In more straightforward times a cup weekend was an exciting interlude to the muddy slog of everyday league action, a little like a mini-break weekend to somewhere more exotic. With the fourth round ties reducing the field to sixteen teams, anticipation and dreams of a day out at Wembley would start to creep into supporter’s minds. A draw against a team from two leagues lower would, despite the Hammer’s penchant for being giant-killer victims, generate images of claret ribbons in the merry month of May. The modern reality, however, is that even at this relatively advanced stage of the competition the matches for the majority of Premier League clubs (players and managers) are a mere sideshow. West Ham, like many others, treat the FA Cup as a nice to have and as a far lower priority than collecting the points that will help maintain Premier League status. Even in the media the Fourth Round very much plays second fiddle to the last days of the transfer window, with the games viewed as an unnecessary interruption to the daily speculation as to who will be the next £50 million import arriving in Manchester.
It is a curious coincidence that today’s opponents are the only team ever to have won the FA Cup and been relegated from the Premier League in the same season. Since that day in May 2013 Wigan have experienced two relegation’s and one promotion and now find themselves on the verge of another as strong favourites for a return to the Championship. Whether their fans would have traded the Wembley win for survival, as suggested by David Moyes, is debatable (and perhaps expectations are different at Wigan in any case) but as someone who has had the good fortune to see West Ham in three FA Cup Finals the occasion is certainly among the highlights of a supporter’s life.
The Latics are having an impressive season at the summit of League 1, having lost just three times with a record of most goals scored and least conceded. In the cup they have already comfortably seen off Premier League Bournemouth (a task that was beyond West Ham) in a replayed game at the DW Stadium earlier this month. West Ham struggled to elbow past Wigan’s League 1 colleagues, Shrewsbury Town, in the previous round and a growing injury list, which has deprived Moyes of eight players including his entire creative contingent, doesn’t point to an easy afternoon in the north-west. West Ham’s manager may acknowledge the importance of the cup to fans in public but in private it is sure that his attention will be focused on the midweek game with Palace, his own performance being tied to league stability rather than cup heroics.
There should be a further opportunity for some of the younger players to show what they are made of this afternoon (including the likes of Josh Cullen, Reece Burke and Toni Martinez) but it is up to those senior players still available to demonstrate that they really are Premier League class. If West Ham are to get a positive result (by which I mean victory as another replay would not really be welcome) then we need performances from players such as Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyate, Javier Hernandez and Andre Ayew.
It would be great to get over this fourth round hurdle in the hope that league status and injuries will be more settled by the time that the next round comes around and it is only three games to the final. Unfortunately my sense is that we don’t have the quality or resolve left in the squad to see off a buoyant Wigan side. Strangely, I do not get the sense that the Latics are in anyway underdogs today. Hopefully I am wrong but I am not at all confident.
Today’s referee is new to West Ham and goes by the name of Chris Kavanagh from Lancashire, suspiciously near Wigan!