Watching our game on TV at the weekend I heard the commentator mention how Arsenal had lost each of their opening three league matches in the 1992/93 season but subsequently went on to win both the FA and Football League Cups – beating Sheffield Wednesday in both finals. An omen, maybe, that the Hammers take inspiration from history as they yet again set off hopefully on that elusive road to Wembley.
At the start of the season, the League or EFL Cup (in its many guises) is considered the piece of silverware that is most closely within the grasp of the smaller clubs; this despite the fact that the big six have won fifteen out of the last twenty competitions. On paper, a second round fixture against League One opposition should be a routine victory; and then all we need is the continued luck of the Carabao draw and, hey prstoo, we are all the way to the final, for the first time since 1981. Consider though the Hammer’s capacity for shock exits before pencilling the date of 24 February into your diary!
Today’s opponents are AFC Wimbledon whose remarkable rise through the football pyramid since their formation in 2002 sees them compete in the second round of the League Cup for the very first time. It is debatable whether football historians should regard this as our first encounter with the Dons or whether the previous twenty-seven meetings with the former Wimbledon FC should also be taken into account – a sequence that included a fourth round League Cup victory for West Ham in 1989 courtesy of a Martin Allen thunderbolt (and a Julian Dicks red card).
These days, AFC Wimbledon temporarily strut their stuff at Kingsmeadow stadium pending a return to their neighbourhood roots at New Plough Lane in 2019. The new stadium will be built on the site of the old Wimbledon dog/ stock car/ speedway arena, where I assume they will not be leaving the old track in place. For those travelling, it is likely to be a tight squeeze into the 4,850 capacity Kingsmeadow for tonight’s game – I believe the smallest stadium, by capacity, in the entire football league. For the less adventurous the game is being shown on Sky Sports. A sign of how football on TV has changed over the years is that one of earliest televised games I can remember watching (it may only have been the second half) featured former Kingsmeadow ground share partners, Kingstonian, in a live FA Amateur Cup Final – such were the restrictions on the broadcast of live games back then.
It has been customary for Premier League clubs to put out a second string in the early rounds of the League Cup. I can’t decide whether this is because two games in a week is too much for players in the modern game or whether you will be ceremoniously mocked as not being a proper top club should you put out your first team. Understandably, risking injuries against what could turn out to be agricultural opposition, would be a concern but such bad luck can also occur in training. Not that I am suggesting AFC Wimbledon will be employing crude tactics, I know nothing of their style of play, but their manager did feature, as a player, for both the old crazy gang and for Millwall.
With Manuel Pellegrini still looking to discover his best team it would seem the perfect low risk opportunity to treat this game as any other in his pursuit of the holy grail. Sure, bring in a few who are realistically on the cusp of a Premier League first team slot, but don’t give games to total fringe players who would only otherwise get the call in the event of a major flu epidemic or bout of lasagne poisoning. I think it is fair to give Adrian a run out and I would also like to see Declan Rice, in central defence and Pedro Obiang in central midfield. I don’t know what the fitness situation is with Andriy Yarmolenko (given that Robert Snodgrass repeatedly gets the nod in his stead) but some more game time for the Ukrainian would be useful. Marko Arnautovic will certainly not play any part, which will mean probable outings for Javier Hernandez and/ or Lucas Perez. If Pellegrini is inclined to ‘unleash’ any youngsters in his lineup then he could do worse than allowing Nathan Holland or Xande Silva to show what they can offer.
The Hammers badly need a confidence boosting victory from the game and the prospect of defeat before a tough run of league games is unthinkable. I have to believe that we have the talent to prevail but do we have the attitude and organisation? I am hoping so, and will predict a comfortable 3-0 positive outcome.