Season Review: Hints of sunshine after West Ham suffer truly terrible first weeks

There was plenty to like this season but Iron’s campaign finishes with almost as many questions as answers with several problems still waiting to be solved

How you judge the season we have just witnessed will depend largely on the way in which you tackle the old conundrum about whether or not your glass is half empty or half full.

My glass is generally well and truly drained, but that’s because I drink too much. Still, let’s leave my personal problems to one side for the time being and take a look back at 10 months of football that undoubtedly prompted champagne corks to fly in the boardroom but left the overpriced Amstel in the east stand bar I use tasting a little flat.

Hopes were high after Manuel Pellegrini was given the key to the manager’s office and the PIN that unlocks David Sullivan’s credit card. He didn’t waste much time rebuilding the team he had inherited and spent big. Unsurprisingly, some of the signings – made in conjunction with director of football Mario Husillos – worked out better than others.

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Pick of the bunch has to be Lukasz Fabianski, who had a fantastic season. While the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool were spending upwards of £70m on goalkeepers, we picked up Fabianski at just a tenth of that price. What a bargain our Hammer of the Year proved to be!

The day before West Ham signed the Polish goalkeeper, Pellegrini splashed out what for a while was a club record £22m on central defender Issa Diop. He was later joined in the centre of defence by Fabian Balbuena, who we bought for the ridiculously low price of £3.5m from Brazilian league champions Corinthians. After a shaky start to the season, they finally looked like a solid combination after Balbuena returned from injury and Diop benefited from a spell out of the firing line and on the bench.

Fellow summer signing Ryan Fredericks was another who failed to inspire confidence in his early outings, but happily finished the season looking more assured than he did at the start.

Much was expected of Jack Wilshere, who had become surplus to requirements at the Emirates after the departure of Arsene Wenger. However, it turned out to be more a case of Jack Wheelchair as the former Arsenal man spent most of the season in the treatment room. Another player unwanted in north London was Lucas Perez, who we acquired for £4m on deadline day. It didn’t take long to see why the Gooners didn’t fancy him.

The acquisition of Andriy Yarmolenko for a reported £17.5m from Borussia Dortmund prompted less excitement than many of the other big-name signings. The Ukrainian international looked out of his depth to begin with, but seemed to be getting to grips with the Premier League when his season was prematurely cut short by an injury sustained in the game against Tottenham towards the end of October.

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West Ham’s marque signing, of course, was Brazilian Felipe Anderson, who joined from Lazio for a club record fee of £36m that could yet go higher. Like so many of the other acquisitions, it took him a while to find his feet. But by the end of the season it was clear that Pellegrini had recruited a seriously good footballer.

Mind you, in the early games of the season it looked very much like the manager had forgotten to introduce his new players to one another – or, indeed, the rest of the team.Losing the opener at Anfield probably didn’t come as much of a surprise to most of us, but the manner of the defeat was alarming. The defence looked like it had no faith in one another nor Pellegrini’s instruction to keep a high line when defending set pieces.

Liverpool looked like they would score every time they came anywhere near our goal and we were lucky to get away without conceding more than the four we did. Unlike the previous season, we did at least get to see West Ham at home in August. However, that resulted in a home defeat to Bournemouth. We then lost at Arsenal and got beaten again at the London Stadium by Wolves – all of which meant we failed to get a single point from our first four games. We even struggled to beat Wimbledon in the League Cup.

The turning point came at Everton in early September. Two goals from Yarmolenko and a third from Marko Arnautovic gave us a 3-1 victory that not just Lawro failed to foresee. Next up was Chelsea at home, which ended with a well-deserved point and a rare clean sheet. Better still, the following week we tonked Man Utd 3-1 at the London Stadium – thanks in no small measure to a fantastic midfield performance by Mark Noble.

And, if that wasn’t enough for even the most demanding of West Ham fans, sandwiched between the Premier League fixtures was a League Cup game against Macclesfield that saw the emergence of Grady Diangana in an 8-0 massacre.

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However, sweet September was followed by ’orrible October, in which we managed to lose away at Brighton and twice at home to Tottenham – first in the Prem and then in the League Cup. A point at Leicester did little to lift my personal gloom.

November – like so much of the season – was a bag of liquorice allsorts. We beat Burnley at home, with no hint of the ugly scenes that had marred the corresponding encounter the previous season, drew at Huddersfield and then got hammered by Man City.

The December fixture list was daunting, with seven Premier League games in a calendar month. However, the season of goodwill got off to the best possible start with a 3-0 away victory at Newcastle, then a 3-1 defeat of Cardiff which left Neil Warnock railing against the injustices of life which, according to “Colin”, haunt him like they haunt no one else.

And if you are one of those innocent souls who don’t know why he’s often referred to as Colin, amuse yourself by completing the anagram of N-E-I-L-W-A-R-N-O-C-K.

We backed up those successes with two more – at home against Palace and then away at Fulham – to give us four wins on the bounce for the first time in almost five years. Then, just as we all hoped for more of the same, half the team forgot how to defend and referee Lee Mason appeared to forget how to count up to 10 as he measured out a free kick and we went down 2-0 at home to Watford.

Two days after Christmas we beat Southampton 2-1 with goals from Anderson at St Mary’s, then lost 2-0 at Turf Moor in a game that looked like it was one too many for some of our players. And so endeth 2018.

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The new year kicked off with a home fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion – a team that had beaten us three times on the trot since being promoted from the Championship the previous season. And it looked for all the world as if they would make it four in a row when they went 2-0 up.

For many West Ham supporters, losing to Brighton is not the worst thing in the world – but I live there and have to go home on the train with their fans. So I was probably cheering more than most when Arnie scored twice within two minutes to rescue a point.

If I was happy, Mr Arnautovic wasn’t. Not content with securing an honourable score-draw against the mighty Seagulls, he wanted to win trophies in China. The sceptics among us suspected that the badge-kissing, arm-crossing Austrian was also interested in the £280,000 a week that Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande were offering to pay him as part of the deal negotiated by his brother and agent Danijel.

Arnautovic got the hump when West Ham turned down Guangzhou’s original offer of £35m and it looked as if we were on the verge of a replay of the Dimitri Payet shambles as he tried to force a move. After a couple of dismal performances Pellegrini dropped him, suggesting “his head was on another issue”.

The Chinese outfit upped their offer by £10m, then had second thoughts and pulled out altogether – all of which did nothing to improve Arnie’s mood. He spent the second half of the season having a major sulk. While Arnautovic was steadily losing the respect of West Ham supporters, Declan Rice was rapidly gaining it with every game he played.

The joy in the stands when he scored the winner against Arsenal – his first Premier League goal – demonstrated just how much Irons’ fans still love to see young talent come up through the ranks and make it at the top level.

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January, of course, means the FA Cup. So, with the club well clear of any relegation scrap thanks to the 15 points we had picked up in December, we all sat back and waited for Mr Pellegrini to plot a course to Wembley. We dispatched Birmingham comfortably enough in the third round – and then came spectacularly unstuck at Wimbledon. The Wombles were bottom of League One at the time and only escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth. As West Ham cup humiliations go, this was up there with the best of them.

February began with a visit to the London Stadium by Liverpool and a diabolical decision that allowed a Sadio Mane goal to stand even though James Milner was miles offside in the build up. Given how well we played that night most pundits agreed the 1-1 scoreline was a miscarriage of justice.

We followed that up with another 1-1 draw at Palace, and then cruised past Fulham 3-1 in Stratford – although Chicharito’s goal should have been chalked off for handball – before heading north to the Etihad. We lost 1-0 to Man City, but it was a gutsy performance and a special mention should go to young full-back Ben Johnson, who made his only appearance of the season and let no one down. Equally cheering was the return of Manuel Lanzini, who came off the bench in both the Fulham and Man City games following a nine-month absence with a horrific knee injury.

If there was one month that summed up West Ham’s season of highs and lows more than any other it has to be March. It began in the best possible way with the return of Billy Bonds to ceremonially open the stand that now bears his name. Given the wave of emotion that engulfed the stadium when Bonzo appeared, it was no surprise that Newcastle never looked like spoiling the party. When Declan Rice scored the opener with just seven minutes gone Billy Bonds’s claret and blue and army were still chanting our hero’s name.

As the roar went up to herald the goal we had the rare privilege of being able to salute a club legend and a star in the making at the same time: it was truly a moment to savour. The performance against Cardiff in south Wales the following week, on the other hand, was not something to relish. A clothes peg on the nose would have been more fitting as we went down 2-0. However, it did result in the best gallows humour of the season when one fan tweeted from the M4 that he was on the way home and Michail Antonio’s wayward shot had finally landed on the roof of his coach!

Seven days later we faced another relegation candidate when Huddersfield came to Stratford. We entered the stadium confidently expecting to hammer them, and left shaking our heads in disbelief as we tried to figure out what we had just witnessed. Victory looked to be a formality when Noble scored from the spot after 15 minutes. The Yorkshire side levelled two minutes later, but we all thought that was just a blip. Then Huddersfield scored either side of half-time to go 3-1 up. Before that, they’d only managed three away goals all season! We’re nothing if not generous at West Ham. Angelo Ogbonna pulled one back after 75 minutes, then Chicharito weighed in with two late goals. Winning after you’ve been 3-1 down should leave supporters feeling ecstatic. I just felt bemused.

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Confusion turned to consternation during our final game of the month as we surrendered abjectly to Everton. It was the first league game of the season that Anderson didn’t play in, and we missed him badly. We lost 2-0 and it was easily our worst performance of the year – the contrast with the victory over Newcastle could not have been greater.

April saw mixed fortunes, too. We lost 2-0 at Chelsea after Eden Hazard decided to score one of those goals that leave you open-mouthed in admiration, and then went to Man Utd for another tough fixture. We should have left Old Trafford with all three points. Instead, we departed with a burning sense of injustice having been denied a perfectly legitimate goal when Anderson was wrongly ruled offside and conceded two highly debatable penalties. VAR – where were you when we needed you most?

That was followed by Leicester at home – a 2-2 draw best remembered for the fanfare that surrounded a new pitchside claret “carpet” at the London Stadium and a brilliant celebration by Antonio who lovingly stroked it after opening the scoring. Michail’s goal celebration the following week was rather less subtle, but whatever it may have lacked in elegance was easily forgiven in the circumstances.

It marked the first goal scored by an away team at the new Tottenham stadium and resulted in us being the first team to beat Spurs there. We wrapped up the season with two comfortable victories in May – beating Southampton 3-0 at home and winning 4-1 at Watford – all of which left us 18 points above the relegation zone and 19 points off a Champions League place. You can’t get much more mid-table than that.

If you’re a glass half empty sort of person 10th place is disappointing given the talent at Pellegrini’s disposal. If your glass is half full, we finished in the top half. Me? My glass appears to be empty again. Whose round is it?

If you enjoy Brian Williams’ regular column, look out for his two brilliant books, Nearly Reach The Sky and Home From Home. There’s no better way to pass the time while you wait for the start of next season!

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