After months of build-up, gossip, transactions, managerial switches and pre-season matches, the first weekend of the 2013/2014 Premier League finally arrived, and gave us a sweet taster of what is to come.
The crucial part of that last sentence is “taster.” It is all too easy for pundits and journalists to conclude what the first weekend meant; who will go down and who will claim top spot. Just as I don’t think Arsenal are doomed after an opening-day loss (Manchester United lost their first game last season and went on to win the league by 11 points), it is too early to say how West Ham will shape up for the year ahead. Still, Cardiff City’s game had a hint of comfort and consistency to it, something that has been a long time coming.
When I first started regularly attending West Ham games, in the mid-1990s, I witnessed the relegation battle of Harry Redknapp’s reign that saw John Hartson and Paul Kitson come to our rescue. Following that tortuous campaign, a comfortable pattern set in that saw us regularly claim a top ten finish, culminating in that remarkable season when we sat fifth in the table in 1999.
There was a sense then of Upton Park truly being a fortress; an on-going calm that all was well; and a belief that European football, or even a trophy, was a genuine possibility.
How things changed after Redknapp’s demise. I’ve said this many times before (notably at British GQ link: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/comment/articles/2012-11/21/roberto-di-matteo-sacked-as-chelsea-manager-football-after-juventus-defeat ), but West Ham had ten managers in their first 106 years. Since 2001, we’ve had six.
Those years, bar the highlight of promotion (twice) and the pain and glory of the 2006 F.A. Cup final, have been something of a lost decade for the Hammers. The tenure of Avram Grant was like the reign of Lou Macari on a bad trip. A truly miserable season, made worse by the fact that I was living in Washington, D.C., and had to get up every morning at 9am to watch us put in countless abysmal performances.
However, the last two years have been a turning point. I remember years ago saying to myself, after watching Sam Allardyce give a post-match press conference at Bolton, “Well, at least we’ll never have him as manager.” It has taken us all a while to get used to Big Sam. Yet, for a man well known for his love of statistics, his own numbers – when it comes to West Ham – cannot be debated. Promotion and a top-ten finish in the Premier League in two years. A decent win ratio of 43 percent in 94 games in charge.
Last week against Cardiff City, there was a return to the days of fortress Upton Park and of West Ham credibility; no longer a team unpredictable or underperforming. Yes, the opposition was not great, but admittedly that hasn’t stopped us from losing before. A strong defence and a solid midfield; a mixture of traditional slick passing and the Allardyce long ball.
In the run-up to the Olympic Stadium, we need stability, we need strength, and we need to remain a top-ten team. I trust Big Sam to deliver just that. Oh, and a trophy might be nice as well.