Sunday, 28 December 2014

A Moment in Time - 1985-86, West Ham's Best Ever League Season





Since upsetting the odds when they won the 1980 FA Cup, West Ham had enjoyed the decade so far.  They were a Second Division side when Trevor Brooking’s header beat Arsenal at Wembley.  A year later they won the Division by 13pts, and took Liverpool to a replay in the League Cup (then the Milk Cup).  They’d met the League Champions in the Charity Shield where they were narrowly beaten and gave a good account of themselves in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid’s nursery side, Castilla, and Romania’s Timisoara before succumbing to crack Soviet side, Dinamo Tblisi.  Their League placings to this season had been 9th, 8th, 9th and then 16th in 1984-85.

John Lyall was still in charge, having lead the club to two FA Cup Final wins, 1975 & 1980.  The squad still contained five players from the 1980 success.  Lyall made two important purchases in the summer, Mark Ward from Oldham and Frank McAvennie from St. Mirren.  McAvennie, Scottish Young Player of the Year in 1982 had been a revelation at Love Street and Lyall needed somebody to improve their scoring record of just 51 goals the season before.  These two would become vital members of the side for the forthcoming season.

Manager

John Lyall (aged 45) – Former West Ham player, he took over at the club in 1974, leading them to two FA Cup Final wins, 1975 and 1980.  They also reached European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final in 1976 and League Cup Final 1981.  Remained at the club until he was sacked in 1989 and went on to manage Ipswich Town.

Goalkeeper

Phil Parkes  (aged 35, 52 apps)  - Joined West Ham from QPR in 1979, one of the best keepers in his day, would’ve played more for England if not for Clemence and Shilton.  Left the club to join Lyall at Ipswich in 1990.

Defenders

Ray Stewart (aged 26, 48 apps, 10 goals) – made his name at Dundee United and signed for West Ham in 1979.  Became a prolific penalty scorer, remained at the club until he moved back to Scotland in 1991.

Tony Gale (aged 25, 52 apps) – Started his career at Fulham and then joined West Ham in 1984.  Stayed for 10 years before moving to Blackburn Rovers.

Alvin Martin (aged 27, 50 apps, 4 goals) – Originally on Everton’s books as a schoolboy, he moved to West Ham as an apprentice in 1974.  A firm favourite with the fans, he remained at the club before moving to Leyton Orient in 1996.  Earned 17 caps for England.

Steve Walford (aged 27, 33 apps) – Began his professional career at Tottenham but after only a couple of appearances, moved to Arsenal where he was part of the side who lost to West Ham in 1980.  After a three year spell at Norwich he moved to West Ham in 1983 and stayed for six years.

George Parris (aged 21, 35 apps, 1 goal) – Signed with West Ham as an apprentice and spent most of his early career deputising for Walford.  Eventually made almost 240 appearances for The Hammers, then moved to Birmingham.

Paul Hilton (aged 26, 2 apps) – Began his career at Bury before moving to West Ham in 1984.  Over five years only made 60 appearances.

Steven Potts (aged 18, 1 app) – Began his career at West Ham as an apprentice and his appearance as a substitute against Ipswich in October was his debut for the club.  He went onto make almost 400 appearances in 17 years.


Midfield

Mark Ward (aged 23, 52 apps, 3 goals) – A youth player at Everton, he moved to Oldham and became an important part of their team for two years.  Moved to West Ham in 1985 and played for five years before moving onto Man City, Everton and then Birmingham.

Alan Devonshire (aged 29, 47 apps, 3 goals) – Was playing non-league football  with Southall before West Ham’s scouts spotted him and he signed for £5,000 in 1976.  Considered “West Ham’s best ever buy” then became a crucial part of the team, spending 14 years at the club before moving to Watford in 1990.  Played 8 times for England.

Neil Orr (aged 26, 41 apps, 2 goals) – Born in Greenock, he made his professional debut for Morton and spent 7 years there, before joining West Ham in 1982.  After five years at Upton Park he moved back up North to Hibs for six years before ending his career at St. Mirren.

Geoff Pike (aged 29, 15 apps, 1 goal) – Joined the club in 1975 and was part of the FA Youth Trophy Final side before making his debut in 1976.  Spent 12 years at the club before moving to Notts County in 1987 and then onto Leyton Orient.

Alan Dickens (aged 21, 51 apps, 4 goals) – Part of West Ham side which won FA Youth Cup in 1981 and became an important part of the first team as he was seen as a replacement for Trevor Brooking.  Spent 7 years at the club before moving to Chelsea in 1989 and then onto Colchester in 1993.

Bobby Barnes (aged 23, 1 app) – A speedy winger he was also part of 1981 FA Youth Cup winning side, he became a crowd favourite and a bit of a pioneer in an era where black players were scarce.  Made his debut at West Ham in 1980 and spent 6 years at the club before short spells at another 8 clubs.

Strikers

Tony Cottee (aged 20, 52 apps, 26 goals) – Began his career as an apprentice at West Ham, scoring on his debut against Spurs in 1983, at the age of 17.  His six year career at Upton Park saw him score 92 goals in 212 appearances.  He moved to Everton in 1988 and had a successful career there before moving back to West Ham in 1994.  He was then part of the successful Leicester City side at the end of the 1990’s.  Played 7 times for England.

Paul Goddard (aged 26, 7 apps, 1 goal) – began his career at QPR where he was an instant success, before becoming West Ham’s record signing in 1980.  Spent six seasons at Upton Park scoring more than 50 goals, before moving to Newcastle and then Derby County.  Ended his career at Ipswich in the early 1990’s.

Frank McAvennie (aged 25, 51 apps, 28 goals) – Born in Scotland, he burst onto the scene at St. Mirren where he scored 48 goals in 135 games and was voted Young Player of the Year in 1982.  He was bought by Lyall in June 1985 and this was his first season for the club, where he made a huge impression.  After a poor second season he returned to Scotland where he moved to Celtic, before returning to Upton Park in 1989.  In 1992 he then moved back to Celtic.

Greg Campbell (aged 20, 3 apps) – Another youth team player, he struggled to make his way in the first team, playing just 5 times in 4 years at West ham.  Had a short spell at Sparta Rotterdam, before returning to England with Plymouth and then Northampton.


August

The opening day of the season saw The Hammers travel to newly promoted Birmingham City.  Robert Hopkins scored the only goal of the game as West Ham were beaten, 0-1.  McAvennie and Ward made their debuts in that game, but an early blow came with Paul Goddard picking up an injury and not being seen again in a West Ham shirt until mid-March.  This gave McAvennie the chance to strike up a real understanding with Tony Cottee.  Three days later, McAvennie scored his first goal for his new club when he bagged a pair against QPR as they won 3-1.  This was their only win for August as Mick Harford’s penalty at Kenilworth Road saw them lose, 0-1 at Luton.  They then visited Old Trafford where Mark Hughes and Gordon Strachan scored for the home side as West Ham lost again, 0-2.   McAvennie was back on target at Upton Park where he gave them a first half lead.  He scored again in the second half, but goals from Johnston and Whelan meant they’d earned a point for a 2-2 draw with Liverpool.  The month ended with West Ham in 17th with just 4pts to their name.




September

At the beginning of September, Southampton’s Alan Curtis equalised another goal from McAvennie as they earned a 1-1 draw at The Dell. Another draw came when they travelled to Hillsborough to take on Sheffield Wednesday.  Goals from the Hammers strike force of McAvennie and Cottee were cancelled out by Wednesday’s strike partnership of Garry Thompson and Lee Chapman, in a 2-2 draw.

A week later came only their 2nd win of the season when they met the club immediately below them, Leicester City.  McAvennie scored for the 4th game running, his 7th of the season, to give them a first half lead and then Cottee and Alan Devonshire completed the scoring to give them a 3-0 win.

At Maine Road, the following week, they were up at half-time against Manchester City thanks to goals from Cottee and an own goal from Mick McCarthy but City drew level and the game ended 2-2.  West Ham were then in action in the Second Round of the Milk Cup (League Cup)which was played over 2 legs.  They were up against Swansea, who were then a Third Division side having just narrowly avoided their 3rd successive relegation.  West Ham won comfortably, 3-0 with McAvennie and Cottee again scoring and Ray Stewart getting his first for the season.   They then ended the month unbeaten with a home win against Nottingham Forest.  They were really starting to find their form and in a blistering first half, McAvennie, Cottee and Dickens gave them a 3-0 lead.  Dutchman, Johnny Metgod and Nigel Clough got goals back for the visitors but McAvennie grabbed his 2nd of the game and West Ham won 4-2.

September had been a terrific month for The Hammers.  Unbeaten in five league games, their 9pts had seen them rise to 13th.  McAvennie was proving a huge success with 9 goals and his partnership with Cottee was paying dividends as they’d hit 13 between them in the League and both scored in the Milk Cup.  Having lost three times in their opening four League fixtures they were now unbeaten in six.



October

October began with a trip to St. James’ Park.  Newcastle were flying high in 4th place, inspired by Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Roeder.  Gascoigne was missing for this game  and goals from McAvennie and Cottee gave The Hammers a 2-goal lead at the break.  George Reilly got one back for the home side but West Ham had picked up their first away win of the season, 2-1,  as Newcastle suffered their first home defeat. 

Midweek saw them travel to the Vetch Field where in front of just 3,584, they beat Swansea, 3-2 to go through to the Third Round of the Milk Cup.  Ray Stewart scored twice from the spot with Cottee also on target.  Back in the League, West Ham had to meet another side in the top five, when Arsenal were the visitors to Upton Park.  A tight game ended 0-0.  But the following weekend West Ham were again at home, this time to Aston Villa, and this time they were bang on form as doubles from McAvennie and Cottee cancelled out Simon Stainrod’s goal.  West Ham won 4-1 and McAvennie & Cottee now had 13 goals between them in the League, with The Hammers now climbing to 7th in the table.

They rounded the month off with a trip to struggling, Ipswich Town, and Tony Cottee got the only goal of the game.  The 1-0 win extended their unbeaten run to 10 in the League and 12 in all competitions and the Cottee/McAvennie partnership now yielded 20 of the 23 League goals the team had scored so far.

It had been a near-perfect month with three wins and a draw.  But their unbeaten run in all competitions ended when Norman Whiteside’s goal saw them lose, 0-1 to Man Utd in the Milk Cup.  This wasn’t a complete shock as United were running away with the League at this stage, already 10pts clear but The Hammers had been looking forward to a cup run.



November

Defending League Champions, Everton were the visitors to Upton Park at the beginning of the month.  They were in 4th just 1pt ahead of West Ham.  Trevor Steven scored for the visitors but two more from Frank McAvennie gave West Ham a famous, 2-1 win.  They’d only beaten Everton once in their last 16 meetings and this win moved them into 6th.  McAvennie now had 14 from just 15 League appearances and was proving the buy of the season.

9th November saw the first ever League meeting between Oxford United and West Ham United.  Oxford, under the wise-old hands of Jim Smith, had stormed to the Second Division title the year before and their side was full of League journeymen, such as John Trewick (ex-Newcastle, West Brom), Dave Langan (ex-Derby), Trevor Hebberd (ex-Southampton), Ray Houghton (ex-Fulham), Peter Rhoades-Brown (ex-Chelsea) Jeremy Charles (ex-Swansea), Steve Hardwick (ex-Newcastle).  John Aldridge put the home side in front, but Cottee soon equalised before the break.  In the second half, Mark Ward scored his first goal for West Ham and they ran out 2-1 winners.  The Hammers were now in 5th as Man Utd finally lost in the League after 15 games unbeaten from the start of the season.

A week later they made it five wins in a row as Watford were beaten, 2-1, with Ward scoring again, this time alongside McAvennie.  This run now saw them up to 4th place and their unbeaten run now stretched to 13.  McAvennie then scored his 16th League goal to beat Coventry, 1-0, and then they finished the month in style at Upton Park, giving West Brom the runaround in an impressive 4-0 win.  McAvennie missed the game but the team didn’t let it affect them as Cottee and George Parris scored in the first half with Devonshire and Neil Orr getting on the scoresheet in the second.  That took Cottee’s league tally to double figures.

November had been the perfect month.  Five games, five wins, with 11 goals scored and just 3 conceded and they were now up to 3rd.  Man Utd’s form had begun to falter as West Ham were now only 5pts behind them, having begun the month 15pts back.  Of the 35 goals they’d scored as a team in the League Cottee and McAvennie had got 25 of them.



December

For the first game in December, West Ham made the short journey across London to Loftus Road where a Frank McAvennie goal gave them a 1-0 win over QPR.  QPR had provided them with their only win in their first four matches of the season, but those days seemed a long way off.  They were unbeaten in 16 and had now strung together 8 straight wins.  Cottee/McAvennie partnership was now up to 30 for the season.  McAvennie was again on target the next week when Birmingham visited, and a Ray Stewart penalty capped a 2-0 win.  West Ham had now added defensive solidity to goals up front and this was now the 4th successive clean sheet for Phil Parkes and he’d only conceded 4 goals in this 9-game winning streak.

The winning run came to an end at Kenilworth Road against a spirited Luton Town side.  Only two clubs had conceded fewer goals at home so far that season than Luton, and so the 0-0 draw was probably to be expected.  That was five successive clean sheet for Parkes now and they were now unbeaten in their last 18 in the League.  They didn’t lose touch with the top two, though, as Man Utd suffered their first home defeat of the season when Peter Nicholas scored to give Arsenal a 1-0 win, and Liverpool were held at home by Newcastle.  This was only the 2nd time in 12 games Liverpool hadn’t won at home, either.

Five days after the winning run came to an end, the unbeaten one went too.  Steve Perryman scored the only goal of the game as West Ham lost 0-1 to Tottenham on Boxing Day.  Parkes was beaten for the first time in six weeks.  18 games unbeaten was a club record for First Division matches, and strangely enough they again didn’t lose touch on the leaders as both Manchester United and Liverpool lost.  United had won their first 10 matches in the League and been unbeaten in their first 15, but now they’d won just 2 of their previous 8 games and suffered back-to-back defeats.  They lead the League by just 4pts now.  Liverpool had lost just twice in their opening 20 fixtures, yet had picked up just 2pts from their last 4 games.



January

West Ham had now entered the most difficult period of their season and their form was patchy.  They were drawn against fellow Londoners, Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup Third Round.  Charlton, then pushing for promotion from the Second Division, were still playing at Selhurst Park and Cottee scored the only goal of the game.  It was his first goal since the end of November and his 13th of the season.

Back in the League and McAvennie was back on target to give West Ham a 1-0 win at Leicester.  By now West Ham had dropped to 5th with other teams playing and catching up, but this win saw them move above Liverpool.  January 18th saw The Hammers visit Anfield.  September 1963 was the last time West Ham won at Anfield, with a side including, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst.  In fact, they’d only ever gained two draws there since then, with August 1975 being the last time they avoided defeat.  Liverpool, now with Kenny Dalglish as player-manager, had stuttered around Christmas time but were now getting into gear and a penalty from Jan Molby and then strikes from Ian Rush and Paul Walsh gave them a 3-0 lead, before Alan Dickens got a goal back to The Hammers, who were beaten 1-3.  West Ham were now back in 5th and 7pts off the lead.  It was their 2nd defeat in 3 games and had now picked up just 4pts from their last 4 games.

They ended the month with a FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Ipswich Town but failed in front of goal and the game ended 0-0.

January had been a thoroughly miserable month and concerns were The Hammers couldn’t last the pace.  They were still mainly free of injuries, Goddard apart, and had generally only used 12 players for the season so far.



February

February would begin with another big test as Manchester United were the visitors.  If West Ham’s Anfield record was poor, they home record against United was amazing.  You have to go back to September 1967 and the days of Best, Charlton and Law for West Ham’s last defeat at home to Man United.  Bryan Robson’s first half goal for the visitors achieved something remarkable for the season as it was the first time West Ham had gone in trailing at half-time, a run of 26 matches.  But The Hammers turned things around in a fantastic second half performance with Mark Ward firing an unstoppable shot from just outside the area.  Then Cottee pounced on a poor ball back by Moran and he shot past Bailey, who’d inexplicably left his area, to give them a 2-1 win.  The win knocked United off the top of the table for the first time in the season, and they would never return.  Everton had now hit the top in a bid for back-to-back League titles.


These were the days of cup replays, and especially replays until you found a winner so West Ham wouldn’t play another League match for six weeks!  This is not to say they weren’t busy, as they’d played United on the Sunday and then the following Tuesday they met Ipswich in the FA Cup replay where Cottee scored in another 1-1 draw.  Then, in something which would turn Arsene Wenger cold, they played again on the Thursday where they finally beat Ipswich, 1-0 with Cottee again on target, taking his tally to 16 for the season.  Bad weather decimated the fixture list and West Ham didn’t play a League match between 2nd February and 15th March and didn’t play a game anywhere from 6th February to 5th March.  By then, they had 5 games in hand on leaders Everton, who were 15pts ahead of them.  Everton were 6pts ahead of United in 2nd place and crucially 8pts ahead of Liverpool with both having played the same number of games.



March

West Ham’s first game for a month came in the FA Cup Fifth Round where Manchester United visited.  McAvennie scored his 21st of the season but Frank Stapleton equalised for force yet another replay.  The replay was arranged for three days later and West Ham arrived at Old Trafford knowing their last win there was November 1976.  Ray Stewart scored from the spot and then Geoff Pike completed a memorable 2-0 win for West Ham.  They’d played six matches during a seven week period yet had only met two opponents, Ipswich and Man Utd, but they were unbeaten during that period and into the FA Cup Quarter-Finals.


Three days after winning at Old Trafford they turned up at Hillsborough to take on Sheffield Wednesday.  They’d drawn 2-2 there back in September yet despite Tony Cottee’s goal, they lost 1-2 and the FA Cup dream was over.


By the time they finally reverted to League action they were down in 6th place as they visited Highbury to meet Arsenal.  During West Ham’s absence from League competition, Arsenal had played three times and looked less rusty as Tony Woodcock scored the only goal of the game.  West Ham had lost 0-1 and now had a run of LWLWLD in their last six matches.  They dropped the 7th and worse was to follow as they visited Villa Park on the following Wednesday where two Steve Hodge goals gave Aston Villa a 2-1 win.  Things had now cooled significantly on West Ham’s season.  Out of the FA Cup and they’d picked up just 7pts in their last 7 League games since mid-December, suffering 4 defeats.  The two Man United wins in League and FA Cup were the only highlights.  They suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time since August, and it was now three successive defeats in all competitions.  Lyall needed to regroup and take advantage of the wonderful spirit he’d garnered within the squad and the boost he needed was Paul Goddard who appeared as a substitute in the Villa game, having not been seen since the opening day of the season.  Goddard didn’t necessarily play a direct part in the performance of the side as he never made the starting line-up, but his return saw a return of the goals.

Sheffield Wednesday arrived at Upton Park boosted by their FA Cup win against West Ham and lying one place above their opponents.  But Frank McAvennie scored his 20th League goal of the season and The Hammers won, 1-0.  They were still 7th but had plenty of games in hand on those above.   They then had to meet another side above them, Chelsea.  Oddly enough it was their first meeting all season, despite this being almost April.  Chelsea were 4th and had suffered just one defeat in their last 17, but that was a shock 1-4 defeat at home to Oxford.  Alan Devonshire gave The Hammers a first half lead at Stamford Bridge and then they really went to town in the second half with Cottee grabbing a brace and McAvennie also on target, as West Ham ran out 4-0 winners.  West Ham moved above Sheffield Wednesday into 6th and had achieved back-to-back wins for the first time since mid-December.  Cottee and McAvennie now had 35 League goals between them.


The month concluded with another London derby as Tottenham arrived at Upton Park.  On Boxing Day, Spurs had ended West Ham’s 18-game unbeaten run, but The Hammers gained revenge with their potent strike partnership of McAvennie and Cottee giving them a 2-1 win.



April

The run of three straight wins came to an end in a midweek trip to the City Ground where goals from Johnny Metgod and Brian Rice meant West Ham lost 1-2 to Nottingham Forest.  Tony Cottee’s goal was nothing more than a consolation and The Hammers had missed the chance to move into the top four.  Alan Devonshire had been increasingly influential during the season, but he missed the trip to Nottingham and it showed.  He was back for the visit of Southampton and Alvin Martin scored his first of the season to give them a 1-0 win.  With Chelsea dropping points at home to Ipswich, West Ham were now into 4th, 5pts behind Man United with three games in hand.

Chelsea then did The Hammers a favour by winning at Old Trafford, before Sheffield Wednesday won there as well and United’s title dreams seemed to have all but disappeared.  When Oxford United visited Upton Park, Frank McAvennie scored his 25th of the season as they were comfortable 3-1 winners, but they had to come from behind as Ray Houghton gave the visitors a half-time lead.

The following Tuesday saw the second meeting of the season of West Ham and Chelsea.  West Ham’s 14-game unbeaten home record finally tumbled as Nigel Spackman and Pat Nevin replied to Tony Cottee’s goal and The Hammers lost, 1-2.  It was a disappointing loss as Chelsea now believed they had a chance of the title, although Everton and Liverpool looked immovable.


West Ham licked their wounds, arrived at Vicarage Road and turned things around to beat Watford, 2-0, with goals from Cottee and McAvennie.  They now had 42 goals between them in the League.  The Hammers were still 5th but with Chelsea and Man United dropping points they still had the advantage of games in hand.  The one concern was having to fit so many fixtures into such a short period of the season remaining.

Having beaten Watford on the Saturday, they then played again on the Monday when Newcastle visited Upton Park.  Newcastle had earned a draw at Chelsea at the weekend, giving West Ham hope of still challenging the two Merseyside giants.  It was one of the most memorable nights for the Hammers fans.  They were 4-0 up at the break.  Devonshire floated over a free-kick, right-footed by the left corner flag and Alvin Martin headed the home side into an early lead.  Goalkeeper, Martin Thomas, had missed the game against Chelsea with an injury but his replacement, David McKellar, had also picked up an injury, so Thomas, clearly not 100% fit, had no choice but to play in this game.  Within minutes there came a series of blunders by Thomas saw him turn in Ray Stewart’s right wing cross.  West Ham were just first to every ball and Newcastle never settled.  Devonshire, who seemed to be involved in everything, took a corner on the left, which was half-cleared, but Devonshire was determined to get to it again and laid it off to Neil Orr who fired a fantastic left foot shot from about 40 yards out and West Ham were 3-0 up.  Then just before the break, Ray Stewart’s throw-in on the right was headed on by Martin, and after a series of head tennis between the two sides, Martin got his head to it again and Glenn Roeder stuck out his heel but diverted the ball in.

Thomas’ injury was now so bad he didn’t come out for the second half and in the days of only having one substitute, Newcastle had no option but to put an outfield player in goal.  Youngster, Chris Hedworth would get that honour when he was only making his 4th appearance for the club.  This was vintage West Ham and Devonshire was playing the sort of role Hammers fans had been used to seeing Trevor Brooking adopt.  Their one-touch football was a joy to watch, and after a number of chances which didn’t add to the scoring they finally got their chance.  Hedworth then fell awkwardly and cracked his collarbone in a challenge with Cottee.  He played on, until he saved a McAvennie shot and couldn’t continue.  With no more substitutions allowed, Hedworth had to spend the rest of the game as an unused outfield player and Peter Beardsley went in goal.  Alvin Martin headed in his second to make it 5-0, but then Billy Whitehurst grabbed a goal back for the visitors. 

Then the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Paul Goddard.  He’d come on for Alan Dickens and when Devonshire floated a high cross from the left bye-line, Goddard was on hand at the far post to head the ball in for his only goal of what had been for him, a miserable season.  West Ham were rampant now and Cottee ran down the left and crossed for McAvennie to score the 50th goal of the season for the Cottee/McAvennie partnership.  From the re-start, West Ham nicked the ball back and were given a penalty.  Alvin Martin stepped up to complete his hat-trick.  It had been a rout, and 8-1 was the second biggest win at Upton Park since 1904, after they beat Sunderland 8-0 in 1968.




The win propelled West Ham up to 3rd place and they still had games in hand on all clubs around them.  Those second half goals took them above Man United on goal difference.  Having thumped the side in 10th they then struggled to beat Coventry, who were 18th.  Tony Cottee scored the only goal of the game, yet the 1-0 win saw them drop a place as United beat Leicester, 4-0.  But The Hammers still had three games in hand on United and 3rd place looked a real prospect.  Everton and Liverpool were probably too far ahead at this time to expect any greater honours.

This was part of a week where West Ham played three games in five days.  Another Monday night at Upton Park and Ray Stewart’s first half penalty proved crucial as they beat Manchester City, 1-0.  They were now 4pts behind Liverpool but with just one game in hand, and 2pts behind Everton who played the same number of games.  Three games to go.



Two days later, Ipswich arrived at Upton Park.  Wednesday 30th April was a great night for the First Division, and in pre-Skytv days none of the games were televised but the three games involved the top three.  Another Stewart penalty and an Alan Dickens goal gave West Ham a crucial 2-1 victory. 
Les Phillips goal gave Oxford a famous 1-0 win over Everton, but Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan gave Liverpool a 2-0 win at Leicester.  West Ham were now in 2nd place, yet 4pts behind Liverpool who had played a game more.  Everton were 1pt behind The Hammers, and the two were due to meet each other on the final day.



The following Saturday saw the top three all win.  Liverpool travelled to Stamford Bridge and a famous goal from player-manager, Kenny Dalglish, meant they’d won the League title in his first season in charge.  West Ham were at The Hawthorns to take on bottom club, West Brom.  A throw-in on the right from Stewart, was headed in by McAvennie for his 26th League goal and his 28th of the season.  Cottee soon followed with his 20th League goal and his 25th of the season.  The two had now contributed 46 goals in the League and 53 in all competitions.  Craig Madden then grabbed a goal back for the home side as West Ham lead at the break.  In the second half, George Reilly was bundled over in the area by George Parris, and the West Brom striker stepped up and converted the spot-kick.  But The Hammers fought back as a typical surging run from Devonshire found Ward on the right and his low cross was handled in the area.  Ray Stewart scored from the spot for the 3rd game running and his 4th in the last 8 games and West Ham won 3-2. 


They’d needed to win as a Gary Lineker hat-trick gave Everton a 6-1 win over Coventry and the scene was set for the two to battle it out for 2nd place.



West Ham had won six successive matches after losing at home to Chelsea, scoring 17 goals and conceding just 4.  They now travelled to Goodison Park where a draw would see them finish in 2nd place.  Everton were one of the best sides in Europe during these days and to finish above them in the League would’ve been an amazing performance.  The odds were against The Hammers, as they’d won just once at Everton since 1972.  The fixture pile-up had not been kind to West Ham as their last 7 games were played over 16 days .

Gary Lineker gave Everton a first-half lead, which Trevor Steven then added to early in the second period.  Lineker then got a second and his 30th of the season.  Everton were comfortable now, but Cottee bundled the ball over the line for a consolation goal. West Ham were beaten, 1-3 and ended up in 3rd place, their highest finish ever in League football.

Cottee and McAvennie had scored 47 goals between them of the 74 the team had scored.  They’d won as many matches (26) as Liverpool and Everton but the 10 defeats are what ultimately cost them.  Only Liverpool and Everton scored more than them and only Liverpool and Manchester United conceded fewer.  They won 17 home matches, the most in the First Division.


It had been a memorable season, the best ever League season the club has ever known.  But this wasn’t the beginning of a dynasty, as the following season they were unbelievably disappointing, finishing down in 15th.  Cottee chipped in with 22 goals again, but McAvennie underachieved with just 7.  The team was mainly the same, although Billy Bonds played more of a part than he had the year before.  At the end of the season, McAvennie moved back to Scotland to Celtic, although he returned to Upton Park in 1989.  Cottee left for Everton in 1988, but also returned in 1994.  West Ham were then relegated in 1989 and Lyall was sacked after being in charge for 15 years



Recently Skytv showed a programme dedicated to this season with three of the personalities, Phil Parkes, Tony Gale and Frank McAvennie, discussing what it was like.
 

Friday, 5 December 2014

UEFA Nations League




Many people, me included, have become disillusioned with some aspects of international football.  It’s mainly friendlies that get me.  The World Cup in Brazil was rightly considered to be one of the best ever and became compelling viewing, but now we’re back into a qualifying campaign and the argument against meaningless matches between one major nation and a minnow has returned to the fore.  Friendlies have often been a contentious subject, yet from an England perspective it gave you a chance to perhaps see some new players and consider how they might cope in a national shirt.  It was Sven-Goran Eriksson who ruined it all for me, with his incessant substitutions turning a second half into one long procession of players coming and going, whilst in between you might get some action.

Of course this current qualifying competition has thrown up some amazing results as the so-called minnows have staked a claim to be taken seriously.  But the format of UEFA qualifying, with its seedings, makes it difficult for lower ranked countries to move up the ladder and potentially qualify as they must put together consistent performances for possibly more than one campaign.  That means you’re looking at performing above average for virtually eight years, and given how often some countries change their manager not to mention struggle to unearth enough players who can compete at the top level for that length of time, it shows just how tough an ‘ask’ that is.

But UEFA has just announced a forward thinking and brave competition to run in between qualifying tournaments.  The UEFA Nations League will take its bow between September and November 2018, just after World Cup 2018 which may, or may not, be held in Russia.  The qualifying competition for Euro 2020 will take place between March and November 2019.  From the inaugural Nations League the groups will be drawn using the national team coefficients at 15th November 2017.  The format may sound a little confusing but it is fairly simple once you break it down.

There are four ‘leagues’, A, B, C and D.  The highest ranked teams will go in League A with the next best into B and so on.  Leagues A, B and C will contain twelve teams with 16 going into League D.  Both Leagues A and B will have four groups of three.  League C will have two groups of four and two of three.  League D will have four groups of four.

UEFA hasn’t stated whether these groups are to be competed on a home-and-away basis, but I think it’s likely they will be.  There will be an overall Nations League winner who will be one of the four group winners in League A competing in a play-off tournament with Semi-Finals and Final in June 2019.  This is going to be the format each time so in a non-World Cup/non-European Championship year, there will be this ‘mini-final tournament’, much like the European Championships used to be before 1980.  We must hope UEFA doesn’t get over excited and decide to try and expand this in the future.  Equally we must hope the major clubs or Europe do not decide their players must be rested for this, otherwise it could lose its appeal, but a country could win the trophy having played just 6 matches.

The Nations League will then start to influence the UEFA qualifying tournaments after Euro 2020.  A team’s performance in the Nations League will affect their seeding for World Cup 2022.  The first Nations League will also have an effect on the teams qualifying for Euro 2020 as all the group winners will go into a play-off competition to be played in March 2020, consisting of a straight knockout to produce four countries to join the ten group winners and ten runners-up from the usual qualifying groups.  If the Nations League group winners have already qualified then the next best non-qualifier in the group will go through.

UEFA has also added in promotion and relegation between the Leagues and so a country finishing bottom of their group in League A will drop down to League B and vice versa.  This should create the possibility for countries to move up and down the Leagues with more frequency than the current seeding system allows.


Based on the current UEFA coefficients, here is what the Leagues would look like if the Nations League started today.




If we consider Scotland for a moment and assume they were drawn in a group with Austria and Israel.  If they win that group then they will go into the play-off system for a place in Euro 2020, if they hadn’t finished in the top two places in their qualifying group.  They will also get promoted to League A for the following Nations League, giving them top-class opposition to come up against.  This would be far more beneficial than friendlies with little consequence.  Larger countries may initially dismiss this as a gimmick, but eventually they should come to realise if they remain in League A they get to test their players against the best in Europe, rather having to come up against lower ranked teams.

Of course there will be those who detest the intention of improving international football, preferring to continue sniping at the whole concept.  But what it will do is do away with many pointless matches for the larger nations, and for the lower ranked nations it provides them with competition with countries at a similar level, giving them a great opportunity to win some matches and progress to a higher League.

Personally, I like the idea which is interesting and could at least placate calls for lower ranked teams to ‘pre-       qualify’ for qualifying competitions.