Remember this time last year? In the run-up to Christmas we were riding high in the table, actually finding ourselves third at the beginning of December. Alex Song was world class, the Sakho/Valencia combo was a revelation in front of goal and Big Sam was clearly a genius aft er all. Barcelona, we’re coming for you!
Then we went to Chelsea on Boxing Day, Arsenal came to us two days later, and the season began to unravel in front of our weary eyes. Those two London derbies were both so disappointing, albeit in different ways. It’s always easy to be wise aft er the event, but a manager with more ambition than Allardyce might well have done things differently at Stamford Bridge.
We were fourth, and playing some great football. But, rather than showing faith in the diamond that had served us so well, he went 4-2- 3-1 and sat back, hoping to hit them with a sucker punch on the counter. We never looked like troubling Chelsea and tamely went down 2-0. Th ere’s no disgrace in losing to the eventual champions, but defeat would have tasted slightly less bitter if we’d at least had a go at them.
We did have a go at Arsenal at Upton Park, and it looked like Alex Song had put us ahead when he volleyed home from 20 yards aft er six minutes — only for referee Neil Swarbrick to chalk it off because he believed Diafro Sakho had distracted Gooner keeper Wojciech Szczesny while standing in an off side position. We dominated the rest of the fi rst half, but then conceded twice in a couple of crazy minutes just before the interval.
Cheik Kouyate’s second half goal wasn’t enough to repair the damage, but for the first time in years we left Upton Park feeling that we really could and should have beaten Arsenal. All of which prompted the cynics among us to unwrap the very old joke that usually gets trotted out at this time of year. So, come on: why are West Ham like the Christmas decorations? All together now: they both come down in the New Year.
Boom boom! as Basil Brush would have said (was he really related to Paul, or was the bloke who told me that just pulling my leg?) Actually, there is rather less to this old chestnut than you might think. In 1964, the year I began to support West Ham, we finished 14th. On the Boxing Day of 1963 we had suffered the club’s record defeat as we crashed 8-2 at home to Blackburn, leaving us in 16th place.
According to a report in the Daily Mirror, West Ham’s ‘tactics were all wrong and their covering terrible’. Sadly, that wasn’t the last time anyone was to say that about the Hammers. From 16th to 14th is, of course, an improvement of two places. By the time I had celebrated my golden anniversary of following West Ham, the second half of the season had seen us slip down the league on 22 occasions.
But we’d also improved our position in 22 seasons, and finished in the same place we were in on Boxing Day six times. That perfect symmetry was spoiled last year as we slid down the snakes of the Premier League table to our final position of 12th. Admittedly, the reason we don’t plummet after Christmas is usually because we’ve haven’t got very high beforehand.
Our most spectacular decline was a fall of 12 places — from 6th to 18th in 1975-76, but that can largely be explained by a fantastic run in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, which took us all the way to the final. The previous season — again, one that ended with a cup final — saw us fall eight places from the dizzy heights of fifth on Boxing Day to finish 13th. I suspect that was when the ‘decorations’ gag was first unwrapped. After the start we’ve had this year, even the most pessimistic West Ham supporter must be looking at a top half finish.
And that’s not to be sniffed at — on average, they only come around once every three years. But can we realistically hope for more? There’s no denying that Dimitri Payet’s absence is a serious blow. However, all is not lost. This is the best squad we’ve had for years. In previous seasons the injury to Enner Valencia would have been seen in almost the same disastrous light as Payet’s. The fact that we won’t miss him in the way we once would is testament to the fact we have several other players with pace, power and an eye for goal.
We may not yet be in that heady position where there are two obvious candidates for every position, but we are getting there. We still look a bit short at full-back (on both sides) but there are serious options in the centre of defence and in midfield.
If Nikica Jelavic could rediscover the form he once showed for Super Slav’s Croatia the goal-scoring department wouldn’t look too shabby either, notwithstanding the loss of Enner Valencia. Manuel Lanzini had been seen as the key to our continued success, but his injury has meant it is more important than ever that the whole team contribute to our attacking movement.
If we are going to continue to create chances we need help from the likes of Victor Moses, Sakho and, hopefully, a rejuvenated Alex Song. There are calls for Michail Antonio to be given his chance, but that’s only going to happen if we really find ourselves on the slide. He’s been bought with an eye to the future, not for this season.
The joker in the pack could yet turn out to be Mauro Zarate. He is the opposite of an impact sub — he seems to try too hard when he comes off the bench. We get the best out of him when he starts. The shift he put in during the first half against Chelski — both in attack and defence — was one of the finest individual displays I’ve seen in years.
After Payet limped off against Everton the prognosis was that he would be out for three months. Let’s be ultra-cautious and say he will not be back until the end of February, returning to meet Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland. With or without Dimitri, that looks to be a great chance to get three points in the bag. Next up it’s Tottenham at home — and surely we have to produce a better performance than the dismal showing at their place.
Nothing short of a comprehensive win will ease the pain of White Hart Lane in November. Then there are 10 games to go, of which five are distinctly winnable. But with a refreshed Payet back in the side anything is possible — including, perhaps, surprise wins at Chelsea and Everton. Draw the others and that’s 24 points — which could mean a total of 30 to drool over when our Gallic genius returns to the side. Who knows? If those standing in for him can keep us in touch in his absence, we might just be looking at our best league finish in 30 years. Now that would be a fitting way to say goodbye to the Boleyn Ground.