Parkes, Stewart, Walford, Gale, Martin, Devonshire, Ward, Dickens, Orr, McAvennie, Cottee. The best ever West Ham line up? Obviously there’s no Moore, no Brooking, no Di Canio and no Dicks. But those eleven players took West Ham United to third place in Football League Division One in 1985/86, or 6 BPL ( Before Premier League). Under the leadership of John Lyall, the Hammers ran Liverpool and Everton to the last Saturday of the season.
Amazingly, they only used 18 players in the whole season, of which five played two games or less – so a squad of 13 players, all British and featuring five home-grown players, exceeded all expectations. That was the last season that the club were in the top four at this stage of the season. Today, there was a possibility that they could go into Christmas in third place. West Ham in the Champions League spots. Watch out Barcelona, West Ham are coming for you.
We all say “it won’t last”. Last week I wrote about Regression Theory which tries to explain that over the long term teams always settle in their “natural” positions, whilst the next two games see them take on rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, matches they would probably not expect to win. But this isn’t a normal side. I’ve no idea who has got into the heads of some of the squad but they’ve turned fair to middling players into world beaters. There are few better midfielders in the Premier League at the moment than Stewart Downing, given free-reign to drift across the pitch. Winston Reid looks like a rock at the back. Arsenal don’t know what they are missing in Carl Jenkinson, whilst on the other side, Aaron Cresswell has stepped up from the Championship without a look back.
Whilst today was the Lewes Lunatic Fringe’s Christmas party away at Harrow Borough, I’d be heading to The Boleyn aground for the second time in two weeks thanks to Barclays and their weekly ticket give away. My tickets were in the name of Mr Barclays Premier League – not a title that sits easy with me but I was willing to play the part for the visit of bottom of the table Leicester City. Getting anything free from Messrs Sullivan and Gold (and not forgetting Dame Brady) is almost unheard of. In the week before the game the club had hit the headlines, for the wrong reasons again, after it was revealed that at £600 a head, they offer the most expensive mascot package in the Premier League (and likely, the whole world). Only seven hard-up takers for today’s game, according to the programme. Fancy a season ticket for next season’s last one at The Boleyn? Well you can add your name to the waiting list now for just a tenner. Or perhaps spending £50 on the limited edition purple FA Cup shirt, which because they are playing Everton away in the 3rd Round will mean they can’t wear it anyway.
Back in 1985/86 the success of the team was build around the pace of Cottee and McAvennie up front, a midfield play maker in Alan Dickens, a decent wide an in pint-sized Mark Ward and an outstanding keeper in Phil Parkes. Fast forward 29 years and it was Sahko, Carroll, Song, Downing and Adrian. All on fire at the moment, playing at the top of their game. That’s why West Ham were in the top 4. Hard to beat but always looking likely to score. Or as someone said to me post-match, it’s all because we are wearing Adidas again.
Last May, with the Football League Championship secured, Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha said he expected to see The Foxes in the position West Ham held. A rumoured transfer kitty of over £150 million was to be made available. The future was bright, the future was the Premier League.
After a decent start in their return to the Premier League, Leicester haven’t been enjoying the last few months. Coming into this game they were without a win in three months in all competitions – in fact their last win was the high point in their season, the 5-3 victory over Man Utd. They didn’t need reminding about the fable of the bottom team at Christmas, although it appeared Radio 5Live needed to include it in every pre-match report just in case we had developed a goldfish-like memory.
West Ham United 2 Leicester City 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Saturday 20th December 2014
Once again, the Man of the Match award, announced on the 85th minute, was greeted with muted applause. Just as it was two weeks ago, goal-scorer Andy Carroll had been given the honour, despite two or three players shining brighter. Carroll’s firm since return from serious injury has been impressive. It seems the striker thrives when the focus of the side’s play doesn’t focus on him. Last season he was rushed back from another injury, pressure building with every game he was absent. Allardyce, Gold and Sullivan (junior of course as he seems to be the official spokesperson of the club via Twitter despite only being about 13) all told us things would be better when Carroll was fit.
The visitors certainly started the brighter, belying their lowly position. They’d done their homework, targeting the ineffective Tompkins, who looks as out of depth in the Premier League as he did on his debut back in 2008. Some may also question whether he should still be playing after pleading guilty to assaulting a policeman as well as being drunk and disorderly. But then we all know football doesn’t reflect the same moral code as real life.
Adrian was the busier keeper in the opening exchanges but it was West Ham who took the lead in the 24th minute after Leicester had been pressuring the West Ham goal. Downing set up Carroll, who blasted the ball over from 8 yards but less than sixty seconds later he got his goal. Carl Jenkinson hoofed the ball clear from almost on his own touch line, ex-Hammer Paul Konchesky gathered the ball on the half-way line and tried to play the ball back to the keeper but it was short, allowing Carroll to get in between the keeper and defender and chipped the ball home.
The difference between the two midfields was Alex Song. “We’ve only got one Song” the West Ham fans sung as the Barcelona loanee bossed the midfield. How he failed to end up at The Emirates, Anfield or The Etihad is a mystery but he seems to love playing at Upton Park, and the Upton Park faithful love him. Strength, balance, poise and vision. Add in a rejuvenated Downing and that’s one hell of a partnership.
The two combined ten minutes into the second period, with Downing showing great control before curling the ball home from the edge of the area. It was a fine goal to cap a fine performance from a player who is now finally living up to his potential he showed as a youngster at Middlesbrough.
Adrian then pulled off two world class saves to deny Leicester a deserved consolation goal. Whilst they would head back up the M1 wondering what the future held, West Ham would enjoy their Christmas dinner sitting above Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal almost at the half way stage of the season. Whilst we can but dream of another season like 1985/86, deep-down we know natural selection, or Regression Theory, will eventually determine our fate. Carroll is no Frank McAvennie, Winston Reid is no Alvin Martin, Cheikhou Kouyate is no Neill Orr and of course Allardyce is no John Lyall. But that was then and this is now.