In part two of our weekly season review, we look at a landmark month in the history of West Ham United, as our first season at The London Stadium began.
As the start of the 2016/2017 Premier League season was fast approaching, there was still the formalities of a Europa League third qualifying round tie and a glamour friendly to take care of.
The month started with the first ever Hammers game at The London Stadium, as we took on Slovenian outfit NK Domzale in The Europa League third qualifying round second leg. The visitors had the advantage after their 2-1 victory at The Stadium Stozice, but we had an away goal and were firm favourites to overcome the minnows. The tie was an all-round success as Hammers fans stood in awe at the sight of the new stadium and on the pitch, we came out 3-0 winners thanks to a Cheikhou Kouyate double and a Sofiane Feghouli volley. Our first home game away from Upton Park in 112 years had passed and now attentions were to turn to the historic official opening of The London Stadium, a friendly against Italian giants Juventus.
There was a real feel of optimism and party atmosphere as the day of the visit of the Serie A champions dawned on Sunday August 8th. The game was televised live on BT Sport and the pageantry of The London Stadium opening ceremony was broadcast to the world. A fantastic spectacle, including dancers and large banners to display the words “Thank You Founders” was displayed on the pitch and followed by a fast-paced end to end game. Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic opened the scoring for The Old Lady, before Andy Carroll scrambled the ball past Gigi Buffon to pull one back before half time. The 28-year-old was again the scorer just after the break, when his precise header provided our equaliser to make it 2-2. Never was irony more personified when in the 85th minute Simone Zaza was put through to slot home Juve’s winner, the irony being that the goal would be Zaza’s only at The London Stadium, despite spending the following six months on loan with us. A feeling of great confidence was drawn from the friendly as we had given one of the best teams in the world a good run for their money.
Back off the field and just a day after the Juventus defeat, the huge signings of Arthur Masuaku and Andre Ayew were made. The pair cost a combined total of around £30 million, including a club record fee for Ayew, they would both enjoy a relatively successful first season in English Football. The signing of FC Sion midfielder Edimilson Fernandes would also be confirmed later in that month, the fee being around £6 million. Excitement at the amount of money being spent by the board flowed, but many Hammers fans were left to question the calibre of player being purchased, as the Premier League opener at Stamford Bridge approached.
Slaven Bilic and his players had eight days to recover after a hectic pre-season before facing the future champions in Chelsea, which marked the first Monday night Football of the season. Antonio Conte was looking to impress in his first game as Blues manager and unfortunately for us he did not disappoint, as Eden Hazard gave the West London club the lead from the spot just after the break. We looked depleted as Chelsea missed several chances to put the game out of sight, but with 13 minutes of normal time left James Collins popped up with an uncharacteristic volley to level. However, the joy was not to last and in the 89th minute Spaniard Diego Costa fired a low winner for the hosts. It had been a disappointing but encouraging start to the Premier League campaign and attentions could now turn to trying to get revenge over Romanian outfit Astra Giurgiu in The Europa League.
The Romanian champions had knocked us out of the competition a round earlier in the previous year and with Europa League being a priority, the away leg was a huge game. Slaven Bilic’s men were forced to fly out to Romania for a game that was scheduled for just three days after our defeat at Stamford Bridge. However, there was no sign of fatigue in the first half as Mark Noble fired us into the lead with a penalty on the stroke of half time. The mixture of youth and experience in the line-up was working well until tired legs started to show as the game wore on, minutes after Marcus Browne and Michail Antonio squandered a superb chance between them, Astra were level. A lapse in defensive concentration had led to a poorly dealt with corner which fell into the path of Romania international Denis Alibec who’s close range shot evaded Adrian and James Collins to sneak into the roof of the net. All in all, despite the disappointing end to the game, the performance was considered satisfactory and we had that all important away goal.
With the business of a Europa League Play-Off dealt with for the meantime, our first ever Premier League game at The London Stadium against The Cherries became dual focus. It was to be another televised Sunday fixture and another mediocre performance, but just like in Romania it was the result that mattered more. Slaven Bilic was forced to name a weak starting eleven with the injuries to key individuals such as Aaron Cresswell, Andy Carroll and Manuel Lanzini, plus the absence of Dimitri Payet and several others. Many Hammers fans weren’t holding their breaths for a fantastic performance, but we were helped in the second half when Bournemouth’s Harry Arter was dismissed for a second bookable offence. However, with five minutes of normal time to play, the score was still locked at 0-0, until Michail Antonio popped up at the back post in customary fashion to grab a historic winner. New loan signing Jonathan Calleri missed a late chance to double the lead, but the damage was already done and it would be a winning start to Premier League life at The London Stadium.
There was to be no long distance travelling for our next Europa League clash, as we faced Astra in the second leg of the Play-Off tie at home just four days later. Tensions were running high on a hot Thursday night in East London, as Slaven Bilic gave starting opportunities to the likes of Reece Burke and Jonathan Calleri in the vital clash. At the start of the game we were 90 minutes away from the Group Stages of the Europa League, but when Felipe Texiera fired home on the break for the visitors just before half time, it felt like we were years away. Chance after chance rolled by in the second half, as we struggled on an uphill climb to level the scores. The most notable opportunities were missed by new signings Ashley Fletcher and Jonathan Calleri, as fans began to turn on the players. The full-time whistle finally blew after an agonising half of despair and the bubble had burst on our Europa League hopes at the hands of FC Astra Giurgiu for the second consecutive season.
The final Premier League game of the month presented an opportunity to end a torrid month on the field with a win. However, Manchester City would be our opponents at The Etihad and Michail Antonio’s late header would only prove a constellation as goals from Fernandinho and a Raheem Sterling brace condemned us to a 3-1 defeat. However, there was to be one positive to come out of the game in the news that followed shortly after it, Michail Antonio had been called up to the England squad for the first time by new manager Sam Allardyce. All in all, August was a very disappointing month to start a very disappointing first season at The London Stadium. Many Hammers celebrated Enner Valencia’s deadline day loan move to Everton on the last day of the month, but not even the most pessimistic of West Ham fans could have predicted the footballing despair that was follow in September.