The Mike Ireson Column

Slightly Elderly Antelope

So here we are at the beginning of a new season. All our hopes and dreams that we’ve been cultivating over a long baron summer simmering away nicely.

Well mine were this time last week. So much so I invested ten of your English pounds on us coming away from Old Trafford with a victory. I wasn’t dizzy enough to think it was a certainty but, with the buzz of our fine acquisitions over the summer, felt there was a possibility (along with the fond memories of the Emirates on opening day two seasons ago when we weren’t given a hope). And with my bookmaker of choice offering me 10/1, I was well prepared to give them a wedgie and run off with cash.

And now, where my hopes and dreams were sailing last week, I’ve got the hump. Not because I lost a tenner, I always gamble responsibly because Ray Winstone tells me to, but because I didn’t get the feeling the players held up their side of the bargain in the hopes and dreams stakes.

There was a high level of negative faces, poor body language and a sense (to me) that this was a game three quarters of the way through the season, not an opening day.

The manager should be having to calm his players down on day 1, the over exuberance and excitement of starting a campaign after the rigours of pre season threatening to be their undoing. But I didn’t get that. I got the feeling of lethargy and in some cases half heartedness.

Don’t get me wrong I know we were playing a team that is likely to be serious title contenders, but what worried me is that I felt we could have got slapped with the same scoreline by a lesser team.

And yes I know we were missing 5 players that are definite first XI starters but surely the 5 who got an opportunity to show themselves off should have done so? Or looked like they were trying to?

I don’t often agree with the ‘rent a controversial quote’ style of punditry employed by Gary Neville but he was 100% right to call out Arthur Masuaku.

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His whole demeanour was that of a training ground game rather than a tough season opener at Old Trafford. He just didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

If I feel that, what message does it send out to his teammates? And just as important, the slightly talented opposition who started to act like ravenous lions bearing down on 3 legged, eyesight not what it used to be, slightly elderly antelope.

And then there is Diafra Sakho. A man who clearly wanted to leg it away from the London Stadium last year and who, on Sunday’s evidence, hasn’t changed his mind.

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Yes he only played a bit part, but when he came on he just looked disinterested. His expressions and body language reminded me of a former West Ham forward who, when it appeared he wasn’t giving 100%, was given the treatment by the fans – Luis Boa Morte.

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Javier Hernandez didn’t stop running and trying (slightly conjuring up memories of a certain C Tevez), and his frustration was clear for all to see in the last 20 minutes as he felt alone doing that in the final third.

I really don’t like being negative here, especially on week one of the season, but I sincerely hope either a) I’m wrong, was watching a different game to everyone else and should go and have a sit down in a quiet room with a cup of tea or b) we get to see a team that appears to want to match our expectations.

Regardless of the result, we expect to see passion. Pulling on the jersey is not a chore, it’s an honour.

Next time we shall talk fluffy kittens, bouncing puppies, and how picking blackberries in a meadow on a summer’s day makes the world a better place.

COYI

Please check back after the match for the results.


The GoatyGav Column

View now the dust has settled - They'll be a while

A 4-0 defeat is tough to take at any time. When excitement and expectation ahead of the first kick of the season is still at play it’s even more of a let down. That said did any of us really expect to go up there and win? After a few days of reflection, and with emotions running at a far lower level, it’s good to have a more detached ‘hindsight’ view.

The tactics were quite plain to see. Try and contain by sitting deep and protecting the defence. The sight of Chicharito completely isolated in his ‘lone furrow’ role in the first half was frustrating watching but there was a plan. Not necessarily the right one IMHO – but a plan nonetheless.

So half time arrived and we were getting battered but still only one goal down.

For me the second half was better viewing. Yes – we were still being outplayed in the most part but there were occasions where we started to move the ball quickly with some incisive, one touch stuff, that was better viewing for sure. Problem with that was the defence became more exposed and it lead to 3 more goals. Lukaku loves playing on the break. He loves playing on the break even more against us. I know his second goal didn’t come by this route but, let’s face it, he could have got 5 on Sunday afternoon. So would it have been better to continue to sit rigidly and keep the score down? Not for this Hammer. It’s not ‘The West Ham Way’ but, more importantly, it wouldn’t have been the right approach for that particular situation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and as I sit here typing it’s clear, to my mind, that we should have ‘had a go’ from the first whistle. Lessons to learn there by my reckoning. By having a go I really don’t mean in an Ossie Ardiles or Kevin Keegan ‘completely abandon defence’ way – just don’t sit so deep your’re practically on your own goal line. There were some positives to take out of the game btw but more of that later on.

Last season we saw the addition of squad players in the transfer window. For the right, or wrong, reasons it was a case of quantity not quality. I fully understood those reasons. A bigger squad of players was considered a key requirement but then we got drawn against our bogey European part time team again and that was that. So many squad additions became more of a burden than a boon.

This time around it is a completely different story. Player positions that needed strengthening were recognised and the club worked hard to bring in the right quality to improve, not simply grow, the squad. On that score the club has certainly delivered.

So, with all four new signings taking the field at Old Stretford, the appetite was well and truly whetted. Let’s consider that for a second. Four completely new players to the team all thrown in at once. “Ah yes but they played together pre-season,” I hear some mutter. Doesn’t count for me. Pre season is about fitness and the intensity of a game with points at stake cannot be replicated. Results and performances have little relevance before the first official whistle of the season. So numerically not on the same scale as 2016-17 but four from eleven is a big percentage of the team all the same. Here’s the rub. A team with so many new additions really needs time to gel. I’m constantly hearing, from virtually every football pundit, that time is not a luxury afforded you in the Premier League. Be that as it may you can’t ‘demand’ understanding and confidence amongst, and with, team-mates. It takes time and, for me, Sunday was more about players looking like strangers than it was individual poor performances. Don’t get me wrong, there were some howlers with the defence leading the hit-list of culprits (Masuaku looks like the man who started last season again, not the one who finished it, and Reid clearly hates playing Lukaku), but it’s going to take a few games before the team starts to buzz again IMHO.

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“The bite and fight in this lad is on a Mike Tyson level”

On to those positives I mentioned earlier. If you were to list those positives Declan Rice’s performance would have to be right at the top. Frankly the academy product showed other players the desire and hunger that they should have been displaying. The bite and fight in this lad is on a Mike Tyson level. And not without quality either. You only have to compare Obiang’s passing to his and you can rest your case. Young players not getting played because they make costly mistakes? Yeah – right. Go compare in this game Mr Wenger? This was a Premier League game not a Sunday afternoon stroll and Declan Rice seemed to be one of the few that understood that. Of the others who ‘put in a shift’ Chicha stood out. We’re going to love this player. The only thing that’s a little frustrating is his passing, and speaking to a Manchester United mate of mine it’s clearly a common theme amongst fans of clubs he’s played for, but his crossing certainly is not . If he could have only been on the other end of his own sublime ball from out wide in the second half we’d have halved the deficit and, perhaps, played with a bit more confidence in the last quarter of the game. My advice – work harder to get there Chicha ;) .

“Young players not getting played because they make costly mistakes? Yeah – right. Go compare Mr Wenger?”

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“If he could have only been on the other end of his own sublime ball”

I’ve not even mentioned the players we were missing. For me the most creative, most powerful and most combative weren’t able to take the field and that was a huge contributor. But that’s not the point I’m trying to illustrate here. A good cake depends on quality ingredients and this group are going to improve us from a flat Victoria Sponge to a ‘Great Bake Off’ contender. It’s just going to take some patience and careful, expert, mixing, rolling and baking (not sure the analogy carried through there but you know what I mean ;) ). I have a strong belief that all four additions this Summer are going to be great. In contrast to 2016-17, come May, we’re going to be gutted to see the end of the season.

Lastly a big thanks to Iain for the opportunity to contribute here. Looking forward to ‘chatting’ and exchanging views with some of the ‘blast from the past’ names I recognise and others I’ve yet to ‘meet’ on WHTID.

West Ham 4 The Cup – COYI!

Please check back after the match for the results.


The S J Chandos Column

In Absentia of Kouyate and the wise/famous last words dichotomy!

The current squad boasts higher profile and arguably more skilful/celebrated players such as Lanzini and Hernandez, but in terms of sheer power, physical presence and functionality we literally only has one player like Kouyate. He is a powerful box-to-box midfielder, with the ability to add steel and coherence to the midfield unit and get forward to grab some important goals. He is also blessed (or some would say cursed!) with a wonderful adaptability, being able to play as a holding midfielder, a centre-back or even at right-back. But it is in this box-to-box role that he has the greatest impact. It was noticeable last season how crucial his midfield presence is to the team and how we suffered when he was absent or played out of position. That is a subjective observation on my part, but it would be interesting to see how many points we dropped in his absence last season (especially during the ACON campaign last winter). However, his importance is surely reflected in the fact that his pending surgery, at the end of last season, was delayed until after the home victory over Spurs that assured our PL status.

It was this observation that led me to suggest last season that we needed to recruit another player of similar qualities in the January window to provide cover/competition for the Senegalese international. And it seems that Bilic has reached a similar conclusion and is doing something about it with the pursuit of William Carvalho and, according to various social media sources, a number of alternative, midfield power houses targets (if the deal for the Sporting Lisbon man stalls). In truth, the insipid performance last Sunday was a typical ‘in absentia of Kouyate’ display, with the midfield losing possession far too easily and lacking the sheer power and drive to seriously trouble our opponents. It was more apparent due to the quality of the opposition, but in the PL we will continue to drop points to less accomplished teams if our midfield unit continues to play like that. Indeed, it speaks volumes that the introduction of 18 year old Declan Rice, as a substitute, only served to emphasise the palpable lack of confidence, technique and sheer application demonstrated by much more experienced team mates. There are a number of senior players who should be taking a long, hard look at themselves after Sunday’s debacle. I can tolerate losing to the likes of Man Utd away, but for god’s sake make a fight of it, if not for the players own professional pride then for the sake of the wonderful travelling claret and blue army!

I could not travel on Sunday, due to health reasons, but observing the match on Sky Sports, the experience was all too familiar from previous such bygone fixtures. It was observed during the Sky commentary that statistically it was a case of the PL club with the highest number of winning opening fixtures versus that with the least. I do not feel any pressing compulsion to clarify ‘which club is which’ in this particular case! Indeed, why is it that so many times over the years, and stretching back to the days of the football league, West Ham invariably look less fit and unprepared for a new season than their opponents? Certainly, that is how it appeared to me on Sunday. The team looked like a rapidly assembled collection of strangers (which I suppose they were to a certain extent, with four debutants), who are still half-way through pre-season. The Manchester United players looked far fitter and sharper, not to mention organised, more motivated and hungry for the ball. What happened to all the careful pre-season fitness work and the cohesion that should have accrued from the matches in Austria and Germany? It was called the ideal preparation, and probably it was in terms of avoiding injury, but was it actually a demanding enough programme and did we suffer on Sunday as a consequence?

The player I felt most sorry for was undoubtedly Hernandez, he really did apply himself up front and tried until the final whistle. However, ultimately you have to feed a goal poacher like the Mexican international and on Sunday the service was virtually zero. I also felt that Arnautovic grafted for the team and made some intelligent forward runs, but the crucial early balls forward were either not there or too easily intercepted. Zabaletta played like he still had the likes of Vincent Company to cover his adventurous and pulsating excursions down the right flank and duly got caught out of position on occasions (especially in the build up to Man Utd’s first goal). Hopefully, the return of Antonio and the addition of the likes of Carvahlo will rectify that problem. Alternatively, especially away from home, we might look again at implementing three at the back and give Zabaletta and Cresswell the licence to go forward more readily. But at least in Zabaletta’s case he did apply himself and make the necessary effort, even if he did not reap the rewards on this occasion. I would also give Sakho the benefit of the doubt, he only played two or three games last season and has endured a considerable injury lay off. I am not surprised that he is looking to ease his way back in to the action in those circumstances. By rights, he should be doing that with a run of U-23 appearances, but with Carroll still out and Bilic apparently choosing not to sign another striker, I suppose ‘needs must’. It is better to judge him after a few more appearances, not at this early stage of the season. similarly, Reid looked unfit and decidedly out of sorts, I would not be surprised if he is struggling with a niggle or, alternatively, he has just come back too soon. Hart did fair to middling and, as stated, Rice was excellent, but rest of the line up really did not win any battle honours on the day.

Still, never mind, upwards and onwards. On the bright side, our next fixture is distinctly winnable (if we can sort ourselves out on the training ground this week); we have some key players coming back in the shape of Antonio, Lanzini Carroll and Kouyate, who will improve us significantly; the existing new signings should benefit from another week of training and better build understanding with their teammates; the caravahlo deal is hopefully still in the pipeline; and it is possible there could be further additions, especially if Snodgrass is sold/loaned out. Who is favourite to come in? Well, as I said, at the time of writing, the grape vine has it that Bilic does not want to sign another striker (lets hope that Sakho and Carroll’s fitness justifies that decision). That is fine if it means that Martinez will be in the frame for a first team debut at some point. I suppose Bilic also reasons that Antonio and Ayew can both play as auxiliary central strikers if circumstances necessitate, which is a fair point. If Snodgrass does exit we will need another wide player. We have Antonio and Arnautovic and promising youngsters like Holland, Samuelsson and Quina as cover. I feel that those three should take a step nearer the first team this coming season (although most thought the same about Burke and Cullen) and they should be encouraged to do so.

So, I reckon one additional wide player is necessary and the favourite seems to be Jota of Brentford Town. A Spanish winger, who was their creative font last season and has the very handy tendency of weighing in with his fair share of goals. The player allegedly wants the move to the London Stadium and has resisted overtures from Newcastle Utd (The frozen north does not appeal apparently!). So, the scene looks set for a deal, possibly on deadline day? A new defensive/box-to-box midfielder is likely to be signed if recent reports are to be believed. Lets hope it is the option that we all prefer. Apart from Ogbonna, we lack pace in central defence and is that surprising with both Fonte and Collins still at the club. Rice can play at centre-back, but at this stage of his career is he ready for that position; or would he better deployed in midfield? I am still to make my mind up on that point. In my view Burke should have stayed and provided cover. Remember this is a young player with a number of competitive first team appearances under his belt and he looked the part in pre-season. Still it is notable that the Burke/Cullen loans to Bolton are only until January, so it could be that they will be recalled and figure in the New Year. We shall see? I suppose the safest option is to sell Collins and sign another centre-back, but they did seem reluctant to do that, presumably in the knowledge that they have three such outstanding prospects as Rice, Oxford and Burke emerging from the Academy. However, this evening the news story broke that we are interested in signing Man City centre-back, Mangala. I cannot say that I am very keen on that potential deal, but lets see what transpires.

So, we have hardly ‘hit the ground running’ but it is correct to preach patience and look at the bigger picture in terms of the new squad gelling in the coming weeks. Talking of poor starts to a season, I was reminded recently of the 1974-75 season. It was the early post-Moore/Hurst period and we were in a difficult transition to the succeeding Bonds/Brooking era. In addition, Lyall had just succeeded Greenwood as manager, with the latter becoming General Manager responsible for scouting/transfers amongst other wider club matters. In 1973-74 we just avoided relegation with a 18th place finish, accumulating 37 points from 42 matches, and we started the following season poorly with defeats versus Man City (A – 4-0), Everton (H – 2-3), Newcastle Utd (A – 2-0), Sheffield Utd (H – 1-2) and Spurs (A – 2-1). By mid-September 1974 we were languishing at the foot of the table with 3 points, gained from a 2-0 home victory over Luton Town and a 0-0 away draw with the same opponents. Believe me things looked very grim indeed at that point!

Yet, Greenwood worked his magic and regenerated our prospects with the acquisition of Billy Jennings, Keith Robson and Alan Taylor, as they quickly gelled with the likes of Gould, Paddon, Brooking and Bonds to create a new exciting unit. The change signalled itself as a single, advanced swallow in the form of the 6-0 home demolition of Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup. And summer quickly followed with goals and exciting displays in a run of league victories over Leicester City (H- 6-0), Birmingham City (A -1-3) and Burnley (A – 3-5), amongst some very memorable performances/results. In fact, up until 28 December 1974, we only lost another two matches. Admittedly, the ‘wheels did come off’ results wise in the New Year, but we finished in a relatively comfortable 13th place and by then the 1975 cup run had fully gripped our attentions.

1974-75 will always be one of my favourite seasons, primarily because of the way our season turned around, the quality of our football and that memorable Cup victory over Fulham. I know that performance/progress in the PL is crucial these day, but this example does serve to illustrate that it is not always wise to get too depressed based on initial results because the fortunes of clubs can and do change for the better. Some times beyond the scope of what fans imagine possible at the time of the opening defeat(s).

Lets hope for all our sakes that these prove ‘wise’ and not ‘famous last words’ on our prospects for the 2017-18 season.

SJ. Chandos.


The Blind Hammer Column

Four IS Not Fantastic For West Ham

In his new weekly column it is Broken Record time again for Blind Hammer.

Slaven Bilic knows more about football in his little finger than I do in my entire body. Despite this he does have something in common with me. Whilst I am totally blind he has sporadic areas of puzzling blindness. The Antonio experiment at right back was stubbornly persevered with for months despite the weight of evidence that it was not working. It appears that only pressure from Sullivan caused its final abandonment. Now Bilic seems determined to play four at the back despite overwhelming evidence that it fails against the strongest PL opponents. I and others wrote last week that we needed a more defensive setup against Manchester United and our predictions of a heavy defeat in its absence was wearyingly vindicated.

One narrative which emerged after the Manchester United result was to argue that we should “put it behind us”, recognise that Manchester United are a fantastic team, and that we were stripped of some of our best players who may have made a difference on the day. It was no guide to the rest of our season. We will not be playing United every week.

Such a view is hideously and terrifyingly complacent. The reality is that the Manchester United performance was not a freak one off but part of a continuing pattern which urgently needs addressing. We regularly concede goals at an unacceptable rate. Over the last year we have received thumping’s not just from Manchester United, but also from Manchester City, twice, three times if you include recent pre-season, and Arsenal. This defensive weakness is not just confined to top six teams. Just over a year ago we were, in the space of three weeks, conceding four goals away to West Bromwich Albion and at home to Watford.

Over the Summer I have repeatedly argued that the club analysis of last season was fundamentally flawed. The contention that we flirted with relegation last season because we did not have a fit striker was just plain wrong. The reality was that we flirted with relegation because we had one of the worst defences in the league. We conceded goals at a rate for large parts of the season which inevitably threatens relegations. We conceded more leads than any other team. Our defensive feebleness is long running, pre-dating our entry into the London Stadium. Leaky defensive performances place massive pressure on our offensive requirements. Our team are under a burden to score at least 2 or 3 goals in order to achieve a win or a draw. I won’t go into the stats here as I have repeatedly quoted them elsewhere.

The baffling thing for me is that Bilic has repeatedly shown that he can solve this problem. This is a tactical and strategic challenge which Bilic has successfully confronted. Bilic has proved on more than one occasion that he can set up a team which does not concede goals. He did this in the final season at the Boleyn where, denuded of Payet, Lanzini and Sacko to injury he made us hard to score against and ground out vital points. Even more crucially, last season, when we were confronting the very real prospect of relegation, he revamped the team organisation to make us hard to beat. Critical points were achieved against high flying, title chasing Spurs and just as importantly we finally managed to shut out the Lukaku menace in our home game against Everton.

Bilic deserves enormous credit for displaying the tactical nouse to grind out these results under huge pressure. Both Read and Collins described, after the Everton performance, how Bilic had coached them in the tactics needed to stop Lukaku. Bilic argued that Lukaku could be stopped if you kept him with his back to goal. The critical thing was to avoid him turning and prevent his powerful runs into the box. Read and Collins used Bilic’s tactical insights to great effect. They combined to man mark him, with the “spare” defender intercepting Lukaku’s movement at the point he tried to turn. The result on the night was a justification of Bilic’s analysis and coaching.

This makes Sunday’s tactical response inexplicable. You did not need to be a UEFA qualified coach to identify Lukaku as again the main menace. Why did not Bilic remember the lessons he taught so well last season? I was depressed and confused as soon as I saw the team. I could not understand why Fernandez was playing and Collins was not partnering Obonna and Read. Why had Bilic abandoned the back 3 formation which had worked so well before?

All this matters because in football belief and confidence is everything. We have two important games coming up. Southampton is a team devoid of confidence at the moment, having failed to score at home in 7 attempts. If we provide the habitual 2 o 3 goal advantage to them this will cause an explosion of relief and confidence for both their team and their crowd. If, on the other hand, we do not concede for at least the first half this will rank up the pressure on the home team. Newcastle
Are another challenge looming where confidence may be shaky after their return to the Premier League and a relative lack of investment in their squad. Again conceding an easy goal to them will release pent up anxieties for both their players and crowd and provide momentum that will be difficult for our team to resist.

Bilic himself described Sunday’s performance as “horrible”, a performance which will inevitably cause problems for them in addressing morale this week. Players need confidence not just in their own performance but in the system in which they are playing. No amount of mental toughness will survive regular 4 or 5 goal thumping’s against opposing Premier League Teams.

3 at the back is obviously Plan B for Bilic. His Plan A is to play 4 at the back and fight fire with fire, flair with flair whenever possible. He reverts back to defensive solidity only when backed into a corner by results. In the Payet days we could more easily overcome 2 goal deficits by scoring 3 of our own. We do not have such creative momentum now.

3 at the back is not the easy panacea which will automatically transform West Ham’s fortunes. It was tried in the away games against Manchester City and Chelsea last year and we lost both games. However we were not the recipients of a 4 or 5 goal routs on either occasion. Losing is one thing but the manner of a defeat is also important in building confidence both for players and fans. We may still have lost to Manchester United, they have other potent weapons apart from Lukaku, but a 4-0 reverse was far less likely.

For me the “Plan B” of 3 at the back needs to become a more consistent option, especially in away games. Like in the Spurs and Everton games it may also be necessary to deploy even at home against teams which are likely to outclass us with their squad options. This was why I was so disappointed that 3 at the back has not figured as an option over the summer in either squad recruitment or squad pre-season preparation . We have marched into the season with a “gung ho” approach which ignores lessons from last season.

Bilic has shown that he has the intelligence to deploy different, more defensively secure team organisation. We need to see more of this to help build the confidence which is so necessary in the squad. In financial terms West ham should be challenging 7th in the league. We are no longer minnows with resources outstripped by clubs such as Everton and Newcastle. We should at least be competing in the top half of the table. Floundering in the lower reaches of the league suffering repeated hammerings should not be acceptable this season.

Bilic has shown he has the skills experience and tools for the job which needs to be done. I fervently hope that he does not show his stubborn side and instead shows the flexibility to use the full tool set available to him.

COYI

David Griffith

Please check back after the match for the results.


Parish Notice

Introducing the WHTID Lineup...

I thought I’d bring you up to date with some news of new columnists for the coming season… I want to introduce a little new blood to the site as well as welcome back a couple of names you might know from the past. We’re going to aim to have two posts per day – at 8am and 5pm.

Zaman Siddiqui will no longer be writing for the site, and Dan Coker is taking over the running of the WHTID Facebook page and Twitter account @WestHamTil. I’d quite like to recruit another match reporter, ideally someone who goes to away games too. David Hautzig will continute to write his match summaries but unfortunately US TV isn’t broadcasting all our games, so he may miss a few.

I’m very pleased to report that Sean Whetstone will be writing a weekly Sunday evening column, with S J Chandos returning on Wednesdays. David Blackmore, editor of Blowing Bubbles magazine will start a new Wednesday afternoon column in September. Tony Hanna will be musing on a Tuesday morning with Blind Hammer taking the Thursday morning slot. The excellent HamburgHammer will continue to entertain us on a Monday morning to get the week off to a good start.

Some of you long term readers will remember GoatyGav. He’s returning with a Thursday afternoon column, while newcomer Jeff Gayle will take over Friday evening interviews with other teams’ bloggers.

I will continue doing the match day columns and write the odd blog here and there too.

We’ll also be posting irregular columns from Michael Brook, RapidHammer, Bobby Shovels and Mike Ireson. I haven’t given up on trying to persuade Iron Liddy to return to writing her epic epistles, either!

I’d still love to have weekly columnists covering the Under 23 side and also West Ham Ladies.

Let me know if you, or someone you know, might like to write for us. Just email me with an idea and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: In addition I am delighted to announce that Dawud Marsh will be posting a photo diary of our home games.

Please check back after the match for the results.


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