An image from “Upton Park: The Last Goodbye,” photographs by Marc Kenyon and words by Joe Hurley. Licensed and distributed by West Ham United FC. Available globally, Dec. 2, 2020.
By Peter McDermott
The 96-game Project Restart, which completed the 2019-20 Premier League season between June 17 and July 26, was one of the most extraordinary happenings in the history of football. We will remember it for all the players, officials and coaching staffs taking the knee and their applauding in near-empty stadiums the National Health Service and other key workers on the pandemic frontline, for the drinks breaks also and the extra substitutions. Overall, it was a great success, despite everything, and on this weekend it starts all over again.
As we do each year, we’re asking some friends and staff members to give us their take on the new season, as well as their hopes and their predictions.
Joe Behan, Florida West FC fitness trainer, originally from Dublin, Manchester United
Manchester United must stop reckless defending at the back to stay in the EPL top 4 and to advance into the Champions League knockout stages. Despite all the positives of improved performance, good new signings and some young blood emerging, United must buy a world-class central defender and a prolific goal scorer to close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City. Clever consistency, controlled ruthlessness and playing good football is work in progress at Old Trafford for the season ahead.
Players raised their game during Project Restart, they had to, it’s their duty to put in a hard day’s work fans or not. However, the absence of crowd pressure at Old Trafford from spoiled unrealistic Fergie fans may have been the break and perspective that all Red Devils needed. Organizers did well in this post lockdown plan of action as an exciting season begins albeit in these difficult times that we're all experiencing.
Scott Silver, freelance designer, Arsenal
While Arsenal have done extremely well in the last few months, I don’t feel they have done enough to cut the gap between themselves and the top tier. With the top two spaces already taken by Liverpool and City, we are really fighting for maybe 6th place, along with eight other teams. It will be a difficult road, along with some changes on defense, and slow to resign major players, Europa League is about the best we can hope for.
Jay Mwamba, Irish Echo, Manchester City
“Fix your defense and your problems are over.” That would be my memo to Pep Guardiola as Manchester City prepare for another title run.
City’s 2019-2020 season ended in disappointment, undone in critical periods by their defensive frailties once French center back Aymeric Laporte suffered a long-term injury early in the campaign. City struggled in his absence.
John Stones was more a liability than a viable replacement when called upon, and Guardiola had to turn to experienced defensive midfielder Fernandinho to fill the massive breach in his rearguard. It didn’t help that reserve goalie Carlos Bravo also failed to impress when called upon.
Fortunately, City’s woes may be finally over. There’s a new quality defender at the Etihad in young Dutch international Nathan Ake with Napoli’s highly rated Senegalese libero Kalidou Koulibaly expected to join City.
Then there’s the return from loan of US goalkeeper Zack Steffen, definitely a major upgrade over Bravo as Ederson’s understudy. With City’s offense the most formidable in England – they’ve been top scorers in the Premier League the last three years – Guardiola seems on track to finally solving his club’s Achilles heel.
That spells hope for many die-hard “Cityzens.”
Paul Galligan, labor attorney in Manhattan, originally from Dublin, Leeds United
I have been a Leeds fan since the 1970 Cup Final loss to Chelsea. I was six years old and all my older cousins were Chelsea fans, so I rooted for Leeds. It’s been a bit of a rocky road over the last 50 years. But, Leeds are back at the big boys’ table after 16 years in the wilderness. El Loco, Mario Bielsa, took over this team two years ago, made no personnel changes and took a team that was lucky to be mid-table in the Championship to the EPL. His pressing style of play will cause problems for all the top teams and I think Leeds will finish in the top ten or twelve and consolidate for next season. The club is also actually buying quality players which will help strengthen a thin squad.
The bad news is that I think Chelsea will win the League. They learned to play as a team last season, not a bunch of stars as in the past. They have also added quality players from the Bundesliga. Just don’t tell my Blackrock cousins.
Rosie Schaap, writer originally from New York, Tottenham Hotspur
It can go one of two ways during this strange, sad time: one might turn to soccer for solace and respite from the gloom and grind of “real-world” goings-on, or one might mostly ignore it. I have found myself in the latter camp. When play resumed in June, I’d start watching a match and quickly lose focus as my thoughts turned elsewhere—to George Floyd, to Brexit, to the upcoming election, and to the rising number of deaths caused around the world by COVID-19.
But my engagement had started to falter even before coronavirus came along and changed the way we watch, play, and experience sports (and everything else), when I woke up one morning to the news that Pochettino was out, and Mourinho was in. It was true that Spurs hadn’t gotten the season off to a great start, but something about the swift, somewhat stealthy dispatching of a manager who had done so much for the team didn’t sit easily with me. My feelings about Mourinho are far less emotionally charged than others’ are; it tends to take time for any new manager to ease in, and to galvanize a team. I expect he’ll be more assured and settled in the new season.
That’s not to say I’m indifferent to Tottenham. I hope to find my way back to them as a more enthusiastic supporter as it all starts anew, and I hope that the team will find its way back to the top four. I may be biased — I moved to a village on the coast of County Antrim a year ago — but the news I’m most excited about is the signing of the excellent Irish defender Matt Doherty. And I look forward to the day when I can safely set foot in that beautiful new stadium to cheer him on.
Matt Doherty, playing for the Republic of Ireland at the weekend, has moved from Wolves to Spurs. INPHO/RYAN BYRNE
From William McGrory, Lansdowne Yonkers club president, originally from Donegal
I like Liverpool again this season, they are solid all over the field and look to have a few decent signings coming in. Klopp and crew are well rested and will be hungry to go back to back and go after another champions league final. Van Dyke is key and as long as he stays fit they will be hard to beat. The holy trinity up front will look to impress again and Salah will want a big season after last season’s under par by his standards. l think it will be: Liverpool in 1st, Chelsea 2nd, Manchester City 3rd.
Kieran Quilligan, originally from Cork, lives in Yonkers, West Ham United
I’m not optimistic about West Ham United this coming season as they have not signed a single player because of Pellegrini’s wild spending spree and the owners claim they have no money.
But I would happily settle for a mid-table finish, I hope I’m proved wrong. COYI!
Kevin McPhillips, Shamrocks reserve coach, originally from Kilkenny, Manchester United
Back in the champions league where we belong. Bruno Fernandes looks like a real United player and lifted the team post Lockdown. (Mason) Greenwood also provided a boost, hoping he will be a special homegrown talent for years to come. Ole’s at the wheel, put the pedal to the metal!
Joe Hurley, a New York-based musician/actor originally from London, West Ham United
When the most surreal season in football history went into Covid-19 lockdown, we were already the punters’ firm favorites for the drop. Playing like a hungover Sunday pub team on Hackney Marshes, regularly getting thrashed, with 32 M. pound strikers looking disinterested in the idea of scoring, we were often, as the joke goes, “lucky to get nil.” Most fans were grateful for the break. Misery doesn’t always love company.
But as is the West Ham way, when the league resumed, we somehow inexplicably rediscovered our golden boots, turned the opposition and the bookies inside and out with free flowing one-touch football -proper east end flair & grit . Whether it was the half-time sliced oranges , magic sponges, Netflix binges, or simply just the pride, the break had a transformative effect , and our superb end of season form, led by "The Beast" Antonio’s hatful of goals, steered us to safety- “Relegation? Crisis, what crisis?” We were back.
Pre-season wins filled us further with hope – that most dangerous of emotions for West Ham fans. But just as life looking a bit rosy, it’s all gone pear-shaped with West Ham plunged into full on crisis. Days before the season starts, were a club in total chaos.
After manager David Moyes shared his vision of building a new-look West Ham, based on youth, our rising stars and academy graduates, the club owners went behind his back and just sold our brilliant young star, 21-year-old Grady Diangana, and on the cheap. Moyes hasn’t spoken since. The silence is deafening. Rumor has it he may resign this week.
Captain Mark Noble vented his anger and hurt to the media, as did many. Making it worse, West Ham are the only side in Premier League to not sign a single player this summer. The toxicity at the club doesn’t bode well.
But this is the 125th Anniversary of the club, & the need for celebration will bring out the best-we’ll be relying heavily on our top men. Bowen’s pace will be vital, Soucek’s strength and aerial dominance, Antonio’s muscle and passion, and Fabianski, best keeper in the league.
Captain Noble bleeds claret & blue and is in the form of his life, revellng in his new found freedom to dictate the flow of games. The preternaturally gifted Declan Rice is ridiculously talented; sweeps up all in his path with a nonchalant ease not seen since Bobby Moore. With his ability to read the game, and his extraordinary maturity for a 21-year-old, Rice is our best young player since the legendary Billy Bonds came in 1967. Future captain, guaranteed, if we can keep him. Rice is a wanted man. But nowhere is he more wanted and needed than at West Ham. My prediction: having spent my childhood in the North Bank, Upton Park, I’ve seen us get through worse. We’ll survive the turmoil and stay up.
My mate Bish, legendary Ex-WHU captain Ian Bishop, wrote to me, “The coming season brings concern from the majority of Hammers fans. A lack of quality signings, and unrest from within the club does not bode well at this late stage. We have a more than capable squad but can’t seem to shake a number of players into producing their best. In all honesty, if things don’t start too well, it’s going to be more nail biting and frustration for the Hammers faithful.” Still, he added, if they can just tap into that end-of-season form, then a top-10 finish is achievable.
Ray O’Hanlon, Irish Echo, Manchester United
With success comes extra pressure and expectation. During the last Premier League season, and during its crowd-free Covid-restricted final sprint for home, Manchester United seemed destined for a final placing outside the coveted top four. Much of this was due to injuries and the challenges faced by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, not just to find the right blend of players to field his optimum team, but to be able to call upon all the players necessary to make a winning blend possible. As it turned out, the stars aligned - in every sense - in the final weeks of play and United managed to nail down third place in the final standings.
This has put to rest, for now at least, any questions about Solskjær's managerial job. He will take the Red Devils into a new season with the prospect of European Champions League football, a longed-for prospect for homebound fans. What will again be critical for United's season will be reducing injuries to a minimum, keeping those stars happy and on the team roster, signing one or two new players for positions where they will be needed, and, as is always the case, a little bit of luck. United now have the talent available to challenge for the premiership. Keeping it available will be the key to success in 2020-21.
Geoffrey Cobb, Brooklyn, originally from County Armagh, Liverpool
Being both Irish and a Liverpool supporter disappointment is nothing new Liverpool were invincible early on but looked far more mortal at seasons end with so many of their rivals splashing cash on new signings I can’t see Liverpool repeating a remarkable season. Prediction: Manchester City to take back the title.