By Matt Rowson
May 26th, 2003. A disappointing day.
I remember being in a pub with a couple of mates near Warren Street, watching events unfold. It didn't take long for the lay of the land to establish itself; conversation dwindled, we turned away from the television screen in dejection. Sheffield United hadn't turned up, and in (not?) doing so had let football down. Wolves had finally made it back to the Premiership, reinforcing the words of wisdom that would contribute to our Preston correspondent's preview contribution that summer... Lies! It isn't premier, and it isn't a ship.
Of course, as it turned out, Wolves' stay was short lived. Not hugely surprising, and in itself not a particularly damning comment on Dave Jones' managerial ability, but you had to grin in contemplation of the grim reality growing in the consciousness of Wolves fans as the season progressed. A return to the "Glory Years", whenever they were, would have to wait.
And whilst Wolves' attempts to bounce back this season have also been, in the main, entertaining, it's not quite the same as before. Nor will there be quite the same sense of pleasant distraction on the last day of the season in noting that they've finished seventh (again).
So it's encouraging and pleasing that Saturday's opponents are doing such a fine job of reinventing themselves in Wolves' pre-promotion image. For let there be no doubt that this isn't where West Ham belong, relegation, play-off failure, ropey away record or otherwise. Oh no. This is a Premiership (not premier, not a ship) club and no mistake.
The regard in which Alan Pardew is held at Upton Park paints a vivid picture of what future years (decades?) hold for Hammers fans. Having taken over from Glenn Roeder a year ago, Pardew has made a £10m profit in terms of transfer fees, and whilst defeat to Palace in the play-off final in May cost West Ham an immediate return, the Hammers still hover around the play-off positions this time. Less than Hammers fans have perhaps come to expect over the last decade or so, but part and parcel of the Premiership (not premier, etc) monster that their club was a willing part of for many years. Alan Pardew seems to be being lumbered with the blame for some of the inevitable consequences of relegation from the big table... booed off at the weekend, given a "vote of confidence" by the board in the wake of that (West Ham are sixth) and publicly admitting that he's on a "hiding to nothing" at Upton Park.
Those consequences of relegation will become all the more acute should West Ham fail to go up this time and the cushion of parachute payments disappears. This doesn't tally well with a £12m wage bill and a side that already comprises a good proportion of aging stars and younger gambles.
Stephen Bywater will be in goal for the Hammers having been first choice since David James' departure - his kicking is said to be suspect. Jimmy Walker, signed from Walsall in one of a number of intelligent cherry-picking exercises by Pardew, will be on the bench.
Mauricio Taricco arrived from Spurs last week (and, oddly, claimed the vacant number nine shirt) but was off with a hamstring injury during his debut at Millwall and is unlikely to be available. This is a bit of an issue for West Ham, with other right-back options Hayden Mullins (suspension) and Chris Cohen (injury picked up in reserve game) also unavailable. Anton Ferdinand would appear to be the likeliest stand-in.
On the left, West Ham have two thirty-five years olds to choose from; on-loan Chris Powell is the likelier with Rufus Brevett not having featured since being embarrassed by former Hammer Jobi McAnuff at Cardiff.
In the centre Malky Mackay (calf) and Christian Dailly (knee) are both missing, whilst Calum Davenport, who had impressed hugely during his loan, has been recalled by Tottenham. Tomas Repka picked up his fifth booking of the season at Millwall at the weekend, but seeing as the game was on the Sunday he won't be suspended for Saturday (booking bans take a week to come into effect, randomly). He'll probably partner Crystal Palace's Darren Powell, another loanee who debuted at Millwall and has been linked to Pardew's former side Reading since his time at the club. Andy Melville, thirty-six next week, is an alternative.
Pardew fielded five across the midfield at Millwall but is likely to revert to 4-4-2 at home. Luke Chadwick, our most inept opponent when being subbed as a woeful substitute at Turf Moor last season, appears to have found some form and should play on the right. Matthew Etherington, however, is struggling to rediscover his fine form of last year; he should still play on the left.
A lack of goals from midfield has been a common complaint; the two in the centre will probably come from Carl Fletcher, Steve Lomas and Nigel Reo-Coker. Welsh international Fletcher was an August signing from Bournemouth, for whom he impressed against us in the League Cup last season. Reo-Coker, like Repka, now has five bookings to his name but will not serve his ban until after Saturday; much of the criticism for lack of goals is laid at his door, given that Lomas has only hit thirteen in over seven years at Upton Park and is perhaps seen as a lost cause in this respect.
Up front, Marlon Harewood's reportedly harsh dismissal for a dive (second booking) at Millwall sees him miss this one, which is a huge plus for us. Thirty-eight year-old Teddy Sheringham officially has a thigh injury, but has reputedly fallen out with Pardew and not played since mid-October since when the Hammers have averaged a goal a game (but only scored four in their last six). Don Hutchison looks a likely starter should he overcome what has in different sources been reported as a "bout of flu" and an "injury in the warm-up" last weekend. He will either partner the increasingly woebegone Bobby Zamora or Sergei Rebrov, who is settling comfortably into his traditional Spurs position of "not being given a proper run".
So, a club in a degree of disarray and certainly suffering from absences at the weekend, but I hope that I haven't given the impression that we're anything like favourites at the weekend. We're competing with history here, too, of course... our last ten competitive visits here have resulted in defeat (if you ignore the Full Members Cup draw in 1988 - which everyone did then, so I'm not going to pretend that it's relevant now). It could be argued that we'll rarely have a better chance of stealing something, but that would imply that there aren't higher powers at work here somewhere.
So all that remains is to warn you not to eat the hot dogs, with food poisoning issues being reported on messageboards this week. And not to worry too much if we lose this one... it's not as if we've ever counted on these points in the past. And West Ham are only going to finish seventh...