“Name something that is completely pointless” asks host, Les Dennis, in an episode of Family Fortune’s Always Hiding. Of one hundred people surveyed, the second most popular answer is “West Ham after their first seven Premier League games of the season.” Top answer, though, is tonight’s 2nd round EFL cup game against Charlton Athletic – played in an empty stadium, where any pretence of winning is a distant second to damage limitation and the need to fulfil contractual obligations. In a congested and compressed season, it is a puzzle that the competition is actually going ahead.
In recent years successive of West Ham managers have, for whatever reasons, failed to treat the competition seriously – and even when we did, being on the wrong end of a lower league giant-killing was not unheard of. It is a footballing conundrum. The League Cup is surely the easiest of the three major trophies to win for the Premier League also-rans – yet many make no real effort to compete. While in the past twenty years, the names of Leicester, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Swansea have all been etched onto the not so famous trophy, risk averse managers continue to consider giving it a go as a distraction from the real business of not being relegated. It’s enough to make you wonder what the point of following football is?
In a further downgrade to the League Cup’s status, this season’s winners no longer qualify for the Europa League, but will instead have to make do with the unimaginatively named third-tier Europa Conference League – an Auto Windscreens/ Sinod Cup affair designed to prevent smaller clubs and countries clogging up the more illustrious televised competitions.
This evening’s match provides the opportunity for our former tenants from south-east London to inflict an early round embarrassing defeat on the Hammers. Although newly relegated to League 1, manager and ex- Hammer, Lee Bowyer, will be confident his side can pull off an apparent upset. That no-one would be particularly surprised, or even really care, is a sad reflection of where we find ourselves. After all, there is plenty of transfer speculation and the excitement of a potential US consortium takeover to tweet about.
Tonight will see the fourth meeting between the two clubs in the 61 year history of the League Cup, an exchange in which West Ham boast a 100% success rate. For the record, these were: 3-1 in 1960 (Moore, Dick, Musgrove); 1-0 in 1976 (Alan Taylor) and 2-1 in 1980 (Cross 2). That win in 1980 came in a run that took the Hammers all the way to their last major final appearance, where they lost to Liverpool in a replay in April 1981.
Despite never having won the competition, there are two West Ham related entries in the League Cup record books. The first, a 10-0 win over Bury in 1983 which stands as the biggest ever winning margin (equalled by Liverpool v Fulham in 1986) and notable in that so impressive was the performance of the Bury centre-half (Paul Hilton) that he was subsequently signed for the Hammers by John Lyall. The second, Geoff Hurst’s career total of 50 League Cup goals which remains a competition record (shared with Ian Rush), although some of Hurst’s goals were scored after he had moved to Stoke. An extra side-note is that Rush’s first League Cup appearance for Liverpool was in that 1981 final replay, although he failed to score on that occasion.
It is quite difficult to imagine what would represent a weakened West Ham side these days – one that doesn’t include Rice, Soucek, Bowen and Antonio I suppose. Otherwise we might not be able to tell the difference. Perhaps we will be surprised, who knows? I will probably check the score in the morning paper.