The glory of football is how little sense it makes. Between the spring and autumn of 2020, when the leagues were suspended and finished late due to the pandemic, I scarcely missed the sport. But since the Premier League’s return in September this year, I have experienced games more intensely than when I listened to radio commentaries as a child: a condition described by Nick Hornby in his fan-memoir Fever Pitch as the game reduced to naked fear.
As I reorganised my life around the Premier League once more, what I saw was a surprise. West Ham are not supposed to challenge for a place in the Champions League, especially after last season, when they barely avoided relegation. But by mid-January, when half their league games had been played, they were seventh. I was near ecstatic: not because I was imagining what more was to come, but because the quality of the football was so enjoyable.
West Ham have been higher in the table at the turn of the year. But there is an old saying that the club comes down with the Christmas decorations, and every football season has its gravitational pull on the unlikely good starters. This time, though, the first half of the season was only a prelude. In February, West Ham went fourth and into the final Champions League spot by beating Tottenham. They immediately slipped and lost to Manchester City. But five games later they were back and, although they lost 3-2 against Newcastle in their most recent game (17 April), they are far from out of contention for elite European football next year.
Consider the teams that the manager David Moyes has started with each week, and West Ham’s rise appears even more inexplicable. The club has climbed the table with Sébastien Haller, a marquee striker so unsuited to the Premier League that he was jettisoned in the mid-season transfer window, and another, Michail Antonio, who has been match-fit only six or seven times; he is also a winger who was previously deployed as a full back before his reinvention as an improbable number nine. In the second half of games, the team usually concedes most of the possession. When West Ham beat Wolves on 5 April and went into fourth place for the second time this season, their only striker, as well as their top midfielder and best defender, were all injured.
Yet objectively, West Ham appear to have been unfortunate this season. They have hit the post more times than anyone in the top five European leagues. They played for 35 hours before being given a penalty in a season that will break the record for penalties awarded. After the last full round of games, they were sixth from bottom of a league measuring the impact of decisions made by the video assistant referee (VAR).
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There are reasons for all of this. Moyes is a good manager who understands the Premier League and how to work the transfer market. With the exception of the recent defeat against Newcastle, West Ham have dominated non-elite opposition. In midfielder Declan Rice, they have one of the two most talented young English players in the league. Czech signings Tomáš Soucek and Vladimír Coufal have immense drive and enthusiasm. The team has also soared in the second half of the season because of Jesse Lingard, who arrived on loan from Manchester United on a mission to prove what a good footballer he is. And for a variety of reasons, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, all of whom have superior squads, have misfired.
But rationality only goes so far. Try explaining how in three consecutive games West Ham can take 3-0 leads and then make such a frightful mess of finishing the games off, drawing the first game and desperately hanging on in the next two. Whatever I thought I knew about how football can torture fans, this March and April I learned there are states of agony beyond what I had hitherto endured. A friend who is also a West Ham fan – and who has seen it all from the days of the 1966 England World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters – couldn’t bear to watch any of the final 30 minutes of those three games.
Even by the standards of my recent nervous agitation, I had a bad feeling about Newcastle last Saturday. Surely, this was where it really had to go wrong? And it did. For about an hour life as an Irons fan became, in misery, much simpler again. Support any club except the few that regularly win titles and it’s a lot easier to watch when your team is 2-0 down at half time rather than 3-0 up in 30 minutes. That is football the way experience has conditioned you to expect it.
But then the team were off again. The best West Ham squads over the years wouldn’t have clawed that game back to 2-2 by luck but by merit. Two minutes later, it was if the footballing gods were offended at the absurdity, and Newcastle retook the lead.
The following day, on 18 April, the Big Six – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham – announced their intention to join a European Super League rather than submit to the seasonal toil of earning Champions League football against upstarts like West Ham.
The English clubs all later withdrew. It is right to let this chimera dissolve in the disappointment and fury. The owners of these clubs know nothing of the sport, and have betrayed its meaning completely by trying to render the players’ effort and the fans’ passion void. Faithless, I know how the story will end. Familiarity is part of what makes football stick: supporters watch passing generations of players act out a club’s history as part of a bigger spectacle with more commonality than can be accounted for, and that identity becomes part of ours. Paradoxically, it is what allows us to dream: to believe that, right at the edge of sanity, there is still the elusive possibility that, for once, you haven’t seen it all before.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical