So, where did it all go wrong? Two teams spend a season battling for European qualification; one of them makes it and then, POP! All that hard work goes to waste and you spend your next season scraping around the bottom half of the table. Should either (or both of) Latics or West Ham go down it will be the end of a rollercoaster three seasons where they’ve pretty much matched each other punch for punch.
Those three seasons have done a lot to raise the expectations of both sets of supporters (although, having won the world cup, they were fairly high in East London to start with) and last year’s ‘successes’ have masked the simple truth that 2005/2006 was a period of over achievement for both of these clubs. Where we are now is where the majority saw us ending up last May and, despite the platitudes, where many people would prefer to see… Well, where many people would prefer to see Latics at least.
There lies a problem. Going into these last three games, the media are faced with a reality they’d rather avoid. The northern monkeys are favourites to stay up and there’s every chance of losing two of three London teams.
That’s probably down to nothing more sinister than being back in the Groucho for the pre-theatre offers and easy access to players and managers, but it’s looking increasing like the romantic angle has shifted from small town team made good to valiant barrow boys coming good after a troubled season.
In reality there’s little romance in the game for either club. They’ve both had harder seasons than perhaps they should have for different reasons and will be hoping that they can do enough to survive. But the major imperative for staying up has little to do with achievement and everything to do with cold, hard cash.
If it wasn’t for the new TV deal both teams might be happy for a few yoyo years. After all that did so much to prepare the likes of Bolton, Boro and Charlton for reasonably successful stints in the top flight. The stakes this season are just that little bit higher.
This game isn’t quite the £50 million match up that some would have you believe, but it will go a good way to deciding who gets rich quick. A win for Latics should see them, all but mathematically safe and West Ham with a mountain to climb. A defeat leaves Paul Jewell with a hell of a job on his games, especially in terms of raising the players’ moral and confidence. Not least because other results could see Latics fall into the bottom three for the first time.
Jewell seems keen to impress that losing isn’t the end of it all. On the other hand he’s comparing the game to the one against Reading, two years ago. That was a must-win and Latics pulled a massive performance out of the bag to seal promotion.
For most fans that you speak to, the style of play on Saturday is key to getting a result. The view is overwhelmingly that a repeat of the tactics employed against Liverpool will leave too much to do. If a more relaxed, attacking approach is taken, then even a loss could be manageable.
Ultimately the first step falls to the manager. Not for the first time he needs to take things back to basics, concentrate on what his teams have been good at and attack. There are goals in this side, if they create chances, but with Zamora and Tevez in choice form, the same applies to West Ham. Can Latics stop them from scoring?
Recent form says not, so the trick, just as it was two years ago, will be to make enough of a mark for that not to matter. That means going into the game with enough attacking options to really get at them. Any thoughts of one us front should be banished and starting with at least Heskey and Camara is a must.
Team news, is at best, concerning. Taylor and Heskey took knocks away from Anfield and McCulloch is still troubled. Boyce required running repairs in the last game and there have to be concerns over his full match fitness, not to mention the same for De Zeeuw, Scharner and Camara. Whatever team takes the field, it will take a fair share of Elastoplast, superglue and internet strength pain killers to get it there.
By the time you read this you may well know the results of the FA enquiry into the Hammers transfer shenanigans. Even if, and it now seems unlikely, a points deduction is applied it changes little for Latics. Ignoring the threat of appeal, which could leave the final placings undecided well into the summer, Charlton’s prospects are as much of a worry and it is them that Latics will replace in the relegation places if things in horribly wrong.
The hearing is little more than a distraction we could do without or even worse it could serve as a driving force for West Ham. They don’t need anymore motivation than they’ve already got and with 5000 fans to shout them on they’ll have plenty. Luckily, things are long good on the home crowd front as well. As I type the club are making noises that less than a thousand tickets are left, so we can hope for a big atmosphere.
It’s a hard game to call and I know that there’s a lot of pessimism out there about it, but I’ve got a good feeling about staying up. Hopefully that will be born out with points on Saturday. Hope is really all we’ve got going in to the game but we should cling onto it and try and get that positive feeling across to the players, if you don’t trust them to pull us out of it, well… you’ll just try and fool yourself, won’t you?
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