A season of highs and disbelief as Hammers challenge for Europe

The Boys of 21 will be fondly remembered but is this the start of an exciting new era or a false dawn?

The teams line-up at the EPL match West Ham United v Burnley, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th January, 2021. English Premier League matches are still being played behind closed doors because of the current COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and government social distancing/lockdown restrictions.

It would be fair to say that this season, we’ve experienced something that a generation of fans have never seen.

A West Ham team fighting, not just in the top half of the table, but in the top five for almost the entirety of 2021. 

Despite some fantastic attacking campaigns under Redknapp, this season will surely be remembered as the most consistent and accomplished Premier League campaign.

As an old fogey, I have to accept now that the Premier League is not a new thing. 

In my mind, it’s still a relatively new innovation but the reality is that it’s now been with us for almost 30 years and there are many fans who have known nothing else. 

There are many who believe that history began in August 1992, but even if we combine our old first division and ‘new’ Premier League history, this has been a diamond-in-the-rough of a season.

The way we finished 2019/2020 gave us reason to be hopeful. The fact remained though, that we only finished four points above Bournemouth in 18th – hardly a cause for celebration.

Polls among the fans gave us the lowest expectation levels in the division. Part of that reason for pessimism was a lack of activity in the transfer market, and an opening seven fixtures that would make Hercules wince. 

The only visible transfer activity had been the securing of Tomas Soucek on a permanent deal (admittedly an important bit of business) but the only other signings were aimed at the under-23s. 

Craig Dawson came in on loan and Said Benrahma, after protracted negotiations, ended up on loan rather than permanent but with an obligation to buy. Only the owners will know why.

Maybe more significant was the number, and perceived quality, of players leaving. 

Jack Wilshere, Carlos Sanchez and Jeremy Ngakia, a young player with promise who turned down a contract extension. The club didn’t blink. 

Zabaleta retired, Ajeti went to Celtic. Hugill went to Norwich. Roberto, went to Real Valladolid and working his magic at time of writing they are one point above the relegation zone. 

Josh Cullen threatened to break into the first team but never quite made the grade and went to Anderlect.

The most controversial departures were the loaning out of Felipe Anderson, who had a wretched 19/21 season, to FC Porto where he’s made just a handful of appearances, and more divisively, the sale of Grady Diangana to WBA.

Diangana was one youth product who had made it to first team level but Benrahma was deemed the better option. 

After a bright start at The Baggies, Diangana has also struggled. There is a theme among all those departing players. Generally not good enough and no matter how hard we wished and hoped, they never would be.

Shifting deadwood is one thing but replacements need to be vibrant and effective.

Vital then, to get something out of the game against Newcastle. But we didn’t play like it meant anything and limped to a 0-2 defeat. 

Emphatic wins in the cup against lower league opposition in the form of Charlton and Hull sandwiched a second defeat, at the Emirates. Maybe more expected this time but the level of performance was better and suggested there might be some hope.

Even the most optimistic West Ham fan would not have anticipated the turnaround that was about to happen. 

At home to Wolves, our latest nemesis, we blew them away 4-0 with a double from Bowen, an own goal and a header from Sebastien Haller.

The midweek cup trip to Everton ended in inevitable defeat, with Sully and Gold still moaning about the cost of getting the team up there it seemed there was little interest in progression at board level.

Tenth place in the league and a positive goal difference after three games was more than we could have expected. But then along came Vladimir Coufal, Soucek’s former Slavia Prague team mate. 

On the face of it, uninspiring. Not for long. In his debut at Leicester, their 100% start to the campaign lay in ruins as we came away 3-0 winners, Coufal starred. 

Here was a player with bundles of attitude, ability and energy. Clearly he also had a close friendship and understanding with Soucek, but rather than forming a Czech clique, their enthusiasm and will to win seemed to rub off on the others. Any more where those two came from?

With immaculate timing we encountered Tottenham just as Gareth Bale had re-joined and they were on a high. 

Within 15 minutes they were even higher, 3-0 up and cruising, we clawed our way back into the game but it seemed the damage had already been done. 

When Balbuena got one back with eight minutes left it seemed like mere consolation, but then a glaring miss from Bale and an own goal by Sanchez made it 3-2 with five minutes to go.

We didn’t dare to dream that Lanzini would strike a worldy in the fourth minute of added time to send the West Ham faithful wild in their living rooms, and the Spurs TV hosts limp in disbelief. It was a sweet moment indeed. One that I replay. A lot.

Another point followed at home to Manchester City, albeit before they had really hit their stride, and another stirring performance at a stuttering Liverpool meant that the nightmare opening seven fixtures had yielded eight points in total, which was not to be sniffed at. More importantly we looked solid and determined.

The test now would be to see if we could do it against teams we were expected to beat. Fulham came to the London Stadium and fought hard and fair for a point until Soucek grabbed what looked like the winner late on. 

But there was still time for Fulham to be awarded a penalty, taken by Lookman. The strike was every bit as memorable as Lanzini’s a couple of weeks before, but for different reasons. Three points to the Irons.

Sheffield United couldn’t buy a point let alone a win, so it seemed that it might be written in the stars they would get off the mark against us. 

But this was, by now, a West Ham team made of sterner stuff and they were dispatched 1-0 at Bramall Lane with another magnificent strike from Haller. It was becoming a feature of the season that we were scoring some superb goals.

Another slice of fortune against an in-form Villa at the London Stadium saw them miss a penalty and have a goal ruled out for offside by VAR at the death. The 2-1 victory was barely deserved, but the VAR lottery was evening things out.

The heady heights of fifth, and 2,000 fans allowed back in the stadium for the visit of Manchester United, the luck ran out when although 1-0 up at half time, a United clearance clearly swerved out of play and back in again before Pogba equalised, but in truth they were the better side second half and probably deserved the victory.

The attendance of fans was short lived as the Covid-19 began a comeback more dramatic than we’d managed at Spurs. 

We came from behind to win 2-1 at media darlings Leeds, Haller rescued a point against Palace with another stunning overhead kick, before we were roundly trounced 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.

That result, combined with a 2-2 draw at home to Brighton just after Christmas was the only real wobble we had suffered since the opening two games. 

To be fair the Chelsea result flattered them, they scored twice late on and we were in it right to the end, but the selection of Noble in midfield appeared negative and defensive, and after Brighton, the Moyes doubters had a field day.

Yet for the majority of West Ham fans Moyes was beginning to gain their trust. Never defensively a sound unit, even under Allardyce, we managed to shut out the opposition in the next four games, something which coincided with the introduction of Craig Dawson into the side.

There had been doubts about him, but in his debut, a 0-0 draw at Southampton, he showed a decisiveness and an ability to ready the game that had been missing in any West Ham centre back with the exception of Ogbonna since Winston Reid had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

Everton were shut out on New Years’ Day with Soucek grabbing the winner, and Dawson also turned provider in a 1-0 cup victory at Stockport to forever banish memories of Iain Dowie’s own goal. 

Another clean sheet against Burnley, and another 1-0 victory saw us sitting comfortably in ninth place, amazingly only seven points off leaders Manchester United and just three behind City in fourth. 

It was noticed, by now, that we had something special going. No West Ham team had amassed 29 points in 18 Premier League matches before. 

No West Ham team, (in the Premier League era) even with the brilliance of Di Canio or Payet in their side, had shown the kind of attacking intent combined with defensive stability this team had.

And so it continued, with a 2-1 win over Sam Allardyce’s struggling West Bromwich Albion side, which saw their new signing Robert Snodgrass sit it out in an arrangement that appeared to cause outrage and was then promptly forgotten. 

A crazily busy month which saw us play seven games drew to a conclusion with Doncaster Rovers dispatched 4-0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup, youngsters Afolyan and Trott making debut sub appearances. 

Crystal Palace were then mercilessly beaten at Selhurst Park, the 3-2 scoreline not at all a fair reflection of the 90 minutes. Six wins in a row, albeit two of them against lower league opposition in the cup.

This is West Ham after all, we don’t really do beating lower league opponents, this was indeed a period to savour. Six games, 13 scored, three conceded.

Sebastien Haller was sold to Ajax and those with too much time on their hands watched as his scoring record improved and concluded that he just wasn’t the right fit for us. Probably true.

Stuttering Liverpool up next. Stuttering they may have been but if you afford the league champions the kind of respect we gave them that day they will always beat you, and beat us they did, without us offering so much as a whimper. 

Craig Dawson’s consolation was exactly that, but the manner of the defeat was uncomfortable, and made us start to think maybe this was a false dawn after all. 

And there was less transfer activity in the window than there had been in September. Talk of Jesse Lingard on loan. Jesse Lingard? We didn’t want him. Did we?

I admit I was a doubter. Benrahma was signed on a permanent deal to free up the loan space required for Lingard. After his debut at Villa Park I was converted. 

Two goals on a debut always goes a long way towards placating dissenters, but this was a bit special. 

Despite not playing for ages he injected an energy and enthusiasm which had been starting to flag.

He couldn’t repeat the trick at Fulham in a 0-0 draw where Soucek’s farcical injury time red card was the only incident of note and was swiftly rescinded. 

Off to United in the FA Cup, a real chance to have a crack, a real chance to get into the last eight. 

But with Lingard ineligible, Antonio at home, Ogbonna injured and limping off, the match went into extra time but we had shown nothing to indicate that we might have the energy for penalties if that was to be the decisive moment. 

In the end Scott McTominay put us out of our misery in extra time, but the lack of intent, the injuries sustained and the feeling that all we had to go for now was a top half finish somewhat soured the moment.

That and the withdrawal of substitute Ademipo Odubeko, which was no doubt tactically warranted after Yarmolenko also had to withdraw with injury, but must have been a blow to the kid’s confidence. 

There is no such thing as a routine win in the Premier League but the 3-0 victory at home to Sheffield United was probably the closest we had come and was achieved with the minimum of fuss. 

Lingard, back to his best, pulled the strings, as he did in the next game at home to Spurs, where Tottenham’s apparent relief at seeing the linesman’s flag go up for Lingard’s goal to make it 2-0 was quickly dashed by VAR. 

Cue more searches for Tottenham TV clips. Tottenham pulled one back and a nervous final 25 minutes ensued. We hoped that our nerves would not be tested like that again through March and April. Fourth place secured for the time being.

As we entered the depths of the final lockdown, still six weeks away from any apparent light at the end of the tunnel, West Ham were doing their best to keep up the spirits. 

A 2-1 defeat at Manchester City came in the middle of the most purple of purple patches for City and we ran them closer than anyone had for weeks. 

In the end they relied on goals from two centre backs. Leeds came to the London Stadium and looked dangerous for 10 minutes then we scored two quick goals and it was game over. 

We managed to cling on to a top five place despite a disappointing result and, again, performance at Old Trafford, losing 1-0 to a Dawson own goal.

As Jarrod Bowen was putting us 3-0 up against Arsenal, I was having a needle stuck in my arm at Selhurst Park and trying to avoid the score. 

Unfortunately a couple of over-zealous stewards should at each other as I was leaving: ‘What’s the score?’, ‘Three-one’, ‘Who scored?’, ‘Lacazette.’

Only a West Ham fan would assume that meant Lacazette had made it 3-1 to Arsenal, but I had to check the score anyway and my Likely lads moment had been ruined. 3-1 – to us?

I dashed home, put the kettle on, thinking a beer maybe unwise, and started watching the game from the start. West Ham 3-0 up and cruising. Oh, wait.

The 3-3 result, coupled with the reaction from my Covid jab made the following day the toughest of the season so far from a footballing perspective. 

What we had done to Spurs, Arsenal had done unto us. I searched for crumbs of comfort, the only morsel I could find was the fact we hadn’t lost. But it felt like we had. It would take a monumental effort to get over this.

It was good that the international break gave us a chance to forget what had happened against Arsenal. 

Not so good the injury to Declan Rice. No Rice. No Ogbonna. 

They were dropping like flies. After 30 minutes there was no Antonio either as his hamstring pinged again and Jarrod Bowen came on to again score a goal that put us 3-0 up. 

Ok guys. Concentrate. Don’t let…. Oh. Well 3-1 is OK just don’t let them… Oh. For God’s sake West Ham don’t keep doing that. 

Three-two, three points and fourth place reclaimed. Leicester up next and for the first time since September 1964 we went 3-0 up in a league game for the third consecutive game. 

And for the third consecutive game we looked like throwing it away. Desperate defending at the end secured another 3-2 win. And breathe.

A win at Newcastle would, temporarily at least, put us third and give both Leicester and Chelsea something to think about. 

Ogbonna returned at St James’s Park but we lost Craig Dawson instead to two yellows and catastrophic defending saw us 0-2 down at half time. 

A heroic comeback counted for nothing as they sneaked one right at the end. Harsh. But still in fourth. 

The home game against Chelsea appeared to be a cup final for fourth place but in truth Liverpool had regained form, Tottenham were still in the mix and Everton would still have something to say.

So a 0-1 defeat with yet another dodgy red card that would be rescinded was not the end of the world. Close to the end of the world. But not the end of the world.

There was light at the end of the tunnel with news that Rice was on the mend and Antonio was ready to start at Turf Moor against Burnley. 

Having lost two in a row we thought maybe the season was about to unravel but this team just lurched from one surprise to another, coming from behind to win 2-1 in one of the most complete team performances of the season.

But then it was so typically West Ham that we would lose at home to Everton, like a Chihuahua trying to fight a Doberman we were held at arm’s length despite a lot of baring of teeth and snapping at heels. 

Manchester United then conspired to effectively end our hopes of top four by losing consecutive games at home to Leicester and Liverpool. A point rescued at Brighton was cold comfort indeed and left us needing to win our last two games just to guarantee sixth position. 

If you’d offered me sixth place in September, I would have ripped your arm off. Only West Ham can do this. 

Deep down did we think we could make the top four? Probably not. But if ever a season defined what it’s like to be a Hammer, this was it. 

Last year, grateful for survival. This year, disappointed with top eight. Next year, who knows?

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