A look ahead to West Ham at Molineux this afternoon and memories of games against Wolves (mainly November ones!)

Thank heavens that is the last of the early season pointless international breaks finished. I get it that we have to play for World Cup qualification but surely someone can devise a better way to do it. I don’t wish to deny San Marino, Andorra or any other minor nation of their opportunity to take part but surely there should be some kind of pre-qualification among lesser teams and then the top teams from pre-qualification leagues can then progress to face the bigger teams. Our very own FA Cup is an example of how this can happen. The top teams don’t enter the competition until the third round proper. There are a number of qualification rounds to win through before the non-league teams who are successful in those get to face the big boys.

Albania aren’t exactly a minor footballing nation, picking up quite a few points in the group, but San Marino? I watched some of this and quite frankly it was a farce. The commentators and pundits did their best to talk up the England team and Harry Kane, but it was nonsensical as a game of football, it was really just attack versus defence. I got no pleasure from the twenty minutes or so that I watched.

This was in contrast to the last Premier League game I saw where we denied Liverpool the opportunity to extend their long unbeaten record any further. I thought it was a magnificent performance that saw us leapfrog the Merseysiders to reach the dizzy heights of third place in the table. Unlike Mr Klopp I saw nothing wrong with our first goal. Goalkeepers have been a protected species for too long and I don’t see anything that says you can’t jump in front of them to put them off. And as for suggesting Cresswell should have been sent off I don’t agree with that either. His tackle clipped the top of the ball which lifted his leg to foul Henderson. To his credit the Liverpool captain made nothing of it and was soon back on his feet. A foul yes but anything more? Not for me. Perhaps I am a biased Hammer but others I have spoken to who support Arsenal, Fulham and Norwich didn’t agree with Mr Klopp either.

We have lost Angelo Ogbonna for a long period now, but personally I am happy with Craig Dawson alongside Zouma at the heart of our defence. There have been reports that we might renew our interest in Tarkowski in the forthcoming window. He is certainly a quality player, but do we need strengthening elsewhere first? Perhaps with our new Czech shareholder there will be an injection of finance to boost the transfer kitty? We’ve never been in a better position to challenge the top teams but the addition of two or three quality players would do us no harm in our endeavour to maintain that challenge in the league and the three cups that we can still aim for.

We visit Molineux today to take on a Wolves team that are in eighth place in the chasing pack where sixth to thirteenth positions in the table are separated by just three points. When I began to watch football as a young boy in the late 1950s Wolves were probably the best team in the country at the time, and were league champions in 1957-58 and 1958-59. One of my earliest football memories was our first home game following promotion to face the champions in our first home game of the 1958-59 season. I wasn’t there but I was excited to wake up on the Tuesday morning following the Monday night game to be told the result by my dad and to read of our 2-0 win in the morning paper.

The following season I was at our game against the champions – Saturday November 21st – so this weekend’s game is almost on the same date. My first favourite footballer Johnny Dick scored a hat trick in our 3-2 victory that retained our position at the top of the league. The following Thursday I went into St Mary’s hospital in Paddington to have my adenoids removed. And then in typical West Ham fashion we lost 7-0 at Sheffield Wednesday the following Saturday! How many times has a team at the top of the league lost their next game 7-0? Only West Ham could do that. That was a season when we went down with the Christmas decorations and finished in fourteenth place just four points above the relegation places.

Wolves went on to finish second in the table that season finishing a point below champions Burnley. They won the FA Cup too beating Blackburn 3-0 in the final and were so close to being the first team to achieve the league and cup double. If only they hadn’t lost to West Ham!

Other highlights from games against Wolves include an entertaining 3-3 draw in November 1970. Apart from surrendering a 3-1 lead my main reason for remembering this game was a Bobby Moore headed clearance that hit the referee square in the face that knocked him out cold. Moore picked up his whistle and blew it to stop the game. Bobby Gould, who five years later played for us tapped in the late Wolves equaliser in that game.

Two years later (yes in November once again!) we were 2-1 down at Upton Park in the last seconds of the game when a Bobby Moore cross was headed across the edge of the area by Clyde Best, and Trevor Brooking equalised with a stunning diving header from fully 15 yards. It’s always said that Trevor never scored with his head, but I can remember quite a few, including an important one in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976 against Eintracht Frankfurt, and perhaps the most famous of all, the Wembley header in the 1980 FA Cup final.

Two years later once again in the month of November (are you picking up the pattern here?) we gave Wolves quite a thrashing (5-2) with five different goalscorers. The best goal of the lot, and one of the best free kicks I’ve ever seen was a result of Trevor Brooking flicking the ball in the air and Frank Lampard (senior of course) smashing a half volley into the bottom corner of the net.

I’ll deviate from the month of November with a final memory from the past to remember Liam Brady’s final game before retirement. After a fantastic career he spent his final three seasons at West Ham. Although he wasn’t quite the player he was at his peak, he was still great to watch with wonderful skill on the ball and magnificent passing ability. On as a substitute late in the game he picked the ball up midway in the Wolves half, moved forward, and unleashed a trademark left footed stunner that rocketed into the net, a fitting goal in his final ever game.

Last season we did the double over Wolves winning 4-0 at home and 3-2 at Molineux. What with our 3-2 win over Liverpool in our last game too, that seems to be the score of the moment and I’ll predict a win by that score today. We are around 7/5 favourites to win the game and around 22/1 to repeat last season’s score in the corresponding fixture. Jarrod Bowen scored in both games against Wolves last season, and is around 13/2 to score the first goal (same price for the last goal too) in the game, or 5/2 to score at anytime. One of those will be my fun bet. I might even combine Bowen scoring the first goal with a 3-2 win at odds approaching 200/1. With 12 points from our last 4 league games we are the form team in the Premier League. No other team matches that recent record. If Leicester can beat Chelsea in the lunchtime fixture, and if we can win at Wolves, then we would be level on points with Chelsea at the top of the table on Saturday evening. That would be good, wouldn’t it? What are the chances?

West Ham Love To Go A-Wandering; Can They Make It Five Wins In A Row?

The Hammers continue their adventures in the unchartered waters of the Premier League’s top four. Victory against recently becalmed Wolverhampton will see them on the crest of a wave.

The international break has given us all an extra week to admire West Ham’s lofty position in the Premier League table with a sense of smug satisfaction. Now comes the test as to whether they can stay the course – a furious run of ten games leading up to Christmas starting with a visit to Molineux on Saturday afternoon.

The Hammer’s form has been nothing less than remarkable in the opening months of the season. The only side in the division to win their last four games, unbeaten in seven games in all competitions – and unbeaten in eleven on the road. The last defeat coming in the last-minute to Brentford in early October. 

It was disappointing that post match reporting on the pulsating victory against Liverpool was overshadowed by contrived controversy over supposed game changing refereeing decisions. There was so much to appreciate about the game as an advertisement for the Premier League and yet the referee took central stage. Most of the blame for that lies with Jurgen Klopp who showed himself to be the most ungracious of poor losers.

It was an excellent West Ham win which once again demonstrated the tenacity and character present in David Moyes’ side. That the top sides finish games knowing they have faced a tough, resilient, and talented opponent is all we can ask.

We probably shouldn’t be doing this, but it is tempting to make comparisons with the 2015/16 season – the year Leicester City won the Premier League title. The image below shows the table after an equivalent 11 matches. Leicester were sitting third behind Manchester City and Arsenal (having earned a point less than West Ham have now) with the Hammers hanging on in sixth place. Had we not just gone done to a disappointing 2-0 away defeat at Watford, things would have looked even rosier for Slaven Bilic’s side.

The noticeable feature of 2015/16 was that as well as Leicester performed, each of the other title contenders managed to screw up their own challenge. None of the other teams performed consistently well during the remainder of the season. Adding to the mystery, both Liverpool and Chelsea were nowhere to be seen, finishing eighth and tenth respectively.  The chances of such a collective failure repeating itself is highly unlikely.

A look at this season’s current standings with a projection based on points per game being maintained to the end of the season has West Ham finishing on 79 points. That would be an incredible achievement – but unlikely to be enough to claim top spot. I doubt there are many supporters who truly believe a top four finish is achievable, but it is target worth aiming for. The recently announced investment in the club by Daniel Kretinsky certainly adds a new perspective on things, especially if it is backed up by player reinforcements in January. A long way to go, though!

Assuming all the players have returned from the international break in fine fettle, the only change for the Wolves game will be the one enforced by the probable long-term absence of Angelo Ogbonna – Craig Dawson being the obvious replacement. It is anticipated that Declan Rice will have recovered from illness and Pablo Fornals from the knock picked up playing for Spain. The Ben Johnson or Vladimir Coufal at right back is the other talking point. I believe it is Johnson’s shirt to lose.

It was great to see Michail Antonio make his mark on the international stage at long last, with two fine goals for Jamaica. Whenever he shapes up for a long shot my head is usually in my hands, but the strike against the USA was a cracker. Shots from outside the box are the least productive of goal attempts – it is seen as a defensive positive to limit your opponent to long shots – but when they come off, they can be spectacular. Will we now be treated to a flurry of long-range Antonio efforts? And what is the probable outcome? It’s a long shot, but it might just work!

Wolves are a side slowly emerging from the doldrums of Nuno’s time at the helm. New boss, Bruno Lage, is something of an unknown quantity as a manager with only an ultimately unsuccessful stint at Benfica behind him in the big time. Still, he met the exacting criteria required for the Wolves job by being Portuguese.

The Wanderers have had a mixed opening to the season. After a sluggish start they have climber to eighth in the table but have only faced Manchester United from the top six. Their five wins have been mid to lower table affairs against Watford, Southampton, Newcastle, Villa and Everton. Presented as being more adventurous than under Nuno, goals have been at a premium at both ends in their matches so far this season. Only games involving Southampton have witnessed fewer goals.  

There was sad news from Molineux in the week with the death of Wolves legend (and member of the 1966 World Cup winning squad), Ron Flowers. I can remember him well from the very first football game I watched live on our newly acquired black and white TV – the 1960 FA Cup Final. A well-deserved Ron Flowers tribute will take place prior to Saturday’s kick-off. This looks like another tight game to me. Wolves have some dangerous players including Jimenez, Hee-Chan and the perpetually erratic Traore. Not convinced about them at the back. The ideal scenario is that Wolves push forward and fall into the trap of the breakaway Hammers counter-punch. And there is always the set piece danger. It is a game where if West Ham keep their discipline, they can come away with a narrow one-goal victory to make it five league wins on the trot. COYI!

West Ham Must Stay Positive Or Top Four Will Be Out Of Reach: No Time To Be Crying Wolves

Out of reach, so far, we never had the start. Out of reach, couldn’t see, Top Four’s ever meant to be. Who dares, wins, Mr Moyes!

If someone were to analyse my dreams, they might reach the conclusion that frustration is the common and recurring theme. Invariably, I am attempting to achieve or reach some goal or target and am unable to do so – whether it is catching a train, getting to an important appointment on time or finishing the weekend in the top four. West Ham are at the root of all my character defects!

The Hammers last league outing seems like it was ages ago now, interrupted as it was by another tedious international break. World cup qualifiers have become a case of going through motions these days. Designed to ensure the major sponsorship friendly countries have a smooth route through to the finals. It would be astonishing if any of the big name countries fail to qualify.

Anyhow, it has allowed for the disappointment of throwing away a three goal lead to Arsenal to fester in the mind far longer than necessary. An extra two points on the board would put a whole different complexion on the table as West Ham’s visit to Molineux rounds off Matchweek 30. An opportunity to leapfrog Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and into the coveted fourth place spot.

Who in their wildest dreams could have imagined such a scenario at the start of the season? But is it an opportunity that will be taken? Can the nerve hold? Or will a promising position once again be kept tantalisingly out of reach – either through an absence of belief, a lack of focus or sense of inferiority? Will we end with another Jim Bowen “Look at what you could have won” moment? In short, when push comes to shove, will West Ham go all Spursy?

Immediately, the third goal went in against Arsenal, something odd happened on the pitch. What should have been a position of dominance morphed spontaneously into a phase of uncertainty. Not the result of tactical change but one born out of apprehension. Granted the third goal finally woke Arsenal up, but West Ham’s mindset changed as well. The passing and movement that had so unsettled the Gunners disappeared, replaced by hopeful balls forward and a willingness to throw away possession. Initiative was surrendered and, once Arsenal got one back, hope and momentum were effectively lost. The baffling substitutions only added to a sense of throwing in the towel. By the end, even coming away with a point looked unlikely.  The ease with which Liverpool despatched a poor Arsenal side at the weekend underlined the frustration felt.

For this evening’s encounter with Wolves, West Ham are able to welcome Pablo Fornals and Arthur Masuaku back to the squad. With all three of the Arsenal goals coming down our left hand side, David Moyes may be tempted to return to a back three rather than allow Aaron Cresswell to cope with the speed of the inconsistent Traore by himself. Despite calls for a Cresswell England return, left back remains a big problem position for the Hammers.

It is unfortunate that Angelo Ogbonna is not yet ready to return. Without the Italian at his side, Craig Dawson has had a bit of a wobble just lately. He and Issa Diop will need to be at their sharpest, even against the shot shy Wolves attack. A hattrick of own goals would be a disaster.

Hopefully, the two-week break will have given Michail Antonio another chance to recharge his batteries. He hasn’t been the same since his last injury and his old spark will be vital for the run-in. The dilemma of having only one striker.

Wolves have had a disappointing season. After two impressive 7th place finishes they have seriously lost their way this season, although sit relatively comfortably in mid-table. The loss of Jimenez has been a big blow as was the departure of Jota. At the same time the powers of midfield general Moutinho appear to be on the wane. I do like what I have seen of Neto and despite sounding like a discount supermarket chain he provides their greatest offensive threat. Traore has the occasional inspirational game but largely flatters to deceive, while Silva has the look of a player totally unsuited to the hurly burly of English football.

What can we expect tonight? Will the enforced break have any unexpected impacts, as it did for Chelsea and West Brom? Will the occasion and the chance to go fourth cause the players to freeze? With a return of just one point from the last two disappointing performances, it is the ideal time to get the show back on the road. It will be character, as well as skill and endeavour, that will determine outcome. As will a positive approach from the manager. Collectively, they must believe they can win. Form suggests they can, but what is in their heads?

When I first drafted this post I was banking on big performances from Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard providing the inspiration for a satisfying 2-0 win. News has since broken that Rice will be missing for an as yet unspecified period of time as the result of a knee injury picked up on England duty. That is a huge concern given that Moyes will no doubt see the likely replacement as Mark Noble. I wish him well and hope he has a blinder but the reality is he is far too slow still to be playing at this level.

Still hoping for the best but the confidence has dropped considerably. COYI!

The win against Wolves early on kick-started West Ham’s season. Can it be repeated as European qualification still beckons?

March 2020. A world bracing itself for a potential pandemic as talk of coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China gets louder and louder. Pictures in Britain emerge of hospitals struggling in Italy and Spain, and cases begin to emerge closer to home. As a nation not much changes at first. We are urged to wash our hands religiously but not much else to combat the spread of the disease. Sport continues as normal.

On March 7th West Ham play their 29th game of the season against Arsenal. We lose 1-0. It has been a difficult campaign. It started brightly enough despite a 5-0 loss at home to Manchester City on the opening day. With half a dozen games gone we sat in fifth place in the table. Expectations were high for a good season ahead.

Before 2019 is out it has all gone wrong. Following a home defeat to Leicester City after Christmas, with exactly half of the season completed, Pellegrini is sacked and David Moyes is appointed in time for the home game on New Years Day against Bournemouth. We are in a relegation tussle. Three wins and two draws in the opening six games of the season have been followed by just two wins and two draws in the next 13 games. We are now 17th in the league occupying the position immediately above the bottom three.

Move forward to March 7th 2020. Following the defeat to Arsenal our record now reads: Played 29, Won 7, Drawn 6, Lost 16. With a goal difference of minus 15 we are 16th in the table. David Moyes has had 10 games in charge so far. We’ve won 2, drawn 2, and lost 6. Our situation has barely improved. We are still in a relegation tussle.

Life continues as normal in Britain. As fears of the spread of the pandemic continue to grow and calls for action are made, the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival goes ahead and Liverpool entertain Atletico Madrid with thousands of supporters travelling from Spain to support their team. Personally I went horse racing to a relatively small meeting at Huntingdon on Wednesday 11th March. There was no talk of social distancing at the time, merely bigger queues in the toilets with extended hand washing times!

The season was suspended following a decision on 13 March 2020 by the Premier League to suspend the league after a number of players and other club staff became ill due to the pandemic. I had already decided against attending the Wolves fixture. National lockdown in Britain came in the following week. The initial suspension was until 4 April, which was then extended. The FA then agreed to extend the season indefinitely, past the scheduled end date of 1 June. During the lockdown West Ham were awaiting decisions on their fate in case football did not resume. Although we were 16th in the league there were differing ways of calculating which clubs would be relegated using varying complicated formulae.  

The season eventually resumed on 19 June, with West Ham playing their first match since suspension the following day, losing 2-0 at home to Wolves. More than three months had elapsed between games 29 and 30. All matches from this date were played behind closed doors with no paying supporters. Following this defeat we now dropped to 17th with just eight games to go. A defeat at Tottenham in game 31 didn’t help, but wins against Chelsea, Norwich and Watford and draws against Newcastle, Manchester United and Villa were enough to ensure a place in the Premier League for season 2020-21.

Fast forward to this season, and nobody expected us to be where we are now. Our 29th game was once again against Arsenal. We can all remember what happened a fortnight ago when we relinquished a three goal lead to draw the game. But, following Chelsea’s unlikely defeat at home to West Brom on Saturday, qualification for the Champions League via a top four finish is still in our own hands, although Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton are all still well in the mix. Manchester United and Leicester are well placed to finish second and third but aren’t there yet.

Our record after the Arsenal game is a big contrast to that after the same game last season. This time – Played 29, Won 14, Drawn 7, Lost 8, Goal Difference +10. Twice as many games won, and half the number of defeats. Plus a goal difference turnaround of 25. That is some improvement and great credit to the manager, coaching staff, and of course the players.

Wolves are in the bottom half of the table this time around, but the game will still be a difficult one, as will the following match against Leicester. Perhaps these two matches will define our fate, but there will still be a lot of football to be played. In the seven matches that follow on from there we face two of our rivals at the top, Chelsea and Everton, but also have some winnable games (on paper of course) against bottom-half teams Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, West Brom and Southampton.

It’s quite a coincidence that the 29th and 30th games of the season are against Arsenal and Wolves for two years running. There is even a gap between the fixtures, although the two week international break this time doesn’t compare to the three months interval last time around.

I don’t know what it will take to finish in the top four but we’re still in with a shout and that’s great. Even if we fade a little from here and finish as low as eighth it would still be a good season and a massive improvement on the last few years, albeit a slightly disappointing end. The wins against Wolves and Leicester early on really kick-started this season for us and were followed by the dramatic comeback against Tottenham, and then holding champions-elect Manchester City to a draw.

Six points from these two difficult fixtures to achieve the double over both teams would be quite an achievement. What are the chances?