last year when they were the surprise team of the Premier League, Sheffield United appear to have been found out this time around, and will need to better our Great Escape of all those years ago to avoid dropping into the Championship. They go into this game at the very bottom, with just three wins and eleven points from 23 games, 14 points adrift of safety. It seems inconceivable that any of the bottom three can possibly escape, but that does not mean that games against them are gimmes as we found when facing Fulham recently.

Our lack of alternative striking options to Antonio is now a cause for concern, although I never thought that Yarmolenko could possibly play in the lone striker role anyway. His performance at Old Trafford seemed to prove that and his injury now means that he is likely to be unavailable for some time. If Antonio is not available for any games from now then we will go into those matches without a recognised striker, and perhaps we will start a trend with Bowen, Benrahma and Lingard playing as three false nines at the same time interchanging at the top of the pitch. It seems a shame that our push for a top seven finish (or higher) is likely to be halted by a lack of foresight in investment of strikers.

For my lockdown treat today I have been having a look at the league table and noting how unusual the season is in that the majority of teams have better away records than home ones. Of the top 11 teams, only Manchester City and Liverpool have won more games at home than on their travels. Our record is interesting and for lovers of symmetry wouldn’t it be good if we could beat Sheffield United by two goals to nil? That would mean that our home and away records to date would be exactly the same; played 12, won 6, drawn 3, lost 3, goals scored 18, goals conceded 14, points 21. Bookmakers will only give me around a measly 7/1 for that scoreline, despite our dearth of striking options.

I’d be happy with a win of any kind, which presuming Chelsea beat Newcastle later, will leave us in fifth place, relegating champions Liverpool to sixth, and just four points behind second. Who would have believed that we could possibly be in this position when the season started? So don’t let us down West Ham. A win please, preferably by 2-0. What are the chances?

Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, We Don’t Have A Striker, Will A Midfielder Do?

High flying West Ham take on an apparently doomed Sheffield United in the latest test of their top six ambitions

It seems inconceivable that any of the Premier League’s current bottom three have the remotest hope of escaping relegation – even though only 60% of the season has so far been completed. Not only would it require a massive turnaround in their own form, but also a drastic collapse by one of the sides immediately ahead of them. There must come a time when even the most optimistic of squads realise that survival is a lost cause, even before it is mathematically proven. Usually, this will bring with it a consequential loss of belief and commitment on the pitch – think Norwich when they visited the London Stadium in July. Some of the mid-table teams (Crystal Palace) already look like they are planning their summer holidays.

 Despite Sheffield United sitting fourteen points from safety and being the league’s lowest scorers, I make them the least likely of the three condemned to throw in the towel. The mindset of the manager and squad will ensure that doesn’t happen, at least not yet. So another tough assignment for David Moyes and his West Ham team to negotiate as they endeavour to spend a fourth consecutive week in the top six.

If the relegation places appear nailed on, then recent form and events suggest the title is little more than a one-horse race. While each of the chasing pack performs in fits and starts, Manchester City are suddenly unstoppable. The ‘genius’ of Pep and a bottomless transfer budget have somehow managed to work their magic.

Of the teams with an eye on a European finish, West Ham and Aston Villa are the most improbable, having finished fifth and fourth bottom respectively last season. Both will be relying on a handful of key players staying fit as they attempt to get the better of Everton and Chelsea for the chance of glory.

I clearly haven’t been paying attention with Everton. In my mind they had faded badly after a promising start, and yet remain the most handily placed with a couple of games in hand over their rivals. Chelsea have embarked on a lukewarm streak since the appointment of Tuchel as manager, but in truth they have had such a benign set of fixtures that even Frank would have picked up a few points. The West Ham mission then, should they choose to accept it, is to demonstrate ever more over-achievement, teamwork and determination – and avoid picking up any unwanted injuries and suspensions. It might well come to nothing but it is a pleasant surprise to be in with a shout.

The media has been gushing over Guardiola in recent weeks and pouring effusive praise for his tactical innovation of playing without a recognised striker. Don’t they realise the Hammers have been doing that for most of the past twenty-five years. The club rarely gets the credit it deserves. Just because they failed to designate the string of hapless strikers as ‘False 9’s’. Same as the Hammers being the first side to field a ‘False 1’ by playing Roberto in goal.

Whether a striker will take the field in claret and blue on Monday night depends (as usual) on the fitness of Michail Antonio. By all accounts he is on track to be involved, but will that be as a starter or available from the bench if absolutely needed? My sneaking suspicion is that he will be held in reserve, for use in emergencies only. The crucial Tottenham game next weekend is a more probable target for him. If Antonio is absent then the troika of Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma must take responsibility for providing the necessary movement and creating space for others to exploit. It sounds all good in theory, but they will need to raise their passing and decision making game if it is to be the Hammer’s Moyesiola moment.

Elsewhere, the backline will be missing Antonio Ogbonna for the first time this season. His absence leaves Craig Dawson as the mainstay of the defence – an argument that would have been laughed out of court just a few short months ago. A string of outstanding performances has proved many of us doubters wrong. At least with centre backs West Ham have Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena in reserve. Based only on media chatter I guess Diop will get the nod and a chance to show that he is more commanding in the air than we have come to expect.

Other team or position changes are unlikely, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have to put up with Andriy Yarmolenko or Mark Noble for anything other than late cameos.

The Blades will be without several important players including Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell and George Baldock.

The game is unlikely to be a classic. The neutral might prefer to find a good book or take the opportunity to arrange their CDs into alphabetical order. The long running West Ham conundrum of how to break down a well organised defensive wall will determine the chances of success. Can the passing and movement be slick and incisive enough to find a way through and behind the Blades defence. Relying on lofted crosses and set pieces when faced with a defensive minded opponent is an unconvincing strategy. Past performances might point to a 1-0 win, courtesy of a late Tomas Soucek goal, but better is required if a serious tilt at the top six in this topsy-turvy season is to be kept alive. I know that after the event I would take a 1-0 win but we really need to see more dominant performances from the Hammers in this type of game. Hope never dies even if experience suggests it should. COYI!