We began the season in our new stadium with high hopes following the relative success of our final season at Upton Park. Our seventh-placed finish in the Premier League gave us qualification for the UEFA Europa League, which meant that we were in with a theoretical chance in four trophies this season. I use the word theoretical as opposed to realistic, although we have to remember that Leicester, at 5000-1, were only considered to have a notional chance of winning the Premier League, and we all know what happened.
We were eliminated from the Europa League earlier than we would have hoped, or expected, and even the world’s biggest West Ham optimist would have to concede, that with just five Premier League games completed, we will not overhaul a Manchester City team who already have a 12 point lead over us in the league competition, as we sit in the relegation zone.
Our two realistic chances of a trophy before the season began, and now our only two opportunities, come in the domestic cup competitions. And when you analyse the competitions in detail, you realise how relatively easy they should be to win. But bearing in mind that our last FA Cup win was in 1980, and the fact that we have never won the League Cup, you realise that we haven’t done as well perhaps as we should have done.
This is my 59th season of watching the club, and our 50th in the top flight. We should perhaps have won more competitions than we have. But this is another season, so perhaps this will be the one. The FA Cup can be won by winning just six games of football. But the EFL Cup requires even less! The seven English teams who qualified for European competition this season, including ourselves, received byes into the third round of the League Cup, which in the absence of a sponsor is now called the EFL Cup. Those of you who have been around as long as I have will remember some of the sponsors of this competition, such as the Milk Marketing Board, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola, Worthington, Carling, and Capital One.
This effectively means that you can win this trophy by winning just five games of football. You could have a magnificent defence that keeps clean sheets and get through on penalties without actually winning any games at all, but that is one winning route I can’t see us taking! So, just win five games of football. Easy isn’t it! Surely we can manage that. To be handed a draw at home to Accrington Stanley of League Two should, in theory, be a straightforward passage into the last 16, but I have supported the club for long enough to know that this is not the case!
I can remember so many banana skins in this competition with defeats to Darlington, Rotherham, Huddersfield, Coventry (more than once), Forest (at least four times!), Stockport (twice), Fulham, QPR, Swindon, Barnsley, Luton, Oldham, Oxford, Norwich, Crewe, Bolton (three times), Northampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Reading, Chesterfield, Birmingham, Aldershot, Wigan, and Sheffield United. The list is very long, and to coin a phrase popular with our manager at the moment, embarrassing!
Of course, although we have never won the competition we have come close, losing a two-legged final to West Brom in 1966 (this was the very last final decided over two legs), and to Liverpool in 1981 after a replay. We have also lost in two-legged semi-finals too, to Leicester in 1964, West Brom in 1967, Stoke in 1972 (4 epic games), Luton in 1989, Oldham in 1990, Birmingham in 2011, and the 9-0 drubbing by Manchester City in 2014.
Traditionally, throughout history, cup semi-finals have often been very tight affairs. But if you believe that our recent defensive performances are just a current phenomenon, you may like to know that in those seven two-legged semi-finals spread over fifty years we conceded 41 goals in 16 ties (6, 6, 5, 5, 6, 4, 9)!
When we beat Accrington Stanley (OK I’ll say if), then we will be in the round of 16. As we begin round three there are 16 Premier League teams left in the competition, with four all top-flight ties, meaning that at least that many will be going out. We are currently the seventh or eighth favourites to land the trophy (you can get odds of between 14/1 and 20/1), so the bookmakers fancy our chances more than some teams higher than us in the Premier League. I guess our home draw to a league 2 side in this round has something to do with that.
So can we win the EFL Cup? History tells you “no”. Our opening games this season tell you “no”. I just hope we take it seriously. We can win this trophy by winning just five games of football. Four wins guarantees a day out at Wembley, and a win there ensures European football next season. Let’s be honest, this is the simplest route into Europe.