‘Strange,’ ‘fascinating’ 2020-21 season

Joe Hurley, left, at the rosette stand outside Upton Park back in the day. Joe Hurley Sr. took the snap.

By Peter McDermott

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the exciting 2020-21 football season more than last weekend’s Leicester City vs. Leeds United fixture. Brendan Rodgers’s team have been putting in a serious challenge for title glory and had high hopes of securing three points against the visitors, who have been entertaining in the top flight after 16 years in the wilderness, but derided by the pundits for their “naive” tactical approach. Leeds won 3-1.

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Also at the weekend, West Ham United vs. Liverpool was a tough one to call, with David Moyes’s home team going in with an impressive winning streak at their backs, while the Reds were struggling to keep their title defense afloat. Three stunning goals, two from Mo Salah, put the champs’ season firmly back on track and the home side got a late consolation to make that 3-1, as well.

Not that Moyes is complaining much, as Sean Creedon points out in the weekend report on Page 27. Likewise, Aston Villa and Everton: they are two teams whose unpredictability is helping to make the season a fascinating one, but who are much improved overall and can aim for European football in 2021-22.

On the other hand, Wolves, who were exciting to watch and difficult to beat in the previous two seasons, have been struggling somewhat, while Sheffield United, so impressive in their first year back up, appear doomed, though they’ve been showing some fight of late.

We checked in with the hard-core fans to see what they think just a little past the half-way mark in the Premier League and the Championship.

Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers. INPHO/PRESSEYE/KELVIN BOYLES

Joe Behan, Florida West FC fitness trainer, poet, originally from Dublin, Manchester United

After a very good unbeaten league run that took Manchester United to the top of the table it was no surprise to see the Red Devils once again fail to win crunch games when it mattered most.

A dismal one point from the last two games, especially the loss to bottom of the table Sheffield United, has sorely stamped the United curse of inconsistency for the season so far.

It’s such a contradiction to be top, or even top four, to say a side is inconsistent, but there are some specific reasons why United are not as convincing as they should be.

Ole’s rotation is not working. De Gea stays on his line for corners and crosses, big problem. Martial loses the ball too much and stops when he does so. In fact, the team loses the ball too much, massive problem. Maguire is too slow and struggles with positional sense. The team lacks killer instinct, does not put early chances away, and is capable of lackluster performances.

It’s not as mind boggling as it seems as all the teams have struggled with bad patches, even Man City. But it now seems that the Blue Moon are the ones shining the most.

Strange times indeed having to play with the lack of fan atmosphere which may explain the topsy-turvy season we are having across the board. However, if United are to remain in contention for the title Ole must fix those specific reasons to rid the curse of inconsistency.”

Joe Behan.

John Spinks, artist, Newcastle United

“At this stage in every season I am accustomed to question the faith that I have maintained for 60 odd years. Newcastle have not been easy on the eye. A slow watch. Seeing them a goal down, making timid lateral passes in their own half – it’s been painful to behold.

Then, this weekend they beat Everton 2–0 at Goodison in an assertive style; the belief is briefly restored.

Crystal Palace and Southampton next. Once more the focus is on staying up. The Premiership can be a soap opera and Newcastle have a pantomime quality which keeps me going.”

A Newcastle outpost in Brooklyn.

James Rogers, New York Evertonians, originally from Huyton in Liverpool

“Carlo Ancelotti’s revamped Everton go into the second half of the campaign eyeing European football next season. The Italian has brought some much-needed resilience and creative spark to Goodison and players such as defender Michael Keane and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin are clearly flourishing under his guidance. A strong finish to the season will hinge on Calvert-Lewin continuing his rich vein of form and playmaker James Rodriguez staying injury free. At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeping errors have kept Jordan Pickford in the spotlight and Ancelotti is expected to keep rotating the England keeper with Robin Olsen. Still, if the stars align, a top four finish isn’t out of the question for a much improved Everton.”

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Ireland and Everton’s Seamus Coleman. INPHO/TOMMY DICKSON[/caption]

Ray O’Hanlon, Irish Echo, Manchester United

“Just when you thought it was safe to come out of the tunnel Manchester United took the field against bottom of the table Sheffield United and lost. Granted, this is a Premier League season where consistency in form looks lie a wobbly concept to say the least, and just about every team seems to have the beating of all others if certain celestial orbs and earthly odds combine on match day.

Still, United have been raising expectations in recent weeks so losing to Sheffield was a significant blow to said expectations and title hopes. United followed up that blooper with an away draw against Arsenal. This would have been fine had Sheffield been defeated, but after that loss the draw at the Emirates was simply not enough of a make-up.

So we are now entering the second half of the season and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men will have to be on their toes in each and every game. Manchester City are lately looking strong again, and Liverpool might be awakening from their relative slumber. United's defense is questionable, particularly against high balls into the box, and given the talent up front there really hasn't been enough goal scoring. Improvement at both ends of the field is essential if United hope to be secure a top four position, and indeed be competing for the premiership three months from now.”

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France and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba. INPHO/GARY CARR[/caption]

Scott Silver, freelance designer, Arsenal

“After beating Chelsea during the Christmas break, Arsenal went on a good run and moved us out of danger. Getting knocked out of the FA Cup is a huge downer, as it was our only chance of bringing home hardware this season. I expect Arsenal to move up quietly in the table, finishing 6th or 7th place, similar to last year. Sadly, similar to next year as well.”

Jay Mwamba, Irish Echo, Manchester City

“‘Fix your defense and your problems are over.’ That was my imagined memo to Pep Guardiola before the start of Manchester City’s 2020-21 campaign. He has, and City are back in pole position and the betting favorites for a remarkable fifth title in nine seasons.

Rúben Dias has been key to City’s defensive resurgence. The 23-year-old Portuguese defender has been imperious and, surprisingly, has established a solid partnership with John Stones at center-back. Stones has raised eyebrows with one impressive performance after another following a poor season last year.

Other players that have helped turn one of the world’s best attacking clubs into a defensive juggernaut include Dias’ fellow Portuguese international João Cancelo, who’s been outstanding in both fullback positions.

The result has been a Pep side that has made posting clean sheets the rule and consequently conceded the least number of goals in the PL. Although there’s been a drop off on the scoring end, City look posed to pull away from the pack in what has been a topsy turvy title race.

That should bring joy to City fans.”

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Manchester United fan Rory McIlroy pictured at Portstewart Golf Club during the Irish Open in 2017. INPHO/PRESSEYE/PETER MORRISON[/caption]

From William McGrory, Lansdowne Yonkers club president, originally from Donegal

“I will stick with Liverpool although they have struggled with injuries and form, I think they can go on a run between now and the end of the season. Hopefully van Dijk gets back on the field soon. Chelsea have been very disappointing and it was sad to see Lampard not get longer at the helm. City are the in-form team but we have seen them dip in form the past two seasons. 1. Liverpool 2. Man. City 3. Leicester City.

Colm McCann, novelist (most recently, “Apeirogon”), originally from Dublin, Stoke City

"My team, Stoke City, are slowly, painfully, coming back to life. It felt as if they were being stretchered into obscurity last year, but they were rescued by the appearance of former Shamrock Rovers manager, Michael O'Neill, who also managed to bring Northern Ireland to new heights. I'm a diehard fan, which really is a codeword for either heartbreak or stupidity. I watch every single match remotely of course. We lost our best striker, Tyrese Campbell, for the season, but I have a feeling we might just have a late run in the season and claw our way into the playoffs. I don't think we're ready yet for the Premiership, which this year is dizzying and wonderful. I'm rooting for Sheffield United, not only because of the red and the white, but because it's wonderful to watch the underdog begin to make its way upwards."

Colum McCann.

Paul Galligan, labor attorney in Manhattan, originally from Dublin, Leeds United

“What do I think so far? I never liked rollercoasters as a kid, so I would trade all ten of our goal-of-the-season candidates for some basic defending at set pieces. Still, happy enough to hover in mid-table and would settle just to stay up this year. Our goalie Illan Meslier is a microcosm of this team. He is young and sometimes looks like he does not understand what a corner is, but he has made some brilliant saves. He can pass the ball to feet to a player 50 yards up the pitch and then give it straight to an opponent standing in front of him. Some things have not changed. We still cannot win in London, we should not bother to enter the FA Cup and we completely depend on Kalvin Phillips. At least I got my Chelsea pick completely wrong.”

Kevin McPhillips, Shamrocks’ reserve coach, originally from Kilkenny, Manchester United

“A strange but very entertaining Premier League season so far. United keep picking up points while not quite looking the finished product. Liverpool are struggling to cope without Virgil van Dijk. And Leicester have been impressive but can lightning strike in one place twice? At this point, and it pains me to say it, I can’t see past Man City winning the league again.”

Joe Hurley, musician, originally from London, West Ham United

"For many decades, if we'd managed to get 2 or 3 wins on the spin, Upton Park would suddenly heave with 40,000 of us swaying & roaring out "Were all going on a European Tour" (with typical cockney, self deprecating gallows humor, and always to the utter bemusement of the opposition fans). Because the reality was, we were rarely going anywhere, except Margate. Perhaps. To the fun fair.

Not any more. This year, it's very likely to happen. Moyes has done a terrific job. Has the bright new talents playing out of their skins, and he's built a brilliant spirit at the club. The prima donnas are gone, and with them, the toxicity so prevalent in recent years. The new lads, Bowen, Souček ('The Potato Salad King'), Coufal, Benrahma, are hungry for success and have excelled beyond expectations. And largely unnoticed, very key.

I think their being a bit under the radar has helped us. The media barely noticing our ascension to the top and there's a freedom that comes with that."

As long as Moyes plays it right, and the team continue to bleed claret & blue, whether through a top-6 finish or FA Cup, 'Were all going on a European Tour!' [to the tune of 'Yellow Submarine']. As that famous old Hammer, The Man of La Mancha, put it: 'To Dream The Impossible Dream.' And why not? See you in Madrid!"

Stephen Boland, UPS worker, originally from Longford, Liverpool

“It will boil down to City or Liverpool, and next week should have a say in where the title goes. It’s been a weird season. Liverpool seem to have a new injury almost every day. The teams are playing a lot more regularly. It’s a tight season, but that affects everybody.”

Ian Bishop, Ex-West Ham captain, host of the weekly football podcast “5 Pints in with Ian Bishop” https://5pintsin.com/

"Take a look at the top of the Premier league. Wipe your glasses and look again. Yes, that is West Ham sitting in 5th and heading for Europe. I’m not sure if we can sustain that position if the Liverpool performance is anything to go by.

There was probably no better time to go at the depleted Champions but we chose to sit back and let them off the hook; that type of tactic will end in more losses than victories, the same as Jose Mourhino cannot win the title by parking the bus. It’s been an unbelievable start for us Hammers and one that we should solidify and kick on to infiltrate the so called “big six,” which in my mind, disappeared a long time ago.

It’s time for Moyes to let go of the reins and find that West Ham brand of football that we fans love to see. I’m not saying you have to go all out all of the time, but you pick your fights, as we have on occasion. A good run in the cup would satisfy me, and the fans I imagine. There is no fear in going to Old Trafford these days, as they have a poor home record this season. (I remember back in ’91 we gained promotion and had a wonderful cup run halted in the semi-final by a quality Forest team aided by a certain ‘Mr Hacket’)”

Ian Bishop during his time as West Ham United captain.