The ‘next level’ is just a fantasy

The nightmare start under Bilic was just the beginning of our problems as the

I wasn’t sorry when referee Graham Scott blew the final whistle after West Ham had put Everton to the sword in David Moyes’ last game in charge. We’d witnessed a season to forget, and I was glad it was over.

The bar behind the Bobby Moore Stand is not a watering hole I use all that often. But for the Williams clan it has become a family tradition to have a pint there on the last day of the season. Some may argue that you can’t have a “family tradition” after just two seasons, but let’s not quibble about that.

So, after we had witnessed the team’s customary final lap of the pitch – and said our sorrowful farewells to the Ginger Pele – that’s where we headed. In many ways, the shambles I witnessed as we waited patiently in a motionless queue summed up the season as a whole.

A lack of organisation, energy and enthusiasm behind the bar mirrored the lacklustre performances on the pitch in too many games. It was a fitting end in so many ways. The season didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. Because of the time it took to put the seats back in their rightful places after the London Stadium had hosted the World Athletics Championships we had to play our first three games away from home.

Following those encounters – against Man Utd, Southampton and Newcastle – we were rooted at the bottom of the fledgling table. Fair enough, a league table based on three matches can be misleading. But stats that reveal you have played three, lost three, scored twice and conceded 10 should start alarm bells ringing somewhere.

What the league table didn’t show was that record signing Marko Arnautovic had managed to get himself sent off in the 3-2 defeat at St Mary’s. We were 1-0 down when Arnie got his marching orders, and went two behind shortly afterwards. You’d have got long odds against him finishing the season as Hammer of the Year at that stage. In fact, judging by the murderous look on Slaven Bilic’s face as he fumed in the technical area, you’d have got decent odds on Arnautovic still breathing at the end of the season.

For the record, West Ham fought back brilliantly in the second half. Two goals from Javier Hernandez levelled things up – only for Charlie Austin to deny us a point with a debatable penalty in the 93rd minute. And, yes, that’s the same highly-motivated Charlie Austin who was once deemed unfit to play for West Ham by our owner. Nice darts, Mr Sullivan. Nice darts.

Our opening home game of the campaign was on September 11 – which is a mighty long time to wait before you can get the benefit of your 900- quid season ticket for the first time. The summer holiday tan was a certainly a distant memory. But, on the bright side, we did win – turning over newly-promoted Huddersfield 2-0 in a one-sided affair that lifted us off the bottom of the table and up to the dizzying heights of 18th.

Onwards and upwards! An away point at West Brom five days later took us out of the relegation zone. What could possibly go wrong? A home defeat against Spurs the following week, that’s what. The team did show some spirit to pull back two second-half goals, but it really isn’t a good idea to go 3-0 down to our neighbours from north London these days. You probably don’t like them any more than I do, but you have to admit that lot can play a bit.

So, it turns out, can Brighton and Hove Albion – who also put three past the hapless Joe Hart without giving anything away at the other end. I live in Brighton, and had to share the train home with a bunch of happy Albion fans. To be fair, they were a good deal more courteous than I had been after we put six past them at Upton Park.

Sandwiched between those two humiliating defeats were four welcome points garnered from a drab 1-0 win at home to Swansea thanks to a late goal from Diafra Sakho (he scores when he wants – which wasn’t very often at the London Stadium) and a battling draw at Burnley. However, the comprehensive beating by Brighton really signalled that the end was nigh for Slav.

We beat Tottenham 3-2 in a League Cup game at Wembley a few days later and then snatched a draw from the jaws of victory at Selhurst Park, prompting several pundits to question precisely what it is that Michail Antonio has between his ears other than fresh air. However, the writing was on the wall for Bilic. In large, luminous capital letters.

Liverpool provided the full stop by hammering us 4-1 at the London Stadium. That was Saturday. Slav got his P45 on Monday. By the time we played Watford at Vicarage Road following an international break, David Moyes was the new gaffer. The appointment cannot be truthfully described as universally popular with supporters. There was an anti-Moyes movement from the moment his name was first mentioned in connection with the job.

Many people were signing a “Moyes Out” petition before the bloke was actually “in”. A rare distinction, even by West Ham’s remark able standards. Moyes’ first game in charge did not go well. We lost 2-0 in front of the Sky cameras and the team, plus its new manager, were booed off the pitch.

What’s more, a growing number of grumpy fans were calling on the board to sack itself. The television companies could smell blood, and Sky was at the London Stadium for the Moyesiah’s first home match – a 1-1 draw with Leicester. Then it was BT’s turn – a midweek game at Everton. You just know it’s going to be one of those nights when your ‘keeper saves a spot-kick, only to see the penalty-taker head home the rebound.

Two-nil down at half-time, West Ham got their act together in the second period and won a penalty – which Manuel Lanzini missed. Those unhappy Hammers who didn’t switch channels at that point then looked on in horror as Wayne Rooney beat Hart from inside his own half to complete a hat-trick. A fourth goal twisted the knife yet further and the cameras couldn’t resist focusing on Everton’s manager-in-waiting Sam Allardyce as he smirked in the stands. And people say The Handmaid’s Tale is tough to watch!

Unsurprisingly, one point from three games wasn’t enough to lift us out of the bottom three and we were still in the relegation zone going into December. However, spirits were lifted by a terrific performance at Man City, which deserved far more than a 2-1 defeat.

The following Saturday the work that was clearly taking place on the training ground really paid off as we beat Chelsea and then drew with Arsenal at the London Stadium. Our meeting with the Gooners was the seventh consecutive game we had been shown live on TV. It’s a shame the Stoke game wasn’t the eighth.

A 3-0 victory was the best performance the team had put in all season. The three points took us out of the relegation zone, and although we continued to flirt with it for a while we never again fell below that dreaded dotted line. Losing 3-2 at home to Newcastle two days before Christmas wasn’t quite the present we were all hoping for. But, in many ways, a bigger disappointment was the League Cup quarter-final defeat at Arsenal earlier that week.

The Gooners were there for the taking, but Moyes’s tactics were far too timid and we barely troubled them all game. When will managers get the message that fans want more than just Premier League survival and if there’s a realistic chance of some silverware they should throw caution to the wind for once? Oh, and before we leave 2017, let’s give Bobby Madley the coveted award for the worst piece of refereeing of the year. That came in the Boxing Day fixture against Bournemouth, where he allowed an injury-time equaliser to stand even though Callum Wilson was offside and handled the ball.

Come on Mike Dean – you’re going to have raise your game if you want to compete with incompetence of that magnitude. The New Year got off to a cracking start. Things didn’t look too promising when Alan Pardew’s West Brom went ahead after half an hour. But the lesser-spotted Andy Carroll scored twice in the second half to secure the points. The winner – from a ridiculously tight angle – came in the 94th minute and prompted the unique joy that is created by coming from behind.

So bad luck to anyone who was daft enough to leave such a finely balanced game early. Just two days later we were away at Tottenham. The game finished 1-1, and produced two astonishing goals. We won’t waste precious time talking about the Spurs effort, naturally. But Pedro Obiang’s blistering shot from 35 yards will live long in the memories of those of us with claret and blue blood coursing through our veins.

Oh, and just for the record, that goal ensured West Ham preserved an unbeaten run in competitive matches at Wembley that stretches back to 1923 (I don’t count Charity Shield games). We really should go there more often. January saw us play eight games in all. As always with West Ham, there were ups and downs. The high spot was a fantastic 4-1 win at Huddersfield, with Arnautovic and Lanzini combining brilliantly to rip the Yorkshire side to shreds.

The low water mark was a fourth-round FA Cup defeat at Wigan, and with it hopes of a longed-for Wembley final disappearing for another season. February began with an away game at Brighton – and once again the Seagulls did what seagulls do and dumped all over us. The defeat did nothing to ease the growing unrest among supporters, which had been fuelled by a transfer window that failed to address the lack of quality players in key positions.

James Collins summed it up with a simple thumb-and-twofinger gesture to the travelling fans that indicated what he thought about the owners’ reluctance to spend some serious money. He was never going to get his contract renewed after that. Next up was a routine 2-0 victory at home to Watford – but that was followed by a run of fixtures that saw us concede 11 goals in three games. Okay, no one is surprised when you ship four at Anfield – but a 4-1 defeat at the hands of struggling Swansea bordered on the humiliating.

Then came a 3-0 defeat by Burnley in a game which was supposed to have been remembered as the 25th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death but will go down in the club’s history for all the wrong reasons. There had been talk of a protest march before the game. Opinions differ as to why it never took place, but the fact that angry supporters were denied the chance to demonstrate just how frustrated they were feeling did nothing to ease tensions within the stadium. And when Burnley scored, that tension boiled over.

The tabloids dusted off the ‘day of shame’ headlines and talked of ‘invasions’ after a handful of fans came on to the pitch in four separate incidents. It wasn’t pretty, but it was hardly the mindless violence that was once a regular feature at football grounds. Competent stewards should have dealt with it comfortably. Instead, it was left to Mark Noble and his players to persuade the unwanted supporters to leave the playing area – quite forcibly in the captain’s case.

Beneath the directors’ box, fans gathered to let the owners know precisely what they thought of them. That was ugly, but the fans did pose a valid question: ‘Where’s the money gone?’ The defeat left us once again looking over our shoulders at the possibility of relegation. But a thumping 3-0 demolition of Southampton, followed by draws at Chelsea and at home against Stoke, eased us out of the dogfight.

Heavy defeats against Arsenal and Man City did nothing to settle the nerves, but a 2-0 victory at Leicester – the highlight of which was a brilliant Noble volley for the second goal – saw us safe. Two years to the day after our final game at Upton Park, which of course was against Man Utd, we played the Mancs again – this time it was a goalless draw.

Three days later we rounded off the season by wiping the smile off Big Sam’s face with a 3-1 victory over Everton, thanks to some mouth-watering goals from Arnautovic and Lanzini. After all that we finished 13th – which wasn’t enough to keep Moyes in a job or convince the moaners like me that we are any closer to watching the world class team in a world class stadium we were promised when we left the Boleyn Ground. But, who knows? Maybe with Manuel Pellegrini in charge the Williams family will end next season in the bar behind the Bobby Moore Stand toasting a place in the Champions League. That’s if we ever get served, of course.

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