FA Cup embarrassment for West Ham?

Does another banana skin await? Or are we on our way to FA Cup glory?

This is the 61st season of me following the fortunes of West Ham in the FA Cup. In the 60 previous competitions I have seen us lift the trophy on three occasions at (the old) Wembley, finish as possibly the unluckiest losing finalists once (why didn’t you boot the ball high into the stands Lionel?), lose in a controversial semi-final (with thanks to Keith Hackett!), a few quarter final defeats, and numerous embarrassing losses to teams from below us in the Football League.

bananaMy first FA Cup recollection is facing a poor Spurs side at Upton Park shortly before my fifth birthday in 1959. This was our first season back in the top flight, and a successful one too finishing sixth, whereas our North London rivals were to finish a lowly fifth from bottom. That didn’t stop us tumbling out of the competition at the first hurdle losing 2-0. When the draw for Round 3 was made the following season we were pulled out of the hat to play away from home at Division Two side Huddersfield. We completed the hard part by drawing 1-1 in Yorkshire, so progression to the next round would be simple? Not so. We were hammered 5-1 at Upton Park in the replay, and once again were out of the FA Cup without winning a game.

In my third season we were once again drawn to face a side from outside the top flight in Round 3, Stoke City, but at home this time. We could only manage a 2-2 draw at home, before losing to the only goal of the game at the Victoria Road four days later. As a young boy I couldn’t understand how this could keep happening. Little did I know at the time that being a Hammers fan would provide me with many cup exits like these! By 1962 I was once again hopeful when the top sides entered the draw and we were once again drawn against lower league opposition, away to Plymouth in the South-West. This one wasn’t even close, as we crashed out by 3-0. You have to remember that in those times, Division One sides didn’t field weakened teams in the FA Cup but used their regular first team players right from the outset of the competition.

By 1963 I was approaching my ninth birthday when, for the first time since I became aware of football, West Ham won an FA Cup match. It didn’t look promising when we drew a goalless Round 3 game at home to Fulham the day before my birthday in early February. This was one of the worst winters on record, and we didn’t play any games at all in the month of January. But incredibly we won the replay at Craven Cottage 2-1 with goals from Boyce and Byrne. We then set off on an FA Cup run, the likes of which I had never previously witnessed, beating Swansea 1-0 (Boyce) in Round 4, and then Everton by the same score (Byrne) in Round 5. We had now reached the Quarter Final and were drawn away to Liverpool who were a fast improving team in their first season in the top flight after promotion under the legendary Bill Shankly. Once again a late goal meant another 1-0 game, but this time we were on the receiving end and went out.

In 1964 of course we had yet another brilliant cup run, and this time we went all the way defeating Charlton (3-0), Leyton Orient (after a replay, 3-0), Swindon (3-1), Burnley (3-2), and Manchester United in the Semi-Final (3-1). Close observers will notice we scored three goals in every round on the way to the final, but could we keep that record up at Wembley? We needed to, as we had to twice come from behind to beat a plucky Second Division Preston side 3-2, and win the club’s first ever major trophy. We were almost as successful in the League Cup that year too, progressing to the Semi-Final before losing over two legs to Leicester.

We didn’t progress very far in our attempt to defend the trophy in 1965, losing 1-0 at home to Chelsea in the Fourth Round. However that season was a successful one in cup terms as we went all the way to win the European Cup Winners Cup, our second major trophy in two years. By 1966 it was back to embarrassing elimination from the FA Cup competition losing 4-1 to Blackburn Rovers in a fourth round replay. Blackburn finished the season at the foot of the table and were relegated. Some consolation of course was gained by West Ham winning the World Cup that year, scoring all of the goals in the final, providing 75% of the assists, and being captained by the legendary Bobby Moore. At just 12 years old I had seen West Ham win the FA Cup, a European trophy, and the World Cup!

We didn’t fare any better in the 1967 FA Cup losing at the first hurdle to lowly Swindon in a replay. In 1968 we reached the fifth round before losing at home to Sheffield United, yet another team who would go on to be relegated at the end of the season. In 1969 we reached Round 5 again before another shameful defeat losing 3-0 at lowly Mansfield Town, before going out in Round 3 once again in 1970 to another lower league club, Middlesbrough. Our 1971 FA Cup run was famous for defeat at Blackpool (4-0) in the third round following the famous night club incident. Blackpool finished bottom of the first division that season and were relegated, just like Huddersfield who finished at the foot of the table the following year, but not before eliminating us from the FA Cup.

We kept up our amazing record of losing to lower league sides in 1973 when we went out to Hull City, and repeated it the following season when going out to third division Hereford! So by 1975 we weren’t expecting much, especially after losing to Second Division Fulham in the League Cup, but amazingly we once again went all the way and defeated Fulham (including Bobby Moore) in the Final.

In 1980 we won the FA Cup as a Second Division side, beating high-flying Arsenal in the Final, although the previous season we had lost in the third round again to fourth division side Newport County. By now I had been following West Ham for 22 years and had seen us win the FA Cup three times, a pretty decent record and one that I hoped would continue. But in those 22 seasons we had been knocked out of the competition 13 times by teams from a lower division, or sides that were relegated that same season.

To cut to the chase, we have now moved on almost forty years, and the closest we came to lifting the trophy again was in 2006 when we were incredibly unlucky losers to Liverpool in the final in Cardiff, thanks to Steven Gerrard’s wonder goal which forced the game into extra time. Those  years have been littered with further embarrassing defeats to lowly opposition including Wrexham, Watford, Birmingham, Torquay, Sunderland, Barnsley, Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham (again!), Swansea, Tranmere, Fulham, Sheffield United, Watford (again!), Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, and Wigan.

By my reckoning we have been knocked out of this competition more than 50% of the time in the last sixty years by teams from lower leagues, or sides who were subsequently relegated from our division that season. Without detailed checking I doubt that any other club can boast such an embarrassing record. We’ve also been eliminated by lower league sides frequently in the League Cup too!

On the other hand we’ve won the FA Cup three times in that period, a feat only beaten by five other clubs, namely five of the “elite six”, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Everton match us with three FA Cups in that time, whereas Manchester City have only won it twice.

West Ham are really like the proverbial box of chocolates (Forrest Gump) – you never know what you are going to get. So will today’s game be another step towards winning the FA Cup for the fourth time? Or will Wimbledon be yet another lower league side to cause an upset to our hopes? It is now almost forty years since we won this competition. Perhaps this year?