The FA Cup 3rd Round marks the final opportunity of the season to generate a sense of optimism. By this midway point, we have a reasonable idea as to how the league placings will pan out and, for most teams, the Cup offers a last chance of true glory. Finishing the season in 10th rather than 14th place in the table may deliver greater financial rewards but that is largely academic to supporters.
Historically, the dream of glory has been a short-lived one at West Ham and, although past performance gives favourable odds for progressing beyond the 3rd Round, it is a less than 40% chance of the Hammers being in the 5th round draw. Reach as far as the semi-finals, however, and the omens are much better.
Looking back at the club’s FA Cup exploits since the 1958/59 season (i.e. when the modern football era begun in my own mind) this is our elimination record:
3rd Round 22 times
4th Round 16 times
5th Round 9 times
6th Round 9 times
Semi Final 1 time
Losing Finalists 1 time
Winners 3 times
What we have to remember is that for the majority of those 61 seasons West Ham have actually been doing their best to win all FA cup games – the same cannot be said for some of the more recent seasons. Over the years the relative importance placed on the competition by fans and clubs has diverged significantly – and not only at West Ham. Although the idea of owners ‘instructing’ managers to throw cup games is a ludicrous suggestion, the fact that achieving the highest possible Premier League position is where the managerial bread is buttered is sure to influence thinking and thus, team selection.
I suspect that David Moyes will want to put out a ‘strongish’ today side – if only to keep the fans onside during his second honeymoon. He will face some tricky decisions as he endeavours to steer the side away from the relegation battle with a squad thin in numbers and quality in certain key positions (and then there is that £2 million no-relegation bonus to consider.) Does he risk Lukasz Fabianski and Sebastien Haller, for whom there is inadequate competent cover, and can Mark Noble and Robert Snodgrass handle another game so soon after their impressive efforts on New Year’s Day? Perhaps a place for one or two young sets of legs from the Under 23s can play a part – Nathan Holland or Connor Coventry, for example. Hopefully, we have seen the very last of Roberto and Carlos Sanchez.
I must confess to knowing next to nothing about Gillingham. They are a mid-table League 1 side – so thankfully nowhere near as good as Oxford United. From their record it appears that they neither score nor concede that many goals. That prising open well organised, packed defences and coping with quick counter attacks are not West Ham core competencies, it leaves plenty to be concerned about – especially if any complacency creeps in or the team are not up for the physical challenge often associated with lower league opposition.
We will be spared the delight of VAR today as it is only in operation at top flight stadiums in the 3rd to 5th rounds of the competition. That all sounds very inconsistent to me. What are the chances of a contentious handball decision in the build up to a Gillingham goal that VAR would have certainly disallowed? At least, if there are any goals, we will be able to celebrate with gay abandon without the fear of virtual intervention. In the absence of a virtual assistant all decisions will be the sole responsibility of Andrew Madley from West Yorkshire.
It is, of course, a serious topic but I can’t help detect a sense of irony that kick-off times this weekend have all been delayed by one minute as part of FA’s mental health awareness campaign. If anything has produced a negative effect on my wellness over the years, it has been following the Hammer’s cup exploits. Conversely, having experienced three FA cup wins during my supporting career, it is difficult to over-estimate the magnificent ‘high’ that accompanied each one.
This year it will be 40 years since the last of those successes, and 14 since the closest near miss. What are the chances of marking that 40th anniversary with a repeat performance – around 40/1 according to the bookmakers!
As a Premier League club, we really should be expected to overcome League 1 opposition – but shock results are part and parcel of the Cup’s attraction. Several top-flight clubs have already gone out to lower league opponents and we don’t need to be joining them. This is not going to be an easy game and the attitude must be right to back up the obvious superior technique. Everyone in claret and blue will need to graft – there is no room for lightweights in this type of fixture. With the correct preparation I fully expect to see our name alongside ball number 29 when the 4th round draw takes place on Monday evening.