Sam Byram recalls the evening West Ham United all but ended Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League title challenge with a Friday night win under the London Stadium lights…
West Ham United’s first season at London Stadium was full of ups and downs, from thrilling and vital victories over Chelsea, AFC Bournemouth, Burnley, Hull City and Swansea City, to disappointing and heavy defeats by Southampton, Arsenal and Manchester City.
A goalless draw at Stoke City on 29 April 2017 left the Hammers sitting 15th in the Premier League table on 39 points and looking a tad nervously over their shoulders at the relegation zone.
Next up on the fixture list was the visit of local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, who were themselves on a nine-match winning streak and desperately trying to close the gap on leaders Chelsea.
For any number of reasons, therefore, West Ham needed a signature win to make their iconic ground on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park feel truly like home – and on Friday 5 May they got it.
“I remember the pressure and everyone talking about it leading up to the game,” recalled right-back Sam Byram, who returned to the starting XI for the visit of Spurs after being left out for the previous two matches.
“Obviously Tottenham is a huge game, with them being West Ham’s rivals, and it was the first really big derby match I had been involved in.
“You could really feel the expectation around the place in the lead-up to the game because everyone wanted to win so badly.”
Having endured a challenging first campaign at their new home, Byram said the players were acutely aware of the need to give the Claret and Blue Army a performance and result to be proud of, with the added incentive of scuppering Spurs’ title chances.
With a fantastic atmosphere inside London Stadium, the Hammers started the game well, but could not find a way past Hugo Lloris, particularly when the Frenchman rushed from his goal and controversially ploughed into Manuel Lanzini after clearing a through ball.
At the other end, Adrian stepped up in a big game yet again, saving twice from Harry Kane and once from Eric Dier in the space of 60 frantic seconds.
Into the second 45 minutes and West Ham stepped things up again, but Andre Ayew could only fire Byram’s cut-back over the crossbar when well-placed.
When the same pair combined in unusual circumstances with 25 minutes to play, however, the result was different…
Aaron Cresswell crossed from the left and Jonathan Calleri poked the ball to Byram. The No22 attempted a first-time shot, only to miss-hit the ball across the six-yard box to Ayew, who also miss-hit his shot.
The ball squirmed square to Lanzini, who slammed past Hugo Lloris from just five yards out.
“It killed their title hopes,” Byram confirmed. “They were chasing Chelsea and you could feel the pressure they were under to get a win.
“I played my part in the goal with a sort of half-assist, if you want to call it that! It was more of a scuffed shot than a cross, to be honest.
“I scuffed it, then Andre kind of scuffed it as well, then Manu stuck it in, so it all worked out in the end and it was great to be involved.”
Lanzini’s goal sent London Stadium into a state of delirium, and the Argentinian and his teammates, including Byram, rushed to the base of the West Stand to celebrate with the fans.
“When the goal went in, I think it’s the loudest cheer I’ve heard since we’ve been at London Stadium,” said the full-back.
“I remember celebrating in the corner and the roof nearly came off the place, which was really good.”
West Ham had 25 minutes to hold out after Lanzini’s goal, and they did so with a combination of resilience, luck and sheer determination.
Byram himself gave everything to maintain his side’s lead, including a blatant foul on Spurs’ South Korean forward Heung-Min Son which earned him a yellow card.
“We defended really well,” he said. “I was up against Son and he’s a big tricky. He nutmegged me at one point and I ripped his shirt, but we got the clean sheet in the end!”
With Tottenham throwing men forward, West Ham were also able to exploit the space left behind by their opponents, but neither Jonathan Calleri not Ashley Fletcher were able to beat Lloris from close-range.
It mattered not, however, as referee Anthony Taylor blew for full-time, confirming West Ham’s Premier League safety and sparking more celebrations on the pitch, in the stands and, later, in the Home dressing room.
“Winning that game guaranteed our safety, so it was a big result, and to do it against a team that was doing so well, I can remember the feeling in the dressing room after, which is why I think this is the best West Ham match I’ve played in,” Byram confirmed.
“To keep a clean sheet against a really good attacking team at home, and the whole manner of the occasion, made it more special. When you win a match like that, it’s such a good environment to be in and that winning feeling can’t be beaten.
“Night games have something about them that make them more enjoyable to play in and with that, the rivalry and what was at stake, it was a really important game and one that left me with a big smile on my face afterwards.”