All Around The Wrekin: Can West Ham Avoid The Shrewsbury Banana Skin

Can West Ham dodge the banana skin and avoid another early exit from the FA Cup in this 3rd round tie at Shrewsbury.

One of the reasons (apart from the absence of skill, pace, determination and stamina) that I ascribe to never making it as a professional footballer was  the sudden departure of my secondary school PE teacher to run a pub near The Wrekin, a notable landmark on the road to Shrewsbury.  If I had been asked “Which country is Shrewsbury in?” on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and the computer had cleverly left in ‘England’ and ‘Wales’ from my 50:50 lifeline then it would still have been enough to make me sweat even if it was only £2,000 question.  Shrewsbury is, of course, in the English county of Shropshire (a region that most people spend their lives bypassing on the M6 never getting to experience one of England’s finest medieval market towns); it is, however, just a short afternoon’s stroll from the Welsh border.

Shrewsbury Town were elected to Division Three (North) in 1950 when the football league was expanded to ninety-two clubs and have spent most of the intervening period bouncing around in the lower tiers including a brief return to the Conference at the start of the millennium. This year they are riding high in League One and seeking a rare promotion to the second tier which they have visited just the once for a ten year stay between 1979 and 1989.  During that time the paths of West Ham United and Shrewsbury Town met on four occasions in the old Division One, with The Shrews completing a double over the Hammers in 1979/80 and West Ham returning the favour in their record breaking promotion season of 1980/81.  Today will be the very first cup meeting between the two sides.

The previous encounters against Shrewsbury took place at the amusingly named Gay Meadow (away supporter access via the rear entrance) while they now play at New Meadow (or the Montgomery Waters Meadow to give it its full naming right’s title!)  A legend from the Gay Meadow years that I remember watching on Jimmy Hill’s Chinny Reckon Football Yarns (or some similar TV programme) concerned a local boat-builder who spent match-days in a coracle afloat on the adjacent River Severn ready to retrieve any wayward clearances that sailed out of the stadium.

With West Ham playing their third game in a week, and still sitting precariously in relegation danger, manager David Moyes will almost certainly make several changes to today’s starting eleven.  The dilemma of modern football is that while fans continue to dream of the romance of the cup the practical realities of survival in the money league creates a completely different set of priorities for managers.  Moyes, like many other managers at the top level, will be judged on preserving Premier League status first and foremost rather on than heroic cup performances.  It is a shame particularly for those who have good paid money to watch but it will remain a fact of footballing life while the cost of Premier League failure is so high.  If West Ham were six or seven points better off then it would be a different story.

It would be a surprise if more than five or six of the team that started at Tottenham are in the starting eleven for today’s game – despite the limited options that might be available with up to nine senior players out with injury.  One player who will definitely be starting is Joe Hart making a return to the home town club where he started his career in 2003.  Other than that the West Ham lineup is impossible to predict.  It is unlikely any of those returning from injury will be risked while others (such as Mark Noble and Pablo Zabaleta) could well be rested if there are viable replacements at the ready.  An opportunity perhaps for Declan Rice, Sead Haksabanovic, Domingos Quina, Toni Martinez and Reece Oxford (if fit) to get a little game time.

Shrewsbury manager Paul Hurst may be inclined to give this one a real go, seeing an inspiring cup run as enhancing the club’s promotion push rather than hampering it.  He has an impressive managerial record and has done a remarkable job during his time at Shrewsbury.  It will be an athletic, pacey and direct side that is full of confidence facing the Hammers this afternoon.  The Shrews have lost just three league games this season although they have also been beaten in an EFL Cup against Nottingham Forest.  They are not a high scoring side but equally do not concede many goals.  Top scorers are Stefan Payne (once of AFC Hornchurch) and Shaun Whalley.  Other notable players include team captain Abu Ogogo, a long time servant of Dagenham and Redbridge, and Aristote Nsiala who was released as a youngster at Everton by Moyes who himself had a stint in a Shrewsbury shirt between 1987 and 1990.

Difficult to see which way this game will go as much depends on the desire of the two managers to win the tie.  West Ham have gone out of the FA Cup four times in the last six seasons at the 3rd round stage and it would be no big shock if it happened again today.  I still love a cup run but equally understand the unfortunate realities of the modern football business that makes this famous old competition a lower priority, especially during the early rounds.  In many respects the worst outcome of the afternoon would be a draw and a replay.  Third round day in the FA Cup was once one of the highlights of the season and let’s hope that today’s game can re-kindle some of that old magic.