You’d have to be a particularly cold-hearted fan of a rival club not to feel some sort of sympathy for the average West Ham fan at the moment.
Forget all of the aggro and the disunity for a moment and look at the simple circumstances: the Hammers are in a relegation war, in which a potentially crucial battle will be fought next weekend against a Southampton side who will be buoyed by a new manager bounce and qualification for an FA Cup semi-final.
They have been in the doldrums for a while, though. Ripped from their homes in the promise of a better future, they have been sold a pup. The stadium move, and the future of the club can be salvaged – it’s not terminal. But you get the feeling that relegation make it feel like that. So you can understand anger.
To feel like your club is upwardly mobile is all any fan can legitimately ask for. That’s why Tottenham fans would be delighted to end the season in fourth place and with an FA Cup final. Arsenal fans, on the other hand, have experienced an existential angst at that very scenario for the last few years. As a result, their current state is probably best summed up by Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’.
For West Ham, however, upwardly mobile right now amounts to one thing and one thing only – beating Southampton next weekend.
Given what’s at stake, and given the size of both clubs who fear they could find themselves in the Championship next season, it’s fair to say that this is the biggest game of the season so far. For any team. The losers will simply be in dire straits.
Most worryingly for West Ham, Saints have a new-found good feeling about themselves – even if it is only slight. The appointment of Mark Hughes may not have been the most inspiring, but it brings a freshness and perhaps the all-important new manager bounce. An FA Cup semi-final and another trip to Wembley will also add to the vibe.
In contrast, David Moyes’ side are certainly not feeding off the same sort of energy. And the fact that it is the Hammers who have more points on the board means that they’re the ones looking over their shoulders: they are the ones with most to lose in that sense. Is it easier to chase or be chased? A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, but there does seem to be something more momentous about having the bit between your teeth and coming from behind. That way you have a target in your crosshairs.
Indeed, David Wagner summed it up with his Huddersfield side lost to Manchester United in February. Thanks to their defeat, the Terriers slipped into the relegation zone, but their manager wasn’t worried: “Even though I don’t like being in the bottom three, it is easier for us now,” he said. “We can now chase people and not look behind our shoulders.”
That might sound like sunny-eyed wishful thinking. Either an overly naive statement or else a disingenuous one, designed to put a positive spin on a disappointing situation.
That’s not quite the case, though. In a way Wagner is right; somehow there’s less pressure looking upwards rather than downwards. Over the next week, West Ham might find that out.