The S J Chandos Column

I remember a time when match officials were crucial, but largely anonymous figures (admittedly in an age before Sky Sports and saturation TV coverage/analysis). Yes, they inevitably made vital decisions that influenced the outcome of matches, the issuing of cards, free kicks in vital areas and, of course, penalty awards (like the last minute FA Cup quarter-final penalty vs. Aston Villa in 1980). However, there was always a feeling that the officials were doing a difficult job, calling it honestly and without undue fuss. That is no longer the pre-dominant view amongst a significant number of football fans and the difference probably lies in the attitude and behaviour of many modern referees. Gary Lineker perfectly articulated a common suspicion that ‘attention seeking’ is a factor that unduly influences refereeing decisions on occasions. The latest high profile incident involves Mike Dean, but similar controversy also follows other of his colleagues such as Clattenberg, Taylor and Mariner. In addition, modern referees are very dictatorial figures, with grand hand gestures and an unapproachable persona. Perhaps that is their way of maintaining their authority on the pitch (the behaviour of players can admittedly be challenging at times). However, I remember previous generations of officials being much more open and engaging on the pitch, talking to players and even explaining their decisions. But that is all in the past, the current generation definitely owe more to the Clive Thomas and Keith Hackett schools of refereeing!

Indeed, we Hammers fans have been at the wrong end of a number of poor decisions, particularly in that run of four drawn matches that was a major factor in failing to clinch that fourth Champions League qualifying place last season. The 15th minute sending off Feghouli on Monday evening significantly changed the emerging balance of the match and, ultimately, its final outcome. I thought that in that first 15 minutes West Ham looked impressive and were easily matching Man Utd. After it, the match become a uphill fight, but the 10 man Hammers applied themselves well and put up a real spirited battle. If Antonio had finished that crucial one-on-one with the keeper, things might have been very different. Unfortunately, not for the first time this season, poor finishing was ultimately our undoing. Yet regardless, it was only an exceptional piece of skill from young Marcus Rashford that conspired to put Man Utd ahead. The second, off-side goal, truly flattered the visitors and only added insult to injury for the Hammers.

Losing in those circumstances is always very disappointing, but we can take real pride in the organisation and fight shown by the team and the overall quality of our play. We have now lost the last two PL matches, but I am optimistic that we are on the right path and will avoid any sort of relegation struggle. For me, the key question is how high we can climb and whether we can get in to contention for a Europa League place this season (via league position). If not then, we need to try to get as high as possible (at least top ten) and concentrate on making progress in this year’s FA Cup. Certainly, a good FA Cup run would be a major boost for the club and its support base. And how the grand old knock-out competition needs another all-time classic final, a la May 2006!

Speaking of which, our next opponents are Man City, on Friday evening, in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, at the London Stadium. And it is an excellent chance to bounce back against tough opponents. However, we will have to do it without Kouyate and Ayew, who have departed to play in the African Cup of Nations for their respective national teams (Senegal and Ghana). Kouyate, in particular, is a very influential player and will always be badly missed. While Ayew is clawing his way back to fitness and form and in the injury absence of Sakho (and departure of Zaza and Calleri) it denies us the services of the major back up to Andy Carroll. Yes, Fletcher is still available and there is also the opportunity to promote the very promising Martinez to the bench. Hopefully, Feghouli will have Monday’s red card rescinded and be available, but it might be necessary to deploy Antonio in a more central striking position; especially if Carroll is not deemed fit enough to start. We will also probably see Adrian back between the posts and this will be a good opportunity for him to put in a good performance against top class opposition.

Man City are always difficult opponents, given the class of the options at their disposal. However, if Bilic gets the formation/tactics right and the team plays with pace and power we can grab a win. Payet and Lanzini are also going to be vital, they both need to be at the top of their game. Payet certainly owes us a big performance a la last season. The fans will also have a key role to play in making the London Stadium a cauldron of passion and noise. Lets try and bring a bit of the old Boleyn (under the floodlights) magic to the Stadium and create a genuinely intimidating atmosphere for City and an equally inspiring one for the home side.

Personally, I am really looking forward to the match, the challenge that it represents and (if I am honest) the timely break it gives us from the PL programme. Football is all about these type of matches against top teams. If our players and fans cannot rise to an occasion like this then there must be something wrong with them!! Seriously though, It will be a tough match, but I am going to be optimistic and go for a 2-1 home victory. COYI!

SJ. Chandos.