Just bloody shoot!


West Ham United 1 Birkirkara FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 16th July 2015
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For the second consecutive Europa League home game, West Ham flattered to deceive against a team they were expected to beat comfortably.  If it wasn’t for James Tompkins stomach the Hammers would have been travelling to Malta next week with the tie all square and the Maltese team recording possibly the greatest result in the countries European history.  West Ham didn’t play well, per se.  The stats don’t lie – 74% of the possession, 8 corners, 18 crosses successfully delivered but for all of those positives, they could only muster 7 shots on target.  All of a sudden, West Ham seem to have become Arsenal overnight.

It seems that someone didn’t do their homework on Birkirkara. Their strength was the centre-back pairing including the vastly experienced Argentinian Mauricio Mazzetti, especially in the air.  So what did West Ham do? Pepper the box with crosses.  Perhaps is Sakho would have been available it may have worked but The Hammers started with Modibo Maiga, a man most of us had forgotten was still at the club after spending the last eighteen months out on loan.  Ineffective is probably a kind description of Modibo’s efforts although he did come closest to scoring when he hit the post in the first half.

FullSizeRender (2)West Ham had a couple of good shouts for penalties in the first period when Birkirkara rode their luck.  Maltese National keeper Justin Haber made a couple of saves, although he was a keeper who loved a dramatic punch when he could have stood up and simply caught the ball but apart from a Zarate first half free-kick he was rarely troubled.  Jarvis and Almafitano had the beating of their full-backs time after time but how West Ham longed for the creative spark and ability to shoot from distance that Stewart Downing brought to the side last season.  Alas, as the game was progressing, Downing was making his way up the A19 with his new Middlesbrough shirt in his bag. The neat passing play across the box was nice to watch but with no one willing to take a shot, the moves broke down much to the increasing annoyance of the 33,500 crowd.

The frustration started to show in the second half as O’Brien, Cresswell and Reid all went into the referees book for late challenges, which gave the Maltese players even more opportunity to waste time.  Nolan was replaced in 79th minute to a chorus of muted boos, the fans not appreciating his defensive approach to the game.

The Maltese fans had chartered a plane to bring them to London for arguably the biggest game in their history and they brought colour and noise to the away section that some Premier League clubs would be proud of.  However, their hopes of a famous result were thwarted in injury time when Cresswell’s corner was missed by Haber and smacked the onrushing Tomkins in the mid-rift and bounced over the line.

So West Ham simply need to avoid defeat next week in Malta, which they should do.  No Maltese team has ever beaten an English team in European competition – that in itself is a fact that should motivate the Hammers to get the job done and progress to Round Three and a tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle or FC Astra Giurgiu.

 

So where could West Ham United be off to next?


The draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Europa League will see West Ham head to either Scotland or deepest, darkest Romania assuming they avoid defeat next week in Malta.  After their first leg tie,  FC Astra Giurgiu hold a one goal advantage from the game at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and will probably be favourites to progress into the next round.  So what do we know about both potential opponents?

FC Astra Giugiu
The city of Giugiu sits on the banks of the Danube right on the Romanian border with Bulgaria.  It’s not really known as a tourist destination, with some heavy industry in and around the city, although the opportunity to visit two countries (the city of Ruse is on the other side of the river and connected via the Friendship Bridge) is too good an opportunity to miss.  The nearest airport is Bucharest, which is around 50 miles away.  If you pre-book a taxi you can get one from the airport for less than 50 each way.  There is also a number of bus companies that make the hour long journey for no more than a few pounds including Nelmatour and Autotrans Calatori.  Alternatively, Varna in Bulgaria is around a three hour drive away.   The best, and only real hotel in town, is the Best Western Bistra & Galina Hotel although you could hardly call this central.

Astra Giurgiu was known as Astra Ploiești until September 2012 when it was moved from Ploiești to Giurgiu, by owner Ioan Niculae.  The club play at the Marin Anastasovici Stadium , which was re-opened in 2012 and a nice, modern affair that holds just shy of 9,000.  Pleasingly it doesn’t have an athletics track around the pitch.  It is located a 15 minutes walk east of the main city centre, not far from the river bank.

Since their relocation, the cash investment from Niculae has become apparent as the club have finished in 4th, 2nd and then last season 4th again, their most successful spell in their history.  They made their European debut in 2013 when they got to the Play-Off round of the Europa League before they lost to Maccabi Haifa.  Last season they reached the group stages of the competition, beating Lyon on away goals along the way.  They were drawn in a tough group along with Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb, consequently finishing in last place with four points.  Ranked 147th by UEFA this season, they entered the competition in the 2nd qualifying round with the game away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle where where captain Constantin Budescu’s first half goal gave them the lead over the tie.

The majority of their squad is Romanian, including international capped goal keeper Silviu Lung and defender Gabriel Enache.  They also have a bevvy of Portuguese players including Filipe Teixeira who had a couple of seasons in England with West Brom and Barnsley.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Thistle’s European debut against Astra didn’t exactly go the way they planned, and now they will be desperate for a positive result in Romania to get the money-spinning tie against West Ham (assuming The Hammers can avoid defeat in Malta).  Last season was the pinnacle in a long-hard slog for the club, formed after the merger of Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC twenty years ago.  Not only did they finish in third place but they also won the Scottish Cup for the first time, beating Falkirk at Hampden Park.  John Hughes’ squad is dominated by Englishmen, with half of his twenty-two man pack being from across the border.  Last season’s top scorer Billy McKay left to join Wigan Athletic in January.

The Tulloch Caledonian Stadium has a capacity of just under 8,000 but that would be reduced for the game should we play against Thistle.  The ground sits on the banks of the Moray Firth which means the wind plays a big part in the flow of the game.   The ground has been developed over recent years as their place in the top flight of Scottish football has been assured.  Each side now has a covered stand, with the Main Stand facing the Moray.   This all seated stand, is is partly covered. At one end is the Bridge End, which is an all seated covered stand whilst the South Stand, is a similar looking all seated stand, that is given to away supporters.   It is a fifteen minute walk up Longman Road from the centre of the city to the ground or 5 minutes in a taxi.  Inverness station is about a mile away from the ground, which is about a 20 minute walk away. On leaving Inverness station follow the signs for the car park and bus station (going along Railway Terrace). Cross through the car park, keeping the bus station on your left and on your right you can see a bridge crossing the railway line. Go across the bridge and then continue straight ahead along Longman Road. Eventually you will reach the stadium on your left.

Inverness is the most nothernly city in the British Isles and is a popular tourist destination, sitting in the middle of some beautiful countryside and at the mouth of Loch Ness.  There are hotels and guesthouses a-plenty for those planning to make the trip as well as plenty of watering holes.

The nearest airport is Inverness Dalcross 8 miles north-east of the city centre.  Only Easyjet fly the route from London, with departures from Gatwick and Luton daily.  Alternatively, you could fly to Aberdeen and then get the 2 1/2 hour train to Inverness.

So where are we going next – Birkirkara FC


After the low-key win in Andorra it was a relative surprise that our next opponents turned out to be Birkirkara from Malta.  After their goal-less draw in Malta two weeks ago against the Armenians, Ulisses FC, the odds were stacked against the “Stripes” when they traveled to Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan.  But they won 3-1 meaning that they progressed in European competition for just the third time in their history.  In fact the game was only their fifth victory in thirty eight European games and a spot in the Second Qualifying Round gives them a chance to equal their best ever run in the competition.  Their finest moment came in 2010/11 when they got to the Second Qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Slovakian Champions MŠK Zilina, although they did win the first leg of that tie in Malta.

The club were formed in 1950 and are four times winners of the Maltese Premier League as well as winning the Maltese Cup five times, the last of which was back in May when they beat Hibernians to qualify for the Europa League.  Ten years ago the club were coached by former Arsenal striker Alan Sunderland.  Whilst their UEFA ranking is 356th, they have a relatively impressive squad with 10 players capped at full international level by Malta, including captain Gareth Scriberras whilst defender Alejandro Moreno has over 40 caps for Venezuala.  Their danger man is the very experienced Fabrizio Miccoli who has played for Fiorentina, Juventus and Lecce although he is best known for his 74 goals in 165 games with Palermo.  Coach Gionvanni Tesesco also had a decent career in Serie A and was actually an unused sub when West Ham lost to Palermo in their last European adventure back in 2006.

4581521355_858677dc11_bThe club play in the centrally-located town of the same name which with over 22,000 people, is the biggest town on the island.  Their ground, the Infetti (meaning “infected” in Italian by the way!), is an athletics stadium with basic facilities and a capacity of just 2,500 but the good news is that the game will actually be played 3 miles down the road at the 18,000 Ta’Qali National Stadium is just 3 miles away – Ta’Qali is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”.  Birkirkana itself is just 5 miles from the airport and 4 miles from Valletta and Sliema.  Regular bus services run between the towns, including the N21 and N38 although very little routes (just the 106 from the University every 30 mins)  seem to run to the ground meaning a walk along dusty roads to get there from civilization.  It is located next door to a large vineyard and the Aviation Museum.

Malta is the only other country apart from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) that drives on the left. Drive is a loose term as speeding as fast as you can, not using your breaks and overtaking three abreast is not exactly something we see on single carriage roads in SE9. Accidents are common place, which makes travelling by big sturdy buses all the more appealing. As 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet you wont struggle if you need anything.

With the Hammers host the first leg, they will be looking to build up a comfortable lead before they head to the sunshine in Malta.

 

 

 

 

And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.

 

Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

Hammers on Song to hunt the Foxes


IMG_2313Parkes, 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.

IMG_2310Whilst 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.

IMG_2325The 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.

IMG_2324The 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.

West Ham on Song to jump into the top three


15967541542_58a6b64140_kIt’s a good time to be a West Ham fan.  Yesterday our fellow London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea and Millwall all lost, whilst Spurs could only manage a goal less draw at home to Crystal Palace.  Coming into the game at The Boleyn Ground against Swansea City the team knew a win would take them to third…THIRD.  I cannot remember the last time The Hammers were in the top three, even after the opening day of the season.  Third.  Champions League Group automatic entry third.  Top three in one of the richest leagues in the world.

We all know it wont last.  It can’t last. Why?  Well we can blame the economist Francis Galton for making our dreams fade and die.  19th Century Galton was credited with first documenting the Theory of Regression.  Whilst Galton used the biological phenomenon of the height of ancestors to demonstrate his theory, it can be applied today in predicting bouncebackability (he actually invented that word too) of teams who either punch above their weight or failed to meet expectations.  Everyone will always gravitate to their natural position.

But that’s not to say there hasn’t been a seismic shift in events at Upton Park.  After Allardyce was given a seat at the bar of the last chance saloon in the summer, he used the close season well, and whether it was his hard work, that of “attacking” coach Teddy Sheringham or the scouting network, he has built one of the best looking West Ham side’s that I can ever remember.  By best looking I mean in terms of positive and attacking play rather than any looks, although the shift to the blue shorts is very pleasing on the eye.

Few expected the likes of Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Diafra Sakho to settle in East London so quickly but they have.  Sakho in particular has been a revelation.  The Senegal international had been playing in the French Second Division until the summer, but someone spotted something in him.  Whoever that was deserves a knighthood.  Sakho has been a handful for Premier League defences so far this season, hitting seven goals in just nine games before the game against Swansea.  Thoughts turn to a young Frank McAvennie when he first came to England back in 1985 and terrorized English defences.

15348569513_2ba959a754_kThe lofty position hasn’t been down to fluke either.  I’ve never been an Allardyce fan, hating this traditional Anti-football which hasn’t ever proved to deliver anything apart from neckache to fans.  His purchase last season of Andy Carroll was seen as the final piece in his long-ball jigsaw, and when the injury-prone striker inevitably ended up on the operating table, there was no plan B.  Even in pre-season when I saw them against Stevenage there appeared to be zero attacking intent.  Four months later they are playing some of the best football in the Premier League and have beaten Champions League qualifiers Liverpool and Manchester City comprehensively at Upton Park, whilst away from home they have been impressive, sticking to an attacking 4-4-2 with the resurgent Stewart Downing finally being freed from his wing.

Despite a Sunday lunchtime slot for this game, the game was a sell-out, as had every other Premier League game bar the one versus Aston Villa this season.  With the rest of the Fuller family up North it was took good an opportunity to miss.  A £43 ticket is easier to swallow if the football on offer is attractive and positive.

In a pre-match interview with Radio 5Live, Co-Chairman David Gold admitted that he was very surprised that the club were so high up the table.  “Not that don’t believe that we are a good team, we probably didn’t expect to be in this position at this stage of the season”.  It would of course be amiss to forget that the visitors from Wales were also having an amazing season.  After starting off like a train they had followed the Galton theory and dropped back down the table, only to start to climb again in the last few weeks.  In fact, a win at Upton Park would see them leap-frog the Hammers and Arsenal into the top six.

15781622859_b9798b6d14_kThe sun was shining and it was felt good to be back in East London.  Due to overseas travel and my commitments at Lewes (plus the dire football on display in recent seasons) I had been a rare visitor to these parts, but just like a London bus, I would be following today’s game with visits to the next two Premier League games here.  But for now it was time to see for myself exactly how this new team were taking the table by storm.

West Ham United 3 Swansea City 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Sunday 7th December 2014
It took the introduction of that man Sakho to power West Ham to victory against The Swans, adding the cutting edge to the dominance in possession.  This was a great game of football, full of attacking intent from both sides, controversy and a couple of great goals.  Whilst the game between Southampton and Manchester United tomorrow night will see one of them reclaim third place, for 30 hours or so, The Hammers could look down on the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and United themselves with a sense of pride and achievement.

The return to form of Andy Carroll had been perfectly timed, with Sakho missing from the past few games but it was the re-introduction of Barcelona – Alex Song that gave West Ham the victory.  Quite how and why Arsenal let their former player slip through their fingers in the summer is beyond me.  Likewise, their attacking full back Carl Jenkinson seems to revel playing in a side that allows him to run behind the opposing full backs.

For all of their opening possession it was the visitors who took the lead.  Despite West Ham being “all over them like a cheap suit”, they couldn’t “put the ball in the Onion bag” (those two quotes courtesy of the person sitting behind me), Swansea attacked down the left-hand side, Montero got in behind Jenkinson and played the ball across the face of goal for the on-rushing Bony to easy tap home.  Swansea’s tactics then switched from mildly attacking to retention and time-wasting.  With seventy minutes to hold on, it was a foolhardy tactic and it was always going to be a case of when and not if West Ham scored.

15780798948_deac688edd_kFor all the great passing play from the home side, the equaliser came from a familiar route in the 40th minute.  Jenkinson crossed from the left and Carroll out-jumped his marker and headed home.

Swansea started the second half the better side and a powerful run through the middle by Bony followed by a shot that hit the bar had most of the West Ham fans groaning that this wouldn’t be our day.  But then Carroll rose again and headed Downing’s corner into the net via Rangel’s desperate dive to keep it out. But the main talking point came moments later.

Earlier in the season when Lewes took on Margate at The Dripping Pan we had our centre-back Ollie Rowe sent off for a “professional foul”, or to give it its correct term, stopping a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  Rowe had stumbled when chasing a Margate forward and as he fell he took the legs of the attacker.  But the attacker got to his feet, carried on and managed to get a shot in which the Lewes keeper, Rikki Banks, saved.  The referee pulled play back and sent Rowe off.  How could it be claimed that he denied a goal-scoring opportunity if he then went on and got his shot on?  What would have happened if he would have scored? As we were told at the time by the officials, the fact that there had been a clear foul, it is irrelevant what the end result was.  If he would have scored them it is a different matter, and the offender would have been cautioned.

Sakho outpaced the Swansea defence and took the ball passed the on-rushing Swansea keeper Fabianski.  The keeper tried to take Sakho out but the forward was too quick for him and he recovered his poise and from a tight angle tried to slot the ball home, only to see his shot come back off the post.  Referee Chris Foy brought play back for a free-kick and dismissed the keeper.  Swansea’s main argument was that Sakho had allegedly handled the ball rather than Fabianski’s foul.

The game was wrapped up when Sakho once again showed his pace and power, running onto a flick from Carroll to smash the ball home from the edge of the box.  3-1 and West Ham were going third.  Man of the Match was always going to be given to the two-goal Andy Carroll but it was clear to see that it was Alex Song who called the tune today and without his energy, drive and tempo it could have been a very different result.