I don’t expect the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi could have dreamed of being considered “the world’s most popular poet”. And had all the top 12th-century Persian poets got together to create some sort of closed Persian poetry shop, we may never have had the chance to hear him eloquently attempt to explain the human condition with the words: “This being human is a guest house, every morning a new arrival.”
Fast forward several hundred years and West Ham fans are welcoming several curious, unexpected visitors into our respective guest houses; primarily “hope” along with his fellow travellers “optimism” and “Champions League race”.
To put it mildly, West Ham fans are not accustomed to such visitations. We are, after all, a football club whose iconic anthem espouses an especially pessimistic view of our fate, from “fortune’s always hiding” to the sense that our dreams are destined to “fade and die”. On the odd occasion that success has come our way, it has exclusively been in the form of cup competitions; three FA Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup stick out among lesser achievements (with all due respect to our 1999 Intertoto Cup triumph). Even Bobby Moore’s World Cup-winning West Ham side didn’t trouble the business end of a domestic league table; the highest league finishes of our 1960s pomp were two underwhelming eighth places. Our overall highest finish came in 1986 – third place, an achievement that has secured Tony Gale and his teammates 25 years on the east London/Essex after-dinner circuit.
Doing well in a league isn’t really our thing, and that was meant to remain the case this season. It certainly came as no surprise that when Premier League supporters were surveyed at the start of the campaign, West Ham finished rock bottom of the hope league table on 8.8%; a good distance behind West Brom and their 37.9% of unfathomably positive fans. And to form and expectation, our season began with a 2-0 home defeat to Newcastle followed by a 2-1 defeat away to Arsenal. But then the unthinkable happened: we started winning games and have not stopped.
There have been 16 wins in the league, five in our past nine games, some great football (from Jesse Lingard especially) and, going into the final month of the season, a very real chance of finishing in the top four. David Moyes’s boys sit fifth, level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea, our opponents at the London Stadium on Saturday evening. It’s not hyperbole to say it could be our most critical game in a generation; the sliding doors moment that tips us into a new European existence.
These are strange times for so many people and for so many reasons, but allow me to argue that it is most acutely odd for West Ham fans, who are seriously having to ponder a future in the Champions League. I cannot be the only Hammer who is ludicrously excited about it all and dreaming the biggest of dreams, among them the absurd and wonderful prospect of seeing Craig Dawson nick a last-minute winner at the Bernabéu.
For West Ham fans these strange times have only been compounded by the bizarre, short-lived plans for a European Super League. For 48 hours it appeared as though England was set to lose six of its most valuable foreign-owned clubs; a freak occurrence that would have left the likes of my little old club on the stage as heirs apparent, not a million miles from the result of the 1967 Grand National. Or the plot of King Ralph.
Birds seemed to fly backwards as the odds of us winning the title were slashed from 1,000-1 to a mere 14-1. The unthinkable was suddenly thinkable: Mark Noble lifting the FA Cup in his final season, a domestic treble and our path to European glory blocked in future only by those pesky French and principled Germans.
Those hopes have come and gone following “the six’s” humiliating comedown. But West Ham’s hopes of finishing in the top four remain real and will become even more so should we turn over Chelsea. In this week of all weeks, it would be a resounding victory for the underdog.
As the London Stadium presenter and host of such prestigious half-time competitions as “Beat the Batak”, I would usually spend home games peeping out from inside the tunnel. But the pandemic has wedded me, like all of us, to the sofa. I have been to a behind-closed-doors game this season but without the fanfare of a queue to the turnstile, friends to watch it with or a post-match pint, such occasions are an unfulfilling mirage of what matchdays used to be.
The other curiosity of this season has been the sheer amount of stress involved in a Champions League race. I’d long assumed that the pressure to finish in the top four must pale into insignificance compared to the stress of fighting for your Premier League life, as we often are. But it turns out it’s just as stressful. I’ve been in bits for weeks and, thinking about it, perhaps it’s the case that all forms of sporting jeopardy are stressful. If only there were a way to negate that and guarantee superiority and European qualification every year …
Will West Ham finish in the top four? I hope so. And, really, that’s the point: football allows us to dream, and that’s a gift we can never allow greedy venture capitalists and oligarchs to take away. So forget them, remember Rumi and dream of an unexpected visitor in Dawson doing it on a hot night in Madrid.