So here we are, in the final days of a memorable season fighting it out with Manchester United for a place in the Europa League.It doesn’t sound much like that, does it? Many of our fans will not see the significance, but to many, including me, it underlines just how far we have come in these past two massive seasons which will go down as the two most successful back-to-back top flight campaigns in our 102-year league career.
Frankly it doesn’t matter whether it’s Manchester United or any of the big six, the point is that we are in there competing with them in the final days of a season. These are our noble intentions to boost our future. This doesn’t happen to West Ham usually, but the club has changed.
Say what you like about David Moyes - and many have, and this amazing team we have, but you are witnessing history. Someone ,somewhere is doing something right.
Only once before have we produced back-to-back campaigns with two top eight finishes. And we haven’t finished above Manchester United in the top flight since we were third in the 1985/86 season, 36 years ago .The Mancs were fourth that season, eight points behind.
But it could happen in these next few days. It’s not really likely, they have to lose their final league game at Crystal Palace on the last day of the season (May 22) and we need to take three points minimum from our final two games at home to champions-elect Manchester City on Sunday and then at Brighton a week later.
I think we can dismiss the idea of anyone going soft on us because it is Mark Noble’s last game for the club after a remarkable one club career. The title cannot be won on Sunday, and Liverpool have a Premier League game at Southampton on Tuesday. It would be good from our point of view if they won there and the whole title race went to the final day, when ther scousers would need to win at home to Wolves rather than going through the motions with the Champions League final still to play.
We don’t need Wolves being given a sniff or they could deprive us of seventh spot and qualification for Europe.
But just listen to us, mulling over the possible results in the last week of the season and whether we will qualify for the Europa League again or the Conference.
The point is that we have not had to consider such things before. Manchester United are one of the world’s greatest clubs, although they have been a hugely amusing basket case all season. But their finances, history, trophies and standing in world football are on a different planet to us.
Their gross spend these past five seasons is way over £600m, we spend on average around £30m a year. The figure rarely deviates from that, our owners basically spend the same season on season. We cannot compete, even if GSB actually wanted to.
It just underlines the amazing job that Moyes and this team have done. He may have his doubters in the transfer market but in terms of coaching, organisation, man management and making the best of what he has, Moyes cannot be faulted in my mind.
We may often tweak Man United’s tail in cup ties and when we have annoyingly - as far as Alex Ferguson was concerned - stopped them winning the occasional cup or title, but as genuine competitors, forget it, the game is not like that.
But we are where we are because of these past two seasons, which I maintain will be the best two campaigns in our league history.
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Only once before have we finished with back-to-back finishes in the top eight, and that was in 1997/98 and 1999/99 under Harry Redknapp, when the team included Frank Lampard Junior, Rio Ferdinand and John Hartson.
But this double under Moyes is better. Back in the '80s, those two seasons, fifth and eighth finishes, produced 32 league wins and 113 points.
This time around, and we still have two games to go, these two seasons under Moyes have seen us win 35 games and amass 120 points. Plus reaching a European semi-final, four years after Noble scored a cracker at Leicester to save us from relegation.
And it’s Manchester United in our sights, which does not happen often. There were five occasions in the 1920s and two in the 1930s when we finished ahead of Manchester United in the top flight. Five times in the 1960s and 1970s we were ahead of them, up until their relegation in 1974.
But since then, only in that memorable season when we finished third - our best ever - in 1986, have we got the better of them.
I know this sort of stuff because I’ve become a bit paranoid about Manchester United. I’ve lived close to Old Trafford for over 40 years - I may have mentioned it before to you all. I have lived with the multi-title winners and their expectant fans, some are close friends despite all this, for all that time. It gets to you in the end, I refuse to have anything red in my house. My wife thinks I’m nuts, and she’s not far wrong.
But just this once, we are seventh - 90 per cent certain of qualification to the Conference and a second season of European football after Wolves’ hammering by Manchester City on Wednesday - but within touching distance of sixth and overhauling Manchester United. They are three points ahead of us with that one game left and a vastly inferior goal difference.
You might mock, but forgive me my dreams in the circumstances.
To lose out on Conference qualification now, Wolves must win their final two games at home to Norwich on Sunday and away to Liverpool the following weekend. And we must fail to get just one more point against Manchester City and Brighton.
Mark Noble will take centre stage and his final bow on Sunday and rightly so. There will be yards of words written about him in the next few days, and I don’t intend to add them other than to just thank the Canning Town boy for his loyal, unique service to our club.
In all his only honour was a winners medal in the 2012 play off final against Blackpool, he’d been an unused substitute back in 2005 when we beat Preston in another play off. I can still remember him jumping on the back of Bobby Zamora after that winning strike.
There was talk once of Noble going to Fulham, but that’s about the only time I can recall any transfer speculation about him. He has completed 18 years with us, 548 games, and earned a reputation as one of the most consistent penalty takers in Europe - that nonsense miss against, yes, Manchester United this season apart.
He won 20 caps at England Under 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21 level, but never a full cap. Maybe that lack of pace cost him. There was a time in his pomp when Gary Neville, then a coach with England admitted Noble deserved a call up and it was seriously discussed, but the policy was to bring through youth rather than utilise a senior professional.
So Noble missed out and the “too good for England” chant was a lot closer to the truth than we realised.
Whether he returns to us in a coaching or administrative capacity is up in the air, director of football does not seem to fit with Moyes having his own team and not being a fan of the title. Sam Allardyce even had a clause in his contract at Upton Park that the club could not appoint anyone to that role.
For now though we have Sunday to thank our club captain. Like many, I’m not really ready for this, so much part of all our lives has the 35 year-old been. His testimonial was one of the best days I have witnessed at Upton Park, a full house and a lovely occasion. Sunday will be emotional, and Manchester City are classy enough to treat it with respect, but don’t expect any favours.
Their annihilations of Newcastle and Wolves this week, two massive wins, struck fear and concern into every West Ham heart. I don’t expect us to hold up City’s march to retain their title. But a point would be nice!
As for our on-field captain Declan Rice, the man we all expect to take over the reigns from Noble next season, it wouldn’t be West Ham if a mini-crisis wasn’t created in a vital week when al concentration should be on the pitch and performance of the team.
But our owners saw fit to leak to a favoured source that Rice had been offered, and turned down, an eight-year contract on £200,000 a week. Nothing surprising there, he has constantly said his future is not all about money.
But to make a show of the fact that they were trying to keep him, they have heaped unnecessary pressure on the England midfielder. Seriously, would anyone sign an eight-year contract, can anyone come up with a player who has?
When your status is rising by the month, you know your worth and what you could get elsewhere if you wanted to leave, why would you sign away the best years of your career with anyone, not just us?
Players don’t like long term options on their contracts these days or they lose control of the situation. Erling Haaland has refused out of hand any such option on his five-year deal with Manchester City. He is already planning his next move, so why clog up the works with a over-extended contract?
Now the club have said what they have been saying for some while, that Rice won’t be sold in the coming window and they will hold more talks in September. So why make such an unsettling disruption just now, when we could end up back in the Europa League as sixth place finishers?
So the last few days have been all about Rice when it should be all about the long goodbye. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.
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